Green Bay Packers: Catching Up with No. 44, Donny Anderson

Donny Anderson in Super Bowl I

The 2017 NFL draft is a little more than a week away. We have seen many changes in the draft over the years, but one of the more interesting times in the history of the draft was when the NFL and the AFL were competing against each other for players in the 1960s.

Which takes us back to 1965 and 1966, just prior to the merger of the two leagues.

In 1965, the NFL allowed teams to draft a future player, who still could continue to play one final year of college football before he entered the league. Such was the case of running back Donny Anderson, as the Green Bay Packers drafted the Texas Tech star with the seventh overall pick of the first round in 1965.

Head coach and general manager Vince Lombardi had acquired that pick along with linebacker Lee Roy Caffey from the Eagles, when he traded center Jim Ringo and fullback Earl Gros to Philadelphia in 1964.

The 1965 NFL draft was held on November 28, 1964.

The AFL had two drafts in 1965. One was the regular draft, as quarterback Joe Namath of Alabama was the first overall selection of that draft by the New York Jets, while the other was a “redshirt” draft, which was similar to selecting a future pick in the NFL. In the “redshirt” draft, the Houston Oilers selected Anderson with the very first pick in that particular draft.

That situation set up a fascinating period in which the Packers and Oilers bid for the services of Anderson.

I had an opportunity to talk with Anderson last week and this is what he recalled about that period.

“I remember seeing Bud Adams (owner of the Oilers) in his office,” Anderson said. “He had a big huge desk and a black couch. And he’s sitting behind his desk and he says, ‘Son, nobody is going to sign you, so just relax and this will be over pretty soon and you’ll be a Houston Oiler.’

Somebody very close to Anderson also wanted Donny to become an Oiler. That would be his father Jack.

Jack Anderson worked at Phillips Petroleum and while Donny was playing football his senior year at Texas Tech, Adams would fly Jack to all of Donny’s games.

In terms of negotiating with the Packers, Pat Peppler was the main source of contact for Anderson initially. Peppler was the director of player personnel for the Packers then.

It was a difficult decision about where to play for Anderson, as he wrestled with his final judgement for a number of months.

But he got some helpful advice on a flight when he talked with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne.

“One thing that will make the difference in all of this,” Layne said. “Take the money.”

That was important to know, as the Oilers were offering a number of things, which included a couple of service stations, a $235,000 home and a $35,000 swimming pool, while the Packers were offering just cash.

Anderson was accompanied at the various meetings by his brother Larry, who working to become a CPA.

As the negotiations were winding down, Anderson focused on the football part of the situation for both teams.

“With the Packers, I started looking at players like Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg and Bart Starr, plus the fact that Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor were older,” Anderson said. “I thought I had a chance to play there.

“I mean I probably would have started at running back at Houston my rookie year, but they didn’t have a lot of quality players, even though they were a good football team.”

Towards the end of this ordeal, Anderson was feeling family pressure, especially from his dad.

“I know you are doing well,” Jack Anderson told his son. “Everyone is going to love you in Houston, you’re a Texas guy and you went to Texas Tech. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

The Packers flew Anderson in to meet with Lombardi late in the 1965 season, when the Packers played the Colts in Baltimore on December 12. The Packers won that game 42-27 under foggy conditions, as Hornung scored five touchdowns in the contest.

“I met with Vince Lombardi for the first time then,” Anderson said. “I was sitting in his suite watching television. And I started thinking about what my father used to tell me about looking people in the eye. I was obviously a little intimidated and I was looking at the television, and Vince told Pat Peppler, who was also in the room, to turn off the TV because I wasn’t looking at him.

“He caught me there, so I started looking right at him. Lombardi asked me what I was think about doing. I told him that I’m going to try and play, but I told him that Houston’s bid was sizably larger than the Packers and that I was trying to evaluate all aspects of what to do.”

It’s important to know that Anderson was also offered a nice contract by the New York Mets in baseball, while he was going back and forth between the Oilers and Packers about where to play in pro football.

When Anderson finished, Lombardi said, “I’m glad that you are thinking about playing for us. We want you to become a Green Bay Packer.”

That wasn’t the first time Anderson and Lombardi talked however. Anderson recalled when the Packers drafted him on Thanksgiving weekend in 1964. Anderson was at his home in Stennitt, Texas when he received a phone call.

“So the phone rings and I hear, ‘This is the Green Bay Packers, can I speak to Donny Anderson?’ I said hello. And about this time Vince Lombardi’s voice came on and he said, ‘This is Vince Lombardi. What do you think about the Green Bay Packers?’ I said that I love them. And Lombardi said, ‘I hope so, because we just drafted you in the first round.’

At the end, Anderson made a request to the Packers.

“I told Pat [Peppler] that I wanted to get my brother Larry a car and also my mother a car,” Anderson said. “I also wanted a 1965 Buick Riviera, which was a nice sports car back then.”

