Green Bay Packers: Vince Lombardi Wheeled and Dealed in the Months of April and May

Vince Lombardi with coaching cap on.

When the Green Bay Packers hired Vince Lombardi in 1959, he was given two titles. They were, head coach and general manager. Obviously his coaching ability turned out to be fantastic, as his Packers won five NFL titles in seven years, which also included the first two Super Bowls.

Yes, there is a reason the Super Bowl trophy has his name on it.

Lombardi also made some fine acquisitions for the Packers as general manager through the draft and trades. Who knows how history would have been written had super scout Jack Vainisi lived, instead of tragically dying in 1960 at the age of 33 due to a heart attack. Vainisi played a key role in getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay in 1959.

Back in the day, the months of April and May were normally pretty quiet in the days when Lombardi led the Packers. That being said, Lombardi did make a number of notable trades during those two months while he was with the Packers from 1959 through 1968.

Here are some of the notable ones:

April 25, 1959: The Packers trade offensive end Bill Howton to the Cleveland Browns for defensive end Bill Quinlan and halfback Lew Carpenter.

The result? Quinlan started at defensive end for the Packers for four years, while Carpenter was a key role player who excelled on special teams and remained with the team for five years. Also, the trade of Howton opened the door for rookie Boyd Dowler to start at end and he became the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1959, plus had a fabulous 11-year career with the Packers.

Boyd Dowler scores TD in Ice Bowl

May 23, 1959: The Packers trade a third-round 1960 draft pick to the Chicago Cardinals for quarterback Lamar McHan.

The result? McHan starts 11 games in 1959 and 1960 and splits time at quarterback with Bart Starr. The competition drives Starr to become the full-fledged starter midway through the 1960 season when he became the true leader of the Pack, as he led the team to five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, where he was named MVP in both games. Starr also won three passing titles, was the NFL MVP in 1966 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

May 5, 1964: The Packers trade center Jim Ringo and fullback Earl Gros to the Philadelphia Eagles for linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and a first-round draft pick in the 1965 NFL draft which was used on halfback Donny Anderson.

The result? The Packers had to scramble at the center position for the 1964 season, as Bob Skoronski and Ken Bowman split time at center. To add to that issue, right guard Jerry Kramer missed almost the entire 1964 season due to intestinal issues. Caffey became part of the best trio of linebackers in the NFL for five years, along with Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson. Anderson had a fine career with the Packers, but his biggest moment was his performance in the “Ice Bowl”, as he played a key role in the final drive of that classic game.

Lee Roy Caffey in the Ice Bowl

April 23, 1965: The Packers trade linebacker Dan Currie to the Los Angeles Rams for wide receiver Carroll Dale.

The result? After Currie is traded, Dave Robinson becomes the starter at left outside linebacker and has a Hall of Fame career with the Packers. Dale becomes the starter at flanker for the Packers replacing Max McGee and becomes the deep threat for the Packers in the passing game for eight great seasons. Lombardi also starts to use Dale, McGee and Boyd Dowler at the same time on passing downs, as Dowler took over at tight end for Marv Fleming in those situations.

April 25, 1966: The Packers trade halfback Tom Moore to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Ron Smith, defensive tackle Dick Arndt and a second-round draft pick in the 1967 NFL draft.

The result? The trade allows halfback Elijah Pitts to become the main backup to Paul Hornung, who ended up being hurt for most of the 1966 season. Pitts ended up starting seven games in 1966 and 24 games in his career in Green Bay. The trade also allowed Donny Anderson to get more of a role on offense at halfback and No. 44 became the starter in 1967 when Pitts was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

May 2, 1968: The Packers trade linebacker Tommy Joe Crutcher and offensive tackle Steve Wright to the New York Giants for offensive tackle Francis Peay.

The result? Peay plays in 62 games over the next five years, starting 45 of them at left tackle. Crutcher was later traded to the Rams by the Giants, but then returned to Green Bay when head coach and general manager Dan Devine traded a fourth-round pick in the 1973 NFL draft to the Rams.

When Jerry Kramer Knew Bart Starr Would Keep the Ball on his QB Sneak in the ‘Ice Bowl’

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photo by John Biever

Looking back on the 100 years of history in the NFL, the play is considered one of the most iconic plays in league annals. I’m talking about Bart Starr and his surprising quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl” game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field.

With just 16 seconds remaining in the game and with his team having no timeouts, Starr followed the classic block by right guard Jerry Kramer on defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, as he shuffled to the right of Kramer’s block  and tumbled happily into the end zone, as the Packers defeated the Cowboys 21-17 to win their third straight NFL title.

Before we dissect that play and talk about the many interesting nuances about that call, let’s first look at the arctic conditions the NFL title game was being played under.

The weather in Green Bay on December 30, 1967 was fairly mild as the Cowboys worked out for a while at Lambeau Field the day before the game. The field was soft and although it was cold (high 20s and low 30s), it was not bitterly cold.

That all changed on December 31, 1967, as one never knows what will happen in the region where the Fox River connects to the bay off Lake Michigan in the winter.

Yes, when the NFL title game started between the Cowboys and Packers began, the temperature was -13°. If you added in the wind throughout the game, the temperature plummeted to -50°.

Nice weather if you are a polar bear. But not if you are a professional football player. Making matters worse, as the game wore on, the field became an ice skating rink.

In the game, the Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, thanks to two Starr touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler.

The Packers also had a fantastic chance to increase their lead, when cornerback Herb Adderley picked off a pass from quarterback Don Meredith of the Cowboys and took it to the 32 yard line of the Cowboys in the second quarter. But the Packers squandered that opportunity and didn’t score.

The momentum of the game changed late in that second quarter. Starr fumbled as he was hit by defensive end Willie Townes of the Cowboys going back to pass, and the other defensive end, former Marquette star George Andrie, scooped up the ball in rumbled in for a touchdown from seven yards out with a little over four minutes to go before halftime.

Then with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Willie Wood fumbled a punt from Danny Villanueva at the 17 yard line of the Packers. That led to a 21-yard field goal by Villanueva to make the score 14-10 at halftime.

In the second half, the offense of the  Packers was being throttled the defense of the Cowboys.

Things were so bad, that the Packers had had minus-nine yards in 31 plays in the second half at one point.

Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys took a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from halfback Dan Reeves.

That was the score when the Packers got the ball back on their own 32 yard line with just 4:50 left in the game.

Somehow the Packers were going to have to trudge 68 yards across the arctic-like football field to win the game.

I wrote a story about that ensuing drive, as Kramer, halfback Donny Anderson and Chuck Mercein provided the commentary.

Here is part of that article:

“I don’t think we ever considered the possibility of losing,” Kramer said. “We didn’t really acknowledge the fact that we didn’t gain any yardage in 31 plays prior to that. We knew where we were when we got in the final huddle. We knew what we had to do.

“I asked Bart about that years later, about what made him think we could go 68 yards and score a touchdown after we had made minus-nine yards on 31 plays prior to that. Bart said, ‘Jerry, I came into the huddle and started to say something. Then I looked in your eyes, I looked at Forrest’s eyes and everyone else in the huddle, and I knew I didn’t have to say anything. So all I said was, ‘Let’s go.’

Kramer said there was calm in that huddle.

“Even at that point of the game there wasn’t any panic with us,” No. 64 said. “There was a sense of urgency however. We still believed that we could do it.

“The beautiful part of that was the contribution by so many different players in that drive. Players like Chuck Mercein, Boyd Dowler and Donny Anderson.”

Anderson concurred with Kramer about what needed to be on that drive.

“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.”

The drive started with Starr completing a swing pass to Anderson which gained six yards. On the next play, Mercein ran the ball for seven more yards off tackle to the 45-yard line and near the sideline of the Packers.

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

“I remember that play well, as it was the our initial first down of the drive,” Mercein said. “That was a big confidence booster for me and the team. Because at that point, none of us had done anything in the second half. I’ll never forget because I kind of got shoved out of bounds right in front of the Green Bay bench. I could hear Coach Lombardi yell, ‘Atta boy, Chuck!’ That really brought my spirits up. It was wonderful.”

On the next play, Starr completed his only pass to a wide receiver in the drive, as Dowler caught a pass that gained 13 yards and another first down. Dowler ended up having to leave the game for a few plays, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.

Even though Dowler only caught one pass in that drive, it was his two early touchdown receptions from Starr which put the Packers in position to win the game on that drive.

After the Dowler catch, this is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Townes made another big play, as he broke through and tackled Anderson for a nine-yard loss.

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

“It was the Green Bay sweep and my responsibility was to block the defensive end there,” Mercein said. “I expected Townes to be on my outside shoulder, but he rushed inside instead, and I only was able to brush him with my left shoulder. I didn’t give him a good enough pop and he was able to get through and put us in a big hole.

I felt particularly bad about that because of my bad execution. It was the lowlight of the drive for me.”

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.”

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

It was at that point when Mercein caught a 19-yard swing pass from Starr after first conferring with No. 15.

“Sure enough, I was open just like I expected and Bart flipped the pass to me that got caught up in the wind a bit and I caught it over my outside shoulder, ” Mercein said. “I was able to outrun linebacker Dave Edwards and took the pass to the 11-yard line, plus was able to get out of bounds.”

The next play was a running play, known as a give play to Mercein.

“Bart saved that give play for the right exact time,” Mercein said. “Bart later said it was the best play call he ever made.”

On the give play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulls to the right, which then opens up a hole as defensive tackle Bob Lilly followed Gillingham down the line. Still, left tackle Bob Skoronski had to seal off defensive end George Andrie to make the play work.

“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.’

Mercein vividly recalls that run.

