Jim Grabowski had some nice karma going for him when he played fullback for the University of Illinois from 1963 through 1965. Grabowski created some of the good fortune himself, due to his fabulous play with the Fighting Illini.
In 1963 as a sophomore, Grabowski rushed for 616 yards and seven touchdowns, plus capped a nice season by being named the 1964 Rose Bowl MVP, as Illinois beat Washington 17-7.
In 1964 and 1965, the Chicago native was named Associated Press All-American in both seasons, as he rushed for a combined 2,262 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Chicago Taft High School alumnus also caught 15 passes in his career at Illinois for 144 yards.
Grabowski finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1965.
Because of his exploits, Grabowski, who wore No. 31 at Illinois, now is in the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
That set things up quite nicely for Grabowski, as the NFL and AFL were still battling for the rights of the best college football talent before the two leagues finally merged in 1966.
Grabowski was drafted first overall in the AFL draft by the Miami Dolphins, who were about to start their expansion season. Grabowski was also picked ninth overall in the first round of the NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers.
Grabowski explained to me how it felt to be in that enviable position.
“Yes, that was the last year of the competition between the two leagues,” Grabowski said. “It was wonderful for those players who were drafted then. Up until that time, everyone was sort of an indentured servant of the NFL.
“So I had an attorney who was my agent and our strategy was that we had to listen to both offers. Miami was a brand new team. For a little bit of trivia, the very first draft choice of the Miami Dolphins was me.
“But being drafted by the Packers was certainly a factor in their favor. I grew up in Chicago as a Bear fan and I was always aware of the Green Bay Packers. Plus on top of that, they had Vince Lombardi, the god of gods as head coach. That certainly weighed heavy in my decision.”
Grabowski told me how his contract was finalized with the Packers.
“The Packers sent a plane down to negotiate the contract with my agent and myself,” Grabowski said. ” The Packers wanted to fly us to Green Bay. As a kid then, I didn’t realize all this stuff about the best place to negotiate was on your home turf, not theirs.
“So they brought us up there and you have to remember I’m a 21 year-old kid who had not been around much and was happy to play for anything I could get. But my agent really insisted that we play this out. So he told me that no matter what Lombardi said, to not say anything except that we will get back to you.
“Well, we walk into Lombardi’s office and you see all these trophies, championships and pictures around the room. I remember walking into the office and it seemed like the biggest office that I had ever seen. We didn’t sit at his desk, we sat at what looked like a boardroom table. It was pretty impressive.
“So my agent told Lombardi that Miami offered us a wonderful contract. Coach Lombardi went right to the chase. He gave us a number and he said that only provision with that number was that he couldn’t give us anymore than anyone else.
“So he looked at me and said, ‘Son, what do you think?’ I couldn’t help but nod my head yes.”
Lombardi was going through another set of high-priced negotiations with halfback Donny Anderson of Texas Tech, who the Packers had drafted in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft as a future draft pick, which was allowed in those days.
The Packers were battling the Houston Oilers of the AFL for Anderson’s services.
In the end, Lombardi was able to snare both Grabowski and Anderson and the duo was known as the “Gold Dust Twins” because of the contracts they had signed.
The big deals that Grabowski and Anderson signed did not sit well with one player on the Packers. That would be fullback Jim Taylor. While Anderson received help and guidance from veterans Paul Hornung and Elijah Pitts, Taylor did not do the same with Grabowski.
“Jimmy was a real competitor,” Grabowski said. “And he was ticked off about the contracts that were signed by Donny and I. And I understood that. Paul was more magnanimous with Donny and Elijah was one of the best guys on that team, as he was very helpful. Jimmy and I had very few words together.”
I know from talking with Jerry Kramer that he really enjoyed his time with Grabowski and Anderson and had no ill will about the contracts that had signed. As Jerry told me once, “Donny and Jim were at the right place at the right time when they came out of college.”
Another veteran on the Packers, Henry Jordan, said this to Grabowski. “I don’t give a crap how much money you make. If you help put a few more dollars in my pocket, I’m with you!”
