Following the season, Kalsu left the NFL to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was killed in action, July 21, 1970.
The synopsis on the cover of Sports Illustrated stated that Kalsu, “became the only pro athlete to be killed” in the Vietnam War.
However, three years earlier, almost to the day, a United States Air Force officer was part of a five-man UC-123 crew that was shot down while conducting a defoliation mission in South Vietnam.
This serviceman played for the Cleveland Browns in 1953, a team that advanced all the way to the NFL Championship game before losing to the Detroit Lions 17-16.
This July 20, a gathering will take place at the Air Force Academy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of this man, but the observance that will occur in Colorado will be a celebration … a celebration to salute the life of Major Don Steinbrunner.
Though just 35 at the time of his passing, Steinbrunner’s life spanned experiences from a prep athlete at Mount Baker High School, to a collegiate career at Washington State College, a year-long stint in the NFL with the Browns, to an assistant football coach at the Air Force Academy.
And those were just his athletic endeavors.
Steinbrunner played for the Cleveland Browns in 1953.
The legacy of Don Steinbrunner’s life goes far beyond the athletic arena. What he is remembered for is being a husband, father, and a soldier who gave unselfish service, and ultimately his life, to a country where the war in which he fought was anything but popular.
Serving as an Air Force navigator in Vietnam, Steinbrunner was wounded during an aerial mission in 1966. Upon his recovery, he was offered the option of a less dangerous assignment, but he chose to return to his unit with the rationale that he was better able to serve his country than many of the younger, less experienced soldiers he had observed.
On July 20, 1967, Steinbrunner’s plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam. There were no survivors among the five-man crew.
Forty years later, his son, David, only 11 at the time of his father’s passing, has organized a gathering designed to bring people from all aspects of his father’s life together.
“My father had his college career, NFL career, even high school before that, and his military service,” David said. “Rarely do the people in those areas get a chance to know about these other groups.”
The Hall of Fame
When Kalsu was killed in 1970, it was thought that he was the only professional athlete killed in Vietnam, as evidenced by the 2001 Sports Illustrated story.
Though the story of Don Steinbrunner was never forgotten by his family or friends, Kalsu’s narrative brought Steinbrunner’s story back to the forefront.
Upon learning of the Sports Illustrated piece, Steinbrunner’s daughter Diane contacted the Pro Football Hall of Fame to inform the organization of her father’s story.
“It is a tragic story, but we do not want it to be forgotten,” Saleem Choudhry, Researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said of the Steinbrunner tale. “Our mission is to promote pro football and preserve the history of the game.”
In 2001, the Hall of Fame invited the Steinbrunner family to its inaugural Veterans Day ceremony, now held annually, on the front steps of the Hall of Fame building in Canton, Ohio.
The Football and America display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Steinbrunner’s Browns’ jacket and Purple Heart can be seen at the lower right.
“They were just wonderful,” David said of the Hall of Fame. “We took Dad’s old Browns’ jacket and Purple Heart, and it is on display now.”
Steinbrunner’s items are part of an exhibit at the Hall of Fame named “Football and America,” which Choudhry describes as showing “the National Football League’s involvement in times of national crisis.”
Time as a Cougar
A 1949 graduate from Mount Baker High School where he starred in football and basketball, Steinbrunner played both sports while at Washington State College.
Steinbrunner played on the freshman basketball team in 1950, and saw action in all 35 games during the 1951-52 season for head coach Jack Friel averaging 3.9 points a contest.
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, it was in football where Steinbrunner excelled. A three-year letter-winner, Steinbrunner doubled as a linebacker and offensive right end in the last seven games of the 1951 season. His three interceptions were second-most on the team, and he was selected to the AP All-Coast defensive team after that ‘51 season.
Steinbrunner was elected team captain heading into the 1952 campaign, but injuries would hamper him during his final season at WSC.
In the season opener against USC, Steinbrunner suffered what was thought to be a broken collarbone but the X-ray revealed no break, and he went on to play the next week against Stanford.
His season was highlighted, Oct. 25 against Oregon State. With WSU down 20-6 heading into the fourth quarter, Steinbrunner scored the Cougars’ first touchdown of the quarter and recovered a fumble that set up Washington State’s final touchdown in a 27-point fourth quarter outburst that propelled the Cougars to a 33-20 win.