“The hole was great and I can still see that hole,” Mercein said. “I can still hear myself clomping down on the ice with the noise of my cleats hitting the ice. It was very loud. Forrest Gregg was coming down from the right tackle spot and if I could have cut, I think I could have scored.”

As it was, the Packers had a second and two from the three-yard line of the Cowboys. Anderson then took a hand off from Starr and to many it appeared that Anderson scored on the play. But the referee instead placed the ball about 18 inches from the goal line and it was first and goal.

“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.

This brings us to a key point of the game just before Starr carried the ball on his own on the quarterback sneak. Kramer has maintained that he knew Starr was going to carry the football.

No. 64 even wrote about that in his classic book, Instant Replay. Kramer wrote, “In the huddle, Bart said, ‘Thirty-one wedge and I’ll carry the ball.’

The problem is that no one else in the huddle heard that from Starr. And I’ve talked to Anderson, Mercein, Dowler and Carroll Dale. They all heard Starr call the 31 wedge play, but nothing about him carrying the football by himself.

That being said, I believe I have pinpointed when Starr told Kramer he was going to carry the ball himself.

If you have ever seen A Football Life – Vince Lombardi from NFL Films, Starr and Kramer talk about what happened after No. 15 called his final timeout of the game just before the sneak.

Kramer: “We take our final timeout and Bart asked me if I could make a block.”

Starr: “Can you get your footing for one more wedge play?”

Kramer: “Yeah, I think so.”

I believe it was at this moment that Starr told Kramer, and no other player on the field, that he was going to carry the ball.

Starr then went to the sideline and told Coach Lombardi that the wedge play was still the right call, but that he would carry the ball himself because the backs were slipping.

Lombardi concurred and replied, “Then run it and let’s get the hell out of here.”

I have mentioned this possible scenario to Kramer and he thought that my take was very plausible.

I can understand the confusion about the play from Kramer’s perspective. For one thing, the crucial wedge play itself was derived from film study by Kramer.

Kramer was watching film on the Cowboys and specifically regarding how they lined up in short-yardage situations.

“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.’

And little did Kramer know that the play of the game would come down to his block and the play he suggested. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure.

So when Starr called the play, first by conferring with Kramer himself, what went through the mind of No. 64?

“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.”

Bottom line, one can see how there might have been a little uncertainty from Kramer regarding how Starr called the 31 wedge play knowing the magnitude of the moment.

Speaking of the 31 wedge play, if run the way it is supposed to, it simply means that the 3-back (fullback) goes to the 1-hole (between the center and the right guard).

Which bring us to center Ken Bowman and the role he played on this block.

“I’ve analyzed that play a lot. “Bow” was there, there is no question about that,” Kramer said. “But when Jethro got up like I expected and then I got into him, the rest was a forgone conclusion. Jethro was then out of position and also out of the play. The play was over for him then.”

IMAG0498

Plus, Starr did not go in between Bowman and Kramer like the play was designed. Instead, Starr shuffled to Kramer’s right and into a hole between No. 64 and right tackle Forrest Gregg.

And as I have I written about in another article, Starr’s intuitive sense of transferring the ball from his right arm to his left on the game-winning sneak was very timely and extremely important. Especially when one sees linebacker Chuck Howley ripping at Starr’s empty right arm as he crosses the goal line.

Yes, there certainly were a number of significant details about why Starr’s quarterback sneak was successful in the “Ice Bowl” game and is now considered the greatest play in the over 100-year history of the Packers.

The Primary Reason Jerry Kramer Retired 50 Years Ago

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photo by John Biever

On May 22, 1969…Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers announced his retirement from the NFL.  The 50th anniversary of that occasion is soon coming up.

Thanks to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, we have a record of that announcement.

May 22, 1969 – Guard and author, Jerry Kramer announces his retirement from football after an 11-year career that stretches back to 1958. Kramer’s decision is not a surprise as just days earlier an advertisement on the front page of Publishers’ Weekly, a book industry journal, said as much. In promoting Kramer’s soon-to-be-released Farewell to Football, the ad hyped the book as the guard’s “inside look at the frustrating 1968 Green Bay season (and) his personal decision to give up the game he loves so much…” Packers coach and general marnager Phil Bengtson says: “He’s only 33, but apparently he felt he had so many outside interests that he couldn’t devote the time to football.”

Yes, it was true that Kramer did have a number of outside interests. But that was not the main reason that he retired.

The primary circumstance for Kramer’s retirement? The strained relationship between Kramer and offensive line coach Ray Wietecha.

Kramer explained that situation to me.

“I was struggling with Ray Wietecha, my line coach” Kramer said. “I’m having a difficult time with him because I thought he was doing some things which were stupid. And that year, Lombardi was not head coach anymore, he was just general manager.

“For instance, we are getting ready to play the Bears, and Chicago has an odd-man line. They had a defensive tackle named Dick Evey, who went about 245 pounds. They also had a middle linebacker named [Dick] Butkus, who also went about 245 or 250.

“On an odd-man line, Evey, who would normally play on my outside shoulder, moves over and plays head up on the center, where normally Butkus would line up. But on an odd-man, Butkus lines up over me. So, normally if we want to run in the hole where I am, I would block Butkus. And the center would block Evey.

“But the fullback is also in that blocking assignment. So Wietecha wants Jimmy Grabowski, who was 220 pounds with a gimpy knee, to block Butkus one on one and he wants me to double-team with the center on Evey.

“So I go up to Ray and say, ‘Why don’t you let me have Butkus and let [Ken] Bowman and Grabo take care of Evey? It’s a much stronger play that way. And Ray goes, ‘I’m the coach. I’m the coach. We are going to do things my way.’ So I tell him that it’s stupid. And he yells, ‘I’m the coach!’

“So, the next day I’m in the sauna before practice and so is Lombardi. He says, ‘Jerry, how are you running that 53?’ And I told him that Ray had me on Evey and he’s got Grabo on Butkus. Lombardi says, ‘Go talk to him.’ And I said, ‘Coach, I talked with him yesterday and got my ass chewed.’ So Coach goes, ‘Go talk to him again,’ and he pushes me on the shoulder.

“So I try to communicate with Ray and ask him about the play. I said, ‘Coach are you trying to set something up with this particular call?’ And Ray goes, ‘I’m the coach and that’s the play we are running!’ That was the end of the conversation.”

In addition to that situation, Kramer had issues with Wietecha about the spacing between the linemen on the offensive line. Spacing which had worked for Kramer and the offensive line for over a decade that Wietecha wanted to change.

The spacing changes Wietecha made did not work. By then, Kramer was about fed up.

“The whole situation was so demotivating, especially when it’s so hard to win,” Kramer said. “You can’t give things away. You can’t let the opponent know what you were going to do, whether it’s a drive block or if you are going to pull. You try to not give the defense a clue about anything. But we were telling people what we were going to do by the way we would line up.

“It just made the whole situation that much more difficult. It was just very defeating. It was hard to get your heart going and playing with conviction when we were doing something stupid. So I decided it was time for me to move on leave football.”

Besides writing another best-selling book with Dick Schaap, Kramer also did color commentary for NFL games for CBS in 1969. But in that season, Kramer got two invites to come back and play in the NFL.

The first offer came from the Los Angeles Rams and their head coach George Allen.

“I was doing television work for CBS in 1969, and George Allen called me to see if I wanted to play for the Rams,” Kramer said. “Apparently they had lost two guards to injury. So I flew out to LA and had a chat with George. He told me that he would pay me whatever I made the year before on a proactive basis, as it was the middle of the season.

“So I agreed to the thing and I went back home, but the Packers wouldn’t release me. They didn’t want the Rams to have me because they had been to the playoffs and they thought I might tell them something about the team, which might be a detriment to the Packers. So the deal never happened.”

Readers of Instant Replay may recall something which Kramer mentioned in the book.  Kramer says that as a high school senior at Sand Point, Idaho, he wrote in his yearbook that his ambition was to play professional football for the Los Angeles Rams.

After being asked to play again by the Rams, Kramer received another offer.

“I got a call from the Minnesota Vikings,” Kramer said. “Bud Grant and I always got along.  I did some television stuff with him and I liked him a lot. Bud called and said, ‘Jerry, we would love to have you come to Minnesota and play for us.’ And I said, ‘Shoot, Bud. Hollywood would have been pretty exciting. Minnesota, not so exciting. I think I’ll just stay in the booth.’

Jerry leading the sweep in Super Bowl I

Wietecha became the offensive line coach in 1965, after Bill Austin left to become the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Austin had held that position from 1959 through 1964 and the team had great success, especially in running the football.

For instance, Austin had the Packers ranked third in the NFL in toting the rock in 1959, second in 1960, first in 1961, first in 1962, second in 1963 and first again in 1964.

The signature running play for the Packers then was the power sweep which was very successful, as Kramer elaborated to me.

“Bobby, in the first three years we ran that play, we averaged I believe 8.3 yards a carry.”

The play needed the entire offensive line to be in sync. And the line was, as left tackle Bob Skoronski, left guard Fuzzy Thurston, center Jim Ringo, right guard Kramer and right tackle Forrest Gregg blocked for that play magnificently and consistently.

But things changed once Wietecha became the offensive line coach in 1965. The Packers finished 10th in rushing in the NFL that year. The Packers slightly improved that aspect of their game in 1966, as the team finished eighth in rushing.

In 1967, the Packers jumped up to second in the league in rushing, as Gale Gillingham had taken over for Thurston at left guard, while Ken Bowman and Bob Hyland split the playing time at center.

In 1968, the Packers finished 10th again in running the ball. And that’s when Kramer had just about enough regarding Wietecha’s coaching philosophy.

Kramer wasn’t the only offensive lineman who had issues with Wietecha. Hyland told me that he too had problems with his coach while he played with the Packers. Hyland was traded to the Chicago Bears in 1970.