“So Pat tells Lombardi that and Vince started screaming stuff like, ‘What kind of kid is this! He doesn’t need three cars. You can only drive one at at time.’ But Pat went to bat for me and said, ‘Coach, Donny is really a nice kid. He’s giving one of the cars to his mom. The other one is going to his brother who he is very close to and who is helping him in the negotiations.’ Vince finally agreed with Pat that I was trying to help my family.

“The bottom line was that Houston kept adding things in the deal, but they just couldn’t come up with the money, which goes back to the Bobby Layne advice. When my brother and I evaluated the situation, the Packers gave me the best offer because of the money. But that wasn’t the main reason I went to Green Bay.

“The main reason I went to Green Bay was because I wanted to be with the World Champions. I saw the Packers beat the Browns in the 1965 title game in the snow in Green Bay while I was in Los Angeles, as I was getting ready to fly out for the Hula Bowl in Hawaii.

“So I had to tell my father about my decision. He says, ‘Let’s get this thing over with. Tell Bud you are going to sign with him.’ And that’s when I told him that I had made my decision and I was going to Green Bay. After that, my dad pouted for about two weeks.”

When it was all said and done, Anderson had agreed to a $600,000 contract, which topped the $400,000 contract that Namath had signed with the Jets the year before.

Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson in 1966

In addition to the money they paid Anderson, the Packers also signed fullback Jim Grabowski to a $400,000 deal, as the former Illinois star was one of two first-round picks by the team in 1966, along with guard Gale Gillingham of Minnesota.

Anderson and Grabowski were known as the “Gold Dust Twins” because of the rookie contracts each player signed.

The money paid out to Anderson and Grabowski did not bother a lot of the veterans on the Packers in 1966.

I talked with Jerry Kramer about that situation recently and he gave me his recollection of things then.

“There was kind of a feeling that Donny was going to replace Hornung and Grabo was going to replace Taylor,” Kramer said. “That we had found their replacements. It was incredibly unrealistic to think you could replace two players like that.

“Donny and Grabo got put into a really difficult situation. Plus, they were also making big money. That’s one of the reasons Jimmy Taylor went to New Orleans. Jimmy was upset over the money. But he was really the only guy on the team that I’m aware of who was upset over their money.

“They both had really great attitudes. They both worked their asses off. They tried to make a contribution to the team and tried to help us win. They did everything you could ask of them. They were really great kids. I had no complaints.

“You just have to be mature enough to say what in the hell would you do if you were in a bargaining position like they were. You wouldn’t say, ‘I can’t take the kind of money.’ Hell no. You would do the same thing. I became a big fan of Donny and Grabo and I enjoyed the hell out of both of them.”

While Taylor wasn’t happy with the money situation and never offered much advice to Grabowski, Hornung was very helpful to Anderson.

“Hornung was the opposite of Taylor,” Anderson said. “Paul didn’t play much in ’66, as Elijah [Pitts] was the starter then. Paul would come to me and work with me on pass plays and the coverage of linebackers on those plays. He also helped me with the power sweep.

Fuzzy [Thurston] and Jerry were very helpful there as well. I’m not bragging, but I just had so much more speed than they did. I had to learn how to slow down on the sweep and get behind my blocks.

“Hornung was really good about teaching me about things like that. He always treated me wonderfully. Fuzzy, Jerry, Max [McGee] and others all did the same thing with me and I was able to mingle with them off the field.”

Anderson didn’t play a lot during his rookie year, as he rushed for just 104 yards and two touchdowns, plus had eight catches for 105 yards and another score. No. 44 also returned 23 kickoffs (23.2 average) and six punts (20.7 average), including one touchdown.

Grabowski meanwhile, rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown and had four receptions for 13 yards.

Both Anderson and Grabowski each saw a lot of playing time in Week 7, when the Packers faced the expansion Atlanta Falcons and won handily 56-3.

I wrote about that game earlier this year.

Grabowski led the team in rushing against the Falcons that October day at Milwaukee County Stadium, as he rushed for 52 yards on just seven carries. Anderson rushed for a touchdown in the game, plus returned a punt for 77 yards and another score.

Donny Anderson vs. the Falcons

It was after that game that Taylor announced his intention of playing out his option that year to a reporter in the locker room. Those comments did not sit well with Lombardi, as he and Taylor hardly spoke the rest of the 1966 season.

In 1966, the Packers repeated as NFL champions again after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL title game at the Cotton Bowl.

But the journey was not over just yet for the Packers that season, as the NFL and AFL agreed to merge in the summer of 1966. That merger led to a game which is now known as the Super Bowl.

In Super Bowl I, the Packers faced the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. Late in the game, with the Packers holding a 35-10 lead that they would not relinquish, both Anderson and Grabowski were put into the game.

