Don Steinbrunner: A true football hero revealed

General Published on : 1/1/2005


Don Steinbrunner, number 74, played for the 1953 Cleveland Browns
Don Steinbrunner, number 74, played for the 1953 Cleveland Browns. That year, the Browns advanced all the way to the NFL championship game before losing to the Detroit Lions.
For many years, the pro football world believed that only one of its brethren – Buffalo Bills guard Bob Kalsu – had perished while serving the United States during the Vietnam War. Today, the story of Kalsu is well known.

Another pro football player, however, did in fact die in the Vietnam War. His name was Don Steinbrunner, and his involvement in the conflict has recently been brought to the attention of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Steinbrunner was a sixth round selection of the Cleveland Browns in the 1953 NFL Draft. An offensive tackle out of Washington State, the Wickersham, WA native played in eight games for the Browns that year.

Having enlisted in ROTC while in college, Steinbrunner fulfilled his two-year commitment to the Air Force following his rookie season. He briefly juggled the thought of returning to the NFL afterwards, but instead decided to stay on full-time with the Air Force.

The last known photo taken of Don Steinbrunner.
The last known photo taken of Don Steinbrunner.

Then in 1966, Steinbrunner was called to serve in Vietnam. A navigator on aerial missions, the Air Force major was eventually shot in the knee during an engagement. According to his family, Steinbrunner decided that due to his experience, he could better serve his country than a less-seasoned soldier. Thus he returned to the same squadron he had previously served in rather than take a less dangerous assignment.

But tragically, on July 20, 1967, Steinbrunner’s plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam. There were no survivors. The 35-year-old left behind a wife and three children.

Steinbrunner was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Metal First Through Fourth Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart for his actions in the field. And now, finally, he receives his rightful place in pro football’s history books.