A year later, da Bears traded Hyland to the New York Giants. Guess who the offensive line coach of the G-Men was then? You guessed it. Ray Wietecha. I think you might imagine Hyland’s reaction when he heard the news.

Somebody was listening to the complaints of Kramer, Hyland and others on the offensive line, as head coach Phil Bengtson made Gregg the offensive line coach in 1969 and moved Wietecha to running game coach.

But by the time that change was made, Kramer had already decided to move on from a life in the NFL, even with a couple other opportunities being offered down the road.

The Bart Starr Endorsement Letter for Jerry Kramer

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Back in October, I wrote an article in which Bart Starr, Jr. responded to a perception that his father did not endorse Jerry Kramer’s enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That viewpoint was out there because of some comments made by Peter King of Sports Illustrated. In fact, this is what King wrote in his MMQB mailbag chat with one of his readers, just a couple of weeks before Kramer was nominated as a senior candidate by the Seniors Selection Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 23:

Finally, a few years ago, I asked Bart Starr if there was anyone else he thought had been forgotten unjustly in the Hall process, and he said left tackle Bob Skoronski. He was effusive in his praise of Skoronski. I asked him if he wanted to mention anyone else, and he said no. Did he forget Kramer? I suppose it’s possible. But I gave him his chance, and he didn’t mention Kramer.

This was not the first time King has brought up the conversation he had with Starr either.

When I mentioned that to Bart Jr., he thought that his dad’s comment to King was misinterpreted.

Starr may have mentioned Bob Skoronski, because he felt that No. 76 was one of the unsung teammates of his who he felt deserved a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In terms of Kramer, Starr had always felt that No. 64 deserved a place in Canton and should have been inducted decades ago, when Starr and many of his teammates were inducted.

Bart Jr. also mentioned that his father had been suffering from some memory loss and dementia issues around the time of this interview with King, which also may explain his response.

Starr was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, along with teammate Forrest Gregg. Many of his Green Bay teammates followed over the next decade. Players like Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo and Paul Hornung.

That was the period in which Starr felt Kramer should have been inducted.

Starr was enshrined because of his great career in Green Bay, as he led the team to five NFL titles in seven years, which included the first two Super Bowls. Starr was the MVP in both Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

As a matter of fact, Starr is the highest-rated quarterback in NFL postseason history with a 104.8 mark. Starr led the Packers to a 9-1 record in ten games. Starr threw 15 touchdown passes versus just three picks for 1,753 yards in those 10 games.

Starr’s most famous play in the postseason involved Kramer. It was his legendary quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the 1967 NFL Championship Game (better known as the “Ice Bowl”) versus the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field.

That game was played under arctic conditions that day, as the game-time temperature was 13 degrees below zero. If you added in the wind, it was bone-chillingly cold, as there was a minus-48-degree windchill for the game. But when it counted most, with 16 seconds to go and no timeouts, Starr followed a classic block by Kramer on Jethro Pugh of the Cowboys, as he shuffled happily into the end zone, scoring the winning touchdown in the 21-17 epic win.

Back to my discussion with Bart Jr. now. A day after our conversation in October, he sent me a text which spoke to King’s comments about his father.

Hi Bob- Peter may be pleased to know that today we mailed a letter to the Hall of Fame on behalf of Jerry. Dad’s endorsement could not have been stronger or more sincere. Our entire family has been among Jerry’s greatest admirers for more than 50 years, and we look forward to celebrating with the Kramer family in Canton.

Thank you and very best wishes,

Bart Starr, Jr.

Since that letter was sent, I have received a copy of the note. Here is that heart-felt letter from Cherry Starr writing on behalf of her husband Bart.

Bart Starr letter to PFHOF

With this letter, Starr joins peers who currently have a bust in Canton like Paul Hornung, Willie Davis, Merlin Olsen, Frank Gifford, Bob Lilly, Doug Atkins, Alan Page, Bob St. Claire, Joe Schmidt, Gino Marchetti, John Mackey, Raymond Berry, Mel Renfro, Mike Ditka, Chris Hanburger, Jim Otto, Tom Mack, Dave Wilcox, Lem Barney, Chuck Bednarik and Tommy McDonald, as those who have all written notes on behalf of Kramer for his rightful induction into the hallowed halls of the best of the best in Canton.

On February 3 (the day before Super Bowl LII), the 48-person selection committee will vote on the Class of 2018 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Later that day after the voting has been finalized, this is what I envision will happen:

Kramer will 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.”

Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, Donny Anderson and Chuck Mercein Recount the Final Drive in the ‘Ice Bowl’

Bart Starr QB sneak II

This upcoming Sunday, which is New Year’s Eve, is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous games in NFL history. I’m talking about the 1967 NFL Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, better known as the “Ice Bowl” game.

It’s very apropos that the 2017 Packers will be playing this Sunday, but the NFL schedule makers got it wrong when they scheduled the Packers to play in the indoor warmth of Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, as opposed to taking on an opponent at Lambeau Field.

The forecast for this Sunday in Green Bay calls for a frigid day, as the temperature may climb to 10°, with an expected low of -13°. That’s pretty cold. But that’s still nothing like the weather conditions experienced on New Year’s Eve in Green Bay in 1967.

One never knows what will happen in the region where the Fox River connects to the bay off Lake Michigan this time of year. And on December 31, 1967, the region was given the coldest and most frigid day since they first started documenting weather conditions in Green Bay.

For the NFL title game between the Cowboys and Packers, it was shocking to find out that the game-time temperature was -13°. If you add in the wind throughout the game, the temperature plummeted to -50°.

Nice weather if you are a polar bear. But not if you are a professional football player.

The players were shocked by the weather conditions, because just the day before the game, the temperature was in the high 20s and low 30s under sunny conditions with little or no wind.

But then Sunday came.

On Friday night, NFL Network will be documenting the “Ice Bowl” in one of their Timeline specials at 9:00 ET.

I thought I would document the game as well, but mostly focus on the epic 68-yard drive that the Packers went on across the frozen tundra with less than five minutes to go in the game.

Thankfully, I have been able to talk with three of most important participants in that drive to recount what happened in those final moments of that chilling championship contest.

Those players are right guard Jerry Kramer, halfback Donny Anderson and fullback Chuck Mercein.

But before I get to that legendary drive, let’s look at what happened to set up that momentous drive which the Packers executed.

The Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, thanks to two Bart Starr touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler.

Boyd Dowler scores TD in Ice Bowl

The Packers also had a fantastic chance to increase their lead, when cornerback Herb Adderley picked off a pass from quarterback Don Meredith of the Cowboys and took it to the 32 yard line of the Cowboys in the second quarter. But the Packers squandered that opportunity and didn’t score.

Things went from bad to worse in a hurry for the Packers late in that second quarter. Starr fumbled as he was hit by defensive end Willie Townes of the Cowboys going back to pass, and the other defensive end, former Marquette star George Andrie, scooped up the ball in rumbled in for a touchdown from seven yards out with a little over four minutes to go before halftime.

Then with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Willie Wood fumbled a punt from Danny Villanueva at the 17 yard line of the Packers. That led to a 21-yard field goal by Villanueva to make the score 14-10 at halftime.

The Packers truly struggled offensively in the second half.

“We had minus-nine yards in 31 plays in the second half at one point,” Kramer said.

Then the Cowboys ended up taking a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from halfback Dan Reeves on the first play of the fourth quarter.

That remained the score when the Packers got the ball back on their own 32 yard line with just 4:50 left in the game.

Somehow the Packers were going to have to trudge 68 yards across the arctic-like football field to win the game.

It didn’t seem likely, not with the way the offense had performed in the second half.

Kramer described his mindset and that of his teammates at that moment.

“I don’t think we ever considered the possibility of losing,” Kramer said. “We didn’t really acknowledge the fact that we didn’t gain any yardage in 31 plays prior to that. We knew where we were when we got in the final huddle. We knew what we had to do.

“I asked Bart about that years later, about what made him think we could go 68 yards and score a touchdown after we had made minus-nine yards on 31 plays prior to that. Bart said, ‘Jerry, I came into the huddle and started to say something. Then I looked in your eyes, I looked at Forrest’s eyes and everyone else in the huddle, and I knew I didn’t have to say anything. So all I said was, ‘Let’s go.’

Kramer said there was calm in that huddle.

“Even at that point of the game there wasn’t any panic with us,” No. 64 said. “There was a sense of urgency however. We still believed that we could do it.

“The beautiful part of that was the contribution by so many different players in that drive. Players like Chuck Mercein, Boyd Dowler and Donny Anderson.”

Anderson concurred with Kramer about what needed to be on that drive.

“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.”

The drive started with Starr completing a swing pass to Anderson which gained six yards. On the next play, Mercein ran the ball for seven more yards off tackle to the 45-yard line and near the sideline of the Packers.

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

“I remember that play well, as it was the our initial first down of the drive,” Mercein said. “That was a big confidence booster for me and the team. Because at that point, none of us had done anything in the second half. I’ll never forget because I kind of got shoved out of bounds right in front of the Green Bay bench. I could hear Coach Lombardi yell, ‘Atta boy, Chuck!’ That really brought my spirits up. It was wonderful.”

On the next play, Starr completed his only pass to a wide receiver in the drive, as Dowler caught a pass that gained 13 yards and another first down. Dowler ended up having to leave the game for a few plays, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.

Even though Dowler only caught one pass in that drive, it was his two early touchdown receptions from Starr which put the Packers in position to win the game on that drive.

After the Dowler catch, this is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Townes made another big play, as he broke through and tackled Anderson for a nine-yard loss.

