Photo by Jack Robbins
The 6-6 Green Bay Packers will definitely be facing their toughest test of the 2016 season this upcoming Sunday when they face the 8-3-1 Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field.
A loss pretty much erases any hope of winning the NFC North this year, plus it would severely hurt the team’s chances of becoming a NFC Wild Card team as well.
But with two consecutive solid wins under their belt, the Packers should feel positive about themselves. And also about their chances of winning.
One former Packer great who always kept a positive outlook on life and in football was the late, great Fuzzy Thurston.
The second anniversary of Thurston’s passing is quickly coming up, as he tragically died of liver cancer on December 14, 2014 at the age of 80.
I had a chance to talk about Thurston on Wednesday with the other half of that excellent offensive guard duo the Packers had in the 1960s. That would be Jerry Kramer.
With Christmas soon approaching and thinking about Thurston’s positive attitude, Kramer talked about the resolute mindset of Thurston, as well as relating a joke which applied to No. 63’s sunny disposition.
“Well, Fuzz was just a very pleasant fellow to be with,” Kramer said. “He didn’t have bad moods. He didn’t get angry. Now he did frustrated at times on the field and would yell a little. But he was generally very positive on and off the field.
“I’ve told this story before and it’s an old joke, but it applies to Fuzzy at Christmas time. Well, one time Fuzzy got a box of horse manure for Christmas. And Fuzzy jumped up and was smiling from ear to ear down as he yelled, ‘Yippee! Wow! Great! Look at this!’ And people are telling him, ‘What the hell is wrong with you, that’s horse manure!’
“And Fuzzy says without batting an eye, ‘Well, with all that horse manure, there has to be a pony around here somewhere!’
“And that was Fuzzy. Fuzz would always find a bright side. A positive side.”
Thurston had a reason to smile and be happy. He would also tell anyone who would listen, “There are two good reasons the Packers are world champions. Jerry Kramer is one of them, and you’re looking at the other one.”
The awards Thurston and Kramer received during that time certainly endorse that statement.
Back in the day when Thurston and Kramer played, awards were given out by a number of media outlets. This included The Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), The Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) and The New York Daily News (NY).
Thurston was first-team All-Pro at left guard in both 1961 (AP, UPI, NEA and NY) and 1962 (UPI), plus was named second-team All-Pro in 1963 (UPI), 1964 (NY) and 1966 (NY).
Kramer was named first-team All-Pro at right guard in 1960 (AP), 1962 (AP, NEA and UPI), 1963 (AP, NEA, UPI and NY), 1966 (AP, UPI, FW and NY) and 1967 (AP, UPI and NY), plus was named second-team All-Pro in 1961 (NY) and 1968 (AP).
That’s a combined 12 All-Pro honors. Five for Thurston and seven for Kramer.
Kramer also went to just three Pro Bowls, while Thurston never went to any. That seems quite odd to me, based on their excellent play.
Meanwhile, the Packers as a team under the coaching of Vince Lombardi, won five NFL titles in seven years, which included the first two Super Bowls.
During that time, the Packers became—and still are—the only team in NFL modern history to win three straight NFL titles, when they won it all from 1965 through 1967.
Photo by Jack Robbins
Kramer came to the Packers in the 1958 NFL draft out of the University of Idaho. No. 64 was part of a draft class which also brought Dan Currie, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke to Green Bay.
Thurston’s journey to Green Bay was a little bumpier. The Altoona, Wisconsin native went to college at Valparaiso (Indiana) on a basketball scholarship.
In his junior year at Valpo, he decided to play on the football team. It was an excellent choice. Thurston became a two-time All-American in 1954 and 1955 as an offensive lineman.
Fuzzy was drafted in 1956 by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was cut by the team on its final cut and then went into the Army.
Thurston ended up with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and was a backup offensive guard on their 1958 NFL title team.
In 1959, the Packers hired Lombardi to be their head coach and general manager. One of the first moves Lombardi made was to trade linebacker Marv Matuszak to the Colts for Thurston.
And in Lombardi’s first season in Green Bay, Kramer was the starter at right guard, while Thurston was the starter at left guard. They were joined by Jim Ringo at center and Forrest Gregg at right tackle, while Bob Skoronski and Norm Masters split time at left tackle.
Lombardi felt that an excellent ground game was the key to the success of his teams in Green Bay and that the signature play for the team was going to be the power sweep.
To illustrate how effective the running game was in Green Bay, just look at how quickly the running game improved.
