Bret and Kandace Saberhagen: A Perfect Blend

Bret and Kandace

It’s funny how life can take one on a path to form an unexpected friendship with people. That was what happened with me a little less than four years ago. It all occurred because of one of the many conversations that I have had over the years with Jerry Kramer.

That chat with Jerry led me to write a four-part series about stem cell therapy.  It was then when I was able to get to know Kandace Saberhagen.  I knew immediately that Kandace was a special person. That impression was cemented by other people who knew Kandace well. People like Don Horn, who played with Kramer in Green Bay when both were with the Packers. It was Kramer’s discussion about stem cell therapy at a reunion/autograph session several years ago which first got Horn interested in the subject. It also led to Don’s association with Kandace in the stem cell therapy field.

My association with Kandace led to another friendship, when she married Bret Saberhagen in February of 2019. I knew all about Bret and his career in Major League Baseball. A career that spanned 18 years in the big leagues in which Saberhagen twice won the American League Cy Young Award and also saw him being named the 1985 World Series MVP for the Kansas City Royals. In fact, I definitely feel that Bret deserves consideration for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote about that situation a little over a month ago.

I had never talked to Bret in the four years I covered the Milwaukee Brewers, as his rookie year came in 1984, a year after my last season covering the Brew Crew.

But I got to know Bret after he married Kandace, and while it was great to talk to Bret about his career in the big leagues, it was also very obvious that he and Kandace had an exceptional relationship. They were definitely a special blend as a couple.

Bret and Kandace first met in Chicago in May of 2018 when they were introduced to each other by Bill Bellah. This meeting occurred while Kandace was in the Windy City along with stem cell therapy advocate Mike Golic for a charity event.

Bellah explained to me how the meeting finally took place.

“It’s funny, I met Kandace through Kurt Walker, who had played in the NHL,” Bellah said. “He had been working with Kandace to help out older players in hockey with stem cell therapy. Unfortunately, Kurt passed away a couple of years ago. Anyway, when the hockey players were getting their stem cell procedures done at Kandace’s clinic, I let them use my house in Breckenridge (Colorado) to recuperate.

“Kandace, Don Horn and several others came to this birthday party that I had in Breckenridge. There were like 80 people there. Bret was there too. But at that time, Kandace was with Don, who was watching over her like a father. Bret was on the complete opposite side of the venue that I had put together, sitting by a fire pit. So they didn’t meet there.

“About eight months later, I had a charity event in St. Charles, Illinois. That is when Bret and Kandace finally met. Afterward, they both flew on my jet and they sat in the back of the plane. They really hit it off. It was great, because they are both great people. If I truly was cupid, they were a couple I would want to put together.”

The relationship between Bret and Kandace had begun. They soon realized that they had a lot in common, as Kandace explained to me.

“One of the first things I noticed about Bret was that he had a big heart,” Kandace said. “He’s just a great person, who is always looking out for me. We also have a lot of similar interests.”

Bret concurred.

“Obviously sports is one one reason we connected,” Bret said. “But it’s really everything. If Kandace wants to do one particular thing, I usually want to as well. The same holds true if I want to do something, she does as well. We just have similar likes. We both love cooking for instance. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make us happy.”

The relationship between the two was in full swing in October of 2018 when Bret asked Kandace if she was ever interested in getting married again.

Kandace on a swing

“When Bret asked me that, I said no, are you crazy,” Kandace said. “So I sat there for a minute and Bret was real quiet. Then I asked him if he was asking me to get married. And he said, ‘I might be.’ That was before I knew I was sick.

“A couple of days later, I felt a lump on my right side. At the time, we had a lot going on, as we were buying a house. So I went in and had a mammogram and the doctor told me it didn’t look good, but that he was going to send it off to get the test results. That was on a Friday. On Monday, they gave me the report. I really lost it when I heard the bad news. It was not the optimal time, as I was just ready to start the next chapter of my life. But God had other plans.

“I flew out of Colorado that day to go to Arizona. Bret’s daughter came out to stay with me. I was devastated the whole week and really couldn’t talk through a lot of things. I was meeting Bret that Friday. My mentality at that point was that I was going to have to let him go because I wasn’t going to take him into this situation with me. This was going to be huge ordeal. We were in the infantile stages of a serious relationship. I wasn’t going to have him take that on.

“Long story short, I met Bret in Chicago at the airport. I told him that I was sick and that I would love to spend the next chapter of my life with him, but that I’m going to have to do the next chapter alone and he wouldn’t be in it. Bret got what I said, but he cried. We both sat at the bar at Lou Malnati’s in downtown Chicago in front of crowded group and just sobbed unbearably. It was a very touching moment.

“The next day, Bret asked me if I would have coffee with him. I said sure. We passed like four different coffee shops before Bret pulled into the diamond district, also known as Jeweler’s Row and put a ring on my finger right there. He told me that we would start our time in sickness, but that we will also have happiness and asked me to marry him.”

“That was when my medical support from Bret started. He immediately moved from California to Colorado. Bret was with me on every IV and chemo treatment. He went with me on every doctor’s appointment. He was involved in everything I did. He made sure I had iron in my diet. Every time I threw up, he was there. He made a make-shift bucket on a stepladder by the bed so I didn’t have to leave the room and go into the bathroom. He would talk to my doctors one on one to see what would be best for me. He’s carried me up the stairs when I couldn’t walk. He also made me stop working and go on medical leave. He was with me every step of the way. That continues to this day.”

Bret and Kandace got married on February 16, 2019 in Paso Robles, California, which is also where the couple currently lives. Don Horn made the toast at the reception.

Don's toast at the wedding

Don Horn toasts Bret and Kandace Saberhagen.

“It was fantastic,” Kandace said. “There was a huge winery. There were 100 of our closest friends who celebrated with us.”

One thing that seems to be a common denominator when I talk to Bret and Kandace is their absolute love of cooking.

“We love to cook any type of meal. Italian, Mexican, American cuisine, you name it,” Bret said. “It’s a wide variety. I’m not a big seafood fan, so there is not a lot a seafood being cooked. I will  do shrimp though. I’m more of a meat and potatoes guy.

“Because I played so long in Kansas City, I just love to barbeque.  But as I said, I love to cook just about anything.”

Kandace talked about the pleasure of cooking with Bret.

“Cooking has become a major part of our lifestyle,” Kandace said. “I’m trying to be as humble as possible, and I’m not so much talking about the outcome of the food, but it’s really how we cook. It’s almost like a dance in the kitchen. We love to entertain. One of Bret’s specialties is the way he cooks his steaks. They are just phenomenal. The potatoes are great as well because of some of the ingredients we use. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s huge kitchen and it takes up most of our house. We also have an area outside where we can cook and grill.”

Bret and Kandace have a three-year plan. They obviously want to enjoy their life together. They would also eventually like to do a cooking show together. Plus they want to make sure people have the awareness about medical issues that Kandace and so many women go through each day in their lives. In lieu of that, Bret recently put out a statement on the Facebook page that the couple has, called The Saberhagens.

NEW ADDRESS and new name for our nonprofit! Each month I receive hundreds of cards, baseballs, and pictures to sign for people. All I ask is for a small donation to our nonprofit. My wife and I gave my old nonprofit that has not been doing anything for years a new facelift and made it something near and dear to us. SabesWings will relaunch next month in honor of my wife’s battle with breast cancer. It will assist those who suffer from medical financial toxicity. More information to come! In the meantime, our new nonprofit address is: 179 Niblick Road #411, Paso Robles, CA 93446! We receive so many requests for autographs and the best way to do it is send what you want signed to the above address with a return stamped envelope and a small donation to SabesWings! Pretty simple and your donation goes to those who struggle to pay for cancer treatments! It’s a cool way to give back. Suggested minimum donations $10 per 1 baseball card, $25 per signed ball, $50 per jersey, $25 for miscellaneous items. PLEASE include return shipping!!

Family is huge component in the relationship of Bret and Kandace. Together they have six children who range in age from 11 to 34. The oldest is Drew Saberhagen, who is 34 and is married to Kelsey. They have a baby named Sawyer and they are expecting another baby. Next up is Bret’s daughter Brittany, who is 33. She is married to Jacob Zachar.  Third on the list is Dalton Saberhagen, who is 28 and still single.

The Saberhagen Family

From left to right, Brittany Zachar, Aidan Stolz, Bret Saberhagen, Layton Stolz, Kandace Saberhagen, Drew Saberhagen and Dalton Saberhagen.

Plus there are the three children who are 16 or under. They are Kandace’s son Aidan Stoltz and Hannah Saberhagen, who are both 16 and are just five days apart with their birthdays. The baby of the family is Layton Stolz, who is 11.

Bottom line, It’s been a difficult time for Bret and Kandace, as they try to stay as positive as they can while Kandace, through Bret’s great assistance, battles breast cancer. Kandace is using alternative therapies to help her fight the good fight. That is why SabesWings will be launched next month.

I often hear from my friends and associates about how jealous they are of me because of all of the sports celebrities I have been able to interview and do stories on. I am indeed very blessed to have had that opportunity.

I have had the opportunity to interview Hall of Famers like Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers, Don Sutton, Paul Molitor and Ted Simmons.

It would be awesome if Bret can join that group someday soon. I know he deserves at least a chance to have his candidacy talked about in terms of someday having a plaque in Cooperstown.

In terms of the human life Hall of Fame, both Bret and Kandace are definitely members from my perspective. I hope and pray that their life together is long and rewarding. No couple deserves it more.

Why Bret Saberhagen Deserves Consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Bret Saberhagen II

Anybody who has read my work over the years, know that I have promoted a number of former NFL players for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Most notably among that group of players was Jerry Kramer, and he indeed was enshrined in Canton in 2018. I first started writing about Kramer’s omission from his rightful place in the Hall of Fame over 30 years ago.

And it was through my association with Kramer over the years which led me to new friendships with people like his former teammate with the Green Bay Packers, Don Horn. One of the reasons I got to know Horn was because of his background in stem cell therapy and it was Kramer who first got Horn interested in that subject matter.

It was through Horn that I got to know Kandace Saberhagen, who was the president of Premier Stem Cell Institute, where Horn was a liaison to former NFL players who could utilize stem cell therapy to help them recover from shoulder, knee and hip injuries that they had suffered in the past.

I wrote a four-part series about stem cell therapy back in August of 2016 and have remained friends with Kandace ever since. Which takes me back full circle, as like with Kramer and other NFL players who I promoted for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (like Class of 2020 member Bobby Dillon), I also believe Kandace’s husband Bret Saberhagen deserves consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are just 21 multiple winners of the Cy Young Award in MLB history, and Saberhagen is one of them, as Bret won his first in 1985 and his second in 1989 as a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Saberhagen was also named World Series MVP in 1985, as his Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Saberhagen was 2-0 (including a shutout) in that World Series and had a sparkling 0.50 ERA, plus gave up just 11 hits in 18 innings. No. 31 also had 10 strikeouts and gave up only one walk.

If one looks at Saberhagen’s career stats, his numbers are quite good. He was 167-117 with a career ERA of 3.34, which adds up to a .588 winning percentage, which is better than a lot of pitchers in the Hall of Fame. There are 80 pitchers in the Hall of Fame and Saberhagen has a better winning percentage than 38 of those pitchers.

The career ERA of 3.34 is also good, as he pitched in the American League for 11 of the 16 seasons he played in baseball. The American League has the DH, unlike the National League.

A number of the years when Saberhagen pitched were marred by injuries, which will be addressed later in the story. In fact, Saberhagen was actually in MLB for 18 years, but two full years were lost because of injury.

Saberhagen was also a three-time All-Star, plus won a Gold Glove and also won the ERA title in 1989 when he won his second Cy Young Award.

From 1985 through 1989, there wasn’t a better pitcher in the American League, as Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards, won 82 games and lost 50 and had an overall ERA of 3.27.

When one looks at the 167 wins that Saberhagen had in his career, there are three other starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame that have similar win totals. I’m talking about Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gomez.