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

“It was the Green Bay sweep and my responsibility was to block the defensive end there,” Mercein said. “I expected Townes to be on my outside shoulder, but he rushed inside instead, and I only was able to brush him with my left shoulder. I didn’t give him a good enough pop and he was able to get through and put us in a big hole.

I felt particularly bad about that because of my bad execution. It was the lowlight of the drive for me.”

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.”

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

It was at that point when Mercein caught a 19-yard swing pass from Starr after first conferring with No. 15.

“Sure enough, I was open just like I expected and Bart flipped the pass to me that got caught up in the wind a bit and I caught it over my outside shoulder, ” Mercein said. “I was able to outrun linebacker Dave Edwards and took the pass to the 11-yard line, plus was able to get out of bounds.”

The next play was a running play, known as a give play to Mercein.

“Bart saved that give play for the right exact time,” Mercein said. “Bart later said it was the best play call he ever made.”

On the give play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulls to the right, which then opens up a hole as defensive tackle Bob Lilly followed Gillingham down the line. Still, left tackle Bob Skoronski had to seal off defensive end George Andrie to make the play work.

“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.’

Mercein vividly recalls that run.

“The hole was great and I can still see that hole,” Mercein said. “I can still hear myself clomping down on the ice with the noise of my cleats hitting the ice. It was very loud. Forrest Gregg was coming down from the right tackle spot and if I could have cut, I think I could have scored.”

As it was, the Packers had a second and two from the three-yard line of the Cowboys. Anderson then took a hand off from Starr and to many it appeared that Anderson scored on the play. But the referee instead placed the ball about 18 inches from the goal line and it was first and goal.

“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.’

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.

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photograph by John Biever

Center Ken Bowman also helped to move Pugh out of the way so Starr could score.

“I’ve analyzed that play a lot. “Bow” was there, there is no question about that,” Kramer said. “But when Jethro got up like I expected and then I got into him, the rest was a forgone conclusion. Jethro was then out of position and also out of the play. The play was over for him then.”

What did Kramer feel when he saw Starr laying in the end zone after his game-winning quarterback sneak?

“I turned around after the play and looked for Bart,” Kramer said. “And I saw him laying fairly close to me across the goal line, and I had an incredible sigh of relief. It was just a wonderful moment to see Bart in the end zone.”

Mercein talked about what was going through his mind when Starr called the wedge play in the huddle.

“Bart came into the huddle and called a 31 wedge play,” Mercein said. “We had put that play in earlier in the week when Jerry [Kramer] suggested it to Coach Lombardi because Jethro Pugh played high on short-yardage plays.

“We didn’t have many goal line plays. We definitely didn’t have a quarterback sneak. Anyway, when Bart made the call, I was excited. It was brown right, 31 wedge. The 3-back, me, gets the ball and goes to the 1-hole, which is in between the center and the guard.

“I take off thinking I’m going to get the ball and after one and a half steps or less, I see Bart was keeping the ball. Now I’m thinking that I can’t run into him because that would be assisting him and be a penalty. But I can’t really stop, so I go flying over the top of Bart with my hands in the air, not because I’m signalling touchdown, but to let the refs know that I wasn’t assisting Bart.”

The Starr touchdown occurred with just 13 seconds left in the game, which  gave the Packers a 21-17 victory. After the game, Kramer’s block was shown over and over again on instant replay. Because of that, Kramer made that the title of the book he and Dick Schaap had been working on during the 1967 season.

I wrote about how Instant Replay was put together in one of my many discussions with Kramer.

After that thrilling win, which was the signature moment in the legacy of the Packers under Lombardi, the players were ecstatic.

“After that game, I was interviewed by Tom Brookshier,” Kramer said. “There had been a negative article about Coach Lombardi that had come out recently from Esquire magazine. The article compared him to Mussolini and a pigeon walking around with his chest thrown out. It was just a hatchet job.

“Tommy asked me about Coach Lombardi. I had made up my mind previously to talk about him, as I heard that Coach’s mother was really upset with the article. She even cried over it.

“So when Tommy asked me about the coach and mentioned the criticism, I said, ‘People don’t understand Coach Lombardi. They don’t know him. But we know him. We understand him. And we love him. And this is one beautiful man.’

“And that still fits today. I still feel that same way.”

A few minutes later Brookshier was interviewing Lombardi himself. They were both looking at the block Kramer made on Starr’s game-winning sneak. Kramer recalls watching that interview.

“Tom says, ‘Here we see Jerry Kramer make a block on Jethro Pugh for Bart Starr’s touchdown.’ So Coach is watching the replay and he yells, ‘Way to go, Jerry! Way to go!’

“He said that with that incredible smile on his face, and he just enjoyed the hell out of it. And so did I.”

Vince at the Ice Bowl

Both Anderson and Mercein also got well deserved praise after the game as well.

In the locker room after the game, Lombardi told Anderson, “Donny, you became a man today!”

Mercein also heard some kind words from Jim Grabowski, who was the starter at fullback for the Packers before he hurt his knee midway through the 1967 season. Grabowski told Mercein after the game that he couldn’t have played any better at fullback.

In that 12-play drive, Mercein accounted for 34 of the 68 yards that the Packers traveled in that epic final journey to victory.

Anderson caught three passes for 28 yards in that drive and picked up 22 of those yards after he was tackled for a nine-yard loss by Townes.  Plus, No. 44 looked to have scored the winning touchdown at one point on his first down run from the three-yard line.

Kramer, along with Skoronski, Gillingham, Bowman and Gregg, did a yeoman’s job on the final drive with their blocking, both in the running game and the passing game.

When it was all said and done, it was No. 64’s classic block on Pugh which opened a lane for Starr to squeeze through and score the winning touchdown. That moment became the signature play of the Lombardi era. Not to mention the most famous block in NFL history.

It’s appropriate that Starr’s sneak was the signature play of the Packers under Lombardi, because it occurred on the signature drive of Green Bay with Lombardi as their head coach.

So many players were responsible for that drive. Starr, Dowler, Skoronski, Gillingham, Bowman and Gregg all certainly played a big part in the success of that victorious excursion. As did flanker Carroll Dale and tight end Marv Fleming.

But the drive probably doesn’t succeed without the work done by Kramer, Anderson and Mercein.

The victory by the Packers gave the team their third straight NFL title in the modern era, a feat that has never been duplicated by the way. Two weeks later, the Packers won their second straight Super Bowl.

But that 33-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II wouldn’t have happened without the intestinal fortitude shown by the Packers on that final heroic drive against the Cowboys on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

The Bart Starr Endorsement of Jerry Kramer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Bart and Jerry

A couple of weeks or so before Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers was nominated as a senior candidate by the Seniors Selection Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 23, Peter King of SI’s MMQB wrote this as part of his answer in a mailbag chat with one of his readers who asked about Kramer and his possible enshrinement in Canton:

Finally, a few years ago, I asked Bart Starr if there was anyone else he thought had been forgotten unjustly in the Hall process, and he said left tackle Bob Skoronski. He was effusive in his praise of Skoronski. I asked him if he wanted to mention anyone else, and he said no. Did he forget Kramer? I suppose it’s possible. But I gave him his chance, and he didn’t mention Kramer.

This was not the first time King has brought up the conversation he had with Starr.

That is why I wanted to get in touch with Bart Starr, Jr. to see if that statement to King by his father was misinterpreted.

In talking to Bart Jr., he told me that his dad may have indeed misunderstood King’s question. Starr may have mentioned Bob Skoronski, because he felt that No. 76 was one of the unsung teammates of his who he felt deserved a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In terms of Jerry Kramer, Starr had always felt that No. 64 deserved a place in Canton and should have been inducted decades ago. To Starr, that was always a given.

Bart Jr. also mentioned that his father had been suffering from some memory loss and dementia issues around the time of this interview, which also may explain his response to King.

Starr, who is now 83, was debilitated in September 2014 by two strokes and a heart attack.

Since that time, Starr has received stem cell treatment, which has definitely helped No. 15 in his rehab process. Starr is now able to speak and walk, after being at first being confined to a wheelchair due to the effects of the stroke.

That treatment and other arduous rehabilitation allowed Starr to travel from Alabama to Wisconsin to honor Brett Favre on Thanksgiving night in 2015, when the Packers played the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.

When Starr made his appearance at halftime of the game to salute Favre, it was a very emotional setting, especially knowing what Starr had overcome to just to be in Green Bay.

When I talked to Jerry Kramer about seeing that moment, he recalled it vividly.

“The thing about that setting at Lambeau on Thanksgiving that made my heart go pitty-pat, was when Bart got out of the cart to say hello to Brett,” Kramer said. “And he said, ‘Hey Mister. How are you doing, Brett?’

“That term Mister, was what Coach Lombardi you to say when he wanted to chew our ass. As in, “Mister, what in the hell are you doing?’ In the last 10 years or so, Bart has adopted that Mister term as a greeting.

“To me, hearing him say that to Brett, told me that not only was his mind working, but his memory was working as well. That really got me pretty emotional.”

In terms of Starr’s current health, the former Alabama Crimson Tide star had a setback about six months ago, but Bart Jr. told me that his father is now at the highest point he has been at this year in terms of his health.

Which is why Starr is planning to make another trip to Green Bay next weekend when the Packers play the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame will be hosting a special 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct., 21, in the Lambeau Field Atrium.

In addition to that, the event also will honor the Packers’ 1967 championship team. A number of players from that team will be at the event, which now includes Starr, as well as Kramer, Chuck Mercein, Dave Robinson, Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale, Ken Bowman, Zeke Bratkowski, Bob Long and Marv Fleming.

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

From talking with Kramer and Mercein recently, they were thrilled and elated that Starr might also be at the event.

Back now to Starr’s comments to King from a number of years ago. When I talked to Bart Jr., I wanted to see if he might be able to address that issue with King.

