Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering a former Buffalo Bill who gave his life for his country

I first became familiar with the story of the late Bob Kalsu while I was covering the Buffalo Bills in the mid-1980s. I learned how he was a promising offensive lineman whose life was tragically cut short when he was killed serving his country in Viet Nam.

When the Bills headed to their first Super Bowl in 1991, I decided to track down Bob's widow and his children to write a story about this forgotten hero. The Persian Gulf War had just started, so this was a very emotional time for Jan, Bob's widow, because the images of the young men in the camouflage uniforms and the young men in the Bills uniforms evoked powerful memories.

I recall fighting back tears as I interviewed Jan over the phone from her home in Oklahoma City. And I remember crying as I wrote the story.

A few years later, I was in Washington, D.C. working on another story and I stopped by the Viet Nam Memorial and made a sketching of Kalsu's name, one of more than 58,000 engraved on the monument's  reflecting wall.

In the fall of 2000, I caught up with Jan and her children again when Kalsu was inducted onto the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame. It's pretty evident that few of the thousands of stories I've written ever touched me the way this one did.

Below is a story I wrote about Bob Kalsu and his family for my 2007 book, The Good, The Bad & the Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Buffalo Bills History. 

I believe it's worth re-reading on a day when we honor the brave souls who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. 

How I long for the day we will be together again. So many times I have wanted for you to put your arm around me, wipe a tear from my eye, or just laugh and tease with me. I think if we could be together we would be really close. I'm proud of you and the values you stood for. I love you.
- A note left by Jill Kalsu Horning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Not a day goes by when they don't think about him. Not a day goes by when they don't wonder how much different their lives might have been had a husband and a daddy not been taken from them in the prime of his life.

For more than three decades, the wife, daughter and son of James Robert Kalsu have attempted to fill the huge void created by the Vietnam War. For 30 years, they've been on a journey of discovery that has been profoundly gratifying and sad. For more than three decades, they have coped by remembering rather than forgetting.

"It's strange, but I feel as if I'm still getting to know my dad all these years later,'' said Jill Kalsu Horning, who was 18 months old when her father was killed on July 21, 1970 while coming to the aid of his troops at Firebase Ripcord on an isolated jungle hilltop in South Vietnam. "I keep learning more and more about him through the memories of people who knew him."

She paused to take a deep breath. She was doing her best not to cry on the other end of the phone line from her home in Oklahoma City.

"It makes me feel good to learn that he was a kind-hearted, highly principled man - a true hero,'' she continued. "But it also makes me feel sad, somewhat cheated, that I didn't get to experience him for myself."

Some of those who did get to experience him were at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 12, 2000 when Kalsu was added to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame. Recognition of the only active NFL player killed in Vietnam evoked powerful emotions among his widow, Jan, and their children, Jill and Bob Jr., who observed the unveiling from the field during ceremonies before the Bills played the Chicago Bears.

"We can't thank the Bills enough for all they've done through the years to keep Bob's memory alive,'' said Kalsu's widoe, Jan McLauchlin. "They didn't have to do any of this because he only played one season with them before going to Vietnam. To honor him this way warms our hearts, and means so much not only to us, but to all families who have lost loved ones to war."


They met on a blind date back in the autumn of 1966 when Bob was an All-American offensive guard at the University of Oklahoma and Jan was a sophomore at nearby Central Oklahoma. They were both Catholic and deeply religious. They hit it off immediately.

"You hear all those horror stories about blind dates, but we clicked from the moment we laid eyes on each other,'' Jan recalled. "Bob had this big, ol' infectious smile and laugh that won you over. I remember going home after that first date and telling my sister, 'I think I met the man I'm going to marry.' That's how smitten I was."

Bob was smitten, too, and a year later, after he played the last game of his college football career with the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, the two were married. When the Kalsus returned from their honeymoon, family members serenaded them at the Oklahoma City airport with strains of "Buffalo girls won't you come out tonight."

"We didn't know at first why they were singing that song, but when they told us that Bob had been drafted by Buffalo, it all made sense,'' Jan said.

