'Paying something back'

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, the debate of America's role in Vietnam still is a tender wound, while its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan await the judgment of history.

But what's sadly true of all the conflicts is that young men were killed or maimed; some of their names quite familiar to today's sports-oriented generation.

Pat Tillman, profoundly affected by 9/11, walked away from the NFL's Phoenix Cardinals and a three-year, $3.6-million US contract offer for $18,000 and a high-risk job with the U.S. Army Rangers. He and brother Kevin joined the elite force, Pat telling friends he wanted to "pay something back" for the lifestyle he had been afforded.

In April 2004, the 27-year-old was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan while hunting for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Vietnam's grisly toll included defender Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills, the team's top rookie in 1968. Kalsu, a second lieutenant died in July 1970, defending a firebase atop a remote jungle mountain. Kalsu was not the NFL's only loss. Fighter pilot Don Steinbrunner, shot down and killed in 1967, had been an offensive tackle with Cleveland in 1953.

First wounded in action in 1966, Steinbrunner refused the offer of a safe desk job to fly again.

Notre Dame running back Rocky Bleier narrowly escaped death in 1969 while his platoon tried to secure a landing pad for medical evacuation helicopters. First hit by rifle fire, Bleier then had both legs badly damaged by enemy grenades. The Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick was told he would never play again, but after three operations and two years of rehabilitation, he made the starting lineup and was on all four of the Steelers Super Bowl teams.

Other future NFLers fared better. Roger Staubach, a quarterback with Navy and a draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, was an ensign on a supply ship at Danang and Chu Lai.

Whenever the beach was secure, he would grab a ball and work on Hail Mary passes to shipmates, musing "one day, I might just have a use for this against Minnesota."

The list of Vietnam vets also included Marine officer Sandy Alderson, later to become general manager of the Oakland Athletics and an executive with Major League Baseball.


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