Sandy Koufax

Koufax was 165-87 in his career with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers with a career ERA 0f 2.76. No. 32 also won three Cy Young Awards, won a National League MVP , was a World Series MVP twice, a seven-time All-Star, a three-time triple crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts) winner and was a five-time ERA leader.

Dean was 150-83 in his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs and had a career ERA 0f 3.04. Dean was a National League MVP in 1934 when he won 30 games. There was no Cy Young Award then. Dean was also a four-time All-Star.

Gomez was 189-102 with the New York Yankees and Washington Senators with a career era of 3.34. Gomez was a seven-time All-Star, won two triple crowns and was a two-time ERA leader.

When I was promoting Kramer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of the things I put out there were the many endorsements from Hall of Fame players that Kramer received in his career before he was inducted. None were bigger than the three he received from Merlin Olsen, Alex Karras and Bart Starr.

Likewise, I wanted to talk with three Hall of Fame baseball players about Saberhagen. The three I talked to were Larry Walker, Robin Yount and Rollie Fingers. I never had talked with Walker before, but I did interview Yount and Fingers a few times when I covered the Milwaukee Brewers from 1980 through 1983.

Larry Walker

Walker briefly played against Saberhagen when he was a member of the Montreal Expos and Saberhagen was pitching for the New York Mets. Walker talked about what it was like facing Saberhagen.

“When you look at Bret on the mound, he sort of reminded me of Pedro Martinez,” Walker said. “Not very intimidating. He’s not a mean looking guy. Not big or strong looking. But with both of those guys, once the ball leaves their hands, they definitely become intimidating.

“The life on Bret’s fastball is something I’ll always remember. Similar to Dwight Gooden and David Cone, as his fastball could buckle your knees at times and make you shake your head. I remember the first time I faced him and it was almost like his ball was rising as it came to the plate. Plus he had a sharp curveball and they were just nasty pitches. You were hoping that he wasn’t on that day, so maybe you could scrape out a hit.”

Very humble words from Walker, who once hit over .360 for three consecutive years when he was with the Colorado Rockies, plus won three batting titles and was a five-time All-Star. A superb fielder as well, as he also won seven Gold Glove honors. That all led to Walker being named to the Class of 2020 for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons.

Walker also loved being teammates with Saberhagen when both played for the Rockies.

“Bret was as solid as one could be. A guy you love in the clubhouse,” Walker said. “He was always talking and communicating. And that’s a good thing, because it’s rare too, but pitchers normally don’t jell that well with position players, but Bret did.”

Although Walker just recently was named to be a member of the Hall of Fame, he talked about why Saberhagen also should be considered.

“You know, Bret won two Cy Young’s and a was a World Series MVP. He has that definitely going for him,” Walker said. “It’s a fine line. I think he only had a few people vote for him the last time he was on the ballot, which is ridiculous. There are a bunch of players who I think belong, but you kind of shake your head in disbelief that they don’t get more respect from the voters. I know his win total isn’t as high as some of the voters would like, but injuries put a little damper on his career.

“I’m glad that you are promoting Bret. Hopefully you can help open some eyes. You never know. If it (the Hall of Fame) could happen for me, it can happen for anyone.”

Robin in 1982 World Series

When Yount played, he and Saberhagen were considered two of the best players in the American League and in all of baseball. Yount was the AL MVP in both 1982 and 1989. Saberhagen won the Cy Young Award in 1985 and 1989. Saberhagen was also World Series MVP in 1985 and Yount probably would have been in 1982, had the Brewers defeated the Cardinals in that World Series. Yount hit .414 in that World Series and if Fingers (out with an elbow injury) had been available to pitch, the odds were pretty good that the Brewers would have won that Fall Classic.

Yount faced Saberhagen many times in his career.

“I certainly remember his high, hard fastball and his sharp curve,” Yount said. “Those two pitches were outstanding and they turned out to be good enough to win him two Cy Young’s and a World Series MVP. To me back at that time, Bret was one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.

“I also remember that we played high school baseball in the same area of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley area. We sort of grew up in the same type of baseball atmosphere.

“Doing what you are doing in promoting Bret is what it takes. I’ve been part of the Modern Baseball Committee for the Hall of Fame a couple of times and we get to discuss and vote on ten nominees who have been presented to our committee. That is how Ted [Simmons] got in.

“Being a two-time Cy Young winner and being a World Series MVP like Bret was, it’s hard to believe he was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year due to lack of votes. Hopefully he can be a nominee on one of the Hall of Fame’s committees so his accomplishments in baseball can be discussed by the members of that particular committee.”

The Hall of Fame has four Era Committees which vote on 10 candidates in each committee for selection into getting a plaque in Cooperstown. The four Era Committees are Early Baseball (Prior To 1950), Golden Days (1950-1969), Modern Baseball (1970-1987) and Today’s Game (1988 To Present).

Saberhagen is characterized as to belonging to the Today’s Game Committee, as the bulk of his career was played from 1988 to present. The Today’s Game Committee has 16 members, which will be a mixture of Hall of Fame players, MLB executives and writers. The list of 10 candidates for each committee is put together by the Historical Overview Committee.

The Historical Overview Committee is comprised of 11 veteran historians: Bob Elliott (Canadian Baseball Network), Jim Henneman (formerly Baltimore Sun), Steve Hirdt (Elias Sports Bureau), Rick Hummel (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Bill Madden (formerly New York Daily News), Jack O’Connell (BBWAA), Jim Reeves (formerly Fort Worth Star-Telegram), Tracy Ringolsby (MLB.com), Glenn Schwarz (formerly San Francisco Chronicle), Dave Van Dyck (formerly Chicago Tribune) and Mark Whicker (Southern California News Group).

The Today’s Game Committee will meet again in December of 2021 to discuss who might get inclusion in the Class of 2022.

Rollie in 1981

I also had the opportunity to talk with Fingers about Saberhagen. They both have a couple things in common. Both have been World Series MVP’s and both have won at least one Cy Young Award.

Although Fingers started out his career as a starter like Saberhagen, he eventually became one of the best closers in the history of the game, as he ended up with 341 saves. Fingers retired after the 1985 season, which also happened to be the year that Saberhagen won his first Cy Young and was the World Series MVP as well.

“I remember Bret, as I was with with the Brewers in ’84 and ’85 when he first got started in baseball,” Fingers said. “I remember that he threw really hard. I’m glad I never had to face him because we had the DH, but I know that in his first five or six years he was with the Royals, he was the cat’s meow in the American League, winning a couple of Cy Young Awards and also being the MVP of the ’85 series.

“Bret had some great years. Now he only won 167 games, but he had a pretty good winning percentage at .588. Plus he had 76 complete games, which is not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. Nowadays in baseball, if you had 76 complete games in total for pitchers over two years, that’s considered good.

“Looking at Bret, obviously winning two Cy Young’s and being a World Series MVP is very good. He was also a three-time All-Star. Two more All-Star appearances might have helped his cause.”

Ironically, in 1985 and 1989, the two years he won the Cy Young Award, Saberhagen was not named an All-Star, which is unbelievable.

Fingers continued talking about the stats of Saberhagen.

“A lifetime ERA of 3.34 is pretty good. So is over 2,500 innings pitched. Having only 167 wins will go against him a bit.  But Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame with less wins (165) than that, but he also won three Cy Young’s and struck out the world when he played. But all in all, Bret had a great career in baseball.”

Fingers was on the top of his game in 1982 when he suffered an elbow injury in early September which cost him the rest of the season and all of the 1983 season. At the time of his injury, Fingers was the defending Cy Young Award winner, as well as the defending AL MVP.

Likewise, injuries have hurt Saberhagen throughout his career in baseball, which definitely curtailed some of the stats he might have put up in the big leagues. Saberhagen and I talked about that and much more when we recently talked about his baseball career.

It was at a fairly young age when Saberhagen thought he had a chance to maybe get to the big show.

“I think I was pitching in high school when scouts were coming around,” Saberhagen said. “I never imagined that I would have the career I ended up having though. I was pretty much throwing just fastballs and curveballs back then.”

But it was when Saberhagen developed a great changeup which really set his career in baseball upward.

“In high school, I was trying to come up with an offspeed pitch. I was trying the knuckleball, but nothing really clicked. But in the minors when I was in AA ball, Tony Ferreira showed me how to hold the baseball to basically throw a screwball. I held my fingers down on each one of the seams and pulled down with my index finger and I was able to control that with a different velocity. That’s what really made a huge difference with my repertoire. Without that pitch, I probably wouldn’t have had the career I did.”

Saberhagen got off to a quick start in the majors, as he made the Royals out of AA ball in 1984 and won 10 games as a rookie with a 3.48 ERA. Things really took off in 1985, when he won the Cy Young Award with a 20-6 record and an ERA of 2.87. Plus he led his team to the World Series title, as he was the MVP of that series.

Saberhagen didn’t do it alone though and he wanted to make sure that the guys who were catching him got a lot of credit.

“The guys who caught me were very knowledgeable and had been around. In 1985, Jim Sundberg caught me and we are talking about a guy who caught a number of no-hitters from Nolan Ryan. With a guy like Jim, he knows what pitches to throw depending on the situation in the game.  I very seldom shook him off.

“I had four guys who I really enjoyed throwing to. There was Jim, Bob Boone, Charlie O’Brien and Jason Varitek. With all four of those guys, if I shook off those guys five times in a game, that would probably be the max. And if you are not shaking off, you get into a nice rhythm and groove.”

Saberhagen was definitely in a groove in 1985 when he won his first Cy Young Award and then really made a name for himself in the 1985 World Series.

“It was funny in the 1985 postseason, as I had struggled against the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, who I always seemed to struggle against,” Saberhagen said. “My mindset in the World Series was to get my shit together.”

And indeed, Saberhagen sure as hell did. With the Royal down two games to zero in the series, Saberhagen was faced with a must-win start in Game 3 at Busch Stadium. And No. 31 delivered big time, as the Royals beat the Cardinals 6-1, as he pitched a complete game and allowed just six hits, while he struck out eight and walked just one.

The Royals extended the series to Game 7, when Saberhagen got his second start of the series. This time the game was played at home at Royals Stadium. Saberhagen was again magnificent, as he pitched another complete game, but this time it was a shutout, as the Royals won 11-0 and had their first World Series title. Saberhagen allowed just five hits, as he struck out two and walked nobody.

Because of his performance in the series, Saberhagen was named the MVP.

When I was a kid, I always dreamed about playing in a Game 7 in the World Series and being the hero. I know that is the same dream with many kids who grow up loving baseball. Saberhagen accomplished that goal and it had to be just a fantastic feeling.

“Winning Game 7 of the World Series was my biggest thrill for sure.” Saberhagen said. “Second would be pitching a no-hitter and third would be starting an All-Star game.”

Bret Saberhagen in 1989

Saberhagen remained one of the very top pitchers in the American League for the next four years, which culminated when he won his second Cy Young Award in 1989. That season Saberhagen was just nasty on the mound, as he was 23-6 with an ERA of just 2.16. He also had 12 complete games and four shutouts. In addition, Saberhagen allowed just 209 hits in 262.1 innings.

No wonder he won another Cy Young!

Some shoulder woes affected Saberhagen in 1990, as he was just 5-9 with an ERA of 3.27, but he was named to the All-Star team and got the win in that game. In 1991, Saberhagen bounced back and was 13-8 with an ERA of 3.07.

In 1992, Saberhagen was traded to the New York Mets. In three and a half seasons with the Mets, Saberhagen was 29-21 with an ERA of 3.16. His best year was in 1994, when he went 14-4 with an ERA of 2.74 and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. The most amazing aspect of that season for Saberhagen was his 11-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

At the trade deadline in 1995, Saberhagen was traded to the Colorado Rockies and went 2-1 in three starts.

“Unfortunately, I only pitched three healthy games with the Rockies,” Saberhagen said. “After my third start, the next day we traveled to Pittsburgh and we did our stretching and I went out to warm up and the first throw I made felt like a bomb blew up in my shoulder. The team did a MRI which said the shoulder was fine and just needed some clean up after the season was over.