Yesterday, I received a text from Bart Jr. that certainly does speak to that issue.

Hi Bob- Peter may be pleased to know that today we mailed a letter to the Hall of Fame on behalf of Jerry. Dad’s endorsement could not have been stronger or more sincere. Our entire family has been among Jerry’s greatest admirers for more than 50 years, and we look forward to celebrating with the Kramer family in Canton.

Thank you and very best wishes,

Bart Starr, Jr.

That celebration will be one for the ages, as Kramer will be joining Starr, as well as other teammates like Robinson, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung, Willie Wood and Henry Jordan as having forever a place among the best of the best in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer will also be joining the man who made it all possible for he and his teammates, head coach Vince Lombardi.

Yes, it will be quite the celebration on that August summer day in Canton in 2018. You can be very sure, that I also plan on being there for that epic event.

Green Bay Packers: Catching Up with “Ice Bowl” Hero Chuck Mercein

Chuck Mercein I

We are nearing the 50th anniversary of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl”, when the Dallas Cowboys met the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field on December 31, 1967.

It’s apropos that the Packers and Cowboys would meet during the 2017 NFL season, although the meeting will take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington this upcoming Sunday.

It’s very possible that both teams will meet again in the postseason later on, just like they have done twice in the past three seasons. And you never know, that game could take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

I had an opportunity to talk with two of the stars for the Packers on that extremely cold day on New Year’s Eve in 1967, guard Jerry Kramer and fullback Chuck Mercein.

I talked with Kramer first and we talked about the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl”, especially about that epic 12-play, 68-yard drive to win the game in the final seconds, 21-17.

What made that drive even more remarkable, was that up until that point, the Packers had run 31 plays for -9 yards in the second half before that incredible march of the frozen tundra started.

While we discussed the drive, Kramer talked about the many players who came up big in that drive. Obviously there was quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Donny Anderson, wide receiver Boyd Dowler, left tackle Bob Skoronski and Kramer himself.

Plus, there was also Mercein. In fact, Mercein picked up 34 of the 68 yards in that extraordinary drive just by himself.

Kramer certainly remembered how important No. 30 was for the Packers in that drive.

“Chuck was huge in that drive for us,” Kramer said. “He went to Yale and he had the intellect to prove it. Plus, Chuck was a tough kid and he was strong. In fact, he threw the shot put 61 feet one time. That was  stunning. I set a state record in high school in Idaho in the shot put with a toss of 51 feet, 10 inches. And Chuck beat that by 10 feet.

“Chuck made a number of big plays for us in that drive. Hell, Chuck came up big for us the week before in the playoff game against the Rams as well. I remember Chuck talking to Bart shortly after he missed Willie Townes on a block and Donny was tackled for a big loss. That was the first time I recall Chuck ever talking to Bart in the huddle.

“Chuck told Bart that the linebacker was going back really deep and that he would be open on a swing pass because of all the room he was given. Sure enough, Bart throws a swing pass to Chuck that gains 19 yards. That was a really key play for us in that drive.”

Later in the evening, I had an opportunity to talk with Mercein. Not only to talk about the “Ice Bowl”, but also his strange set of circumstances joining the NFL and also the Packers.

Mercein came into pro football in 1965, which was a point in time when the NFL and AFL were bidding against each other for the top players in college football.

Mercein was certainly that coming out of Yale, which is why he was named to the College All-Star squad to play against the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1965. Mercein score 10 points in that game, as he also kicked as well as playing fullback.

Mercein talked to me about the ongoing process of bidding for his services between the two leagues.

“I knew the Buffalo Bills were going to draft me in the AFL to replace Cookie Gilchrist, who was going to retire,” Mercein said. “I was already in discussions with the Bills before the NFL draft even took place.

“So when the NFL draft did take place, my phone rang right away in the first round around the eight or ninth spot in the draft, when I talked to William Ford, who owned the Detroit Lions. He told me that he wanted me to play fullback for the Lions, because Nick Pietrosante was retiring. I thought that was very fortuitous, because it looked like I would be able to play right away there.

“The first question Ford asked me was whether I had been talking to the AFL at all. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t have an agent then. None of us had agents then. I was very open and honest with him. He also asked if I had signed anything. I said no. He then asked where I was in my negotiations with the Bills.

“I was frank with him. I said that the Bills had offered me a three-year, no-cut contract, with $25,000 per year in salary and $25,000 a year in bonuses. So basically it was for three years and $150,000.

“And Ford says, ‘No, we could never pay that!’ I said that I didn’t understand his position. Ford then told me he wasn’t going to get into a bidding war with the AFL. So then I asked him what he would offer me. Ford said he could give me one year with $25,000 in salary and $25,000 in bonuses.

“I mean, I was married with a kid coming in August, so I told him him if that was his best offer, not to draft me. So, he didn’t. The Lions took Tom Nowatzke instead. Anyway, the phone didn’t ring at all again in the first round, so I was a little upset. It didn’t ring in the second round either. Finally I get a call in the third round at the the first pick of that round by the New York Giants.

“Wellington Mara (owner of the Giants) told me that Alex Webster was retiring and he wanted me to replace him. I was a bit wary at that time. So I told Mr. Mara that I had heard this before and that if he wasn’t going to compete with the offer I received from the Bills, then we should stop right there. I gave him the terms and Mara said that he would compete with that offer.

“Wow, I was excited. I then asked him one more question. I asked why the Giants took Tucker Frederickson, who also played fullback, in the first round and then wanted to take me. Mara told me that Allie Sherman (head coach of the Giants) told him that Frederickson was going to play halfback (because Frank Gifford had just retired) and that I was going to play fullback. So I said great and I thought I was all set.”

Things didn’t turn out quite the way Mercein had planned playing under Sherman in New York. For one thing, Frederickson did not play halfback for the Giants, but instead played fullback, which made Mercein his backup.

Right away Mercein had been misled by the Giants. But it was not the fault of the owner.

“That did not happen because of Wellington Mara, who was not that person. He was very honest and was a great guy. He was really wonderful to me and helped get me over to Green Bay when he recommended me to Coach Lombardi.

“It was all Sherman. I never trusted him again after that. He also wasn’t that happy with me because I went to Yale instead of a bigger program. I did have over 50 offers from from various schools, including those in the Big 10, but I liked Yale because of their standards academically and the fact that they were undefeated  my senior year in high school. Plus a good friend of mine, Mike Pyle, was on that team.”

In his rookie year with the Giants, Mercein rushed for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns, plus kicked a field goal.

In his second season with the G-Men in 1966, Mercein led the team in rushing with 327 yards, plus caught 27 passed for 152 yards. All that happened while Mercein was hurt for half of the year.

Even with the nice year Mercein had in 1966, Sherman didn’t give Mercein a fair shake in 1967 competing for playing time and instead cut the fullback at the end of training camp.

Mercein was later brought back to the Giants, but only to be used as a kicker. Sherman told Mercein that if he missed a kick he would be waived again. Mercein made an extra point on his first kicking attempt, but because the Giants were holding, it didn’t count and the next attempt was 15 yards further out. As luck would have it, Mercein missed the kick and his time with the Giants was over.

Mercein was all set to sign with the Washington Redskins after his release by the Giants, as he had played for head coach Otto Graham in the College All-Star game, but before that could happen, he received a call from Wellington Mara.

The night Mara called was the same day that both halfback Elijah Pitts and fullback Jim Grabowski were lost for the season with injuries when the Packers played the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium in Week 8.

Chuck Mercein III

“So the phone rings and it’s Wellington Mara,” Mercein said. “He told me that he had heard that I was talking to the Washington Redskins about playing with them. He was also very apologetic about what happened with me in New York. Anyway, he said if I didn’t sign anything, that he had recommended me to Vince Lombardi and that he was interested in bringing me to Green Bay. Mara told me the next call I would be getting would be from Lombardi himself.

“Sure enough five minutes later, Lombardi calls. It was quite something. It was like the voice of God on the other end of the phone, as I had so much respect for him as a coach and the Packers as a team. Lombardi was very frank about everything and he said that the Packers could really use my help. He also said that I could help the team win another championship.

“I told Coach Lombardi that I would be thrilled to join the team. After I hung up, I told my wife to unpack the car because we were going to play for the Green Bay Packers.”

The Packers were 6-1-1 when Mercein joined the team and were well on the way to winning the NFL Central division championship.

After the season-ending injuries to Pitts and Grabowski, the Packers utilized Anderson and rookie Travis Williams at halfback, while Ben Wilson and Mercein split time at fullback.

It’s amazing to know that even with the loss of Pitts and Grabowski, plus knowing that this was the first year under Lombardi that both fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung were no longer in Green Bay, that the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.

Mercein was embraced by Lombardi and his teammates on the Packers when he came aboard the team.

“Right away, Lombardi welcomed me,” Mercein said. “I had to earn his trust, obviously. It wasn’t easy at first, but the players were very welcoming and it was just a wonderful time.”

By the end of the season and into the postseason, Mercein became the starting fullback. In the Western Conference Championship Game at Milwaukee County Stadium versus the Los Angeles Rams, Mercein scored on a six-yard run in the Green Bay’s 28-7 victory over the Rams.

No. 30 also helped open some holes for Williams, who received most of the playing time at halfback, as the “Roadrunner” rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns.

That set up the NFL title game the next Sunday at Lambeau Field versus the Cowboys. Unlike the game against the Rams, Lombardi gave most of the playing time at halfback to Anderson, instead of Williams. Mercein remained the starter at fullback.

The 1967 NFL title game was later nicknamed the “Ice Bowl” because it was extremely cold that day in Green Bay, as the game-time temperature was 13 degrees below zero.

If you added the wind, it was bone-chillingly cold, as there was a minus-48-degree windchill for the game.