Other teams had been interested in Kalsu, too, but they shied away from him because they knew he had been an ROTC student at Oklahoma, and with the war raging in Southeast Asia, there was always the chance he might be called upon to fulfill his military obligations.

"That specter was always hanging over our heads, but we tried not to think about it,'' Jan said. "We were young and in love and everything seemed so wonderful in our lives."

That November, their lives became even more wonderful when Jill was born. Bob was overcome with joy. 

He spent every spare moment with his wife and daughter.

Professionally, things were going well, too. Though the Bills won only one of 14 games during the 1968 season, Kalsu broke into the starting lineup and was named the team's rookie of the year.

"Our life could not have been better,'' Jan said "Then, we got the call."


The Army wanted Bob to trade in his blue Bills jersey for some green and brown combat fatigues. He was sent to Fort Still in Lawton, Okla. for training. That September, while his Bills teammates prepared to open their season, Kalsu received orders that he was being shipped out to Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the 101st Screaming Eagles Airborne Division.

"We couldn't stop crying when we got the news,'' Jan said. "Bob was the ultimate family man. He couldn't bear the thought of being away from me and Jill."

The next day, Jan visited her church and prayed.

"I made a request of God,'' she recalled. "I said, 'If you must take Bob, then please give me a son.' After  
Bob left for Vietnam, I found out I was pregnant. Bob was so thrilled with the news. We both wanted to have a large family, and we were well on our way."

Bob wrote often. The letters were filled with love. He never mentioned the danger he and his troops were in. He didn't want to frighten her. But Jan couldn't help but be scared. She counted the days until they would meet again.

The reunion came in May 1970 when the Army flew him to Hawaii for a week of R&R. Jan, seven months pregnant at the time, met him in Honolulu. She brought along Jill.

"When he ran off the bus from the airport, he was like a little kid,'' Jan said. "He couldn't wait to hug Jill. But the sight of this big guy barreling toward her, frightened her. She clutched my legs and started to cry. Bob cried, too, because he thought Jill had forgotten him. But she hadn't. I got her composed, and in no time she went back to being Daddy's little girl."

Jan couldn't help but notice how fatigued her husband was. He slept often that week. During one of his naps, the hotel set off some fireworks, and Bob, mistakening the noise for gun fire, tore out of bed and sought cover.

"That was my first indication of how horrible the war must have been for him and his men,'' she said. "It shocked me."

The week passed much too fast. The departure was devastating.

"He was running aside this tram that was taking Jill and me to the airport, and he was holding my hand,'' she recalled. "We both were crying. I said, 'Bob, please be careful,' and he said, 'No, Jan, you be careful; you're having our baby.' Then, our grip broke. It was the last conversation we ever had; the last time we touched."

Roughly two months later, Bob was killed when mortar fire rained down on Ripcord. Less than 48 hours later, Jan gave birth to a baby boy. She couldn't wait to send Bob a letter telling him the news. But before she could take pen to paper, a teary-eyed soldier arrived at the hospital to inform her that her husband had been killed.

The next day, Jan changed her baby's name on the birth certificate to match her husband's: James Robert Kalsu.

How I've missed the father and son things we could have done, the knowledge and love you could have given me. I can't wait for the time we are reunited to share our love and talk to each other. You are truly a person I can look up to.
I love you.
Note left by Bob Kalsu, Jr. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The years immediately following Bob's death were extremely difficult for Jan. At age 22, she was a widow with two children. Her deep religious faith and her family and in-laws helped sustain her.

From Day One, Jan was determined to make sure her children knew what a wonderful man their father was.

"She wanted us to know as much as we could about Dad,'' Jill said. "She would tell us stories about him, and encourage others to talk to us about him. It was really hard when we were younger because we yearned for him so badly even though we had no memories of him. But as time passed, I'm so glad Mom did that."

The void may have been toughest for Bob Jr. to fill. When he was a teenager, he wrote a gut-wrenching poem about missing his father, titled Why God?

It read, in part:

Why my father, God?
What did he ever do?
You didn't even give him time
To tell his own son "I love you."
The love he showed for others
Could have been for me, too
Why him God?
Was he just for you?

