When Football Went To War offers stories of wartime heroism, from World War I through to Pat Tillman's tragic death in the Global War on Terrorism. Football has become the most popular sport in America and this heartfelt book honors the many sacrifices of NFL athletes over the years in service of their country. As we celebrate Memorial Day to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, here is the story of Don Steinbrunner, a tackle for Washington State and the Cleveland Browns, who was shot down in Vietnam.
For many years, it was thought that Bob Kalsu had been the only NFL player since World War II to have been killed in action while serving in the U.S. armed forces. Major Don Steinbrunner's name is on the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, at panel 23E line 096. He was killed in action in Vietnam when he was shot down over Kontum. He played in eight games for the 1953 Cleveland Browns; the 11–1 Browns, under Coach Paul Brown, finished in first place in the NFL East but lost 17–16 to the Detroit Lions in the NFL Championship Game. A graduate of Washington State, Steinbrunner had been a sixth-round draft pick in the 1953 NFL Draft.
Steinbrunner was selected All-State out of Mount Baker High School, and he became the captain on Washington State's basketball and football teams where he earned All-Conference honors after his junior year. He'd enrolled in the ROTC program while in college and was summoned to active service after his 1953 rookie year with the Browns.
It was a two-year commitment, and Steinbrunner served as a navigator in the United States Air Force. When his tour of duty was completed he contemplated returning to the Browns, but he found service in the Air Force rewarding so he re-upped.
"Coach Paul Brown kept him signed while he was doing his commitment," Steinbrunner's son, 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 he joined the football coaching staff at the Air Force Academy, working as an assistant coach.
He was still serving at the Academy when the Vietnam War broke out, and in 1966 he was sent there. His wife, Meredyth, said, "He loved his children very deeply and had some reservations about leaving them behind. But he also felt very strongly about going to Vietnam. He was going there to defend his country. At the time, communism was considered a great threat to the world. Don said it was his duty to go, and he wanted to go. He believed strongly in the cause."
As the Pro Football Hall of Fame has noted, "Not long after his arrival, he was shot in the knee during an aerial mission and was offered an opportunity to accept a less dangerous assignment. He declined. According to his family, the 35-year-old Steinbrunner reasoned that he was better suited to serve his country than many of the younger, less seasoned soldiers he'd observed. It was a decision that cost him his life. On July 20, 1967, Steinbrunner's plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam."
Major Steinbrunner was the navigator aboard a C-123 from the 12thCommando Squadron, conducting a defoliation mission near Gia Vuc, about 30 miles southwest of Quang Ngai. There had been suspected light ground fire in the area, but as the aircraft made its run -- at just 150; -- it was "hit by a hail of small arms fire, crashed, and burned." All five crewmen were killed. In addition to Steinbrunner, the other losses were: Major Allan J. Stearns, Girard, Pennsylvania, pilot; Lt. Col. Everett E. Foster, Beacon, New York, copilot; SSgt. Irvin G. Weyandt, Claysburg, Pennsylvania, loadmaster; and Sgt. Le Tan Bo, RVN Air Force, observer.
A forward air controller reportedly saw the crash near Pleiku Air Base.
Steinbrunner "was scheduled to return to the states in December and was looking forward to a return to coaching duty at the Air Force Academy, where he spent five years as an assistant coach and recruiter."
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 attack. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Major Steinbrunner reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
It was 30 years after his death that Steinbrunner was honored again and recognized at Canton. After seeing the 2001 Sports Illustrated article on Bob Kalsu, which said Kalsu was the "only pro athlete killed in Vietnam," Steinbrunner's daughter, Diane, contacted the Pro Football Hall of Fame to inform them of her own father's service. The Hall immediately made arrangements to invite the Steinbrunner family to its inaugural Veterans Day ceremony that very year. It is now an annual ceremony. Diane's brother, David, said of the Hall of Fame, "They were just wonderful. We took Dad's old Browns jacket and Purple Heart, and it is on display now."
In addition to children Diane and David, Steinbrunner was also survived by his wife, Meredyth, and daughter, Wendy.
-- Excerpted by permission from When Football Went To War by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. Copyright (c) 2013 by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.