The Packers the jumped to an early 14-0 lead as Starr threw two touchdown passes to Dowler. But fumbles by Starr and punt returner Willie Wood led to 10 points by the Cowboys and the score was only 14-10 at the half.

The Packers couldn’t do anything in the second half until their final drive, while the Cowboys were moving up and down the field. Thankfully the defense of the Packers, led by linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, kept Dallas out of the end zone in the third quarter.

But on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ended up taking a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Dan Reeves on a halfback option pass.

That was the score when the Packers started their 68-yard trek down the frozen tundra of Lambeau Filed with just 4:50 remaining in the game.

The drive started with Starr completing a swing pass to Anderson which gained six yards. On the next play, Mercein ran the ball for seven more yards off tackle to the 45-yard line and near the sideline of the Packers.

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

“I remember that play well, as it was the our initial first down of the drive,” Mercein said. “That was a big confidence booster for me and the team. Because at that point, none of us had done anything in the second half. I’ll never forget because I kind of got shoved out of bounds right in front of the Green Bay bench. I could hear Coach Lombardi yell, ‘Atta boy, Chuck!’ That really brought my spirits up. It was wonderful.”

On the next play, Starr completed his only pass to a wide receiver in the drive, as Dowler caught a pass that gained 13 yards and another first down. Dowler ended up having to leave the game for a bit, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.

This is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Defensive end Willie Townes broke through and tackled Anderson for a nine-yard loss.

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

“It was the Green Bay sweep and my responsibility was to block the defensive end there,” Mercein said. “I expected Townes to be on my outside shoulder, but he rushed inside instead, and I only was able to brush him with my left shoulder. I didn’t give him a good enough pop and he was able to get through and put us in a big hole.

I felt particularly bad about that because of my bad execution. It was the lowlight of the drive for me.”

Mercein would make up for that mistake soon enough, however.

First though, Starr completed two swing passes to Anderson which gained 21 yards to the 30-yard line of the Cowboys and another first down by the Packers.

It was at that point when Mercein caught the 19-yard swing pass from Starr after first conferring with No. 15.

“Sure enough, I was open just like I expected and Bart flipped the pass to me that got caught up in the wind a bit and I caught it over my outside shoulder, ” Mercein said. “I was able to outrun linebacker Dave Edwards and took the pass to the 11-yard line, plus was able to get out of bounds.”

The next play was a running play, known as a give play to Mercein.

“Bart saved that give play for the right exact time,” Mercein said. “Bart later said it was the best play call he ever made.”

On the give play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulls to the right, which then opens up a hole as defensive tackle Bob Lilly followed Gillingham down the line. Still, left tackle Bob Skoronski had to seal off defensive end George Andrie to make the play work.

“The hole was great and I can still see that hole,” Mercein said. “I can still hear myself clomping down on the ice with the noise of my cleats hitting the ice. It was very loud. Forrest Gregg was coming down from the right tackle spot and if I could have cut, I think I could have scored.”

As it was, the Packers had a second and two from the three-yard line of the Cowboys. Anderson than took a hand off from Starr and to many it appeared that Anderson scored on the play. But the referee instead placed the ball about 18 inches from the goal line and it was first and goal.

Then on two straight dive plays, Anderson slipped both times trying to score and didn’t get in. It was now third and goal when the Packers called their final timeout with just 16 seconds to go in the game.

Bart Starr QB sneak II

I’ll let Mercein explain what happened next.

“Bart came into the huddle and called a 31 wedge play,” Mercein said. “We had put that play in earlier in the week when Jerry [Kramer] suggested it to Coach Lombardi because Jethro Pugh played high on short-yardage plays.

“We didn’t have many goal line plays. We definitely didn’t have a quarterback sneak. Anyway, when Bart made the call, I was excited. It was brown right, 31 wedge. The 3-back, me, gets the ball and goes to the 1-hole, which is in between the center and the guard.

“I take off thinking I’m going to get the ball and after one and a half steps or less, I see Bart was keeping the ball. Now I’m thinking that I can’t run into him because that would be assisting him and be a penalty. But I can’t really stop, so I go flying over the top of Bart with my hands in the air, not because I’m signalling touchdown, but to let the refs know that I wasn’t assisting Bart.”

The Packers won the game 21- 17 on that legendary play as Starr was able to find his way into the end zone behind Kramer’s classic block on Pugh.

After the game, Mercein heard some kind words from Grabowski, who said that he couldn’t have played any better at fullback.

That victory put the Packers in Super Bowl II in Miami, where they would be facing the AFL champion Oakland Raiders.

Now one would think that Mercein would be starting again at fullback for the Packers, especially after playing so well against the Rams and Cowboys.

But shortly before the game, Mercein heard some very disappointing news from his head coach, who said Wilson would be starting at fullback instead.

“I was terribly disappointed,” Mercein said. “I didn’t understand why. I knew I was a little banged up. But Coach was a real hunch player and it was hot down there in Miami  and it was the kind of weather that Ben Wilson was used to playing in, as he had played at USC.

“Plus, Ben was fresh and he hadn’t played a lot. So it was just a hunch, but it turned out to be the right hunch as Ben had a big game.”

The Packers beat the Raiders 33-14 and Wilson led the Packers in rushing with 65 yards.

Looking back on that year with the Packers, there are a lot of fond memories for Mercein.

“The 1967 season for the Packers was a team effort,” Mercein said. “Coach Lombardi made that team what it was. He was the difference. He made us all better. He made me better. Bart better. Jerry better. Boyd better. That’s what a great coach does. He takes players and makes them better than they thought they could be.”

Jerry Kramer Talks About Bob Skoronski

Bob Skoronski blocks for Jim Taylor in the 1966 NFL title game

Bob Skoronski blocks for fullback Jim Taylor in the 1966 NFL Championship Game.

Like the 1958 draft class of the Green Bay Packers, which I wrote about three months ago, the team also hit gold in the 1956 draft class.

This was all due to the great scouting which was done by Jack Vainisi.

Like he 1958 draft class, the selections that Vainisi made in 1956 were outstanding. Like 1958, Vainisi was able to select two players who would eventually be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They would be right tackle Forrest Gregg (second round) and quarterback Bart Starr (17th round).

Starr won five NFL championships as a quarterback, which only Tom Brady has been able to equal. In addition, Starr quarterbacked the Packers to wins in the first two Super Bowls, winning MVP in each game.

Starr was also the league MVP in 1966, plus led the NFL in passing three times. Starr is probably best remembered for his thrilling quarterback sneak with 13 seconds remaining in the legendary “Ice Bowl” on Dec. 31, 1967.

Starr was named All-Pro four times and was also named to the Pro Bowl four times. Starr was 9-1 as a playoff QB. Starr also had his number retired (No. 15) by the Packers.

In his book Run To Daylight, Vince Lombardi said, “Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached!”  Gregg played 14 seasons for the Packers. Gregg was the key staple in the offensive line during the Lombardi years which included such greats as Jim Ringo, Jerry Kramer, Fuzzy Thurston and Bob Skoronski.

However, only Gregg and Ringo are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which to many is a travesty, especially because of Kramer’s omission. Gregg was also named All-Pro nine times and was named to the Pro Bowl nine times as well.

Vainisi was also able to select two very solid starters in left tackle Skoronski  and defensive back Hank Gremminger in the 1956 draft, and both started for the Packers for 10 years or more.

All told, Vainisi drafted six players during his tenure in Green Bay who ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were Ringo, Gregg, Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke.

Back to the class of 1956 and specifically Skoronski. Not only did Skoronski play 11 years in the NFL with the Packers, but he was also one of the team’s captains, along with Willie Davis.

Bob Skoronski and Willie Davis before Super Bowl I.jpg

Skoronski was as steady as they came at left tackle, but was never named All-Pro and went to only one Pro Bowl. Skoronski also filled in at center during the 1964 season.

But even with the lack of recognition, Skoronski was appreciated by his coaches and teammates. One of those teammates was Kramer. I had another opportunity recently to speak with Kramer and we talked about the former Indiana Hoosier.

The play that epitomizes Skoronski’s mindset to Kramer happened in the “Ice Bowl” game at Lambeau Field.  The play happened on that legendary 12-play drive, when the Packers drove 68 yards down the icy field with just 4:50 remaining in the game to score the game-winning touchdown on Starr’s quarterback sneak.

But before Starr’s sneak, there was a key play just moments before. It was first and ten for the Packers at the 11-yard line of the Cowboys. Starr called a give play to fullback Chuck Mercein. For that particular play to be successful, a couple of things had to happen.

On the play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulled right. The Packers were hoping that defensive tackle Bob Lilly would vacate his position and follow Gillingham. That indeed happened.

But Skoronski would also need to make a key block on defensive end George Andrie to give Mercein a hole to run through.

Kramer talked about that play to me.

“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.’

Mercein picked up eight yards on the play, and the Packers now had the ball at the 3-yard line of the Cowboys.

“That was a huge play,” Kramer said. “I also loved Bob’s answer when Bart asked him if he could make the block. It was an absolute answer. It wasn’t a ‘Gee, I think I can.’ Or ‘Gee, I’ll give it my best shot.’ Instead it was a definite and resounding yes.

“There was absolute confidence from Ski about making that block. It was, ‘You can count on me.’ And Bob didn’t fail us.”

Bob Skoronski's key block in the Ice Bowl

Kramer then talked about Skoronski the man.

“Ski is a wonderful human being. A lovely man,” Kramer said. “Very bright. An exceptional family man.”

But when it came to football, Skoronski didn’t not like criticism from his coaches, especially from head coach Vince Lombardi.