In his rookie season with the Packers, Grabowski did not get a lot of playing time, as he rushed 127 yards on 29 carries (a 4.4 yards-per-carry average). The game in which Grabowski first received significant playing time was against the expansion Atlanta Falcons at County Stadium in Milwaukee. I happened to be in attendance at that game.
Grabowski led the Packers in rushing that day with 52 yards on just seven carries, as the Packers blew out the Falcons 56-3. It was after that game that Taylor told the media that he was playing out his option with the Packers. That announcement did not sit well with Lombardi.
The most memorable run that Grabowski had as a rookie occurred versus the Minnesota Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium. No. 33 bounced off two groups of tacklers as he scampered 36 yards for a score. All told, Grabowski rushed for 61 yards on just seven carries in the game which was won by the Pack 28-16.
Grabowski also had a big play in the 1966 NFL title game at the Cotton Bowl versus the Dallas Cowboys. He was assisted on that big play by Green Bay’s other No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL draft, guard Gale Gillingham, who was the 13th pick of the first round by the Pack.
After the Packers had grabbed a 7-0 lead after scoring on the opening drive that championship game, on the ensuing kickoff, Gillingham forced a fumble by Mel Renfro, which was recovered by Grabowski and returned 18 yards for another touchdown.
Grabowski recalled that moment.
“Yes, I always got a lot of crap from Gilly because he was in on that tackle,” Grabowski said. “He told me, ‘I caused the fumble and you get the glory.’ I was at the right place at the right time. Plus in that game, the difference in the game was one touchdown.
“I was thrilled. I would like to say that it was a real athletic play, but the fumble came right into my hands and what else could I do?”
The Packers won that title game 34-27, which set up a match up the first Super Bowl, when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Packers took over the game in the second half and both Grabowski and Anderson got into the game late. Anderson rushed for 30 yards, while Grabowski ran for two, as the Packers won 35-10.
In 1967, both Taylor and Hornung were gone. The new starting backfield for the Packers that season was Grabowski at fullback and Pitts at halfback.
Grabowski got off to a great start that year, both running and catching the football. Against the Bears in Week 2, Grabowski ran for 111 yards on 32 carries and a touchdown, plus caught three passes for 26 more yards.
Grabowski remembered that game well.
“That was a real grinding game,” Grabowski said. “I had a couple carries that were called back. I ended up carrying the ball 36 times overall. I was pretty beat up after that.”
In Week 8, the Packers played the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium. No. 33 was having a great year, as he was third in the NFL in rushing at the time. At that point, Grabowski had 448 yards rushing and had two TDs, plus had caught 12 passes for 171 yards and another score.
But Grabowski and the Packers were struck a cruel blow in the game, as No. 33 went out with a knee injury, while Pitts was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The injury to Grabowski’s knee was a cartilage issue and he kept rehabbing and working to get back on the field. In fact, Grabowski was able to play in Week 11 against the Bears at Wrigley Field, as he rushed for 18 yards on four carries.
But that would be his last appearance for the Packers that season, even with his efforts to get back on the field. In fact, Grabowski was supposed to start the “Ice Bowl” game at fullback, before he re-injured the knee in pre-game workouts.
Grabowski recalled that moment.
“Yes, I was slated to start,” Grabowski said. “When I had the cartilage injury back then, and I can’t speak for what happens with an injury like that today, but then it just popped and tore everything up and the knee swelled up. So you tried to ice it up and take it easy. I hadn’t done much prior to the “Ice Bowl” for a few weeks, but I was able to practice that week. But before the game I was warming up and I was making a cut on a pass and the knee went out and I was done.”
A lot of people don’t realize that even with the injuries to Grabowski and Pitts that season, the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967, as Anderson and Travis Williams filled in at halfback and Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein filled in at fullback.
Mercein was a huge factor in the “Ice Bowl”, as he was responsible for 34 of the 68 yards made on that game-winning, epic drive that the Packers made to win the game 21-17.
Mercein told me in one of our conversations that one of his proudest moments came after the game when Grabowski told him that he couldn’t have played any better at FB than Mercein did that day.