Several years after Bob Jr. wrote that cathartic piece, Jan found a cassette tape her husband sent home from Vietnam just before he was killed. She played it for her children. The recording finished with these words to his unborn son: " And now for you, Baby K, Daddy loves you and pretty soon I'll be home to hold you."

Both Jill and Bob Jr. are now parents themselves. Jill is a teacher on a leave of absence, while her brother is an attorney. Both live in the Oklahoma City area, not far from their mom, and stepdad, Bob McLauchlin, whom Jan married in 1985.

Jill and Bob Jr. intend to pass along the stories they've heard about their father to their children. They will make family trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where there is a display dedicated to Kalsu, and to Ralph Wilson Stadium, where his name will be prominently displayed for as long as professional football is played there. They will teach their children that their grandfather was a kind-hearted man, a man of his word, a true hero who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"During those rare breaks from chasing his grandchildren around, I'll sit and think about how nice it would be to have him here, just to chew the fat with him,'' Jill said. "The nice thing is that even though my brother and I have no memories of him, we feel as if we know him, thanks to my Mom and others. We feel as if he has been with us in spirit throughout our lives.'' 


My prayer, my dear and sweet husband, is that the world would forever know peace so that never again will death separate and permanently sear the hearts of families torn by the tragedies of war. I await the day when the Lord reunites us in heaven. Honey, I love you forever.
- Note left by Jan Kalsu at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Eli scored another victory; I'd like a piece of the Yankees & the Hickok Belt's disappearance

Those of us involved with the annual Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities Day of Champions Dinner are breathing a collective sigh of relief and basking a bit in the banquet’s aftermath.

                This dinner is always a bear of an event to stage and there are times when the last-minute, logistical nightmares make you want to yank your hair out and jump off the palisades at Letchworth State Park.

                But it always seems to work out, and by all accounts this year’s dinner, which featured a sellout crowd of 1,300 at the Riverside Convention Center, was a rousing success.

                Rock legend Lou Gramm, a Rochester native, started the evening off with a stirring rendition of the national anthem, and there were several poignant moments, including when we honored two fallen soldiers – Devin Snyder and Zach Smith.

Eli Manning, the Giants’ two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, proved to be a fabulous headliner. He was a little shy, almost reserved at first, but once we got rolling with the question-and-answer session I conducted with him on stage, he loosened up and did a fabulous job. He proved to be an engaging and humorous storyteller. Hosting Saturday Night Live two weeks ago no doubt was great preparation.
            The best part of this dinner will occur in the coming weeks after all the numbers have been crunched and we learn how much money we’ll be able to donate to local children’s charities.
           We are an all-volunteer organization, and thanks to the dedication and leadership of people like Pat Grover and Mike Kauffman, we’ve been able to stage what Drew Brees, Cal Ripken Jr. and others have called one of the premier sports dinners in the country.
             Kudos to my fellow club-members who donated their time, services and money to pull this off. And thanks to the sponsors and the ticket-buyers who made the 63rd annual Day of Champions another day to remember.

              I’d love to have a piece of the action if the New York Yankees do go up for sale, even though the price tag - $3 billion – is a little beyond my reach. (OK, a LOT beyond my reach.) But perhaps the Steinbrenner boys might consider opening it up to a public stock sale, so that moi and other cash-strapped fans might be able to afford a tiny piece of the action.

                You laugh, but from reading Marty Appel’s marvelous new book – PINSTRIPE EMPIRE: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss – I discovered that former Yankee owners Dan Topping and Del Webb considered underwriting a dramatic public sale of the team in the early 1960s. After exploring that option, they decided instead to sell to CBS for $14 million. The franchise struggled mightily under the network’s stewardship, opening the door for an unknown, Cleveland shipping magnate named George Stenbrenner to purchase the club in the early 1970s.

                It might be cool to see a group headed by Billy Crystal and Joe Torre make a pitch. (Torre was part of a group that recently failed in their bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

                Hal Steinbrenner adamantly denies the club is for sale, but where there’s smoke there’s fire, so don’t be surprised if there is truth to this rumor.