“Needless to say, it would take me over a half hour to get loose before a ball game and my curveball was not there anymore either. It was tough to throw the changeup and my fastball was all over the place. I ended up getting two more shots of cortisone and I was living on anti-inflammatories throughout that season. I finally had surgery that offseason and the surgery was performed by Dr. Altchek by the Mets. I was put under, but I wasn’t completely out because he wanted to talk with me during the procedure.

“So when he went in, he asked me what happened and I explained. And then he told me that everything in my shoulder was gone. He said that my supraspinatus, infraspinatus and other muscles were all torn. He told me that he wasn’t going to do reconstructive surgery at that point, but that it would probably have to be done later. He just fixed it as best as possible so I could pitch the next year. But by May next year in 1996, my shoulder was still killing me and I did have reconstructive surgery and I missed all of the ’96 season.

“One of the things that I think about is the fact that I was injured quite a bit and if there was one thing in my career that I would like to change, it would be being healthy a lot more. I had a big league uniform on for 18 seasons and I missed two of those seasons completely due to injury, plus had a number of other seasons cut short due to injury.”

In 1997, Saberhagen signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent. In five years with the Red Sox, Saberhagen’s point about being injured often is illustrated quite clearly. In 1996, Saberhagen only pitched in six games and in 2001, only pitched in three games due to shoulder woes. Plus, he missed all of the 2000 season.

But in the two years that Saberhagen was able to pitch, he looked a lot like the old Saberhagen, as he was 25-14 in 1998 and 1999 combined with a cumulative ERA of 3.46 for the Sox. He also struck out 181 hitters and walked just 41 (one intentional).

Looking back on his injury woes, Saberhagen reflected.

“Sometimes when you have a MRI, it misses things that are issues,”Saberhagen said. “But back then, that’s what we were working with. And you did what you had to do to get back on the mound. You got your shots of cortisone and lived on anti-inflammatories. That was just the way we were programed. You just had to what you could to get back out there.”

National Baseball Hall of Fame

The bottom line is that when healthy, Saberhagen was one of the top pitchers in all of baseball and his two Cy Young Awards and his World Series MVP bear that out. Saberhagen certainly deserves to be nominated to be one of the 10 players discussed by the Today’s Game Committee in the fall of 2021 to debate if he warrants a plaque in Cooperstown.

The 16 people on that committee can make that determination, but at the very least, Saberhagen deserves the opportunity have his name put back into the discussion about being in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers: A Historical Perspective

Bart vs. 49ers

The Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers first started playing each other in 1950, when the two teams met at old City Stadium. The Packers beat the Niners 25-21 on that late November day, with 13,196 in attendance.

1950 was the year that Curly Lambeau left Green Bay to coach the Chicago Cardinals and Gene Ronzani was the new head coach of the Pack. It was also the first year that the 49ers started play in the NFL, after four years in All-American Football Conference.

The head coach of the 49ers then was Buck Shaw. When the two teams played for the very first time, neither team was very good, as both teams finished 3-9 that season.

Throughout the years leading into the encounter on Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium when the 8-2 Packers face the 9-1 49ers, Green Bay leads the regular season series by a 32-27-1 margin.

The two teams have also met seven times in the postseason in some very memorable games. The Packers lead that series four games to three.

Back to the 1950s now. The Niners pretty much dominated the Packers that decade, at least until Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959. San Francisco won 13-of-16 games between 1950 through 1958.

The 49ers were one of the better teams in the NFL in the 1950s, while the Packers were among the worst. In fact, the Packers were just 39-79-2 in the 1950s, which is the worst decade that the team has ever had in it’s history.

But things started to change with the arrival of Lombardi in 1959. The Packers beat the 49ers twice in 1959 and during the Lombardi tenure through 1967, Green Bay was 13-3-1 versus San Francisco.

It was during that time when the Packers won five NFL titles in seven years, which included the first two Super Bowls.

One of the more memorable games during that period occurred in 1960 at Kezar Stadium on a rainy and muddy day, as the Packers won 13-0. All the points scored in that game were put on the board by Paul Hornung, as he scored on a 28-yard touchdown run, kicked an extra point, plus kicked two field goals.

The Green Bay ground game was almost unstoppable behind the pulling guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, as Hornung rushed for 86 yards, while fullback Jimmy Taylor gashed the 49ers for 161 more yards.

Fuzzy and Jerry in the Mud Bowl at Kexar in 1960

Kramer listed two San Francisco defensive tackles among the top five he ever faced in his NFL career. They were Leo Nomellini and Charlie Krueger.

In 1968, the year in which Lombardi was just general manager only and Phil Bengtson was the head coach, the Packers suffered their most painful defeat of the season against the 49ers at Kezar Stadium and the loss basically ended any postseason aspirations for the team.

The Packers had a 20-7 lead going into the fourth quarter of that game, but because of injuries to both Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski, the Packers were forced to turn to rookie quarterback Billy Stevens, who had to be the next man up, as Don Horn was still going through his military duties with the Army then at that point of that season.

The 49ers, behind quarterback John Brodie, roared back to score 20 unanswered points and beat the Packers 27-20, as Stevens did not even complete a pass against the 49er defense, nor the gusty winds of Kezar.

After that game and over the next decade, the series between the two teams was pretty much a push more or less, with the 49ers holding a four to three edge through the 1977 season.

However, a monumental decision that affected both franchises occurred during the 1979 NFL draft. Starr was now the head coach of the Packers, while Bill Walsh was the new head coach for the Niners.

Before the draft, both Bratkowski, who was then the quarterbacks/offensive backs coach under Starr and scout Red Cochran strongly advocated the the Packers select quarterback Joe Montana of Notre Dame in the draft if they had the opportunity.

That opportunity came in the third round of that draft, when the Packers had the 15th pick of that round and the 71st overall pick of the draft. Again, both Bratkowski and Cochran pushed for the Packers to take Montana with the pick then, but Starr (who was also GM) decided to take nose tackle Charles Johnson of Maryland with the pick.

The 49ers, who had the last pick in the third round, quickly snatched up Montana and the rest they say, is history.

In the 1980s, the Packers were 19 games under .500 and had just one postseason appearance, while it was 180 degrees different for the 49ers once they selected Montana, as they won four Super Bowls in that same decade.

The 49ers continued to be Super Bowl contenders into the 1990s, as Steve Young took the reins over from Montana starting in the 1992 season.

The man who had coached both Montana and Young as a quarterbacks coach and as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco, Mike Holmgren became the new head coach of the Packers when he was hired by general manager Ron Wolf.

Wolf made two other key acquisitions for the Packers in that period. First, Wolf traded a first round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for quarterback Brett Favre. Plus, Wolf also added defensive end Reggie White in free agency prior to the 1993 season.

That led to a great rivalry with Niners that decade, especially in the postseason. In the regular season, the teams only played four times in the decade, with the Packers winning three of those games.

That would be an apropos number, as Green Bay and San Francisco also met four times in the postseason in the 1990s, with the Packers once again winning three of those games.

In the 1995 postseason, in the NFC Divisional playoff round, the Packers upset the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers 27-17 at Candlestick Park, as Favre was phenomenal.

No. 4 threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, plus had a 132.9 passer rating in the game.

That led to another postseason game after the 1996 season, but this time the Packers had the home field advantage at muddy Lambeau Field. Favre was solid once again with a 107.4 passer rating in the game, but it was the type of day for a good ground game and the Packers rushed for 139 yards in the game.

But the real difference maker in the game was the punt returning ability of Desmond Howard, who returned two punts for 117 yards, which included a 71-yard return for  a score, as the Packers won 35-14.

Desmond Howard vs. 49ers

The Packers would go on to win Super Bowl XXXI.

In the 1997 season, the top two seeds in the NFC were the 49ers and the Packers, with the No. 1 seed being San Francisco. That meant that the Niners would host the Packers for the NFC title game at Candlestick Park.

Favre continued his solid play against the 49ers and he threw for 222 yards and a score and had a 98.1 passer rating in the game. But the ground game became a big weapon in the game for the Packers just like the previous postseason game, and halfback Dorsey Levens would rush for 114 yards and a score, as the Packers won 23-10.

However, the Packers would end up losing 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos two weeks later.

The Packers and 49ers would play for the fourth consecutive time in the 1998 postseason, which turned out to be the last game Holmgren would coach for the Packers. Coaching the 49ers was Holmgren’s former quarterbacks coach with the Packers, Steve Mariucci.

Unlike the three previous postseason games against the 49ers, Favre did not have his “A” game, as he threw two interceptions to go with his two touchdown passes. No. 4 threw for 292 yards and had a 79.7 passer rating.

Still, that should have been enough to win, as Favre threw a late touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman to give the Packers a 27-23 lead with just 1:56 left on the clock.

In the ensuing drive, Jerry Rice fumbled the ball after a catch that by today’s replay rules would have been ruled a fumble, but back then the officials ruled that Rice was down before he fumbled.

That led to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Young to Terrell Owens with just seconds remaining in the game. Owens caught the ball in a crowd after have many other drops during the course of the game, as the 49ers won 30-27.

That game was also the last game White, the “Minister of Defense”, would ever play for the Packers.

After that game, the Packers went on to dominate the series between the two teams for over a decade.

Through 2010, the Packers won eight straight games against the Niners, including another postseason game at Lambeau Field in the 2001 postseason. Favre once again had a better than average day against San Francisco, as he threw for 269 yards and had two touchown passes versus one pick. No. 4’s passer rating for the game was 112.6, as the Packers won 25-15.

Mariucci was still the head coach of the 49ers at the time, while Mike Sherman was now the head coach of the Packers.

In his career, Favre was 8-1 against the 49ers in the regular season, while throwing 14 touchdown passes versus 10 picks for 2,246 yards.

Sherman was fired after the 2005 season and general manager Ted Thompson made the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, Mike McCarthy, his new head coach in 2006.

That set up an interesting situation for McCarthy in Green Bay. First, he had to get Favre back to the way he used to play under Holmgren, plus he had to develop Aaron Rodgers to become a starting quarterback after the Favre era ended.

What made the second part of that dynamic very interesting was that McCarthy (then offensive coordinator for the 49ers) had told Rodgers prior to the 2005 NFL draft that the 49ers were going to pick the former Cal Bear with the first pick of the draft.

That didn’t happen and Rodgers never forgot that he was shunned by the team he grew up rooting for in Chico, California. Thompson and the Packers then happily selected Rodgers with the 24th pick of the first round of that draft.

After Favre left after the 2007 season, Rodgers became the starting quarterback and faced the 49ers once in the 2009 regular season and once in the 2010 regular season. The Packers won both of those games played at Lambeau Field.

Like Favre, Rodgers has played well against the 49ers in the regular season, as he is 4-2 lifetime going into Sunday night’s game. In those six games, No. 12 has thrown 13 touchdown passes to just two picks for 1,927 yards. His passer rating sits at 105.1.

Aaron vs. the 49ers

However, in the postseason, Rodgers is 0-2 against the 49ers. That being said, Rodgers has played well enough to win for sure, but in both losses, the defense was the main cause for the defeat.

In those two games, when Green Bay was outscored by a combined 68-51 margin, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes versus one interception for 434 yards. No. 12’s passer rating was a cumulative 94.7.

But the Packers could not stop Colin Kaepernick in those two playoff games,  as he had a combined 444 yards (263 yards passing with two touchdown passes and 181 yards rushing with two scores) in the 45-31 win in the 2012 postseason game, while he also dominated the 2013 postseason game with 227 yards passing (one touchdown) and 98 yards rushing.

Since those postseason losses, the Packers and 49ers have faced each other  twice. Once in 2015 at Levi’s Stadium when the Packers won 17-3 and also last season, when Rodgers brought the Packers back in a thrilling 33-30 win at Lambeau Field.

Since 2017, the 49ers have had Kyle Shanahan as their head coach. The Niners won six out of their last seven games in 2017 to finish 6-10.

