Pro Football Hall of Fame honors fallen airman Don Steinbrunner


CANTON, Ohio – Bitter cold grips south Texas – an unusually frigid day for early December – and the thoughts of Diane Steinbrunner-Barron drift to another time and place, equally cold, but warmer, just the same.

Fond memories. She remembers near blizzard conditions atop a Colorado hilltop as she waits among a handful of other children for a school bus.

They are huddled together next to her father, “a mountain of a man,” whose enormous reach is enough to shelter them all inside his huge jacket, away from the blowing snow and extreme conditions.

For those who did not know Don Steinbrunner, it is perhaps that memory that sums him up better than any other.

Despite the violent aspects of his chosen fields of endeavor – professional football player, military aviator – he is remembered as a warm, caring man, passionate about his family and friends.

Special ceremony. Diane and her brother, David, were among the more than 200 people who gathered at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Nov. 10, during Veterans Day weekend, for a special ceremony to honor the Air Force major, an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns from 1954 to 1957.

Steinbrunner was killed July 10, 1967, when the C-123 Provider he navigated was shot down by Vietnamese enemy forces. There were no survivors.

For many years, the Hall of Fame believed the only professional football player killed in Vietnam was Buffalo Bills guard Bob Kalsu, a belief incorrectly reported in the July 23 edition of “Sports Illustrated.”

After reading that article, family members contacted the Hall of Fame, which immediately recognized the error.

Getting it right. “Joe Horrigan, the vice president in charge of communications for the Hall of Fame, said the folks there would ‘rectify the situation’ to our family’s satisfaction,” Steinbrunner-Barron said.

“We were relieved that they recognized the error and corrected it.”

Later, that feeling of relief turned to one of excitement when the Hall of Fame officials asked the family to participate in the Veterans Day ceremony.

“We were very much honored,” she said. “There are no words to express our gratitude. It’s the type of thing we always hoped would happen, a great opportunity.”

Opportunity – in the form of an Air Force career – knocked in the late ’50s for Steinbrunner.

Military service. By joining the service, he would be repaying an ROTC commitment and serving his country at the same time. Later, when the call came to join the fight in Vietnam, he did so without hesitation, said Meredyth Richards, his wife of 13 years.

Despite the turbulent times and the unpopular support for the war, he felt it was important to support the cause.

“He loved his children very deeply and had some reservations about leaving them behind,” she said. “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.”

David said his father loved football and the military for many of the same reasons.

“To him, football was all about sportsmanship and camaraderie,” he said. “That’s the same way he felt about the military … and he loved the discipline and organization.”

Best of both. For a brief period, Steinbrunner was able to combine the two passions. He served as an assistant coach for the fledgling Air Force Academy football team from 1959 to 1964, working primarily with defensive ends.

Longtime Falcon head coach Ben Martin remembered Steinbrunner as a very inventive man with a great deal of knowledge about the game of football.

“He had a very creative mind,” Martin said. “We were just beginning the program back then, and he understood how to put the pieces together. He was a very valuable staff member.”

Highlights. The highlight of that period, Martin said, was the team’s 17-13 upset victory over the University of Nebraska in 1963, the only loss suffered by the Cornhuskers that year. Steinbrunner’s contributions, he added, were significant.

“A lot of his ideas were incorporated into the gameplan,” Martin said. “We did some things they had not seen before, and were unprepared for.”

Perhaps most significant about Steinbrunner, though, was his outgoing, friendly manner, he said.

“He was very personable,” Martin said. “In fact, he was a big part of our recruiting success back then.”

Wendy McDermott, the second of Steinbrunner’s three children, fondly remembers the days at the Air Force Academy.

Never forget. “Those are the days I remember the most,” she said. “We’d be doing things the other kids would do, going to the games, playing in the snow, and running races. Of course, dad loved football, so we’d be running ‘z-ins’ and ‘z-outs.'”

Like her sister, Wendy vividly remembers her father’s giant jacket, which he would use to shelter the children from the cold.

“He’d unzip it and wrap us up in it, regardless of how cold it got for him,” she said. “Of course, we saw him as someone who was not affected by the cold or the heat.”

A fitting symbol. That same jacket, a symbol of the man’s passion for both his family and the game of football, is now enclosed in glass at the Hall of Fame, a token of appreciation from the Steinbrunner family for the organization’s recognition of their father.

Beside it is a symbol of his love for the military – the Purple Heart he received posthumously for his service to the country. Both were presented to the Hall of Fame during the emotional Veterans Day ceremony.

John Bankert, Hall of Fame executive director, told the crowd of more than 200 in attendance that morning that the presentation of the medal was as memorable of an experience as he had witnessed in 37 years there.

David, who was only 11 when his father died, called it a fitting tribute to a man who had a passion for his family, for the game of football and for service to his country.

Sacrifice. “We felt it would be ideal,” he said. “Dad’s jacket represented his football career and the Purple Heart represented the sacrifice he made – the ultimate sacrifice.”

Giving up the items was not an easy choice to make, Diane said.

“They were hard to give up,” she said. “But, in a sense, we were not giving them up. They’re behind glass, and we will always be able to see them whenever we want.

“And our kids and our kids’ kids will be able to see them, along with other people who may not have known our father.

Live in forever. “This way, dad will live on forever,” Diane said.

So, among the thousands of artifacts on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame – jerseys and jackets and cleats owned by the likes of “Slingin’ Sammy Baugh” and Joe Montana – is a large Cleveland Browns jacket, and a small, gold medallion.

Both ordinary at first glance, but both with a meaning as special as Fred Biletnikoff’s shoes, Mike Singletary’s pads, and Tom Landry’s hat.

They are the symbols of Don Steinbrunner – pro football player, airman and father.

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