For the past 40 years he has been a symbol of pride for the Buffalo Bills family, and not because of an illustrious football career. Bob Kalsu, the promising All-American offensive lineman from Oklahoma, is on the Bills Wall of Fame, but it’s for the NFL career he sacrificed instead of the one he realized.
An eighth-round draft choice in 1968, Kalsu’s polished techniques and athleticism quickly impressed Buffalo’s veteran offensive linemen.
“Bob was somewhat of a threat long term,” said Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw. “He was one of the first players drafted that I thought could come in and play and eventually take my spot. We were all about the same size. Bob was around 6’3” and 240 pounds and had really good speed and fit the guard position of the day. We were predominantly a running team back in the 60’s. Long sweeps and long pulls and Bob had all of those attributes as far as playing that position.”
When right guard Joe O’Donnell went down with an injury that season, Kalsu would step in and make nine starts as a rookie, eventually earning Bills Rookie of the Year honors.
“He played in every game that year due to some injuries,” said Shaw. “He played on the right side of the ball and was certainly a vital member of that team.”
Shaw remembers Kalsu keeping to himself as most rookies did at that time, as he was not one to be boisterous or outgoing around teammates. His exploits on the field however, were recognized and respected by his fellow players.
That respect grew 10-fold when Kalsu was called up for active duty to serve in Vietnam in late March of 1969. Word didn’t travel nearly as fast in the late 1960’s, which is why most of Buffalo’s players were unaware of Kalsu’s military call up.
“I did not know that he was called up until we got back to training camp in 1969,” said Shaw. “I knew that Bob had exhibited enough that he had a chance to be a major part of the team going forward. It was a loss from a team standpoint that Bob wasn’t there. As we left in ’68 after the season you never think that you would never see a teammate again.”
Unlike many professional athletes of the time that were draft eligible or with ROTC military commitments, Kalsu did not seek the help of the Bills organization to arrange for an assignment in the reserves.
The 1969 season would prove to be the last of Shaw’s Hall of Fame career, which is perhaps why he has such an appreciation for Kalsu’s sacrifice both professionally and personally.
“When you’re only with a guy for a year you don’t get to know all the ins and the outs of the person,” said Shaw. “Yet there was this proud feeling to have somebody that you know who had such a promising career in football ahead of him… He was a good player. He had the potential to be a really good player. To be associated with somebody that made that major sacrifice and eventually the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life, there is a sense of gratitude for what he did, and I’m really proud to have at least known him for a short period of time.”
Kalsu was killed in action on July 21, 1970 while serving as a 1st Lieutenant atop the isolated jungle mountaintop Fire Base Ripcord where he was mortally wounded by enemy mortar fire. He is the only active professional football player to die in combat in Vietnam.
Shaw, whose name was unveiled on the Bills Wall of Fame inside Ralph Wilson Stadium in 1999, saw his former teammate, Kalsu, receive the same honor just a year later for a far different reason.
“I’m proud that Buffalo recognized the sacrifice that he made and I’m all for him being there on the Wall of Fame even though it was for much different circumstances,” he said. “The sacrifice that he made for himself and for our country is certainly something to be applauded. To be applauded in the way in which he was honored by the Bills makes me proud to be on that Wall with him.”
Kalsu was selected for the Bills Wall of Fame on what would’ve been his 55th birthday on April 13, 2000. A large plaque with a joint football and military display in memory of his service and time as a Buffalo Bill still hangs inside the lobby entrance at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The writing on that plaque ends with a quote.
“No one will ever know how great a football player Bob might have been, but we do know how great a man he was to give up his life for his country.”
And though Shaw and several of his teammates from that time readily admit they never got to know the true depth of Kalsu’s personality having spent just one football season with him, they do still remember him each year on Memorial Day.
“If you’re serious about Memorial Day and what it stands for, you think about those family members and friends and people in your community that made a life sacrifice and Bob is part of that thought process this time of year,” said Shaw. “Bob is the only person that I played with during that period of time that made that kind of sacrifice, so his name comes through my memory at this time.”