Part of the reason for the 49ers late success in the 2017 season was the acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots midway through the season.

In 2018, Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the year and the 49ers only won four games.

Things have definitely turned around for San Francisco in 2019, with the Niners now 9-1. Garoppolo is a big reason why, as he has thrown 18 touchdown passes versus 10 interceptions for 2,478 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 97.7.

Like the 49ers, the Packers did not play up to expectations in 2017 and 2018 and had a combined 13-18-1 record. That led to the dismissal of McCarthy. General manager Brian Gutekunst, who replaced Thompson in 2018, along with President and CEO Mark Murphy, hired Matt LaFleur to become the new head coach of the Packers in January of 2019.

The hiring of LaFleur looks to be an excellent one, as the Packers are currently 8-2 heading into Sunday night’s game and lead the NFC North.

Shanahan and LaFleur have worked together in three locations in the NFL, Houston, Washington and Atlanta, so they are very familiar with each other and they run basically the same offense.

In terms of Sunday night’s game, the 49ers have the big edge in team stats. The Niners are fifth in the NFL in total offense, while the Packers are 17th. San Francisco is second in the NFL in rushing, as they average 149 yards a game on the ground. Meanwhile, the Packers are 25th in the NFL in rushing defense.

The 49ers are also second in the NFL in total defense, while the Packers are ranked near the bottom of the league at No. 28.

Based on team stats, Sunday night’s game looks to be a blowout by the Niners over the Packers.

That being said, I believe Mr. Rodgers will have a great game in his old neighborhood (even against the second-ranked passing defense in the NFL), plus I also believe the running game with both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams will be effective as well.

The Packers have to protect Rodgers well, as the Niners are tied for first in the NFL with 39 sacks. Arik Armstead has eight of those sacks, while Nick Bosa has seven.

The Packers have 25 sacks, which is tied for 15th in the NFL. The Smith “brothers”, Preston and Za’Darius, have combined for 18.5 of those sacks.

I also see the Green Bay “bend but don’t break” defense making some big plays in this game.

This game could come down to kicking and the Packers appear to have the edge there. Mason Crosby is 13-of-14 in field goals this year, while Robbie Gould of the 49ers has missed the last couple of game due to a quad injury and may not play in Sunday night’s game. If not, rookie Chase McLaughlin would be the kicker. McLaughlin is 4-of-5 in field goals, but did have a huge miss in overtime against Seattle a couple weeks back.

Both the Niners and Packers have two of the better punters in the NFC, as Mitch Wishnowsky has a net average of 42.1 per punt, while J.K. Scott has a 41. 9 net average.

The game on Sunday night has “classic” written all over it, as two of the better franchises in NFL history meet. The Packers have won 13 NFL titles and four Super Bowls, while the 49ers have won five Super Bowls.

Bottom line, even though the team stats say the 49ers should win handily, I like the Packers to go out to Santa Clara and win a close game against the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Remembering Zeke Bratkowski: A Gracious, Kind and Cordial Gentleman

Zeke and Coach Lombardi in Baltimore

Next to the hundreds of conversations that I have had over the years with Jerry Kramer, the former Green Bay Packer who I talked to the most was Zeke Bratkowski.

Like Jerry, Zeke always had time for me. He was never short with me and was always very nice. Zeke was the epitome of being a gracious, kind and cordial gentleman. And also like Jerry, our conversations would run close to an hour.

We talked about a number of subjects and not just football either, seeing as we both called Florida home and the hurricane season can get interesting.

In terms of football, we talked about Bratkowski growing up in Illinois, being an All-American at Georgia, being drafted by the Chicago Bears and being coached by George Halas, being in the Air Force with Max McGee when his NFL career was interrupted for a couple of years, being traded to the Los Angeles Rams, being signed as a free agent by the Packers in 1963 and being the best backup quarterback in the NFL behind starter Bart Starr under the tutelage of head coach Vince Lombardi.

The relationship with Starr led to a life-long friendship. That over 50-year bond often saw the two of them and their wives getting together for the rest of their lives.

Zeke passed away yesterday at the age of 88, less than six months after his good buddy Bart passed on.

I can see Starr and Bratkowski on the spiritual practice field now with their former teammates like Henry Jordan, Ron Kostelnik, Dave “Hawg” Hanner, Lionel Aldridge, Ray Nitschke, Lee Roy Caffey, Dan Currie, Jesse Whittenton and Hank Gremminger facing them on defense.

On offense they are marching down the field with the likes of McGee, Ron Kramer, Jim Ringo, Fuzzy Thurston, Forrest Gregg, Gale Gillingham, Bob Skoronski, Elijah Pitts, Travis Williams and Jim Taylor.

I also see both Bart and Zeke holding for Don Chandler while he attempts extra points and field goals.

And yes, the whole time Coach Lombardi will be shouting out his emphatic verbiage for the players as the practice takes place.

After practice, Max and Fuzzy will be cracking jokes in the locker room, as per usual.

Finally, I see both Bart and Zeke in the quarterback’s meeting room with Coach Lombardi as they study the next opponent for the Packers. That was always an enlightening and enjoyable time.

Yes, Zeke and I talked about his former teammates who passed on, especially his best friend Bart, as well as his Air Force and golfing buddy Max.

We also talked about the two icons he played under in the NFL, Coach Halas and Coach Lombardi.

When it came to the Packers of recent years, Zeke definitely followed the team. We talked about Aaron Rodgers, Brett Hundley, Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur, Ted Thompson, Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy.

Zeke and Bart

We also talked about the time he was an assistant coach under Starr in 1979 and the team came very close to drafting Joe Montana.

Zeke loved being a Packer, both as a player and a coach. He certainly appreciated the magnificent fan base known as Packer Nation.

When he backed up Starr, he led the Packers to a number of wins after No. 15 was injured. Nothing was more important than the victory he led the Packers to in the 1965 NFL Western Conference title game.

That was when No. 12 brought Green Bay back from a 10-0 deficit to the Baltimore Colts at Lambeau Field, as the Packers won 13-10 in overtime.

Bratkowski only started three games under Lombardi in Green Bay and was 2-1 in those three games.

But in 1966, the year Starr was named NFL MVP, Bratkowski came in to relieve an injured Starr to beat da Bears and Halas at Lambeau and also to beat the Colts in Baltimore to win the Western Conference title.

Zeke and the O-Line in Baltimore

Bratkowski was honored for his play with the Packers by being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1989.

Yes, I’m going to miss talking to Zeke. I still will talk with Jerry and with Don Horn and Boyd Dowler, who I also have friendships with. The one thing I know from talking to guys like Zeke, Jerry, Don, Boyd and others like Willie Davis, Dave Robinson, Chuck Mercein, Donny Anderson, Jim Grabowski, Carroll Dale, Doug Hart and Bob Hyland, is that their demeanor certainly stemmed from their time with Coach Lombardi.

He taught them to be the best they could be on the field, as well as the best they could be off the field.

Coach Lombardi would be proud of every one of those gentlemen and what they all accomplished.

But most of all, he would be proud of how well they treat other people.

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Nobody is a better example in that regard than Zeke Bratkowski.

God bless you, Zeke. Rest in peace, my friend.

Boyd Dowler Talks About Bart Starr and Also Playing Some Tight End

Bart and Boyd

Bart Starr and Boyd Dowler. (Photo: Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports)

In the 12 seasons that Boyd Dowler  played in the NFL, 11 of those seasons with the Green Bay Packers, No. 86 was 10th in all-time receptions in the NFL and 12th in receiving yardage when he retired.

The game was different in the era that Dowler played in, as the running game was featured much more often, plus the rules in those days allowed defensive backs to pretty much mug a receiver running down the field and not see a flag thrown.

The Packers utilized the running game more than most in the NFL, especially in the early years when Vince Lombardi became head coach. Both Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor put up big numbers between 1959 through 1962. Hornung was the NFL MVP in 1961, while Taylor was the NFL MVP in 1962, when the Packers won back-to-back NFL titles.

Still, Dowler put up some nice numbers himself, which was recognized, as he was named to the NFL 1960’s All-Decade team, as well as the NFL 50th anniversary team (second team).

In his 11-year career with the Packers, Dowler had 448 receptions for 6,918 yards and 40 touchdowns. In the postseason, Dowler also had 30 receptions for 440 yards and five scores.

Also, in his rookie year in 1959, Dowler was named Rookie of the Year by UPI (United Press International), plus was named to two Pro Bowl teams in his career.

That is why I believe Dowler deserves a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are very few quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who do not have at least one receiver or tight end from their team in Canton with them.

One of those quarterbacks is Bart Starr.

Starr passed away in May and is going to be honored in Green Bay this weekend, which also just happens to be alumni weekend for the Packers. A number of former teammates will be on hand, as well as players who were coached by Starr during his tenure in Titletown.

One of those teammates is Dowler. Another is a guy who used to hang with Dowler and Fuzzy Thurston after practice and have a few beers. They called themselves the Three Muskepissers. I’m talking about Jerry Kramer, who will be one of the speakers to honor No. 15 this weekend.

I had a chance to talk with Dowler recently and we talked about what it was like playing with Starr.

“Let me give you an example about how smart Bart was and how he trusted guys like me,” Dowler said. “In the ‘Ice Bowl’, when I scored my first touchdown, it was not a play called in the huddle. It was an audible at the line of scrimmage.

“We had never, ever talked about running that play or pattern from that formation with me in tight. We never practiced it either. We never did anything close to what we did on that play. It was the first time we ever did that.

“Bart called the ’86 audible’, which had nothing to do with my number. The play was designed for the split end to run a post in a blitz situation. But normally it was called when the split end was out wide, not in tight like I was. Bart called the play because Mel Renfro was near the line of scrimmage. Now Renfro didn’t blitz, but it didn’t matter because he was already committed to the line of scrimmage.

“So when Bart called that audible, I knew I was supposed to run a quick post, even though I was inside. I had the linebacker on my outside shoulder and the cornerback on my outside shoulder, which is not sound coverage. So all I had to do release inside and look for the ball. It turned out be an easy pitch and catch and we were up 7-0.

“Bart and I laughed about that play after the game. I knew that particular audible was used with the split end on the left side of the formation to run a post. But I was in tight, like a tight end would be. I knew I couldn’t call a timeout. I couldn’t shout out to Bart and say, ‘Do you want me out wide?’

“The bottom line is Bart had enough confidence in me to figure out what I was supposed to do in that situation. The thing that made it so great, is that Bart called that audible, even knowing that we had never run it from that formation in nine years. Even in practice. And Bart called it in a NFL championship game!

“That is a capsule comment about Bart Starr.”

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No. 86 continued.

“Bart did things like that,” Dowler said. “And you know the funny thing about plays like that he called? They always worked! Just like the sneak in the ‘Ice Bowl.’

I wrote about how well thought out that sneak was in this piece. Starr carried the ball in his left arm as he crossed the goal line and not in his right, as outside linebacker Chuck Howley of the Cowboys tried to strip the ball from his empty right arm.

“When you start talking about doing a tribute to Bart Starr, just look at he ‘Ice Bowl’ game,” Dowler said. “I’m talking about making big plays count or making big plays work. You can look at both my touchdowns in that game, you can look at the give play to Chuck Mercein and you can look at the sneak.

“You can take four, five or six plays alone from that game and hang an MVP award around Bart’s neck. Not just because of the plays, because they were good plays. But because when they were called. It was the brain of Bart Starr that made those plays work.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that Dowler was in tight on his first touchdown pass against the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL title game. No. 86 started playing tight end on passing situations beginning in 1965 and continued to do that through his last year with the Packers in 1969.

That meant the Packers could basically use three wide receivers on third down.

“After Ron Kramer left and Marv Fleming was in his second year I believe, Coach Lombardi started using me at tight end on third down or in passing situations,” Dowler said. “When we were going to play the Bears or the Colts, I would be Mike Ditka or John Mackey on the scout team for our defense.