With the victory over the Cowboys, the Packers now had won their third straight NFL title and were about to win their second straight Super Bowl, as the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
In 1968, Grabowski was once again the starting FB for the Packers and he led the team in rushing with 518 yards and also had three rushing TDs. No. 33 also had 18 catches for 210 yards and another score.
That touchdown catch came in the last game of the season, as the Packers played the Bears and Grabowski’s old teammate at Illinois, Dick Butkus. Going into the game, the Packers were 5-7-1 and were out of playoff contention behind head coach Phil Bengtson, who had taken over for Lombardi that year, as Vince was GM only.
Chicago was 7-6 going into the game and a victory would give da Bears the NFL Central title. But after a Zeke Bratkowski injury, Don Horn came into the game at quarterback for the Packers and had a big game. No. 13 threw for 187 yards and two scores and had a passer rating of 142.4 in the game, as the Packers won 28-27.
One of those TD passes was to Grabowski for 67 yards.
Needless to say, Butkus wasn’t too happy when he shook hands with his old buddy Grabowski after the game.
The knee injury that Grabowski had suffered in 1967 continued to plague him throughout the rest of his NFL career. In 1969 and 1970 combined, Grabowski rushed for 471 yards and two scores, but people weren’t aware of all the health trauma that the 6’2″, 220-pound fullback was going through.
“What most people don’t know is that in the 1968 offseason that I had a staph infection and was in the hospital for over two weeks,” Grabowski said. “The recuperative part after that took several months. I lost thirty pounds. As I look back at it, the staph infection was a very serious thing and I could have died from it.
“I don’t really talk about this too much. Then the next year the staph infection returned. I was fighting a number of setbacks with my knee over the years. You get injured, then an infection and then another infection. I’m fortunate that I made it through all that.”
In 1971, Grabowski was in training camp with the Packers under new head coach Dan Devine.
Grabowski vividly remembers what happened next.
“I went through about six or seven weeks of camp under Devine and then I was extremely happy to get out of there,” Grabowski said. “Not because of anything to do with the players or the Packers, but I believe I’m in the majority of the people who I have talked to subsequent to those years about playing for Devine.
“Just when we broke up camp, Devine didn’t have the nerve to call me into his office. He cut me, but he made Red Cochran tell me. That’s how brave he was! I told Red that I couldn’t believe that Devine didn’t have the nerve to face me one on one. I lost all respect for him then.”
Grabowski played with his hometown Bears in 1971 and rushed for 149 yards before he retired.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to continue to play after I was cut by the Packers, as I was basically running on one leg,” Grabowski said. “I was happy to play for the Bears. If you could have told a kid from Chicago that he was going to go on and play for the University of Illinois, then the Packers and end up playing for the Bears, you would say what a dream!”
After he retired from the NFL, Grabowski became a color commentator for Illinois football games and remained in that role for 26 years years before retiring in 2007.
I asked Grabowski what he was up to now.
“I’ve been retired for a number of years now,” Grabowski said. “An old friend of mine, Tom Boerwinkle, who was a center on the Chicago Bulls some years back, retired before I did and I asked Tom what it was like. And he said, ‘I can’t tell you what I’m doing, but I’m busy.’
“That has kind of been my motto. I have grandkids and I watch them do every sport that they are involved in. My wife and I stay busy. Spending time with friends and family and all that. We do a lot of traveling. We’re going to Alaska next month. We’ve been to a lot of places. I’m enjoying the fourth quarter.”
Finally, with the recent passing of Bart Starr, I had to ask Grabowski to share his thoughts about his old teammate.
“With Bart and I, it was like a general and a second lieutenant,” Grabowski said. “He was like Dwight D. Eisenhower and I was a guy with one bar on his helmet. He was the ultimate gentleman. Even in tough circumstances, he was going to treat you with kindness.
“He has always been like that. I felt a real loss when he passed. I knew he was sick and I had not talked with him since he first became sick, as I didn’t want to intrude upon his privacy. But I felt a real loss when I heard he was gone. He was the heart of the Packers. He was what it was all about.
“Thinking about him right now I’m sad that he in no longer with us. There was only one of those guys!”