The Green Bay Packers were very fortunate to have two of the best guards in the NFL from 1959 through 1966 when left guard Fuzzy Thurston and right guard Jerry Kramer were a dominant blocking duo.
Especially on the signature play of the Packers and their head coach Vince Lombardi, the power sweep.
Both Kramer and Thurston were honored due to their outstanding play. Back in the day when No. 64 and No. 63 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).
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).
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).
That’s a combined 12 All-Pro honors. Seven for Kramer and five for Thurston.
But even with the award-winning play, Kramer only went to three Pro Bowls, while Thurston never went to a single one. That seems quite odd and perplexing to me.
Kramer was also honored by being put on the 1960s All-Decade team, plus was named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team (the only guard on the first team).
That all led to Kramer being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
The Packers were also very fortunate that they had another talented guard available to take Thurston’s place when No. 63 injured a knee in training camp in 1967.
That player was Gale Gillingham, who was a second-year player out of the University of Minnesota. Gillingham, along with fullback Jim Grabowski, were taken in the first round of the 1966 NFL draft.
Those two rookies played a big role in the 1966 NFL title game at the Cotton Bowl when the Packers faced the Dallas Cowboys. After the Packers had grabbed a 7-0 lead after scoring on the opening drive, on the ensuing kickoff, Gillingham forced a fumble by Mel Renfro, which was recovered by Grabowski and returned 18 yards for another touchdown.
After Thurston’s knee injury in training camp in 1967, Kramer soon learned that he was not going to be the fastest offensive lineman on the Packers any more.
“After we did some sprints for awhile, I told Forrest Gregg to forget about trying to beat Gilly,” Kramer said. “The kid could really move, plus he was strong as an ox.”
It was soon apparent that Gillingham was not going to relinquish the left guard spot that was held by Thurston for so many years.
Did Thurston sulk about that situation? Hell no.
“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.”
Gilly had a nice season in 1967, as the Packers won their third straight NFL championship, plus won their second straight Super Bowl as well.
That team overcame a lot to become champions. The Packers did not have either fullback Jim Taylor or halfback Paul Hornung in in 1967. Add to that, their replacements, Grabowski and Elijah Pitts, were both lost for the year due to injuries midway through the season.
Even with that, the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967. The play of No. 68 certainly helped that situation.
The 1967 season was also the last year Vince Lombardi coached the Packers.
It was also the last time Gillingham would play for a head coach in Green Bay with a winning record.
Gilly played eight more years in Green Bay, and only twice did he play on a winning team. That happened in 1969 (8-6) and 1972 (10-4). No. 68 missed most of the 1972 season because of a knee injury. More on that scenario later in the story.
While all that losing was going on, Gillingham still played at an elite level. Just like the era when Kramer and Thurston played in, there were multiple media outlets in which awards were given to positional players in the NFL.
Gilly racked in a lot of hardware from those outlets.
Gillingham was named first-team All-Pro in 1969 (AP and NEA), 1970 (AP and NEA), 1971 (NEA), 1973 (Pro Football Writers) and 1974 (NEA).
Gilly was also named second-team in 1968 (NEA and UPI), 1969 (Hall of Fame, NY and UPI), 1970 (Pro Football Writers) and 1971 (Pro Football Writers).
If you add those numbers up, that’s five first-team All-Pro designations for Gillingham, as well as four second-team All-Pro honors. That’s a total of nine.
There should have been more. You may have noticed that Gilly did not get any awards after the 1972 season, which was No. 68’s second under Dan Devine.
Gillingham was considered one of the best right guards in the NFL going into the 1972 season. He had been named All-Pro four straight years, plus had gone to three straight Pro Bowls (went to five overall).
It was at this point that Devine made one of the most mind-boggling decisions ever in the head coaching history of the Packers. He decided to move Gillingham to defensive tackle. Huh?
Now Gillingham had played some defensive tackle at the University of Minnesota, but he was also a truly elite right guard in the NFL at the time of Devine’s decision. That determination by Devine made no sense to me. Then and now.
Plus, just two games into the season, No. 68 hurt his knee and was lost for the season.
I talked to Kramer about Devine’s decision to move Gilly to defense. No 64. was pretty blunt in his assessment.
“That was stupid,” Kramer said. “That really was a stupid move. That’s the only thing I can say about that. It just boggles your mind taking a kid of that caliber and quality and then move him to a whole new position. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Plus, there is this. That season the Packers were lead by second-year quarterback Scott Hunter. Because of that, the team would have to to depend on the running game to be successful on offense.
John Brockington and MacArthur Lane combined for almost 2,000 years rushing that season, but just imagine their amount of success with Gillingham at right guard. In fact, the Packers were ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing in 1972. If Gilly was playing right guard as he should have been, I could see the Packers being in the top five in rushing, maybe even top three.
Devine came to his senses in 1973 and put Gillingham back at right guard, where he again accumulated awards.
But the losing and the coaching decisions began to wear on Gillingham.
Gillingham talked about that situation in an article written by Martin Hendricks of Packer Plus in August of 2011.
“I had no faith in the line coach and didn’t fit into the system,” Gillingham said. said. “I wanted to be traded.”
No. 68 was talking about the 1975 season in which he sat out the season due to differences with offensive line coach Leon McLaughlin.
Plus, there was the losing.
“The losing killed me,” said Gillingham. “I was burned out and beat up both mentally and physically.”
Tragically, just a few months after the article in Packer Plus was written, Gillingham died of a heart attack at his home in Minnesota while lifting weights. Gilly was just 67 years-old.
Gillingham was inducted in the Packers Hall of Fame in 1982.
I believe Gillingham belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well. Had not Devine moved Gilly to defense in 1972, I’m sure Gilly would have put together another All-Pro season at right guard.
He also could have experienced winning again first hand, not to mention leading a dominant ground game.
I also believe that Gilly would have had a very good chance to be on the 1970s All-Decade team at guard had he been able to play there in 1972.
Being a member of an All-Decade team usually leads to a bust in Canton in most cases.
Rick Gosselin, who is a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter and who also heads the Seniors Selection Committee, sent a note to me a couple weeks back about who to include in my series of articles about other worthy individuals on the Packers who deserve placement in Canton.
Gosselin told me to make sure that Ron Kramer, Boyd Dowler and Gillingham were included in my articles.
Gosselin has put forward an amnesty proposal to David Baker (President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) to implement on the 100th anniversary of the NFL.
The proposal calls for at least 10 deserving seniors to be inducted on the centennial of the league. Based on my recent discussion with Gosselin, it sounds like he will be able to get 10 seniors in.
That would be awesome news!
As would hearing that Gale Gillingham would be among those ten great NFL players who will finally get their due in Canton.