The parallels and the similarities are striking. That is comparing the 1967 Green Bay Packers, especially their 68-yard march for the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl”, to Jerry Kramer’s quest for being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s apropos that the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl” was just a month ago. That 21-17 victory by the Packers over the Dallas Cowboys with just seconds remaining in the game, was an exclamation point on the adversity that the team faced throughout the 1967 season.
That season was chronicled in magnificent fashion by Kramer and the late, great Dick Schaap in the book Instant Replay.
Kramer has also been on a long march to to receive the recognition that many believe should have happened decades ago. That would be getting a bust in Canton, like his coach Vince Lombardi did in 1971, a year after he died from colon cancer.
Kramer first became eligible to gain enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. That is 44 years ago folks. Kramer was a finalist in his first year of eligibility and was also a finalist eight other times between 1974 and 1987. But while other Packers like Jim Taylor (1976), Forrest Gregg (1977), Bart Starr (1977), Ray Nitschke (1978), Herb Adderley (1980), Willie Davis (1981), Jim Ringo (1981) and Paul Hornung (1986) were all inducted during that time period, Kramer never heard his name called.
10 years passed before Kramer was again a finalist in 1997, but this time as a senior candidate. The timing seemed perfect. The Packers were playing in Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots in New Orleans.
The Packers won that Super Bowl 35-21 over the Pats, but Kramer for some unfathomable reason was not inducted.
In that 10 year period between 1987 and 1997, two more Lombardi-era Packers were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Willie Wood (1989) and Henry Jordan (1995 as a senior).
The road to Canton was not easy for some of the Packers.
Some players made it into Canton on their first try. This would include Gregg, Starr, Nitschke and Dave Robinson (senior).
For others, it was a little more difficult. Adderley was inducted on his third try. It took four times for Taylor and Jordan (senior) to get enshrined. It took six times for Davis to get a bust, while Ringo had to wait until his seventh attempt to get into the Hall.
Then there are the two double-digit guys. Wood didn’t get into Canton until his 10th try, while Hornung had to wait until his 12th attempt.
But it was especially tough for Kramer. It was tough for all guards in the NFL as a matter of fact. From his first year in eligibility in 1974 up until 1997 when he was a senior nominee, the Hall of Fame inducted just one guard, Gene Upshaw.
This made little sense based on the honors and achievements Kramer compiled in his NFL career with the Packers.
No. 64 was a six-time AP All-Pro and also was named to three Pro Bowl squads. Kramer would have had more honors if not for injuries and medical issues that caused him to miss the better part of two-plus seasons.
Also, in 1969, Jerry was named the best player ever at the guard position in the first 50 years of the NFL, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame named their NFL 50th anniversary team.
The first team consisted of Jim Thorpe, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Cal Hubbard, Don Hutson, John Mackey, Chuck Bednarik, Gino Marchetti, Leo Nomellini, Ray Nitschke, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Emlen Tunnell, Lou Groza and Kramer.
Every one of the members on that legendary team are now enshrined as players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All except one. That would be Jerry Kramer.
In addition to that, Kramer was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s.
Looking back on the players who were named First-Team All-Decade through the year 2000, there were 145 players who were given that designation.
And up until now, 134 of those players have been inducted into the hallowed halls in Canton.
Kramer is one of those 11 First-Team All-Decade players who have yet to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
But Kramer now has another chance to finally be given the honor he so richly deserves, as he is once again a senior nominee finalist, which will be his 11th opportunity to be enshrined. This Saturday, on February 3, the day before Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, No. 64 can be given the cherry on the cake regarding his NFL career when the Class of 2018 is named for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In terms of the 1967 Packers, it also was a hard road to travel. But the journey started for Kramer three years before that.
That was because of some intestinal issues that Kramer had starting in 1964. At first, the doctors thought Kramer had cancer, but after multiple medical procedures, the situation was finally resolved.
But it was not resolved as far as Lombardi was concerned. Kramer explained the situation to me in one of my many conversations with him.
“I reported to camp at around 220 pounds,” Kramer said. “I nine operations that offseason, which involved removing 16 inches of my colon because of a bunch of slivers that were in there for 11 years.
“So when I went to talk with Coach Lombardi about playing, he said, ‘Jerry, we can’t count on you this year. I just want you to go home and we’ll take care of your salary and your hospital bills.’
“I told Lombardi that I really wanted to play. I knew that I had already missed most of the ’64 season and if I missed the ’65 season, I would probably never get a chance to play again.
“I told Lombardi that I would not go home and that I wanted to play. We went back and forth about this for about 35 or 40 minutes. Finally Lombardi says, ‘Okay, I’m going to put you with the defense.’
“I said, great. I always wanted to play defense anyway.”
Kramer soon found out that his task of getting in football shape would be very difficult.
“We always used to take three laps around the field to start practice. I ran a half of a lap and my lungs seized up. I just couldn’t breathe or get any air. Don Chandler came up to me and asked, ‘What’s wrong, pal?’