“Ski didn’t like to be chewed,” Kramer said. “He didn’t mind if Coach didn’t applaud him all the time either. Ski was just comfortable being himself and doing his job. And he did his job well, which is one of the reasons he was a team captain.”

Kramer remembered an incident in which Skoronski had to feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield while the team was looking at film.

“So we are at this meeting looking at film and Coach Lombardi sees that Skoronski does something,” Kramer said. “Coach can’t think of Skoronski’s name though. So he goes, ‘No. 76, what the hell are you doing there!’

After the meeting Ski goes, ‘Jesus Christ! I’ve been here for eight years and he can’t even remember my name.’

Kramer also remembers a dinner when No. 64 was the emcee. Kramer introduced Skoronski at the event.

“I said that Bob was probably the best lineman on the team,” Kramer said. “Ski got the best grades from the coaches. I also said that Bob was a hell of a football player. I mentioned that he was also our captain. I also talked about the “Ice Bowl” play. I just gave him a very nice introduction.

“Later, after Bob spoke, he came up to me and said, ‘Jerry, that was really a beautiful introduction. That was really nice. I really appreciate that. You meant it, didn’t you?’

“Can you imagine hearing that? Ski was always a bit suspicious when he was complimented. But for those of us who played with him, Ski was most definitely appreciated.”

Why Jerry Kramer Belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Jerry on a knee

Around the third week of August, the Senior Selection Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will make their one and only Senior nomination for possible inclusion for the Class of 2017 in Canton.

Normally there are two Senior candidates nominated, but this year there will be two Contributor nominees, which is part of a five-year temporary process which allows a Contributor- defined as an individual who has “made outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching”, a chance to get in the Hall of Fame.

This is the third year of this process, which allows two Contributor finalists in years one (starting with the Class of 2015), three and five, of the next five years. In years two and four of that same period, there will be just one Contributor finalist. At the end of the five-year period, the number of Contributor finalists going forward will be one per year.

To keep the maximum number of nominees elected at no more than eight per year, the Senior finalists will be reduced from two to one per year in years one, three and five of the same five-year period. In years two and four and each year thereafter, there will be two Senior finalists, as is now the practice.

I’ve talked to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who happens to be on both the Senior Select Committee and the Contributor Committee and he disagrees with this current process. Gosselin believes that there are far too many Senior candidates who deserve a bust in the Hall of Fame, as opposed to the number of Contributors who the Hall of Fame should consider.

One of those Senior candidates is Jerry Kramer.

There is absolutely no doubt that Kramer had a superb 11-year career with the Green Bay Packers. Not just in the regular season, but also in the postseason when the lights are the brightest and the pressure to win is extremely high.

Especially when your head coach was named Vince Lombardi.

In his career with the Packers, Kramer was a five-time (first team) All-Pro and was also named to three Pro Bowls. No. 64 would have had even more honors if not for injuries and illness. Kramer missed half of the 1961 season due to a broken ankle and almost all of the 1964 season due to an intestinal ailment which took nine operations to resolve.

Kramer was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s, plus he was also a member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team in 1969, where he was the lone offensive guard on that illustrious squad.

Kramer is the only member of that 50th anniversary first team not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer also played a large role in the success that the Packers had under Lombardi in the postseason. The Packers were 9-1 under Lombardi in the playoffs, which included five NFL championships in seven years. That included victories in the first two Super Bowls.

In addition to that, the Packers became the only team in the modern NFL to win three straight NFL titles, when Green Bay won it all in 1965, 1966 and 1967.

No. 64 played a big part in a number of those championship game victories.

In the 1962 NFL Championship Game versus the New York Giants at cold and windy Yankee Stadium, Kramer doubled as a right guard and as placekicker. Kramer booted three field goals on a very difficult day to kick, as some wind gusts were over 40 mph during the contest.

Kramer scored 10 points in the 16-7 victory for the Packers, plus helped lead the way for fullback Jimmy 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.

In the 1965 NFL Championship Game versus the Cleveland Browns at snowy and muddy Lambeau Field, Kramer and his teammates on the offensive line had a sensational day.

The Packers rushed for 204 yards behind Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Kramer and fellow guard Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders so 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.

In the 1966 NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Packers outlasted the Cowboys 34-27. Kramer and the rest of the offensive line had a large impact in that victory, as quarterback Bart Starr threw for 304 yards and had four touchdown passes, plus the running game picked up an additional 102 yards.

In the 1967 NFL Championship Game (better known as the “Ice Bowl”) versus the Cowboys at frigid Lambeau Field, Kramer made the most famous block in the history of the NFL.

The playing surface that day was truly a frozen tundra, as the game-time temperature was 13 below zero.

Jerry's block on Jethro

In the closing moments of the game, down by a score of 17-14,  the Packers had to drive 68 yards down the frozen field to either tie or win the game.

It all came down to 13 seconds to go with no timeouts at the 1-yard line of the Cowboys. The Packers could have kicked a field goal at that point to tie the game at 17-17.

But coach Lombardi decided to go for the win. If the Packers run the ball and are stopped short of the end zone, the game is over.

Starr called a 31-wedge play in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, Starr decided to keep the ball after conferring with Lombardi on the sideline about the play.

Starr thought it would be better to try to get into the end zone himself due to the slippery and icy conditions near the goal line. He followed Kramer’s classic block on Jethro Pugh and found a hole behind No. 64 to score the winning touchdown.

When one looks back on the consistent success of those great Green Bay teams under Lombardi, there are two points which have to be made.

The power sweep was obviously the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi. Plus, Starr’s quarterback sneak with just seconds remaining in the “Ice Bowl”, had to be the signature moment of the Lombardi legacy.

Kramer played a prominent role in both of those instances.

Even with all that, Kramer has not yet been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Between 1974 and 1987, Kramer was a finalist for induction into Canton nine times. That in itself tells you that Kramer was a tremendous player.

But as this was going on, a lot of Kramer’s teammates with the Packers were getting inducted. This included players like Taylor, Starr, Hornung, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis and Jim Ringo.

But Kramer’s name was never called for induction. In 1989, another former teammate was inducted. Safety Willie Wood finally heard his name called, after also being a finalist nine times, just like Kramer.

In all, Kramer has seen 11 of his former teammates get inducted, as well as his legendary head coach, yet Kramer still waits.

In 1997, Kramer was a Senior finalist, but once again he did not get the votes necessary for induction. So, why is that?

It’s hard to fathom the reasons why. It really is. But let’s try. Cliff Christl, who was the long-time Green Bay representative as a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is now the official historian for the Packers, wrote an article in 2014 which attempted to give the reasons why Kramer has not yet been inducted.

Basically, here are the reasons that Christl has heard through the grapevine as to why Kramer is still not in Canton:

1) There are too many Lombardi-era Packers are already in the Hall of Fame.

2) Kramer may have struggled against Merlin Olsen and Alex Karras.

3) Kramer may not be the best Lombardi-era offensive linemen not in the Hall of Fame.

Let me address each point.

As to the issue that there are too many Lombardi-era Packers in Canton, I have already addressed just how important Kramer was to the success for the Packers, not just in the regular season, but also in the postseason.

One could make an argument that the Packers don’t win the 1962 and 1967 NFL title games if it wasn’t for the great contribution by Kramer. How would the great legacy of Lombardi and his Packers look if they only won three NFL championships in seven years, as opposed to five?

The three field goals that Kramer kicked in very gusty conditions in the 1962 title game at Yankee Stadium were the difference in the outcome of that 16-7 game.

Plus there wouldn’t have been the three straight NFL titles without that epic block by Kramer in the “Ice Bowl” as the closing seconds of that classic game were running down.

In terms of struggling versus Olsen and Karras, I would disagree. First off, both Olsen and Karras were the two best defensive tackles in the NFL in the 1960s. That is why they are on the All-Decade team at that position, along with Bob Lilly of the Cowboys. But Kramer was also on that team at right guard and he had nice success against both Olsen and Karras.

Yes, there were times when the two got the best of Kramer, but that is what they did on a consistent basis with all the right guards in the NFL. In the games where Kramer was matched up against Karras, the Packers won nine games, lost five and tied three with Detroit. The Lions were the biggest threat to Green Bay in the early 1960s, as they finished second to the Packers in the Western Division three straight years from 1960-1962.

Merlin Olsen vs. the Pack

When Kramer and the Packers went up against Olsen and his Los Angeles Rams in the regular season, Green Bay won seven games and lost just three against the Rams. Plus, the Packers also beat the Rams 28-7 in the 1967 Western Conference Championship Game in Milwaukee. Kramer did not allow a sack to Olsen in that game, plus the Packers piled up 163 rushing yards and 222 passing yards.

Plus there is the fact that both Olsen and Karras have endorsed Kramer for the Hall of Fame.

Olsen is considered by many to be the best defensive tackle of all time. Olsen went to 14 Pro Bowls, which is the all-time NFL record shared by Bruce Matthews, the uncle of Clay Matthews of the Packers.

Olsen was named AP All-Pro nine times in his career as well.

In his endorsement of Kramer to the Hall, Olsen says:

“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.”

There are also quite a number of Kramer’s contemporaries who are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who likewise believe Kramer belongs in Canton. Randy Simon has put together a great book that shows all the endorsements.

They come from teammates like Starr, Hornung and Davis, along with players like Lilly, Frank Gifford, Chuck Bednarik, Doug Atkins, Alan Page, Joe Schmidt, John Mackey, Raymond Berry, Mel Renfro, Mike Ditka, Jim Otto, Tom Mack, Dave Wilcox, Tommy McDonald and Lem Barney.

In addressing the final point that Christl mentioned in his story about whether Kramer may not be the best Lombardi-era offensive linemen not in the Hall of Fame, I would fervently disagree.