“So I got quite a bit of work at tight end. I was big enough and I could get off the line. I was able to run the tight end patterns pretty well. Coach noticed that and said to me, ‘You look pretty good in there.’

“Anyway after Ron left, even though Marvin was a fine player and a fine blocker at tight end, he didn’t have wide receiver quickness and speed to get down the field. He basically wasn’t much of a threat in the passing game as I would be. It came down to Max McGee getting in the lineup when I would play tight end instead of Marvin. Max had been a backup after Carroll Dale arrived in 1965.

“Vince wanted to get Max in the games and thought that would be a good way to do it. I slid in to tight end and Max took my spot at split end with Carroll on the other side. The first game we did it in was the ‘Fog Bowl’ in Baltimore in late 1965 and I caught a pass for a first down from the tight end position, plus caught a touchdown pass as a tight end. We scored six touchdowns in that game (a 42-27 win) and Paul had five of the TDs while I had the other one.

“Vince was very proud about that, as it was his idea to move me to tight end in passing situations. It gave us a little more downfield speed. I think it helped us. I was all for it. It kept me mentally sharp. I thought it was kind of fun.

“In 1968 against the Bears at Wrigley Field, I played the whole game at tight end. I caught two touchdown passes, one from Zeke Bratkowski and the other from Don Horn. I had a big game. So did Don.

“In Super Bowl II, one of my two catches that day came while I was playing tight end. My touchdown came when I was at split end, but the other catch came while I was at tight end.

“Bottom line, me playing tight end gave us a lot more flexibility. I really enjoyed playing the position too.”

 

Green Bay Packers: Catching Up with No. 33, Jim Grabowski

Jim Grabowski vs. the Eagles

Jim Grabowski had some nice karma going for him when he played fullback for the University of Illinois from 1963 through 1965. Grabowski created some of the good fortune himself, due to his fabulous play with the Fighting Illini.

In 1963 as a sophomore, Grabowski rushed for 616 yards and seven touchdowns, plus capped a nice season by being named the 1964 Rose Bowl MVP, as Illinois beat Washington 17-7.

In 1964 and 1965, the Chicago native was named Associated Press All-American in both seasons, as he rushed for a combined 2,262 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Chicago Taft High School alumnus also caught 15 passes in his career at Illinois for 144 yards.

Grabowski finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1965.

Because of his exploits, Grabowski, who wore No. 31 at Illinois, now is in the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

That set things up quite nicely for Grabowski, as the NFL and AFL were still battling for the rights of the best college football talent before the two leagues finally merged in 1966.

Grabowski was drafted first overall in the AFL draft by the Miami Dolphins, who were about to start their expansion season.  Grabowski was also picked ninth overall in the first round of the NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers.

Grabowski explained to me how it felt to be in that enviable position.

“Yes, that was the last year of the competition between the two leagues,” Grabowski said. “It was wonderful for those players who were drafted then. Up until that time, everyone was sort of an indentured servant of the NFL.

“So I had an attorney who was my agent and our strategy was that we had to listen to both offers. Miami was a brand new team. For a little bit of trivia, the very first draft choice of the Miami Dolphins was me.

“But being drafted by the Packers was certainly a factor in their favor. I grew up in Chicago as a Bear fan and I was always aware of the Green Bay Packers. Plus on top of that, they had Vince Lombardi, the god of gods as head coach. That certainly weighed heavy in my decision.”

Grabowski told me how his contract was finalized with the Packers.

“The Packers sent a plane down to negotiate the contract with my agent and myself,” Grabowski said. ” The Packers wanted to fly us to Green Bay. As a kid then, I didn’t realize all this stuff about the best place to negotiate was on your home turf, not theirs.

“So they brought us up there and you have to remember I’m a 21 year-old kid who had not been around much and was happy to play for anything I could get. But my agent really insisted that we play this out. So he told me that no matter what Lombardi said, to not say anything except that we will get back to you.

“Well, we walk into Lombardi’s office and you see all these trophies, championships and pictures around the room. I remember walking into the office and it seemed like the biggest office that I had ever seen. We didn’t sit at his desk, we sat at what looked like a boardroom table. It was pretty impressive.

“So my agent told Lombardi that Miami offered us a wonderful contract. Coach Lombardi went right to the chase. He gave us a number and he said that only provision with that number was that he couldn’t give us anymore than anyone else.

“So he looked at me and said, ‘Son, what do you think?’ I couldn’t help but nod my head yes.”

Lombardi was going through another set of high-priced negotiations with halfback Donny Anderson of Texas Tech, who the Packers had drafted in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft as a future draft pick, which was allowed in those days.

The Packers were battling the Houston Oilers of the AFL for Anderson’s services.

In the end, Lombardi was able to snare both Grabowski and Anderson and the duo was known as the “Gold Dust Twins” because of the contracts they had signed.

Grabowski and Anderson replace Hornung and Taylor

The big deals that Grabowski and Anderson signed did not sit well with one player on the Packers. That would be fullback Jim Taylor. While Anderson received help and guidance from veterans Paul Hornung  and Elijah Pitts, Taylor did not do the same with Grabowski.

“Jimmy was a real competitor,” Grabowski said. “And he was ticked off about the contracts that were signed by Donny and I. And I understood that. Paul was more magnanimous with Donny and Elijah was one of the best guys on that team, as he was very helpful. Jimmy and I had very few words together.”

I know from talking with Jerry Kramer that he really enjoyed his time with Grabowski and Anderson and had no ill will about the contracts that had signed. As Jerry told me once, “Donny and Jim were at the right place at the right time when they came out of college.”

Another veteran on the Packers, Henry Jordan, said this to Grabowski. “I don’t give a crap how much money you make. If you help put a few more dollars in my pocket, I’m with you!”

In his rookie season with the Packers, Grabowski did not get a lot of playing time, as he rushed 127 yards on 29 carries (a 4.4  yards-per-carry average). The game in which Grabowski first received significant playing time was against the expansion Atlanta Falcons at County Stadium in Milwaukee. I happened to be in attendance at that game.

Grabowski led the Packers in rushing that day with 52 yards on just seven carries, as the Packers blew out the Falcons 56-3. It was after that game that Taylor told the media that he was playing out his option with the Packers. That announcement did not sit well with Lombardi.

The most memorable run that Grabowski had as a rookie occurred versus the Minnesota Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium. No. 33 bounced off two groups of tacklers as he scampered 36 yards for a score. All told, Grabowski rushed for 61 yards on just seven carries in the game which was won by the Pack 28-16.

Grabowski also had a big play in the 1966 NFL title game at the Cotton Bowl versus the Dallas Cowboys. He was assisted on that big play by Green Bay’s other No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL draft, guard Gale Gillingham, who was the 13th pick of the first round by the Pack.

After the Packers had grabbed a 7-0 lead after scoring on the opening drive that championship game, on the ensuing kickoff, Gillingham forced a fumble by Mel Renfro, which was recovered by Grabowski and returned 18 yards for another touchdown.

Grabowski recalled that moment.

“Yes, I always got a lot of crap from Gilly because he was in on that tackle,” Grabowski said. “He told me, ‘I caused the fumble and you get the glory.’ I was at the right place at the right time. Plus in that game, the difference in the game was one touchdown.

“I was thrilled. I would like to say that it was a real athletic play, but the fumble came right into my hands and what else could I do?”

Jim Grabowski picks up fumble in 1966 NFL title game

The Packers won that title game 34-27, which set up a match up the first Super Bowl, when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Packers took over the game in the second half and both Grabowski and Anderson got into the game late. Anderson rushed for 30 yards, while Grabowski ran for two, as the Packers won 35-10.

In 1967, both Taylor and Hornung were gone. The new starting backfield for the Packers that season was Grabowski at fullback and Pitts at halfback.

Grabowski got off to a great start that year, both running and catching the football. Against the Bears in Week 2, Grabowski ran for 111 yards on 32 carries and a touchdown, plus caught three passes for 26 more yards.

Grabowski remembered that game well.

“That was a real grinding game,” Grabowski said. “I had a couple carries that were called back. I ended up carrying the ball 36 times overall. I was pretty beat up after that.”

In Week 8, the Packers played the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium. No. 33 was having a great year, as he was third in the NFL in rushing at the time. At that point, Grabowski had 448 yards rushing and had two TDs, plus had caught 12 passes for 171 yards and another score.

But Grabowski and the Packers were struck a cruel blow in the game, as No. 33 went out with a knee injury, while Pitts was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

The injury to Grabowski’s knee was a cartilage issue and he kept rehabbing and working to get back on the field. In fact, Grabowski was able to play in Week 11 against the Bears at Wrigley Field, as he rushed for 18 yards on four carries.

But that would be his last appearance for the Packers that season, even with his efforts to get back on the field. In fact, Grabowski was supposed to start the “Ice Bowl” game at fullback, before he re-injured the knee in pre-game workouts.

Grabowski recalled that moment.

“Yes, I was slated to start,” Grabowski said. “When I had the cartilage injury back then, and I can’t speak for what happens with an injury like that today, but then it just popped and tore everything up and the knee swelled up. So you tried to ice it up and take it easy. I hadn’t done much prior to the “Ice Bowl” for a few weeks, but I was able to practice that week. But before the game I was warming up and I was making a cut on a pass and the knee went out and I was done.”

A lot of people don’t realize that even with the injuries to Grabowski and Pitts that season, the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967, as Anderson and Travis Williams filled in at halfback and Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein filled in at fullback.

Mercein was a huge factor in the “Ice Bowl”, as he was responsible for 34 of the 68 yards made on that game-winning, epic drive that the Packers made to win the game 21-17.

Mercein told me in one of our conversations that one of his proudest moments came after the game when Grabowski told him that he couldn’t have played any better at FB than Mercein did that day.

With the victory over the Cowboys, the Packers now had won their third straight NFL title and were about to win their second straight Super Bowl, as the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

In 1968, Grabowski was once again the starting FB for the Packers and he led the team in rushing with 518 yards and also had three rushing TDs. No. 33 also had 18 catches for 210 yards and another score.

That touchdown catch came in the last game of the season, as the Packers played the Bears and Grabowski’s old teammate at Illinois, Dick Butkus. Going into the game, the Packers were 5-7-1 and were out of playoff contention behind head coach Phil Bengtson, who had taken over for Lombardi that year, as Vince was GM only.

Chicago was 7-6 going into the game and a victory would give da Bears the NFL Central title. But after a Zeke Bratkowski injury, Don Horn came into the game at quarterback for the Packers and had a big game. No. 13 threw for 187 yards and two scores and had a passer rating of 142.4 in the game, as the Packers won 28-27.

One of those TD passes was to Grabowski for 67 yards.

Needless to say, Butkus wasn’t too happy when he shook hands with his old buddy Grabowski after the game.

Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski

The knee injury that Grabowski had suffered in 1967 continued to plague him throughout the rest of his NFL career. In 1969 and 1970 combined, Grabowski rushed for 471 yards and two scores, but people weren’t aware of all the health trauma that the 6’2″, 220-pound fullback was going through.

“What most people don’t know is that in the 1968 offseason that I had a staph infection and was in the hospital for over two weeks,” Grabowski said. “The recuperative part after that took several months. I lost thirty pounds. As I look back at it, the staph infection was a very serious thing and I could have died from it.

“I don’t really talk about this too much. Then the next year the staph infection returned. I was fighting a number of setbacks with my knee over the years. You get injured, then an infection and then another infection. I’m fortunate that I made it through all that.”

In 1971, Grabowski was in training camp with the Packers under new head coach Dan Devine.

Grabowski vividly remembers what happened next.

“I went through about six or seven weeks of camp under Devine and then I was extremely happy to get out of there,” Grabowski said. “Not because of anything to do with the players or the Packers, but I believe I’m in the majority of the people who I have talked to subsequent to those years about playing for Devine.

“Just when we broke up camp, Devine didn’t have the nerve to call me into his office. He cut me, but he made Red Cochran tell me. That’s how brave he was! I told Red that I couldn’t believe that Devine didn’t have the nerve to face me one on one.  I lost all respect for him then.”