It was at that point one of the more memorable plays of the game took place. But before we get to that play, we need to set up the story.

Before the game, cornerback Fred “The Hammer” Williamson of the Chiefs bragged to anyone who would listen about how he would “hammer” the wide receivers of the Packers in the head with his forearm during the game.

So as Williamson tried to tackle Anderson on a sweep play, No. 44’s knee came up and hit Williamson in the helmet and knocked him out.

Kramer recalls what happened on the Green Bay sideline.

“That was a highlight,” Kramer said. “I remember Willie Wood yelling, ‘The Hammer is down. The Hammer got it.’ We asked Fuzzy about the play later to see if he hit Williamson. Fuzzy said no, than added, ‘Donny must have hit him with his purse.’

The 1967 season would be one of the more memorable ones in the history of the Green Bay franchise. The Packers would be going for their third straight NFL championship, which was something Lombardi stressed immediately at training camp.

There would be a new rookie draft class for the Packers that season and it was the first draft class since the NFL and AFL had merged. I wrote about that particular draft class last week.

Plus there was the fact that both Taylor and Hornung were both gone. Taylor had signed with the Saints after playing out his option, while Hornung was picked up by the Saints in the expansion draft. Hornung never played with New Orleans and instead retired due to a pinched nerve injury in his shoulder.

As the 1967 season started, Grabowski became the starting fullback, while Pitts was the starter at halfback, with Anderson as his key backup. Anderson also took over the punting duties that season for the Packers, as Don Chandler became strictly a placekicker.

The Packers were an injury-ravaged team in ’67, as Starr had a number of injury issues, plus in Week 8 against the Colts in Baltimore, Pitts (torn Achilles) was lost for the season, while Grabowski (knee) basically was.

Before their season ended, Grabowski had 466 yards rushing, while Pitts had 247.

Even with those injuries, the Packers still had an outstanding running game that season, as Anderson and rookie Travis Williams filled the void at halfback, while Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein took over at fullback.

The Packers finished second in the NFL in rushing that year, as Anderson chipped in with 402 yards rushing (and six touchdowns), while Wilson had 453 yards toting the rock. Williams added 188 yards and Mercein rushed for 56 more after he was signed to the team at midseason after the injury to Grabowski.

Anderson also hauled in 22 receptions and had three more scores via the pass. No. 44’s nine total touchdowns led the team.

Still, Anderson caught the wrath of Lombardi during the season after a game against the Bears. Anderson scored a touchdown in that game, but was also accidentally kicked in the head by linebacker Dick Butkus on the play and knocked a bit woozy. Anderson stayed in the game however, but he was slow in reacting and was dazed for two quarters afterward.

Anderson didn’t say anything about the head kick by Butkus, so Lombardi had no idea about that situation as he was reviewing film of the game the week after the game.

“Lombardi started off the meeting by going right after me,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘Where’s Anderson? Turn the lights on, Red [Cochran].’ Then he looks at me and says, ‘You were God-awful. I can tell that you don’t want to be a football player. If we had known that you were mentally incompetent, we would have never drafted you in the first round.’

“Coach goes on and on and just keeps beating me up. Finally he says, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. I know you don’t want to be a football player, but I’m going to make you a football player.’ And I said, yes sir. Then he says, ‘I want you to grab a piece of paper and a pencil and when I say something, I want you to write it down!’ And again I said, yes sir.

“So I was writing stuff down during the rest of the film session. Then after the film session, a bunch of us, including Jerry Kramer, were heading into the meeting room, when Lombardi said, ‘Red, get me a cup of coffee with cream.’ Without missing a beat, Jerry says, ‘Donny, did you write that down?’

“Vince started laughing at that, although it wasn’t very funny to me. But Jerry knew Vince after all those years of playing for him. Then Jerry comes up to me and says, ‘Donny, I’ve been there, buddy. I know exactly what’s going on. Just hang in there and you’ll become a better player.’

The Packers finished 9-4-1 in the regular season and won the NFL Central Division. In the postseason, the Packers first had to meet the champs of the Coastal Division of the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams, who finished 11-1-2 in 1967.

One of those victories came against the Packers in Week 13 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, when the Rams came from behind to beat the Packers 27-24.

The winning touchdown in the final seconds of the game was set up when Anderson had his punt blocked by Tony Guillory of the Rams.

This is how Kramer described that defeat in his classic book Instant Replay:

I was ready to fall down when the game ended. I contained Merlin pretty well, but I was beat from head to toe. I played about as hard as I ever played in my life, and I took an incredible physical pounding in the middle of the line. So did everyone else; everybody gave 100 percent. Coach Lombardi told me I played a great game, but I was down, blue, disappointed, dejected, everything. I never came so close to tears on a football field.

