BY RANDY SCHULTZ –
Memorial Day 2020 is one which will be remembered by many of us for years to come. While our country, as well as the rest of the world, recovers from the Pandemic, life as we know it has changed.
But the bottom line that never changes about Memorial Day is that it is still the day we remember those in the military who paid the supreme sacrifice to protect our freedom and the freedom of others around the world.
The first name that came to mind when I thought of Memorial Day was former Buffalo Bills guard, Bob Kalsu. Now many of you know me as a hockey guy and I know there have been many hockey players who have given up their life for our country.
But I came to know about Kalsu during my days of writing about former Buffalo Bills for “Shout” Magazine. I would later include him in a separate chapter in the Bills book I wrote in the early 2000’s, “Legends of the Buffalo Bills.”
Back in the day when Bills fans would come to New Era Field, then simply known as “The Ralph,” and go to the ticket office one of the first things they might see was a plaque on the wall, just to the right of the ticket window.
The plaque was made up of two items, an army helmet on one side and a 1960s-style Bills helmet. It is a tribute to Kalsu and to this day can still can be found inside New Era Field.
He was one of the best tackles to ever play at the University of Oklahoma. He was drafted in the eighth round of the NFL Draft by the Bills in 1968.
Kalsu played just one season for the Bills, 1968, before putting aside his promising pro football career in 1969 to serve in the United States Army. He was soon deployed to Vietnam.
Unfortunately, on July 21, 1970, just 18 months after going into the Army, Kalsu was killed by mortar fire while defending Ripcord Base on an isolated jungle mountaintop near Vietnam’s Ashua Valley. The former Bills guard turned out to be the only NFL player, as well as professional athlete, to be killed during the Vietnam War.
While he may have played only one season in the NFL, the former guard with the Bills was remembered by his teammates. Although he began training camp as a backup, within a few short weeks he was in the starting lineup, replacing veteran guard Joe O’Donnell, who had been injured.
“There was never a doubt in anyone’s mind that Bob was a very good football player,” recalled the late O’Donnell in a 1990 interview. “He was a big boy (6-3, 250 pounds at the time).
“And he seemed to fit right in. He was pushing all of the offensive linemen for their jobs, including Billy Shaw, our captain.”
Shaw, who would later be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 1999, remembered Kalsu, who started eight games for the Bills in 1968.
“He was a backup for Joe, but for me as well,” stated Shaw. “We didn’t have as many players on the roster at that time like they do today.
“He had good speed and slipped right in there when we would go on a sweep with our running game. Of course, that one season he spent with us was one of our worst in the history of our franchise, injury-wise.
“That season we went through five different quarterbacks. But through it all, Bob kept up with us. And that wasn’t easy, having five different types of quarterbacks in the lineup throughout the season.
“Bob never seemed like a rookie that year with us. He never acted like one. He just never seemed in awe of anything. But just seemed comfortable with the surroundings.”
A better person who felt that it was his duty to serve the Army full-time beginning in 1969. As fate would have it, Kalsu was killed in action.
Like many other Vietnam veterans, Kalsu’s name is etched on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. And besides the plaque that honors Kalsu at New Era Field, the Bills also honored the former guard in 2000 when his name was placed on the Bills Wall of Fame.
“Bob Kalsu was a good person and football player,” concluded Shaw. “But he will always be remembered as an American hero for the sacrifice he made for his country.
“Bob will always be a hero to all of us.”
(Photo from SUNY College at Buffalo Library)