Grabowski played with his hometown Bears in 1971 and rushed for 149 yards before he retired.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to continue to play after I was cut by the Packers, as I was basically running on one leg,” Grabowski said. “I was happy to play for the Bears. If you could have told a kid from Chicago that he was going to go on and play for the University of Illinois, then the Packers and end up playing for the Bears, you would say what a dream!”

After he retired from the NFL, Grabowski became a color commentator for Illinois football games and remained in that role for 26 years years before retiring in 2007.

I asked Grabowski what he was up to now.

“I’ve been retired for a number of years now,” Grabowski said. “An old friend of mine, Tom Boerwinkle, who was a center on the Chicago Bulls some years back, retired before I did and I asked Tom what it was like. And he said, ‘I can’t tell you what I’m doing, but I’m busy.’

“That has kind of been my motto. I have grandkids and I watch them do every sport that they are involved in. My wife and I stay busy. Spending time with friends and family and all that. We do a lot of traveling. We’re going to Alaska next month. We’ve been to a lot of places. I’m enjoying the fourth quarter.”

Finally, with the recent passing of Bart Starr, I had to ask Grabowski to share his thoughts about his old teammate.

“With Bart and I, it was like a general and a second lieutenant,” Grabowski said. “He was like Dwight D. Eisenhower and I was a guy with one bar on his helmet. He was the ultimate gentleman. Even in tough circumstances, he was going to treat you with kindness.

“He has always been like that. I felt a real loss when he passed. I knew he was sick and I had not talked with him since he first became sick, as I didn’t want to intrude upon his privacy. But I felt a real loss when I heard he was gone. He was the heart of the Packers. He was what it was all about.

“Thinking about him right now I’m sad that he in no longer with us. There was only one of those guys!”

Green Bay Packers: Phil Bengtson, the Forgotten Man

Phil Bengtson

Everyone who knows the history of the NFL and the history of the Green Bay Packers, know that under head coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers won five NFL titles in seven years, including three in a row from 1965 through 1967, plus were victorious in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

There were many reasons for that achievement, notably the presence of Lombardi himself, who now has the Super Bowl trophy named after him and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.  The players were very talented as well, as 13 Lombardi era Packers were also inducted into the Hall of Fame, most recently Jerry Kramer.

There are a few more players that probably should be inducted into the Hall as well.  Boyd Dowler, Ron Kramer, Gale Gillingham, Fuzzy Thurston and Don Chandler come to mind.

But there is a coach that rarely gets mentioned, probably because he was the one that took over for Lombardi in 1968 as head coach.

That man is Phil Bengtson.  Most people recall that Bengtson had a 20-21-1 record in his three years as head coach.  Bengtson was also general manager in 1969 and1970 after Lombardi left.

There were reasons for Bengtson‘s head coaching record, but let us take a look first at his record as the de facto defensive coordinator from 1959 through 1967, although he never held that title.

When we look at the Packers in the Vince era, Lombardi ran the offense and Bengtson ran the defense.  Of the 13 Lombardi era Packers that made it to the Hall of Fame, seven were on the defense.  They were middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, outside linebacker Dave Robinson and safety Emlen Tunnell, who spent most of his career in New York as a Giant, but was with the Pack from 1959 through 1961.

There is no question that the Packers had the best defense in the NFL during that era.  The Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns all had outstanding defenses as well in that period, but no defense was more consistently good than the Packers.

Bengtson was able to plug in players and make them very effective when other players moved on.  Early in the Lombardi era, Bengtson had folks like defensive tackle Dave “Hawg” Hanner, defensive end Bill Quinlan, outside linebacker Dan Currie, outside linebacker Bill Forrester, cornerback Hank Gremminger, cornerback Jesse Whittenton, safety Johnny Symak and Tunnell as starters for periods of time.

Phil with Vince and others

All were very productive.  But over time those players were replaced by players such as defensive tackle Ron Kostelnik, defensive end Lionel Aldridge, outside linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, safety Tom Brown, defensive back Doug Hart, cornerback Bob Jeter, as well as Adderley and Robinson.  The excellence continued.

In the Bengtson era on defense under Lombardi, the Packers were always in the top 10 ranking, including being in the top 5 seven times and were ranked No. 1 twice.  That is quite a résumé, especially when you add the five NFL titles and the two Super Bowl wins.

But a lot of fans think of Bengtson as a head coach only, after Lombardi resigned as head coach in 1968, and stuck around one year as general manager before heading to Washington to become head coach and general manager there for the Redskins in 1969.

If one looks at the 1968 season, Bengtson was hamstrung by a team that was aging, some key injuries, some bad luck and a very poor kicking game as the team had a 6-7-1 record.

In 1968, the Packers had a lot of starters that were over the age of 30.  Quarterback Bart Starr had the second best passer rating of his career at 104.3 in 1968, but he was only able to start nine games because of injuries, most notably a shoulder injury.

The team lost several very close games in 1968, including five by a touchdown or less. Most of those losses came from a very inconsistent and ineffective kicking game.  Chandler retired after the 1967 season and his successors, Mike Mercer (7-of-12), Chuck Mercein (2-of-5), Erroll Mann (0-of-3) and Kramer (4-of-9) were a combined 13-of-29 in terms of successful field goals.  The Packers also missed three extra points that year.

The Minnesota Vikings won the NFL Central in 1968 with an 8-6 record.  The Packers had a chance to repeat again, as Bengtson had his defense ranked No. 3, but the other shortcomings doomed the team to their record.  Bengtson deserved better.

In 1969, the Packers finished 8-6, as Bengtson once again had his defense ranked high at No. 4.  But the Vikings ran away with the NFL Central title on their way to Super Bowl IV vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, the team the Packers beat 35-10 in Super Bowl I.  The Chiefs fared better this time beating the Vikings 23-7.

Starr once again only started nine games because of injury issues in 1969.  The main problem for the Packers once again was their paltry kicking game as the Packers were 6-of-22 in field goal attempts.  Bottom line, just like 1968, with a better kicking game, who knows how the Packers would have finished in 1969.

Backup quarterback Don Horn flashed that season, as he was 4-1 as a starter and ended the season in magnificent fashion, as he threw five touchdowns passes against the St. Louis Cardinals in the last game of the season at Lambeau Field, plus threw for 410 yards.

The wheels sort of fell off in 1970 though, as aging process of the roster was in full bloom and new players were being plugged in.  Starr was a shadow of his former self with a passer rating of 63.9.  Once again the kicking game was mediocre at best, as the Packers were only 15-of-28 in field goals.

Even the vaunted Packer defense failed Bengtson, as the Packers finished 16th in total defense, in the first year of the NFL/AFL merger.  Bengtson resigned in December of 1970 and was replaced by Dan Devine in 1971.

Phil and Vince

Bengtson received his proper due in 1985, as he was named to the Packer Hall of Fame.  Still, Bengtson deserves more recognition for all that he did for those great Packer teams of the 1960’s.

But the very large shadow of Lombardi somewhat concealed Bengtson‘s very successful tenure as the defensive guru of the Packers.  But Lombardi himself knew how important Bengtson was to the Packers.

That is why he named his loyal lieutenant Bengtson as his successor.

If the Pro Football Hall of Fame ever adds a wing where they honor assistant coaches or coordinators, Bengtson would definitely have the track record to get into Canton.

Bottom line, Bengtson is forgotten by some when people reminisce about the legendary success of the Packers of the 1960’s.  But he shouldn’t be.

Green Bay Packers: Remembering Travis Williams, aka ‘The Roadrunner’

Travis Williams Kickoff Return TD vs. Rams in LA

I was reading a story today by Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Sports Network in which he names his all-time NFL special teams unit.

Now nobody studies NFL special teams units like Gosselin does. Since 1980, Gosselin has studied and ranked all the special teams units in the NFL. That has gone on now for 38 years and his rankings are must-read material.

Back in 1980, Gosselin was covering the Kansas City Chiefs. The special teams coach of the Chiefs then was Frank Gansz. It was by talking with Gansz that Gosselin learned the formula about how to rank special teams units.

Before I read the story on his all-time team, I was wondering if Travis Williams of the Green Bay Packers and later the Los Angeles Rams was on Gosselin’s 53-man unit. It turns out that he wasn’t, as the returners which Gosselin has on his team are certainly worthy of getting that honor.

The three kickoff returners Gosselin has on his team are Gale Sayers, Josh Cribbs and Mel Gray. The three punt returners are Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Rick Upchurch.

Everyone of those players were consistently very good at returning kicks throughout their NFL careers, as opposed to Williams, who made a name for himself in 1967, which also happened to be his rookie year in the NFL.

In that season, Williams returned 18 kickoffs for 739 yards, which averages out to 41.1 yards-per-return, which is still a NFL record. No. 23 returned four of those 18 kicks for touchdowns and almost had a fifth against the Chicago Bears.

Travis Wiliams

Williams was never able to replicate that performance again on a consistent basis, but he did score again on returns on two occasions for the Packers in 1969, when he returned a punt for 83 yards and another kickoff for 96 yards.

Also, in 1971 when he was a member of the Rams, Williams returned another kickoff for 105 yards and a touchdown.

Besides flashing outstanding ability as a kick returner, Williams also showed that he could be a game-changer when he played running back.

Never was that more true than in the 1967 Western Conference title game, when the Packers played the Rams at Milwaukee County Stadium. The “Roadrunner” was the star of the game for the Packers.

No. 23 didn’t return a kickoff for a score, but he did rush for two touchdowns and had 88 yards rushing.

Right guard Jerry Kramer talked to me about that first TD run by Williams.

“I remember blocking on Merlin [Olsen] very vividly on one play,” Kramer said. “It’s still crystal clear in my mind. Travis is going outside right on the play. And I’m blocking on Merlin and I’m trying to get outside position on him. And he’s starting to move and I’m chasing him.

“All of a sudden, I see Travis about even with us, but near the sideline and I knew that he was gone.”

Gone he was, as Williams scampered 46 yards for a score.

The 1967 season was a special one for the Packers, as the team won it’s third straight NFL championship under head coach Vince Lombardi. That feat has never been duplicated either. That season was also the last year the Packers were coached by Lombardi.

The Packers also won their second straight Super Bowl that season, which was an outstanding feat based on all the injuries the team had that season.

In 1966, quarterback Bart Starr was the NFL MVP. But for the first part of the 1967 season, Starr was affected by a number of injuries which forced him to miss two games.

In addition to that, when the season started, the Packers no longer had halfback Paul Hornung or fullback Jim Taylor as starters in the backfield. That combination was considered to be the best in the NFL for several seasons.

Hornung was claimed by the expansion New Orleans Saints when Lombardi had put him on the Green Bay expansion list. No. 5 never played with the Saints however, as he was forced to retire due to a neck/shoulder injury.

Taylor did play for the Saints that season, as he played out his option in the 1966 season and signed with the Saints in 1967.

With Hornung and Taylor no longer available, Lombardi made Elijah Pitts his starting halfback and Jim Grabowski his starting fullback. Both were having solid seasons when in Week 8 of the 1967 season against the Baltimore Colts, both Pitts and Grabowski were lost for the season with injuries.

Lombardi then added fullback Chuck Mercein to the team via waivers and Green Bay now had a one-two punch at both halfback and fullback throughout the rest of the 1967 season.

Donny Anderson and Williams shared time at halfback, while Mercein and Ben Wilson shared duties at fullback.

The result? The Packers finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.

Travis Williams in the Ice Bowl

When the postseason came around, Lombardi utilized all of his backs, depending on the opponents.

Against the Rams, Lombardi primarily played Williams at halfback and Mercein at fullback. Against the Cowboys in the “Ice Bowl”, Anderson played primarily at halfback, while Mercein received most of the playing time at fullback.

But in Super Bowl II versus the Oakland Raiders, Anderson again was in most of the time at halfback, while Wilson got the start at fullback that game and led the Packers in rushing that day with 65 yards.

In 1967, Williams was part of a rookie class, which included Bob Hyland and Don Horn. I wrote a piece about that class a little over a year ago.

