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The NFL Lineman And The Football Coach Who Fought Side By Side In Vietnam03:57

The Battle of Hue lasted for weeks and changed Americans' perception of the Vietnam War. (AP)
The Battle of Hue lasted for weeks and changed Americans' perception of the Vietnam War. (AP)
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This story is part of Only A Game's Thanksgiving Leftovers Show. Find the full episode here.

Ernie Cheatham was big and he was scary — at least that's what men who served under him thought.

"Well, he could be very intimidating and bull like," says author Mark Bowden, who's researched Cheatham's role in the Vietnam War.

Cheatham played defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1954 NFL season. He only stuck around the NFL a year (he quickly realized he was never gonna excel), but, more than a decade later, he still had thick forearms and stood at 6-foot-4.

"I mean, he towered over people," Bowden says. "He had a big, booming voice. Ernie was the kinda guy who, when he was angry, you did not want to be in his way. So, he pretty quickly got what he wanted."

Cheatham was deployed to Vietnam in 1967. He was put in command of the hundreds of men in the 2nd battalion, 5th marines.

"When Cheatham became battalion commander, he got a letter from a young captain criticizing the way that the battalion was being run, rather bitterly," Bowden says.

The letter came from an officer in his early 30s named John Salvati. (Salvati, coincidentally, had worked before the war as a high school football coach in Western Pennsylvania.)

This letter would seem like the sorta thing that gets a guy put on latrine duty. And, sure enough, Salvati was quickly summoned to speak with Cheatham.

But "much to Salvati's surprise, [he was] immediately promoted and named to his staff," Bowden says.

"He says, 'Come on down. Be my assistant.' " Salvati recalls. "It was that quick. He just liked my approach. All I did was tell him there was a better way to do it, and he sorta liked it."

Turns out this kinda reaction wasn't unusual for the former NFL tackle who seemed so intimidating.

"The men who served under him were always surprised to find that there was a lot more depth to this guy than his brawn would suggest," Bowden says.

By 1968, Salvati had been promoted to major and named Cheatham's executive officer. And Cheatham's decision to keep Salvati around would turn out to be a good one.

When the Tet Offensive began in early 1968, Cheatham was ordered to the city of Hue to help a group of Americans trapped in a besieged compound. The Americans, who had been fighting in jungles and rice paddies, were taking a number of casualties in the urban setting.

Cheatham realized they'd need to find a different set of weapons that would be more useful for street fighting. Rounding them up was a critical job — and Cheatham deferred to Salvati, who he knew had once been a weapons officer.

"Hue 1968," by Mark Bowden
"Hue 1968," by Mark Bowden

And at a South Vietnamese army compound, Salvati came across an odd-looking device. It resembled a plastic garbage bin — but it had straps, so it could be worn like a backpack. Salvati had seen one once before.

"I just happened to see some guys walking along one day with this thing on their back – 'What the hell is that?'" he recalls.

The guys told him what it was: a tear gas launcher.

"So I always kept it in mind," Salvati says.

"He was probably one of the few people who would've recognized what this thing was," Bowden says. "And he grabbed it and he took it with him into Hue, and they ended up figuring out how to use it. And they ended up being used to tremendous effect."

Less than a week after Cheatham and Salvati arrived in Hue, the Americans had pushed out of their besieged compound and taken the southern half of the city.

And none of that might've happened if the former NFL tackle who seemed so big and scary wasn’t willing to listen to the former high school coach who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

For more on John Salvati and Ernie Cheatham, check out Mark Bowden's book "Hue 1968."

This segment aired on November 25, 2017.


Martin Kessler Twitter Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.


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