The site of the playoff game between Green Bay and Los Angeles was at County Stadium in Milwaukee. I wrote about that game in an earlier story.

The Packers turned the tables on the Rams in Milwaukee and thoroughly dominated the game after a rough start in the first quarter. Green Bay won 28-7 and the stars of the game were Williams, who rushed for 88 yards and two scores, while defensive tackle Henry Jordan had 3.5 sacks of quarterback Roman Gabriel of the Rams.

That set up a legendary matchup between the Packers and the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl” game.

Not only was that game one of the best games in NFL history and definitely the greatest game in the history of the Packers, it was also very memorable to Anderson.

For one thing, Anderson’s family was there, including his dad.

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

Anderson came up big in that classic game, especially on that legendary last drive of the Packers. The Packers were down 17-14 with just 4:50 remaining in the game and had to drive 68 yards for a score.

Before we go into that drive, let’s explain what the conditions were that day at Lambeau Field. The game-time temperature was 13 degrees below zero, plus if you added the wind, it was bone-chillingly cold, as there was a minus-48-degree windchill for the game.

The field was also frozen and it was like playing on an ice rink, as opposed to a football field.

Adding to the drama of that last drive, was the fact that the Packers had minus-nine yards in 31 plays thus far in the second half of the game.

Anderson talked about that 68-yard trudge across the ice at Lambeau.

“I recall that there was no nonsense at all on that drive,” Anderson said. “It represented the discipline that Lombardi had taught us. We knew that we had to execute and we were determined to get the job done.”

Anderson had a number of key plays on that 12-play drive, which included catching three passes for 28 yards. Two of those receptions came after Anderson was tackled for a nine-yard loss by defensive end Willie Townes after Mercein missed a block on a sweep play.

That loss put the Packers in a second and 19 hole, but two swing passes to Anderson netted 22 yards and the Packers had a big first down. If you look at those receptions on film, you see some pretty nifty footwork by Anderson. Not easily done on a truly frozen tundra.

Anderson explained.

“I recall that I had to balance myself,” Anderson said. “Not to run like a sprinter, but to balance yourself. Be a little more flat-footed. I also figured that a quicker guy might be better off under those conditions than a heavier guy.”

After Anderson made the two key catches to get a first down at the Dallas 30, Mercein caught another swing pass for 19 yards and then on the next play scampered down to the 3-yard line of the Cowboys on a give play.

Kramer explained what all had to happen on that play to make it successful, as the Packers were gambling that defensive tackle Bob Lilly would follow Gillingham, as he was pulling on the play.

Lilly did follow Gillingham and that opened a hole in the defensive line of the Cowboys, but a key block still needed to be made.

“On that play, if Bob didn’t block [George] Andrie on that play, Mercein would get killed,” Kramer said. “It was a very difficult block, too. So Bart looked at “Ski” and asked if he could make that block before the play. And “Ski” simply said, ‘Call it, on two.’

After that play, Starr handed the ball to Anderson, who not only got a first down on his run, but looked to many like he had scored.

“After the run, I’m laying across the goal line with my waist and the ball,” Anderson said. “Cornell Green of the Cowboys yelled that I scored, while Jethro Pugh told him to be quiet. The ref then picks up the ball and puts it 18 inches back from the goal line.

“Later on as we saw film of the game, Coach Lombardi said to me, ‘Young man, I think they took one away from you there.’

After two two unsuccessful running attempts by Anderson to score after that, as he slipped both times, the Packers called their final timeout. There were 16 seconds to go in the game.

After conferring with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr called a 31-Wedge in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, unknown to anyone in the huddle, Starr decided to keep the ball himself due to the slippery conditions near the goal line.

That wedge play was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.

“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’

Starr followed Kramer’s textbook block on Pugh and happily scored the game-winning touchdown.

After the game, the Packers were obviously ecstatic, after winning their third NFL championship in a row.

Lombardi also said something which meant a lot to Anderson after the game. In the locker room, Lombardi told Anderson, “Donny, you became a man today!”

Donny Anderson in Super Bowl II

Two weeks later, Anderson rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown, plus had two catches for 18 yards for the Packers in the 33-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II.

In all, Anderson rushed for 3,165 yards in six years in Green Bay, plus scored 41 rushing touchdowns. No. 44 also caught 125 passes for 1,725 yards and six more scores. Additionally, Anderson was named to the Pro Bowl in 1968.

Plus, Anderson became a prolific punter due to his exceptional hang-time, which kept returns to a minimum.

In 1983, Anderson was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.

Looking back on his time in Green Bay, Anderson said it all comes back to playing for Lombardi.

“Coach Lombardi loved his players,” Anderson said. “Coach wanted them to be great and he helped to make them better players. That was his philosophy and it worked.”

12 thoughts on “Green Bay Packers: Catching Up with No. 44, Donny Anderson

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