In 1958, the Packers finished 1-10-1 and were 10th in the NFL in rushing.
In 1959, Lombardi’s first year in Green Bay, the Packers improved to third in the NFL in rushing. In 1960, the Packers were second in the league and made it to the NFL title game.
Then in both 1961 and 1962, the Packers finished first in the NFL in toting the rock and also won their first two NFL championships under Lombardi.
As mentioned earlier, the power sweep was the bread and butter play for the Packers. But it took some time for that play to jell.
“It took awhile, Bob,” Kramer said. “It took some time for the players to really synchronize together on that play. That sweep was really a complex play. And if 11 guys didn’t do their job, it didn’t go. Let’s say the sweep was going to the right. It all started with Jim Ringo. He had a great ability to make an onside cut-off block on the defensive tackle over me.
“Or if he couldn’t do that, he would make a call where Forrest would slide down and go after the tackle and Jim would go get the middle linebacker. It all depended on how the defense lined up. Jim had a great way of reading which way to block on that play.
“So if Jim made the onside cut-off block on the tackle, Forrest had to engage the defensive end for a moment or two before he went after the middle linebacker.
“If that happened and Forrest was able to get that done correctly, then the onside running back back would be able to block the defensive end effectively. Then the tight end, Ron Kramer, had the job of occupying the outside linebacker. Meanwhile Fuzzy and I would pull to the right and try to adjust to the blocks in front of us before we would throw our blocks.
“It took awhile for everyone to get comfortable regarding their assignment. Plus, it also took a certain amount of control for the backs not to run past Fuzzy and I on the play. Some of the younger backs like Elijah Pitts, would run past our blocks at first. Elijah still might gain seven yards or so, but had he waited on us, he might have gained 15 or 20 yards.
“Paul [Hornung] ran that play as good as it could get. He not only had a rhythm and understood the blocking, but he would help set the defensive back up. For instance, if I was maybe three or four yards away from blocking the defense back, Paul knew that the guy was on an island and he would fake inside or outside and that would draw the player in that direction. At that point it was all over and it made the play even more successful.
“Paul was really special when we ran that play. He was very instinctive. Jimmy [Taylor] got pretty good running the play, but he would just as soon run over everybody. Jimmy was always looking to punish the defensive back. That was not always a great idea when you are trying to gain as many yards as possible.
“Still, we averaged around 8.4 yards per carry the first three seasons that we ran that play.”
A major reason for the success of that particular play was the blocking of the two guards, Thurston and Kramer.
Never was that more apparent than the 1965 NFL title game at Lambeau Field versus the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns and their great running back Jim Brown.
Although the running game of the Packers had struggled almost the entire year in 1965, the Packers could not be stopped on this snowy and muddy day on the frozen tundra.
Green Bay rumbled for 204 yards behind Taylor and Hornung, as the Packers won 23-12.
Meanwhile, Brown, who was the NFL’s leading rusher that year with 1,544 yards, was held to just 50 yards by the stingy Green Bay defense.
The power sweep was especially effective for the Pack, as Kramer and Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders left and right, as the Packers kept getting big chunks of yardage on the ground.
Hornung scored the last touchdown of the game on one of those power sweeps. Kramer pulled left and first blocked the middle linebacker and then a cornerback as the “Golden Boy” found the end zone.
Kramer talked about the great success he and Thurston had blocking.
“Fuzz never made a mistake,” Kramer recalled. “We never ran into each other in the eight or nine years that we played together. He was bright and was aware about what needed to be done on a given play.
“Fuzzy also had a lot of heart. He wasn’t the strongest guy in the world, but he gave it everything he had. Fuzz had a lot of energy and he also had a lot of pride. He was going to do his part in helping the team out, no matter what it took.
“He was a great mate. We were like a balanced team of horses. You see pictures of us today, Bob, and you can see us planting our foot at the same precise instant. There is a great picture of the sweep where Hornung plants his right foot, I plant my right foot and Fuzzy plants his left foot. It happened almost precisely at the same instant heading up field.
“We just ran that damn play time and time again at practice. It got to be second nature. But early on in Coach Lombardi’s tenure, when somebody would screw up on the play in practice, we would hear Coach yell out, ‘Run it again! Run it again!’
“Then as time went on and when somebody made a mistake on the play in practice, we wouldn’t wait for Lombardi to yell. One of us would scream, ‘Run it again! Run it again!’
In 1967, Thurston hurt his knee during a scrimmage in training camp. No. 63 was replaced by the talented Gale Gillingham and Thurston never got his job back. But Fuzzy never sulked and he did what he could do to make Gillingham the best player he could be.