              Congratulations to friends Frank Bilovsky and Tony Wells on their upcoming induction into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame. Frank has been a great mentor to me through the years and was instrumental in me coming to the Democrat and Chronicle in 1985. He is one of the wisest men I know and had a superb newspaper career in Philadelphia and here as a both sportswriter and business writer. Tony, the long-time University of Rochester sports information director, has been a driving force behind many community endeavors, including one that’s particularly close to my heart – the Challenger Little League Baseball program, which gives physically, mentally and emotionally challenged youth a chance to play ball. Tony also proved to be a great source of story ideas through the years. And the nice thing about them going in together is that they are best friends.

              Friend and fellow author Curt Smith is the nation’s foremost expert on sports broadcasting history, but he also has deep knowledge about his beloved Boston Red Sox and its beloved little ballpark. Curt has just published a new book titled, Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park’s Centennial Told Through Red Sox Radio and TV. I’ve read the book and it’s chockfull of compelling – at, times hilarious – anecdotes about the Fens. Tomorrow, Curt makes a pilgrimage to Beantown to talk about his new book as part of the Great Fenway Park Writers Series. Should be a blast.

              Golf legend Ben Hogan and the Hickok Belt Award are back in the news – and not for good reasons. A replica of the belt won by Hogan after his marvelous 1953 season recently was stolen from U.S. Golf Association museum in Far Hills, N.J.

                What’s interesting about this case is that it marks the second time that Hogan’s award as the top athlete in professional sports was pilfered. The original belt he received was stolen from his home club, The Colonial, in Forth Worth, Texas many years ago and never resurfaced. The belief is that the gems – which featured a 4 1/3-carat diamond, ruby and sapphire – were removed and sold on the black market, and that the five-pound, solid-gold belt buckle was melted down and sold, too.

                Members from The Colonial pooled their resources to have a replica made of Hogan’s belt. It was not an exact replica, with the buckle being gold-plated rather than solid, and faux jewels substituted for the real gems. When I wrote my book about the Hickok award – Jewel of the Sports World – two years ago I asked two professional jewelers what it would cost to make an exact replica today. Their estimates were in the neighborhood of $200,000, and the cost probably is even more now, given the escalating value of gold.

                Obviously, this second-edition Hogan belt wouldn’t be as valuable as the original, but it still has to carry a hefty price tag.

                Museum officials are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to its return as well as the return of the U.S. Amateur Trophy, which was an original and also stolen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Random thoughts on Bill Polian, Buddy Nix, Art Monk & Albert Pujols

Back in January when the Indianapolis Colts fired general manager Bill Polian I suggested the Bills snatch him up in a New York minute. I’d still like to see the Hall of Fame-caliber football architect return to the team he transformed from basement dwellers into perennial Super Bowl participants.
                But I also believe current GM Buddy Nix deserves a chance to reap the fruits of his labor. Nix, who at age 72 is three years older than Polian, has had a whale of an offseason – luring in coveted free agents like Mario Williams, re-signing playmakers such as Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson and addressing several needs via the draft.
                To me, Nix has made all the right moves. Even the signing of the talented but inconsistent Vince Young to a relatively cheap contract to be a backup QB looks like a smart acquisition. It appears that Nix has given coach Chan Gailey the tools he needs to make the playoffs. And I like the fact that Nix, in that folksy style of his, has told coaches, players and the fans that he expects to win now.

                Polian, of course, will be back in Buffalo this fall for his induction onto the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame. His selection was a no-brainer and the timing was right because he currently isn’t employed by any NFL team. It still bothers me, though, that neither Cookie Gilchrist nor Lou Saban aren’t on the wall. Gilchrist, the team’s first superstar, and Saban, who coached the Bills to back-to-back AFL crowns and resurrected O.J. Simpson’s football career, are glaring omissions, and should have been enshrined long ago.

                I see where the Los Angeles Angels have decided that batting coach Mickey Hatcher was the reason Albert Pujols, the $254-million man, has gone from being the best hitter of his generation to a punch-and-judy hitter. Can you say  $capegoat?