“I told Don that I can’t breathe. Don told me that, ‘Between the two of us, we would do what one of the players does in terms of an exercise. If you can only do a half of a lap, I’ll do the other two and half laps.’
“So Don worked out besides me for the next month and we did just that. If the team did 50 sit ups and I could only do 10, Don would do the other 40. If the team did 50 side-saddle hops and I could only do 15, Don would do the other 35.
“So Don kept me in the game and kept me from being embarrassed. That kept me from feeling like a jerk in front of a bunch of world-class athletes. So by doing that procedure with Don, I gradually was able to do more and after a month I was able to do all of the exercises.
“I gained about 15 pounds. I knew that the colostomy was reattached, the hernia was fixed and the intestines were okay. It was just going through the reconditioning which was so difficult.
“Without Don, I really doubt that I could have made it through that camp. So all the books, all the Super Bowls and all the great things that happened to me after that was because of my teammate.”
Lombardi knew Kramer was a tough hombre. He said so in his book, Run To Daylight, which was published in 1963. This is what Lombardi said about Kramer:
Jerry Kramer has the perfect devil-may-care attitude it takes to play this game. He not only ignores the small hurts but the large ones, too, and the evidence of his indifference is all over his body.
When Jerry was a high school kid he was sanding a lamp in the woodworking shop one Friday afternoon and a lathe took a couple of inches of flesh out of his side and he played football that night. On a duck-hunting trip he shredded his right forearm with a shotgun blast, and once, when a rotten board split under him, a sliver went into his groin. He pulled that out and two days later they found seven and a half inches of it still in there. He was in the hospital for two weeks, but three weeks later he was playing football. Then there was the night he was in a car doing 100 miles an hour and it went off the road. He was thrown out of the car. It rolled over him , hit a tree and burst into flames. He walked away from it.
At three o’clock one morning at the University of Idaho, Jerry bet somebody that he could ring the bell on the roof of one of the dorms. He threw a rope on a railing around the cupola and while dangling three stories above the ground the railing started to give. If a couple of them looking out the window hadn’t grabbed the rope he probably would have walked away from that, too. In 1960 he suffered a concussion and a detached retina in hi left eye in one of our games and had to undergo a four-and-a-half-hour operation. And in 1961 against the Minnesota Vikings he broke his left ankle and had to wear a 2-inch pin in there for four months.
“But where did you get that big scar on the back of your neck?” someone asked him once. Because of it they call him Zipper Head.
“Where the hell did I get that?” Jerry said, and he wasn’t kidding. This typifies him. “Oh yeah, I remember now. In my sophomore year in college I couldn’t turn my head and they X-rayed it and found out I had a chipped vertebra.”
I remember our Dallas game a couple of years ago and on our 49-Sweep Jerry got two defenders and picked up a piece of a third. We were playing the 49ers later and they say Red Hickey, their coach, was screening our game and he called his staff and said, “My God! Just look at this guard!’
It took Kramer a few games to get back into the starting lineup for the Packers at right guard in 1965, but by season’s end, he was playing exceptionally well. Case in point, the 1965 NFL title game at snowy and muddy Lambeau Field versus the Cleveland Browns, the defending NFL champs.
Green Bay rushed for 204 yards behind Taylor and Hornung in the game, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Kramer and left guard Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders as the Packers gained 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.
That wasn’t the first time Kramer excelled in a title game. Three years earlier, the Packers played the New York Giants at frigid and windy Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL title game.
Besides playing at a high level at right guard, Kramer was also the placekicker for the Packers at that point due to a knee injury suffered by Hornung.
Kramer had to kick that day under very difficult conditions. It was a bitingly cold day, plus the wind was gusting up to 40 miles per hour. Plus, Kramer played the entire game at right guard as well battling in the trenches.
Kramer ended up scoring 10 points (three field goals and an extra point) in the 16-7 victory for the Packers, plus helped lead the way for fullback 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.
No. 64 also recovered a fumble by Taylor to keep a drive alive.
When the Packers were up 13-7 late in the fourth quarter, Kramer knew that he had a chance to put the game away with a 30-yard field goal.
“The wind was really blowing hard that day,”Kramer said. “The wind was blowing so hard that at halftime our benches on the sideline were blown 10 yards onto the field. That wind was really swirling that day.
“The ball was being moved pretty well by the wind. On that last field goal, I aimed 10 yards outside the goal post because of the wind. At first, the kick was heading to where I aimed before the wind caught it and brought it back in and split the uprights.
“It was a great relief to me that I had guessed right, because if I missed the Giants still had a chance to win the game.
“After I made the kick, the guys were jumping on me and pounding me on the back knowing that we probably had clinched the game then. I got to feel like a running back or a quarterback for a moment or two and it was a wonderful feeling.”
After the victory by the Packers, Nitschke was named the game’s MVP, as he had been tenacious with his tackling on defense and also recovered two fumbles.
Kramer certainly could have received that honor as well, based on the way he played that day. As it was, the coaches and the players presented No. 64 with a game ball because of the great performance he had in that year’s championship game.
