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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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Shaw and O'Donnell were mirror images of each other—both 6'2" and about 252 pounds—and when Kalsu joined them, the three looked like triplets. At the Bills' urging, the 6'3" Kalsu had gained weight by lifting weights and devouring potatoes and chicken ("His neck got so big that even his ties didn't fit him anymore," says Jan), and he was listed at 250 pounds on the Bills' roster. "The thing I noticed is that he was so mature for a young player," says Shaw. "He wasn't your normal rookie. He wasn't in awe."

Bob Lustig, the Bills' general manager at the time, says Kalsu "had a good future in pro football." Lustig recalls something else: "He not only had the talent, but he also had the smarts. He didn't make the same mistake twice."

Kalsu also brought to Buffalo the same love of horseplay and mischief that had marked his days in Oklahoma. He and one of his rookie roommates, John Frantz, a center from Cal, filled a trash can with water and carried it into the head at training camp. They thought their other roommate, rookie tackle Mike McBath, was sitting on the toilet in one of the stalls. They lifted the can and dumped the water into the stall. They heard a thunderous bellow that sounded nothing like McBath. It was six-year veteran Jim Dunaway, Buffalo's 6'4", 281-pound defensive tackle, who rose from the dumper like Godzilla and screamed, "Whoever did that is dead!"

Kalsu and Frantz bolted in a panic and hid in the closet of their room until Hurricane Dunaway had blown over, and they laughed every time they saw the big tackle after that. "Bob was always stirring the pot," says Frantz. "As good an athlete as he was, he was an even better person."

Frantz and McBath used to hit the night spots, chasing girls, but no amount of coaxing could get Kalsu to go along. "Some of the married guys chased around, but Bob, never," says Frantz. "He loved his wife and his kid. He was totally at ease with himself, confident in who he was. We'd go out, and he'd laugh at us: 'You guys can do what you want. I've got what I want.' "

Only seven active pro athletes would serve in Vietnam: six football players and a bowler. Most other draftable pro athletes elected to serve in the reserves. Kalsu's family and friends urged him to go that route. "I'm no better than anybody else," he told them all. It was early 1969. The Vietnam War was still raging a year after the Tet Offensive, and there was no hope of its ending soon. Frantz pleaded with Kalsu to seek the Bills' help in finding a slot in the reserves. "John, I gave 'em my word," Kalsu said, referring to his promise, on joining ROTC, to serve on active duty. "I'm gonna do it."

"Bob, it's hell over there," Frantz said. "You've got a wife, a child."

Kalsu shook his head. "I'm committed," he said.

That September, after nearly eight months at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., Kalsu went home one day looking shaken. His uniform was soaked with sweat. "I have orders to go to Vietnam," he told Jan.

They spent his last weeks in the country at her parents' house, with Jan in growing turmoil over the prospect of losing him. They were in the laundry room washing clothes when she spoke her worst fear. "What if you die over there?" she asked. "What am I to do?"

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