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.

Athletes Killed In Action


Pat Tillman

Tillman became an instant hero when he turned down a multi-million dollar contract extension with the Cardinals to enlist in the Army shortly after the 9/11 attacks.


Pat Tillman

His legacy turned tragic when he was gunned down by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.


Hobey Baker

Baker, a hockey and football star at Princeton, was a member of the Army Air Service (the forerunner to the Air Force) during World War I. He died during a test flight in France. Baker is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, and the Hobey Baker Award is given annually to the best player in NCAA hockey.


Nile Kinnick

The Iowa halfback, who also passed, punted and returned kicks, was the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner. He joined the Navy during World War II and was killed in a training flight in 1943. Iowa's football stadium was named in his memory in 1972.


Jack Lummus

Lummus was a baseball and football star at Baylor, and played the 1941 season in the NFL as an end with the Giants. He then enlisted in the Marines and was killed on Iwo Jima, but his heroics in that battle earned him the Medal of Honor.


Bob Kalsu

Kalsu was an All-American offensive lineman at Oklahoma and played the 1968 season with the Bills. He was then deployed to Vietnam and killed in 1970. The Bills added him to the team's Wall of Fame in 2000.


Don Steinbrunner

Steinbrunner, a football and basketball star at Washington State, played one season (1953) as a tackle for the Browns before an injury ended his NFL career. He joined the Air Force and was shot down in Vietnam in 1967.


Al Blozis

Blozis was an offensive tackle with the Giants for three seasons before heading into the Army. He was killed in France in 1945. The Giants have retired his No. 32. Blozis, who starred at Georgetown, is also in the College Football Hall of Fame.


Elmer Gedeon

Gedeon (pictured on the right as a member of the Washington Senators) starred in baseball, football and track at Michigan. He played five games for the Senators in 1939, then was drafted into the Army. He was killed in 1944 when his plane was shot down in France.


Eddie Grant

Grant played various infield positions for the Phillies, Reds and Giants during his 10-year MLB career that ended in 1915. He retired and became a lawyer but enlisted in the Army when the U.S. got involved with World War I. He was killed in France in 1918.

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