Anyway, after the 1965 season, the Packers won their second straight NFL title by defeating the Cowboys 34-27 at the Cotton Bowl in the 1966 NFL title game. Two weeks later, the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the very first Super Bowl.
That set up the challenge of winning a third straight NFL title in 1967, as well as a second straight Super Bowl.
Kramer and his teammates overcame a lot during that season. Hornung and Taylor were gone. There were multiple injuries on the team. Quarterback Bart Starr missed a couple of games due to injuries. Both starting running backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, were lost for the season with injuries in the eighth week of the season.
Despite all of that adversity, the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967 with players like Donny Anderson, Travis Williams, Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein filling the void.
The team also lost a couple of heartbreaking games (one to the Baltimore Colts and one to the Los Angeles Rams) in the last minute during the course of the season.
A couple of weeks after that loss to the Rams, Green Bay whipped Los Angeles 28-7 at Milwaukee County Stadium in the Western Conference Championship Game.
The week after that came the “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field. The Packers were down 17-14 to the Cowboys with just 4:50 remaining in the game. It was extremely cold, as the game-time temperature was 13 below zero. The offense of the Packers had to trudge 68 yards across a truly frozen tundra to win the game.
I wrote about that drive recently, as Kramer, along with Donny Anderson and Chuck Mercein recounted that epic drive.
It didn’t look promising, as the Packers had minus-nine yards on 31 plays prior to that drive. But thanks to great efforts by the entire offense, especially Anderson and Mercein, the Packers were in position to win the game in the final seconds.
It came down to a third and goal play from the one-yard line with 16 seconds to go in the game and the Packers were out of timeouts.
After conferring with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr called a 31 wedge play 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.’
So after Starr called the play with just seconds to go in the game, what was going through Kramer’s mind?
“Responsibility. I mean I had suggested the play on Thursday. It seemed like the play was squarely on my shoulders,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to perform. I knew that to be successful as a blocker that I had to keep my head up and my eyes open.
“And also put my face into the chest of the defensive tackle [Pugh]. That is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the safest and the surest way to make a block. I felt great personal responsibility to the team on that block. When I came off the ball, I was on fire.”
Starr followed Kramer’s textbook block on Pugh and happily scored the game-winning touchdown.
It also meant the Packers won their third straight NFL title and two weeks later won Super Bowl II when they beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14.
In this NFL Films video of the No. 1 player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is about Kramer, go to 1:38 of the video which shows Starr’s quarterback sneak behind Kramer and you will hear Vince Lombardi say, “Watch that No. 64. That’s Jerry Kramer. The best right guard in football doing his job.”
Which takes me to Saturday. Now it’s time for the 48-person selection committee to do their job and induct Kramer.
I had the opportunity earlier this week to speak with both Rick Gosselin and Pete Dougherty, both of whom are voters.
It will be Gosselin who will be doing the main presentation on Kramer’s behalf to the selection committee on Saturday, as he was part of the Seniors Selection Committee who nominated Kramer. That will be followed up by a presentation by Dougherty, who is the Green Bay representative for the Hall of Fame.
I was privy to some of what both will be presenting to the selection committee during our conversations, plus I was able to share my ideas. Both Gosselin and Dougherty are confident that Kramer will indeed be inducted as part of the Class of 2018 on Saturday.
I share their confidence, as I did an unofficial straw poll of a dozen or so voters about Kramer’s chances of getting inducted, and every one of those voters told me that they support No. 64’s enshrinement.
It would definitely be appropriate. Because just like in the “Ice Bowl”, Starr will be behind Kramer, as a recent story of mine indicates with his endorsement letter for Kramer to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Besides Starr, there are several peers of Kramer who all have a bust in Canton and also support No. 64’s enshrinement.
One of whom is Merlin Olsen, who many consider the best defensive tackle in NFL history. This is what the nine-time AP All-Pro and 14-time Pro Bowl player said about Kramer:
“There is no question in my mind that Jerry Kramer has Hall of Fame credentials. Respect is given grudgingly in the trenches of the NFL and Jerry has earned my respect as we battled eye to eye in the pits on so many long afternoons.
“Jerry Kramer belongs in the Hall of Fame and I hope you will put this process in motion by including his name on the ballot for this coming year.”
So as we come close to the vote for the Class of 2018 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the 48-person selection committee on Saturday, just as Kramer and the Packers were close to the goal line in the “Ice Bowl”, the selection of Kramer as one of those who are inducted should be obvious. As obvious as to why Kramer thought the wedge play on Pugh would work, which it did.
So, it’s time for the 31 wedge play (the obvious call) on Saturday for the committee on behalf of Kramer. In this case, Kramer won’t be in the end zone celebrating another championship, but instead will be celebrating his place among the best of the best in the annals of pro football history.
And after the selection committee does it’s job, Kramer will later on get a knock on his Minneapolis hotel door by David Baker, the President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After Kramer opens the door, this is what he will hear from Baker, “Jerry, it is my great pleasure to tell you that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.”