Williams first showed his kickoff return prowess in Week 7 of the 1967 season, when he returned a kick for 93 yards and a score against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis.

At the time of that kickoff return, the Packers were trailing the Cardinals 23-17 in the fourth quarter. The Packers ended up winning that game 31-23.

Two weeks later against the Cleveland Browns at Milwaukee County Stadium, Williams really put himself on the NFL map. Williams returned two kickoffs for touchdowns that day in the first quarter. The first was 87 yards and the second one was 85 yards. If that wasn’t enough, the “Roadrunner” rushed for 43 yards in just four carries in the game.

Williams returned his fourth kickoff return for a touchdown against the Rams in Week 13 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 104 yards.

As a running back in the 1967 regular season, Williams rushed for 188 yards (5.4 yards-per-carry average) and one score, while he caught five passes for 80 yards (16 yard average) and another score.

In the postseason, Williams rushed for 137 yards (4.6 average) and had two touchdowns (both against the Rams).

As it was, Williams only showed glimpses of what he did in 1967 throughout the rest of his career in Green Bay and in the NFL.

In 1968, Williams only had a 21.4 average in returning kicks (no touchdowns) and only rushed for 63 yards the entire season.

In 1969, Williams appeared to have bounced back in fine fashion, as he had two return touchdowns and also rushed for 536 yards (4.2 average) and four scores. No. 23 also caught 27 passes for 275 yards and three more touchdowns.

But in 1970, Williams again regressed, as he had just 276 yards rushing (3.7 average) and one touchdown, plus caught just 12 passes, one of which was a score.

In 1971, new head coach and general manager Dan Devine traded Williams to the Rams, where “The Roadrunner” had his last season in the NFL because of a knee injury.

Sadly, Williams died at the young age of 45 in 1991 of heart failure after a long illness. Williams had dealt with homelessness, poverty and alcohol for a number of years leading up to his death.

Williams had battled depression due to the deaths of his wife, mother and sister in 1985.

It was a tragic end to the life of Williams, who had been the brightest of lights for the Packers in the glorious season of 1967.

It was in that season when the “Roadrunner” set a kickoff return record which has yet to be broken. That didn’t get Williams on Gosselin’s all-time NFL special teams unit, but I certainly believe that Williams deserves honorable mention for his kick returning skills.

The History Between the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns

 

Jim Brown and Willie Davis 1965 NFL title gameWhen the 6-6 Green Bay Packers take on the 0-12 Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, this will be only the 19th time the two teams have met in the regular season. That is somewhat hard to believe, knowing that the Packers have been in the NFL since 1921 and the Browns first joined the league in 1950.

Yes, both teams have been in different conferences in the NFL up until the NFL-AFL merger and beyond, but it is still a bit surprising that the teams only have met 18 times up to this point.

It’s also a bit shocking that the two teams have only met once in the postseason as well, especially knowing how good both teams were in the 1960s. As it was, the only time the two teams met was in the 1965 NFL title game at Lambeau Field. More on that game later.

By the time the Browns came into the NFL in 1950, after first dominating the All-American Football Conference from 1946 through 1949 (four league titles), the Packers had fallen on hard times.

1950 was the year when founder and head coach Curly Lambeau left the Packers to coach the Chicago Cardinals.

The Packers had won six NFL titles (1929, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1939 and 1944) under Lambeau, but the things changed for the Packers once Don Hutson retired after the 1945 season and the All-American Football Conference was born in 1946.

That meant the Packers and the rest of the NFL were competing monetarily for draft picks and veterans with the AAFC.

That hurt the Packers financially, as did the fact that Lambeau purchased the Rockwood Lodge north of Green Bay for $25,000 for the Packers to practice at from 1946 to 1949. That purchase did not sit well with the members of the executive committee.

Nor did the team’s play, as the Packers went 3-9 in 1948 and then 2-10 in 1949.

Then the Rockwood Lodge burned down on January 24, 1950, and Lambeau ended up resigning a week later to coach the Chicago Cardinals (later the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals and now the Arizona Cardinals).

The 1950s turned out to be the worst decade in the history of the Packers, as the team was just 39-79-2.

Meanwhile, the new kid on the NFL block, the Browns, dominated the NFL for the most part in that decade. The Browns played in seven NFL title games and won three of them (1950, 1954 and 1955).

The Packers and Browns only met three times during the 1950s, and as one might expect, Cleveland dominated, winning all three times by a combined score of  92-17.

But the Browns did help the Packers quite a bit in 1959. That was when their founder and head coach Paul Brown, along with assistance from George Halas of the Chicago Bears, heartily endorsed New York Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to become the next head coach of the Packers.

The Packers were reeling then, as the team had sunk to a 1-10-1 record in 1958 under head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean. Thanks to the efforts of super scout Jack Vainisi of the Packers, Lombardi was indeed named the new head coach and general manager of the team in 1959.

Brown wasn’t done helping the Packers either. After Lombardi assumed his dual role in Green Bay, he and Brown made a number of trades.

The first three trades happened in 1959, when Lombardi first traded star wide receiver Billy Howton to the Browns for halfback Lew Carpenter and defensive end Bill Quinlan.

In his second trade, Lombardi parted with a fourth-round pick in the 1960 NFL draft for defensive tackle Henry Jordan.

In the third trade, Lombardi traded a fifth-round pick in the 1960 NFL draft for defensive back Bob Freeman.

In 1960, Lombardi and Brown made another deal. This time Lombardi parted with end A.D. Williams for defensive end Willie Davis.

Then in 1961, Lombardi traded a third-round pick in the 1962 NFL draft for quarterback John Roach, who served as Bart Starr’s backup for a couple of seasons until Zeke Bratkowski arrived on the scene.

Bottom line, it was quite a haul for Lombardi in those trades. He was able to get two future Hall of Famers in Jordan and Davis, plus acquired a four-year starter at defensive end in Quinlan. Carpenter was also a solid reserve and special teams player for five years with the Packers.

Jim Taylor vs. Browns in 1961

Lombardi and Brown only faced off against each other one time as head coaches, which was in 1961. The Packers dominated that game, by beating the Browns 49-17 at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The 1961 season was the first that Lombardi and his Packers brought their first NFL championship to Titletown, with some assistance from President John F. Kennedy.

Lombardi and the Packers won another NFL title in 1962, while Brown was fired by owner Art Modell after that season.

New head coach Blanton Collier led the Browns to the 1964 NFL title, but did suffer a 28-21 loss to the Packers at Milwaukee County Stadium in the regular season.

Collier and his Browns made it to the 1965 NFL title game again, this time against Lombardi and his Packers at Lambeau Field. This would be the first appearance in a NFL title game for Green Bay since 1962.

The running game of the Packers had struggled almost the entire year in 1965, as the Packers finished 10th in the NFL in rushing. Still, the Packers could not be stopped toting the rock on this snowy and muddy day on the frozen tundra against the Browns.

Paul Hornung running the power sweep

Green Bay rushed for 204 yards behind Taylor and Hornung, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders so the Packers gained big chunks of yardage on the ground.

Meanwhile, the defense of the Packers held the great Jim Brown to just 50 yards rushing.

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.

The 1965 season was the first of three straight NFL championships for the Packers. No team in the modern history of the NFL has ever duplicated that feat.

In 1966, the Packer won their second straight NFL title and also Super Bowl I. On their way to those achievements, the Packers beat the Browns 21-20 in the second game of the season at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in a stirring comeback.

The Browns, eager to repay the Packers after the 1965 NFL title game defeat, jumped to a 14-0 lead. But the Packers bounced back and had the ball down 20-14 late in the the game.

In the closing seconds of the game, and on fourth down, Starr hit Taylor with a nine-yard touchdown pass, as No. 31 avoided two tacklers. The result? A 21-20 victory by the Packers.

The Packers won their third straight NFL title in 1967, plus won Super Bowl II. During the regular season, the Packers played the Browns again, this time at Milwaukee County Stadium.

The game has become very memorable in Green Bay lore, due to the performance of rookie kick returner Travis Williams. Williams returned two kickoffs for touchdowns that day in the first quarter. The first was 87 yards and the second one was 85 yards. If that wasn’t enough, the “Roadrunner” rushed for 43 yards in just four carries, as the Packers blew out the Browns 55-7.

Another rookie on the Packers, quarterback Don Horn, got his first meaningful playing time that season in the fourth quarter.

Horn related a story to me about that game, which shows the class and dignity of his head coach.

“It’s late in the fourth quarter and I drove the team 50 or 60 yards to the Cleveland seven-yard line,” Horn said. “There’s two minutes to go and we were up at the time 55-7. So I’m think we are going to score. All of a sudden Forrest Gregg comes back into the game, as by then all the backups were in the game. So that was sort of odd.

“So I’m thinking to myself that Forrest brought in a play for me to run and we are going to score. But instead, Forrest grabs me and pulls me aside and says, ‘The old man told me to tell you NOT to score.’ So I ran the clock out just like Coach Lombardi wanted.

“After the game ended, Vince was one of the first guys to see me. He grabbed me and he said, ‘Donald (as he pointed over to head coach Blanton Collier of the Browns), you see that gentleman over there? 55 is bad enough. I’m not going put 62 on him. That man is a gentleman. Do you understand, son?’ And I replied, yes sir. Lombardi then says, ‘Okay. Good.’

From 1968 through 1989, the Packers only made two playoff appearances (1972 and 1982 and had one divisional title (1972), while the Browns were regulars in the postseason, with 11 appearances (1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989), won eight divisional titles (1968, 1969, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989) and played in four conference title games (1968, 1969, 1988 and 1989).

In that period, the Packers and Browns met five times. The Packers surprisingly beat the Browns in three of those games.

Since 1989, the Browns have only made two postseason appearances (1994 and 2002), plus have seen the original franchise move to Baltimore and become the Ravens after the 1995 season.

Since 1993, the Packers have become a regular in the NFL postseason, as the team has played in 39 playoff games since that year, winning 21 of those games. Green Bay has also won two Super Bowls, one after the 1996 season, and one after the 2010 season.

The Browns have yet to play in one Super Bowl.

The Packers met the Browns in Cleveland in 1995 after Modell announced that the team was moving to Baltimore. Green Bay won that contest 31-20.

Brett vs. the Browns in 1995

The Browns got a new team in Cleveland in 1999, but except for a few bright moments like the one and only postseason appearance in 2004, the team has been one of the NFL’s worst teams since then.

In my opinion, a lot of that has come from the terrible ownership which has controlled the Browns since their new inception. Both the Lerner family and now current owner Jimmy Haslam have sunk the organization to depths that the great fans in Cleveland certainly don’t deserve.

It’s been especially brutal under Haslam’s “leadership”, as the team has gone 20-72 since he became owner in 2012, which includes this season’s mark of 0-12.

It’s also important to note that Mike Holmgren played a large role with both teams over the years.

While Holmgren coached the Packers from 1992 thorough 1998 (75-37 record), the team went to the postseason six times, won three divisional titles, played in three NFC title games and won twice and played in two Super Bowls and won once (Super Bowl XXXI).

After coaching the Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, the Browns named Holmgren as their team president in 2009. Under his guidance, the Browns did not fare very well, as the team went 19-45.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the Browns over the past quarter century, both before the team moved and after the new team arrived, is the play at the quarterback position, not to mention the game of musical chairs the Browns have played at quarterback.

From 1992 through 1995, the Browns had seven different starting quarterbacks in that period, led by Vinny Testaverde with 31 starts and Bernie Kosar with 14 starts.

Since 1999, the Browns have had 30 different starting quarterbacks.

Compare that with the Packers, who have seen Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers get the bulk of their starts over the past 25 years. Favre started 253 straight regular season games for the Packers from 1992 through 2007.

Rodgers has started in 141 games since then. In the games when Rodgers was injured (concussion or broken collarbone) or rested, the Packers have started only four other quarterbacks (Matt Flynn, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Brett Hundley).

The Browns overall regular season record over that time is 94-206. The Packers overall regular season record over that time is 260-151-1.