                 For those of you keeping score at home in the Roger Clemens perjury trial, that’s two jurors ejected for falling asleep while court was in session.  

                I was happy to see Art Monk become the latest person with Syracuse University ties earn induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was a great player on some mediocre Orange teams. But I believe teammate Joe Morris is more deserving. Little Joe rushed for more than 4,000 yards and remains SU’s all-time rushing leader – not bad, considering the lineage of running backs at the school includes Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka.

                 Speaking of SU football, coach Doug Marrone received some great news yesterday when highly regarded receiver Quinta Funderburk announced he was transferring from Arkansas. Funderburk (love that name) is a 6-foot-3, 200-pound wideout who caught 64 passes for 1,412 yards and 15 touchdowns for Oscar Smith High School in Chesepeake, Va., two autumns ago. The four-star recruit had chosen Arkansas over USC, Florida, Michigan, Penn State and Clemson. He did not play in any games last fall, so he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out this season at SU.

                I’m happy to announce that my 15th book – Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir – is out and available at,  and Barnes & Noble. Antonelli, a five-time Naitonal League All-Star and World Series hero, is the finest born-and-bred baseball player in Rochester history and became even more successful as an entrepreneur in the tire business following his playing career.
                Johnny, 82, will be inducted into the Adult Recreation Association Hall of Fame at Red Fedele’s Brook House in Greece Sunday at 5. Joining him will be fellow inductees Dick O’Toole, Al Russo, John Risolo, Rocco DiPonzio, Brian Murphy and Dick Webster.
                Johnny and I will be signing books at 4 and will conduct a 10-15-minute question-and-answer session about his extraordinary career during the banquet. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at the door or by contacting Ron Evangelista at 585-764-6500 or
                I’ll have more information about our book and future signings in an upcoming blog.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ruminating on Vince Young, Yogi and other sports topics

                Spraying opinions to all fields:

*         I like Buddy Nix’s decision to sign Vince Young as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s backup. Yes, I know, Young didn’t perform great while filling in for the injured Michael Vick with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, tossing twice as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (4).  But he’s a two-time Pro Bowler who’s about to turn 29 – a definite upgrade over Tyler Thigpen, the Bills current No. 2 QB. I’m not worried about Young becoming a toxic influence in the locker room. He realizes he needs to be a model citizen and teammate in order to resurrect his once promising football career. And if he is foolish enough to cause problems he’ll be out on the street looking for football employment again. Nix was able to land Young for a contract in the neighborhood of about $2 million, so it was worth the risk and could reap big rewards if Fitz is sidelined by an injury.

*         In an interesting twist, the Eagles cut Young after just one season and replaced him with former Bills starter Trent Edwards.

*         You might remember that shortly after joining the Eagles last season, Young proclaimed them the “Dream Team,” which turned out to be the kiss of death. “Nightmare Team” was more like it, as Philly failed to make the playoffs.

*         The Carrier Dome is in the running to host the 2013 NCAA East Basketball Regionals. The Dome, which last hosted the final stop to the Final Four in 2010, is in the running with the Barclays Arena, the new home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.

*         Happy 87th birthday to that renowned catcher and wordsmith, Yogi Berra.

*         There’s a thoughtful piece worth reading by former Syracuse University All-American quarterback Don McPherson about the Junior Seau tragedy at . In it, McPherson also writes about the suicides of other players, including Andre Waters and Dave Duerson. “Sadly,’’he  writes, “there were signs with Junior, Andre, Dave and all of the other players who have committed suicide. And, they knew it. What they didn’t know was how to tell us. And, we didn’t know how to see it in them. We assumed that they were like most players who find it hard to adjust to life outside the locker room, without the game. It’s easy to see them as warriors without a war. It’s harder to see them as men without the capacity to say, ‘I hurt and I need help.”

*     Make sure you give Mom a big hug tomorrow - and every day for that matter. I lost my mom 16 years ago and not a day goes by when I don't think about her and the influence she had on me.