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A Name on the Wall
William Nack
July 23, 2001
Bob Kalsu had just finished a stellar rookie year in the NFL when he chose to serve in Vietnam—and became the only U.S. pro athlete to die there
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July 23, 2001

A Name On The Wall

Bob Kalsu had just finished a stellar rookie year in the NFL when he chose to serve in Vietnam—and became the only U.S. pro athlete to die there

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On the field that year Kalsu was everywhere, urging the troops on, picking them up off piles. Every time Owens, the tailback, looked up from the ground, there was Kalsu. Owens would win the Heisman Trophy in 1969, but in '67 he was an unbridled galloper who often ran up the backs of Kalsu's legs. One day the exasperated captain took Owens aside. "Listen, Steve, I'm on your side," he said. "Find the hole!"

Owens was in ROTC, and he remembers Kalsu, a cadet colonel, marching his battalion around the parade grounds like so many toy soldiers. "He was all over us all the time," says Owens. "He took that job seriously too."

Before Kansas State played Oklahoma, Wildcats coach Vince Gibson, who had been studying film of the Sooners, approached Fairbanks on the field. "Kalsu is the best blocking lineman I've ever seen," Gibson said. In fact, after the Sooners' coaches studied all their game film of 1967, Fairbanks said that "our average gain on all plays going over Kalsu, including short yardage and goal line plays, is 6.2 net yards rushing.... This is what we coaches grade as...near perfection."

Kalsu "wasn't better than other players because of his ability," Fairbanks recalls. "He was better because he was smarter and technically better. He was a little more mature in his evaluation of what was happening on the field. There were no problems coaching him. You didn't have to try to motivate him. He came to practice every day with a smile on his face."

At season's end Kalsu appeared to have it all. An appearance in the Orange Bowl. All-America honors. A solid chance at a pro football career. And his marriage, after the Orange Bowl, to Jan Darrow. She and Bob had had their first date on Oct. 15, 1966, and she knew that very night she'd found her mate. "A really cute guy who made me laugh," she says. "I came home, threw myself on my sister Michelle's bed and said, 'I just met the man I'm going to marry.' "

Jan was the third of nine kids—five girls and four boys—and by the summer of 1967 Kalsu had been embraced as the 10th sibling in the Darrows' seven-bedroom house on Country Club Drive. "I always wanted brothers and sisters, and now I got 'em," he told lone Darrow, the mother of the brood. Kalsu may have been a fearsome lineman, but what the Darrows discovered was a large, lovable kid who liked to scare trick-or-treaters by jumping from behind trees and who failed grandly in his experiments as a pastry chef. Diane Darrow, four years older than Jan, walked into the kitchen one day and saw Bob with his huge hands in a mixing bowl, squashing the batter. She asked him what on earth he was doing. He said he was making an angel food cake for Ione's birthday. Diane wondered why he wasn't using a wooden spoon. "The box says mix by hand," he said.

Around the Darrows' dinner table, everyone would stop to watch the spectacle of Kalsu's eating. Whole salads disappeared at two or three stabs of a fork. Glasses of orange juice vanished in a single swallow. Kalsu could devour a drumstick with a few spins of the bone, stripping it clean. He also played games endlessly with his new siblings, cheerfully cheating at all of them.

Bob and Jan were married on Jan. 27, 1968, and when they returned from their honeymoon in Galveston, Texas, during spring break, the Darrow family sang the news: "Buffalo Bob, won't you come out tonight?" He had been drafted in the eighth round by the Bills of the American Football League. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys and the AFL's Denver Broncos had also shown interest, but both had backed away, leery of Kalsu's military commitment. Having completed ROTC, he would be commissioned a second lieutenant after graduation in May. He was not immediately called to active duty, however. By the time he reported to the Bills that summer, Jan was six months pregnant.

Within a few weeks with the Bills, Kalsu had worked his way into the lineup, taking the place of the injured Joe O'Donnell at right guard and starting nine games that season. No one watched Kalsu more closely than Billy Shaw, Buffalo's left guard and a future Hall of Famer. Shaw was 29 in '68, nearing the end of his career, and he saw Kalsu as a threat to his job.

"Bob had a lot of talent," says Shaw. "He had real good feet, and he was strong, good on sweeps. In those days we had only one backup, and he was Joe's and my backup. Our forte was foot speed, and Bob was right there with us. He really fit in with how we played, with a lot of running, a lot of sweeps, a lot of traps."

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