I certainly agree that Thurston was an excellent left guard for the Packers. In his career, Fuzzy was an AP All-Pro once, but he unbelievably never went to a Pro Bowl. Bob Skoronski was a solid left tackle in Green Bay but was never All-Pro and only went to one Pro Bowl. Both Thurston and Skoronski were very good offensive linemen for the Packers, but they were not up to the level of Kramer overall.

Now guard Gale Gillingham did have a Hall of Fame career in my opinion. He was All-Pro a number of times and went to five Pro Bowls. Most of that was done after Lombardi left Green Bay, however.

As much as Gillingham deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kramer needs to get in first for all he has accomplished, much of which was done well before Gillingham became a starter in 1967.

The bottom line is that Jerry Kramer should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame decades ago along with the rest of his teammates. No. 64’s importance and contributions to those great Packer teams under Lombardi have been noted.

Until the Senior Selection Committee and the rest of the voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame right this wrong about Kramer and his place in NFL history, there will always be a dark cloud which will hover over that prestigious building in Canton.

Gosselin said this about the issue in one of his chats with his readers at the Dallas Morning News:

“I think Jerry Kramer is the biggest oversight in Canton — if only for the fact that the Hall of Fame selection committee voted him the best guard in the first 50 years of the NFL. Yet he’s gone before that committee something like 10 times and can’t get the votes for induction. It becomes a credibility issue. If you’re going to tell us a player is the best at his position in the first 50 years of the game then not stand behind that selection when it comes time to hand out busts…why even pick an all-half century team?”

I couldn’t have said it better, Rick.

The NFL’s 50th anniversary team was named 47 years ago. Kramer became eligible for induction five years later. That means Kramer has patiently waited 42 years for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to open it’s doors for him.

Vince and Jerry IV

Kramer has remained classy and stoic throughout this ordeal. When I talked with him recently, Kramer told me that he sees the glass as half-full, talking about his football life and his time with Coach Lombardi.

“I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that it’s [his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame] not going to happen,” Kramer said. “I’ve gotten along fine without it. I still feel that…I’m going to pull a Lou Gehrig on you…that I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world.

“The opportunity to play for Coach Lombardi and the timing of it was just so perfect. I arrived one year before him, played nine years with him as coach and then one year while he was the GM. I was really able to watch his impact and learn from his philosophies, beliefs and principles. It was as much an education, as it was an experience.

“I was very fortunate to have been a part of that.”

Speaking of Coach Lombardi, and before I spoke to Kramer, I found a quote from Lombardi talking about Kramer from a 1969 article in the Chicago Tribune.

“Jerry Kramer is the best guard in the league,” Lombardi said. “Some say the best in the history of the game.”

I told Kramer about that quote and asked if he had heard it before.

“I think I have,” Kramer said. “But coming from that source, it’s always nice to hear it again.”

I only wish the Senior Selection Committee and the rest of the voters at the Pro Football Hall of Fame would heed the words of Lombardi and many, many others. Besides all the great salutations Kramer has received from his peers, the bottom line is that he was the best player at his position when he played in the NFL.

Not just in the regular season, but in the bright lights of the postseason as well when his team was so dominant. Kramer played a huge role in championship legacy of the Packers in the 1960s.

Which is why he was named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team in 1969.

It is high time that Kramer gets the honor which he so richly deserves. That being, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a place where the best of the best get recognized.

And Kramer was the best of the best.

Green Bay Packers: Remembering Scout Jack Vainisi

Vince and Jack

Vince Lombardi with Jack Vainisi

We are exactly one week away from the 2016 NFL draft. General manager Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the preparation for this year’s draft.

Per his usual routine when he speaks with the media, Thompson kept things very general about how he and his scouting staff prepare for the draft.

“We try to draft the best player available,” Thompson said. “We think it’s important to stay focused and try to take the best player. I think that from a personal standpoint. Situation about needs isn’t normally a temporary one. As long as you’re taking really good players and best players you can identify, then you’re in some respects you’re able to stay a little bit in front of the curve. There can be some of both. You can be in a position where this solves problem A on our roster, but he’s also the best player available. If you get lucky where you can address both – if it comes to one or the other, I prefer to take the best player.”

Thompson also talked about when his scouts get together to discuss the upcoming draft. Counting Eliot Wolf, who is now Director of Football Operations, there are 16 people in the scouting department.

“It’s good. It’s not always comfortable because there are disagreements where people, rightfully so, think differently. They’re paid to do so. They’re encouraged by everybody, myself included, to make sure their voices are heard. … You still want to have the passion and energy to stand on the table and say, ‘This is what we need to do, and this is the reason we need to do it,’ Thompson said.

Back in 1950s, only one voice was heard in the scouting department of the Packers. That’s because one man pretty much did all the scouting. That man’s name was Jack Vainisi.

Vainisi was the talent scout for the Packers from 1950-1960. In those 10 years, Vainisi picked six players for the Packers who would eventually be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers.

Vainisi did a terrific job overall in his scouting, but he had two draft classes which were certainly among the best in the history of the Packers, if not the NFL.

In 1956, Vainisi and the Packers selected two future Hall of Famers. Those players were right tackle Forrest Gregg (2nd round) and quarterback Bart Starr (17th round).

Starr won five NFL championships as a quarterback, more than any other quarterback in NFL history. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady have all won four championships, but Starr is still all alone with five titles. In addition, Starr quarterbacked the Packers to wins in the first two Super Bowls, winning MVP in each game.

Starr was also the league MVP in 1966, plus led the NFL in passing three times. Starr is probably best remembered for his thrilling quarterback sneak with 13 seconds remaining in the legendary Ice Bowl.

Bart Starr QB Sneak in Ice Bowl

Starr was named All-Pro four times and was also named to the Pro Bowl four times. Starr was 9-1 as a playoff QB. Starr also had his number retired (No. 15) by the Packers.

In his book Run To Daylight, Lombardi said, “Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached!” Gregg played 14 seasons for the Packers.

Gregg was named All-Pro nine times and was named to the Pro Bowl nine times as well.

Also in this draft, Vainisi was able to select two very solid starters in left tackle Bob Skoronski and defensive back Hank Gremminger, both of whom started for the Packers for 10 years or more.

As good as the 1956 draft class was, the 1958 class that Vainisi selected was even better.

In the first round, the Packers selected linebacker Dan Currie. In the second round, the Packers selected fullback Jim Taylor. In the third round, the Packers selected linebacker Ray Nitschke. In the fourth round, the Packers selected right guard Jerry Kramer.

All four of those players had excellent careers in the NFL, with two of them (Taylor and Nitschke) getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are many, including myself, who believe Kramer should also be in Canton based on his outstanding NFL resume.

Taylor is the second all-time rushing leader for the Packers with 8,207 yards. Taylor also scored 91 touchdowns in his career, including 19 in 1962, the year Taylor was named MVP in the NFL.

Taylor was named All-Pro six times and was also named to the Pro Bowl five times. No. 31 led the team in rushing seven times, and also led the NFL in rushing in 1962. He probably would have led the league a few more times if not for the presence of the great Jim Brown in his era.

Taylor had five seasons of 1,000 yards or more, plus gained over 100 yards in a game 26 times.

Nitschke was the face of the defense in the Lombardi era, which was then coordinated by Phil Bengtson. No. 66 also played in an era that had some excellent middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Bill George and Joe Schmidt.

Nitschke was named All-Pro six times and was named to only one Pro Bowl squad for some ridiculous reason. Nitschke was also MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants, as he deflected one pass for an interception and also recovered two fumbles.

No. 66 also had his number retired by the Packers.

Currie was All-Pro three times and was selected to one Pro Bowl. Currie was later traded to the Los Angeles Rams for wide receiver Carroll Dale in 1965.

Kramer was first-team All-Pro five times and was named to three Pro Bowl teams. He was also named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary first-team. Kramer is the ONLY member of that squad not in Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer also kicked three fields goals in the windy and chilly conditions at Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL Championship game. Those three field goals were the difference in the game, as the Packers beat the Giants, 16-7. No. 64 received a game ball for his efforts on that blustery day.

Jerry's game ball from 1962 NFL title game

Kramer is most famous for his classic block in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” With 13 seconds remaining in the game and the Packers trailing 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys, Kramer got great leverage with his block on defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, and Starr happily followed his right guard into NFL immortality by scoring the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

Kramer related to me how he found out he was drafted by the Packers and Vainisi in 1958.

“I was in class at the University of Idaho when I was drafted,” Kramer said. “I came out of class and Wayne Walker, who was my classmate and who was also drafted by the Detroit Lions, told me I was drafted by Green Bay.”

Kramer had received a letter from Vainisi prior to the draft to let him know that the Packers were interested in his services.

Letter to Jerry from Jack Vainisi

Besides selecting  Gregg, Starr, Taylor and Nitschke who all ended up in Canton, Vainisi also selected center Jim Ringo in 1953 and halfback Paul Hornung in 1957, both of whom would join their teammates at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Vainisi also had a very nice draft in 1952, when he was able to select wide receiver Bill Howton, defensive back Bobby Dillon and defensive lineman Dave Hanner among others.

It was the great draft work by Vainisi in the 1950s, which set the foundation for all the championships which were won by the Packers in the 1960s under Lombardi.

Plus, it was Vainisi himself who played a big role in getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay in 1959. Vainisi called Lombardi, who was then an assistant coach with the Giants, to interview for the head coaching job in Green Bay.

That hiring of Lombardi led to five NFL championships in seven years, along with victories in the first two Super Bowls. The Packers also became the one and only team to win three consecutive titles (1965, 1966 and 1967) in the NFL, since the league went to a playoff system in 1933.

Unfortunately, Vainisi wasn’t around to witness the glorious legacy that Lombardi and many of the players he drafted would leave behind in Green Bay.