When Vince Lombardi became head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers in 1959, the first trade he ever made was to acquire guard Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston from the defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts.
Lombardi traded linebacker Marv Matuszak to acquire Thurston, who had been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1956 out of Valparaiso, where he was a two-time All-American in 1954 and 1955 as an offensive lineman. The Altoona, Wisconsin native ended up getting cut by the Eagles that year and then spent 1957 in the Army before signing with the Colts and being a backup guard on the Baltimore NFL title team.
After watching film of the Packers, Lombardi knew he had an excellent young guard in Jerry Kramer, but he saw that the Pack needed another guard to team with No. 64.
The year before in 1958, then head coach Scooter McLean cut guard Ken Gray, who was part of the great rookie class of that year, when the Packers drafted Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Kramer.
Cutting Gray turned out to be a big mistake by McLean, as Gray turned into one of the best guards in the NFL with the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals, where Gray was named to six Pro Bowl squads, plus was named first-team All-Pro four times.
But the departure of Gray from Green Bay opened the door for Thurston to come to the city that would soon become Titletown.
Lombardi saw that Kramer and Thurston had the attributes that would make his signature play succeed. That play was called the power sweep.
When Lombardi looked at the Green Bay film, he saw that Paul Hornung could become his Frank Gifford, who Lombardi had coached (as offensive coordinator) in New York with the Giants from 1954 through 1958.
Lombardi also saw that Taylor could play a similar role that Alex Webster had with the G-Men.
But for Hornung and Taylor to become successful, the offensive line had to be configured correctly. Which is why Lombardi acquired Thurston to play left guard.
In 1958, in a 12-team league, the Packers were 10th in the NFL in running the football. Toting the rock was not a strength for that woeful 1-10-1 team. But all that changed once Lombardi came to Green Bay.
In 1959, the Packers vastly improved running the ball to finish third in the NFL in rushing. From 1960 to 1964, the Packers were ranked either first (three times) or second (twice) in the league in that category.
The staple play was the power sweep.
In one of my many conversations with Kramer, he talked about why Green Bay and Lombardi were a perfect fit.
“Hornung was the reason I believe Coach Lombardi came to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “Bart [Starr] was an unknown then. There were three or four guys trying to become the quarterback then, and we didn’t know who the hell the quarterback was going to be.
“But we did know who Mr. Hornung was. And Coach Lombardi said many times, ‘That the power sweep was the number one play in our offense. We will make it go. We must make it go. And Hornung is going to be my [Frank] Gifford.’
“Hornung was the key with all that. To me, it seemed like Hornung was probably more instrumental in what Coach Lombardi had envisioned for his offense than who his quarterback was. So I think Hornung was the number one reason why Coach Lombardi came to Green Bay.”
The Packers took to the power sweep like a fish takes to water, as Kramer alluded to me.
“Bobby, in the first three years we ran that play, we averaged I believe 8.3 yards a carry.”
There were a lot of important factors as to how successful the power sweep would be on a given play. Center Jim Ringo needed to make the onside cutoff block on the defensive tackle. Right tackle Forrest Gregg also had an important role.
“If Forrest hit that defensive end with a forearm, he would occupy him for the running back who was going to block him,” Kramer said. “Then Forrest would have a really good shot at getting the middle linebacker.
The tight end (Gary Knafelc or Ron Kramer) had to get the outside linebacker.
If all that happened, the pulling guards (Kramer and Thurston) could lead the ball carrier (Hornung or Taylor) to the second and third level of the opposing defense for a big gain.
The very successful duo of Kramer and Thurston were awarded for their excellent play.
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 pretty ridiculous to me, based on their excellent level of play.
That exceptional play at guard led the Packers to five NFL titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls.
Thurston loved to 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.”
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!’
I share all this with you because I believe Thurston deserves consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kramer finally received that honor after over four decades of waiting.
I also contend that the player who replaced Thurston at left guard when Fuzzy injured his knee during a scrimmage early in training camp in 1967 deserves the same consideration. That player is Gale Gillingham.
You see, Thurston was not just a great player on the field, but also a great teammate. And not just when he was a regular, but also when he lost his job to Gillingham in ’67.
“Fuzzy sat besides Gilly for the rest of the ’67 season, ” Kramer told me. “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.”
Thurston was always in a positive state of mind. It was always party sunny or the glass was hall full.
Thurston always found something positive even under trying circumstances. Case in point is the 1962 Thanksgiving day game against the Detroit Lions at Tiger Stadium. The Packers were 10-0 going into that game.
Kramer remembers that occasion well.
“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.
Off the field, Thurston loved to hang with his teammates and hoist a couple.
“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 retired after the 1967 season, due to a little prodding from Coach Lombardi.
“It was the 1,000 Yard Club banquet in Appleton,” Kramer said. “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.
Off the field, Thurston owned a number of Left Guard restaurants before they went out of business. He also owned a couple of taverns that I always stopped in whenever I was in the Green Bay area.
The first was Shenanigans, which was right across the road from the Fox River. More recently, it was Fuzzy’s #63 Bar & Grill. I always enjoyed going to both places.
If Fuzzy was there, he would be joking and taking pictures with patrons. If he wasn’t there, it was still a great time to walk around the place and look at the photos Fuzzy had accumulated. It was just a great atmosphere.
Thurston passed away in December of 2014 due to liver cancer.
But he will never be forgotten by family, friends and anyone in Packer Nation who ever met him.
“Fuzzy was always positive,” Kramer told me shortly after Thurston had passed away almost four 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.”
When I saw Rick Gosselin at the party the Packers threw for Jerry on the day he was enshrined in Canton on August 4, he told me that he was hopeful that 10 seniors could be inducted on the 100th anniversary of the NFL in 2020.
Gosselin is on the Seniors Selection Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That is why I am writing a series of articles about former Green Bay players who are in the senior category so that they might be considered to be in that group of ten. I’ve already written pieces about Dowler, Gillingham, [Ron] Kramer, Don Chandler and Bobby Dillon.
I realize that maybe only one or two of the players I have written about will be given strong consideration for being placed among the best of the best in Canton in 2020.
All that being said, I believe every one of the players I have written about need to be thoroughly discussed by the seniors committee. That certainly includes Thurston.
“Fuzzy had a great sense of humor,” Kramer told me. “Always up and always positive. He was like an internal flame that never goes out. That fire, that spirit inside of him was constantly there.”
I also stayed positive over the 16 years I wrote about getting Jerry his rightful induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I feel the same way about getting at least one or maybe even two former Packers in as seniors in 2020.