“Fuzzy sat besides Gilly for the rest of the ’67 season, ” Kramer said. “He coached Gilly. They sat together in every film session. Fuzzy gave him the benefit of everything he had learned about the defensive tackle that Gilly would be facing that given week.
“Fuzzy told Gilly what he liked to do against that tackle and told Gilly that he should think about doing the same thing. Basically, Fuzzy was Gilly’s personal coach.”
After the 1967 season after the team’s second straight Super Bowl win and the team’s third straight NFL title, Thurston was approached by Lombardi after an awards banquet.
“It was the 1,000 Yard Club banquet in Appleton. It was the dinner when Alex Karras and I exchanged some pleasantries. Anyway, Fuzzy was there and he ran into Coach Lombardi. Coach stopped and said, ‘Fuzzy, when are you going to announce your retirement?’ And Fuzz says, ‘Hmm, right away I guess, Coach.’
Shortly after the conversation with Lombardi, Thurston retired from football. Eight years later, in 1975, Thurston was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame along with Lombardi, Kramer, Hornung, Taylor, Don Chandler, Ron Kramer, Willie Davis, Max McGee and Henry Jordan.
Besides being a great teammate on the field and in the film room, Thurston was certainly a great friend off the field as well, as Kramer explained.
“Fuzzy didn’t fish much and he didn’t bow hunt,” Kramer said. “He didn’t do some of the things I would do with Doug [Hart] and some of the other guys in terms of hunting or fishing. But if I wanted a beer, Fuzzy was the first one in line that I would call.
“He and I and Boyd Dowler used to go out on Monday nights once in awhile. We called ourselves the Three Muskepissers, instead of the Musketeers. Our wives would come looking for us and they we go to a place and find out that we weren’t there yet or that we had just left.
“We would go to a number of different bars and just socialize. We didn’t get in any trouble. We were just relaxing and having some laughs. It was pleasant to be with Boyd and Fuzzy. They were good company!”
Thurston was good company even when things seemed the bleakest. In 1962, the Packers were 10-0 and were going to be facing the 8-2 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
“Before we played the Lions on Thanksgiving, Fuzzy lost his mother about three days before the game,” Kramer said. “Fuzzy decided to play, but his heart was somewhere else. The Lions just guessed and gambled correctly all day long that game.”
It was that kind of day for Thurston and his Packer teammates, as the Lions whipped the Packers 26-14. The score looked much closer than the game actually was, as the Packers scored 14 points in the fourth quarter after being down 26-0.
The Packers had just 122 total yards and quarterback Bart Starr was sacked 10 times for 93 yards.
But even with all of that, Thurston found some humor in the painful lesson he and his teammates had experienced.
“We are going home on the plane,” Kramer recalled. “And Fuzz says, ‘You know Jerry, at least the whole day wasn’t a loss.’ And I go, “What the hell are you talking about?” And Fuzzy goes, ‘You and I introduced a new block. You know, the look out block. Because every time Bart would go back to pass we would go, “Look out!”
“We giggled about that a little bit. I mean we were feeling lower than whale crap then, but Fuzz was making a joke and being positive. He was still Fuzz. He wasn’t sulking or sucking his thumb. He was just Fuzz.
“He was just that way no matter where you saw him. He always had a big smile and he was always happy to see you. Fuzzy was just a genuine pleasant guy to be around.”
After the debacle in Detroit in 1962, the Packers won the last three games of the regular season to finish 13-1 and then went on to win the 1962 NFL title game 16-7 over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium.
The ground game and Kramer’s placekicking were the difference in the game.
Kramer ended up scoring 10 points (three field goals and an extra point) on a day when there were the wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. Plus, Kramer, Thurston and the rest of the offensive line helped lead the way for Taylor to gain 85 yards rushing and also score the lone Green Bay touchdown. As a team, the Packers gained 148 yards rushing that day.
When Kramer kicked the game-winning field goal late in the title contest, Thurston, No. 63, jumped into the air and signaled for all to see that the kick was good.
It was an apropos gesture for Thurston, because to him, life was also good, even when he was dealing with tough times in business and in health.
“Fuzzy was always positive,” Kramer told me shortly after Thurston had passed away almost two years ago. “He was just consistently up. And he insisted that we all have a good time whether you wanted to or not. You were going to have fun. He would take that upon himself whether it was one or 40. Fuzzy would be the spark.”