Don Steinbrunner with WSC Head Basketball Coach Jack Friel
A knee injury forced Steinbrunner to the sideline for the California and Oklahoma A&M games, but he returned to play in his final collegiate game, a 33-27 loss to intrastate rival Washington.
The NFL, Air Force, and Vietnam
Steinbrunner was a sixth round selection by the Cleveland Browns in the 1953 NFL Draft. He played offensive tackle for the Browns during the 1953 season.
After just one year, Steinbrunner left the Browns to fulfill his two-year ROTC commitment with the Air Force. After his commitment was completed, Steinbrunner had the option to return to the Browns, but he chose the military career instead.
“Coach Paul Brown kept him signed while he was doing his commitment,” David said. “Coach Brown liked Dad and wanted him to come back to the team but Dad really enjoyed the military. I think he wanted to get into coaching.”
Steinbrunner remained with the Air Force and in 1961 joined the football coaching staff at the Air Force Academy.
“He really enjoyed teaching the kids,” David said. “One of my fondest memories is of all the cadets coming over and watching film. He enjoyed having those guys around.”
The highlight during Steinbrunner’s tenure as an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy was the 1963 season. That year, the Falcons upset Washington as well as Nebraska, at Lincoln, en route to a 7-4 season and a Gator Bowl berth. The win over Nebraska was the only loss of the season for the Cornhuskers in their 10-1 Orange Bowl championship season.
Steinbrunner served on the Air Force coaching staff until 1964. Then it was time for him to serve with another unit.
With the war in Vietnam escalating in 1966, Steinbrunner went overseas. There, he served with the “Ranch Hands,” a unit whose mission was the defoliation in the Vietnamese jungles to make locating the enemy easier.
On the website www.virtualwall.org, a site honoring those named on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., there is a memorial page for Steinbrunner, as with all of the names on the Vietnam Memorial. In his page there is a description of what happened to Steinbrunner and his crew that July day in 1967:
On 20 July 1967 the 12th Air Commando Squadron lost its second aircraft, UC-123B tail number 54-0630, while conducting a RANCH HAND defoliation mission near Gia Vuc, some 30 miles southwest of Quang Ngai. The aircraft was making a spray run at 150 feet when it was hit by a hail of small arms fire, crashed, and burned. All five crewmen were killed:
-Major Allan J. Stearns, Girard, PA, pilot
-Lt. Col. Everett E. Foster, Beacon, NY, copilot
-Major Donald T. Steinbrunner, Bellingham, WA, navigator
-SSgt. Irvin G. Weyandt, Claysburg, PA, loadmaster
-Sgt. Le Tan Bo, RVN Air Force, observer
Steinbrunner left behind a wife Meredyth, two daughters, Wendy and Diane, and his son David. He was laid to rest at the Air Force Academy.
A portion of a tribute piece written by Denver Post writer Ralph Moore said, “I’m not Air Force, but I am a father, and Monday I cried a little … Inside, where it hurts most.”
For his deeds, Steinbrunner was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
His citation read in part: “Disregarding the hazards of flying the difficult target terrain and the opposition presented by hostile ground forces, he led the formation through one attack and returned to make a second run. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Major Steinbrunner reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
And so, 40 years after his death, the family and friends of Don Steinbrunner will gather at the Air Force Academy to remember and celebrate his life.
“This will be an opportunity to learn about my dad,” David says of the upcoming reunion. “I really started to think about this back at the Hall of Fame. I got to meet some of Dad’s teammates. And I started thinking ‘Wow, these are guys in my Dad’s life that I never knew.’ It was the same thing with his college friends, teammates, and coaches. It was time to get everybody together under one umbrella.
“It will be a great opportunity for everybody to get to know each other,” David added. “It’s way late, I realize that, but it is better now than never.”
The Vietnam War left a legacy to the country as the longest, and the most unpopular, war the country had fought. Don Steinbrunner is one of the 58,209 Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam. For David Steinbrunner, the view by those who believe their sacrifice was unnecessary is difficult for him to hear.
“These guys made the sacrifice,” he said. “When I hear someone say it is wasted I think, ‘If you think it’s wasted, then for you it is wasted, but he made the sacrifice and you can either accept it or not.’
“It is up to you.”
Other parts in the “Stories that Live Forever” series can be viewed at http://wsucougars.cstv.com/genrel/052707aac.html