The Packers and Browns have met four times in the 21st century, with the Packers winning three of those four games.

That puts the Packers in the lead in all-time series with an 11-7 advantage.

It still seems very strange that two teams with as rich a history as both the Packers and Browns have had throughout their time in the NFL, have only met 18 times in the regular season and just once in the postseason.

The 2017 Packers are trying to get back to the postseason for the ninth straight time, while the Browns would love to just sniff the postseason at this point.

Don Horn to be Inducted into the Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame

Don Horn

On Friday June 23, Don Horn will be inducted into the Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame at Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa in Las Vegas. The organization honors former players, coaches and contributors for their accomplishments on and off the field.

You may ask, what is Gridiron Greats? Well, here is their mission statement from their website:

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund’s mission is to assist dire need retired NFL players who were pioneers of the game and who have greatly contributed to the NFL’s status as the most popular sport in America. Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund provides hands-on assistance to help retired players and their families deal with hardships they face after football. The services include medical assistance, transportation costs for medical evaluations and surgeries, housing assistance, financial assistance for utilities, medication, and coordination of services for food, automotive payments, and childcare.

Speaking of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, this is a description of what is does, which also from their website:

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund (GGAF) is a non-stock, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization providing financial grants and ‘pro bono’ medical assistance to retired NFL players in dire need. The organization focuses on the humanitarian side of post-football related issues, which include coordination of social services to retired players who are in need due to a variety of reasons including inadequate disability and/or pensions.

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund’s mission is to assist dire need retired NFL players who were pioneers of the game and who have greatly contributed to the NFL’s status as the most popular sport in America. Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund provides hands-on assistance to help retired players and their families deal with hardships they face after football. The services include medical assistance, transportation costs for medical evaluations and surgeries, housing assistance, financial assistance for utilities, medication, and coordination of services for food, automotive payments, and childcare.

Gridiron Greats was originally founded by legendary right guard Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers back in 2007. It all started when he had a Super Bowl ring stolen. Kramer subsequently had a replica ring produced. Kramer later discovered his original ring was being auctioned online.

The auction company then returned the original Super Bowl ring to Kramer. In return, Kramer gave his replica ring to the auction company where $22,000 was raised. Kramer then founded Gridiron Greats and the $22,000 became the initial capital of the organization.

Currently, the organization is headed by Mike Ditka, the Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end who played with the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. Ditka also was head coach of da Bears when they won Super Bowl XX and was 121-95 as a head coach with the Bears and the New Orleans Saints.

Sitting with Ditka on the Board of Directors for Gridiron Greats, is Gale Sayers, Marv Levy, Kyle Turley and Matt Birk.

Besides inducting Horn later this month, Gridiron Greats is also enshrining Matt Birk, Dave Casper, Mike Golic, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, John Niland, Jonathan Ogden, Jim Otto, Andre Reed and Jason Taylor.

Wow. That is quite a class!

Gridiron Greats has been inducting members into their Hall of Fame since 2009. Here are the past inductees for the Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame, going year by year:

2009: “Bullit” Bob Dudley, Charlie Sanders, Ron Kramer, John Panelli, Roger Brown, Wally Triplett, Reggie McKenzie, Darris McCord, John Conti, Rocky Bleier, Albert Wistert, Earl Morrall, Jimmy David, Terry Barr and Jerry Green

2010: Mike Ditka, Joe Schmidt, Lem Barney, Pat Summerall, Lloyd Carr, John Green, Lynn Chandnois, Tom Nowatzke, Walt Kowalczyk, Bob Chappuis, Tom Matte, Lomas Brown, Mike Lucci and Dave Brandon

2011: Alex Karras, Gale Sayers, Dick LeBeau, Herman Moore, Desmond Howard, Anthony Carter, Pat Studstill, Gail Cogdill, Dorne Dibble, George Guerre, Sam Williams, Jon Jansen, Dexter Bussey and Tommy Watkins

2012: Marv Levy, Angelo Mosca, Dan Dierdorf, Bobby Bell, Joe DeLamielleure, Gary Moeller, Al “Bubba” Baker, Kyle Turley, Archie Matsos and Hank Bullough

2013: Man of the Year: Kevin Turner Class Inductees: Joe Greene, Jim Marshall, Chris Spielman, Dean Look, Rick Volk, Grady Alderman, Greg Landry, Roger Zatkoff, George Perles, George Reed and Hugh Campbell

2014 in Michigan: Dan Reeves, Brian Westbrook, Jim Brandstatter, Mike Utley, Matt Dunigan, Maxie Baughan, Doug English, Derrick Mason, Mushim Mohammed and Eddie Murray

2014 in Las Vegas: Men of the Year: Paul Hornung and Mike Lucci Woman of the Year: Sylvia Mackey Courage Award: David Humm Class Inductees: Ricky Watters, Hugh McIlhenny, Jon Arnett, Conrad Dobler, Jim Plunkett and Tom Flores

2015 in Las Vegas: Woman of the Year: Chie Smith Class Inductees: Al Davis, Abner Hayes, Jim McMahon, Bob St. Clair, Dave Wilcox, Fred Biletnikoff, Ray Elgaard, George Kunz, Tom Mack, Raymond Chester, Dick Vermeil and Jim Covert

2016 in Las Vegas: Sylvia Mackey Woman of the Year: Chanda Brigance Class Inductees: Cliff Branch, Billy Kilmer, Daryle Lamonica, Don Maynard, Ed Flanagan, Dan Pastorini, Ron “Jaws” Jaworski, Robert Brazile, Danny McManus, Eddie Meador and Jim Taylor

That is quite a Hall of Fame!

You may notice one name missing. That would be the founder of Gridiron Greats, Jerry Kramer. But don’t worry, Gridiron Greats has reached out to Kramer to induct him, but Kramer’s schedule helping out with the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic has put off his induction up to this point. But trust me, Kramer’s induction will happen.

Now, getting back to Don Horn. The former San Diego State star played eight years in the NFL, with four of those years in Green Bay.

Don Horn with Coach Lombardi in Super Bowl II

It all started when he was drafted by the Packers in 1967. Horn recalled that moment, as he was sitting in the public relation director’s office at San Diego State listening to the draft on the radio.

“So we’re listening to the draft and I hear that the Lions selected Mel Farr with their pick in the first round,” Horn said. “And I’m thinking that those guys [the Lions] didn’t tell the truth about picking me.

“So as we getting near the end of the first round, I’m kind of ticked because all these teams who said they were going to pick me, didn’t. All of a sudden the phone rings and I believe it was Coach Lombardi’s secretary, and she said, ‘Is this Donald Horn?’ And I said yes. She then told me to please hold for Coach Lombardi.

“At first I thought someone was playing a trick on me. Then Lombardi and his distinctive voice gets on the phone. He says, ‘Donald,  this is Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers. The Kansas City Chiefs are picking right now. We are considering making you our next draft choice. Do you have any reservations about playing for the Packers?’ I said no sir.

“Then Coach asked if I had signed any contracts with other leagues like the Canadian Football League. Again, I said no sir. Lombardi then said he would get back to me in about 15 minutes. About 15 minutes later, I get the call and Lombardi says, ‘Don, you are now a Green Bay Packer.’

“I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was 10 feet tall. It was like walking on water!”

Horn had two very memorable games at quarterback for the Packers.

One was the last game of the 1968 season, when the Packers faced da Bears at Wrigley Field.

The Packers were already eliminated from the NFL Central division race and had a 5-7-1 record going into the game. The Bears, on the other hand, were 7-6, and a win would give them the NFL Central title.

Horn did not expect to play in the game.

“I got out of the Army about 10 days before the game,” Horn said. “I missed pretty much the whole season because I was in the service. So I got up there and practiced with the team a little bit with the team the week before.

“I had a reserve meeting that Saturday night in Milwaukee. I got out of the reserve meeting around 11:00 and I drove down to Chicago, and I think we were staying at the Drake Hotel. I went in there about 2:30 in the morning. My roommate was Ron Kostelnik.

“Anyway, get up the next morning and went down to the team breakfast. And Lombardi is there and he was still the general manager of the team and is pulling the strings. He tells me, “I’m thinking of having you suit up today.” Bart had broken ribs, so I was going to be the third-string quarterback. Zeke (Bratkowski) started the game but got hurt and he had to be carried off the field.

“Billy Stevens was the other quarterback. Billy started throwing the ball on the sideline getting ready to go into the game. Just then, I think it was coach Schnelker who said, ‘Horn, get in there.’ The first series I struggled, and it seemed like Dick Butkus and company knew exactly what I was doing. The next series it got better. I remember I called one play, and Boyd Dowler says, ‘You can’t call that play here, it won’t work.’ And I said, “It’s the only play I can remember, ready break.” And I threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Jim Grabowski on the play.”

When the game was over, the Packers had beaten Chicago 28-27. Horn ended up throwing for 187 yards, plus had two touchdown passes without throwing a pick. No. 13’s quarterback rating for that game was a robust 142.4.

Then came the last game of the 1969 season, as the Packers were trying to stay over .500, as their record at the time was 7-6. Horn had been 3-1 that season as a starting quarterback up until this last game of the season versus the St. Louis Cardinals at Lambeau Field.

December 21, 1969 was special in many ways for the Packers. For one, it was Willie Davis Day at Lambeau, as the Packers were honoring No. 87, who announced he was retiring after the season.

Horn made it even more special. The Packers whipped the Cardinals in that game, 45-28. Horn had a fantastic performance, as he threw for 410 yards and also threw five touchdown passes. At the time, Horn was the first quarterback of the Packers to ever throw for more than 400 passing yards.

Horn reflected on that game.

“Bob Schnelker had a great game plan,” Horn said. “And back then, you called your own plays. Everything just worked. I would call the right plays at just the right time. Great game plan by Schnelker. Great execution by the offense. I was on cloud nine. Everything was clicking and we were on all cylinders. Everything fell into place.”

1970 was not a particularly good year for Horn or the Packers, and the team fired head coach Phil Bengtson after the season and hired coach Dan Devine.

Horn had a conversation with Devine about a week before the 1971 NFL draft, telling him he was happy in Green Bay and wanted to get his contract situation resolved and was looking forward to working with the former Missouri head coach. Devine seemed pleased with the discussion and told Horn he would fly him into Green Bay after the draft to get a new contract done.

But on the morning of the draft, Horn received a phone call from Devine. In a very short conversation to the best of Horn’s recollection, Devine said this, “Don, this is coach Devine. I’m just calling you to let you know that I just traded you to the Denver Broncos. Good luck!”

That was the end of Horn’s career in Green Bay.

Horn played two years with the Broncos and then one each with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers before retiring from football after the 1974 season.

Looking back, Horn still has strong feelings about his time in Green Bay.

“I wouldn’t trade my time in Green Bay for anything in the world,” Horn said. “I feel very fortunate to be in that great era of the ’60s and to be part of that great team. There were a lot of great characters on that team. Ray Nitschke. Willie Wood. Herb Adderley. Robby (Dave Robinson). Lee Roy Caffey. Bart (Starr). Forrest Gregg. Jerry Kramer. A great bunch of ball players, who also had great character.”

Speaking of Kramer, Horn was at a reunion/autograph session a few years ago with a number of the players on the Super Bowl II team, including Kramer. Horn overheard Kramer talking about stem cell treatment.

“When I first found out about this, I had bad knees, bad ankles and my hip and shoulder were bothering me as well,” Horn said. “So I went back to Wisconsin for a reunion about four years ago. 24 guys showed up for it. And over half of those guys had gone through hip, knee, shoulder replacement surgeries.

“Half of those guys were complaining that their situation was no better now than it was before the surgery. Jerry was sort of in the corner listening to the guys complain about their aches and pains. Then he started talking about stem cell treatment, as he recently had his hip injected in Florida.

“Jerry was raving about how great the process was. I was sort of intrigued and listened closely to what Jerry had to say. So I go back to Colorado and talked to some doctors there. They referred me to a clinic north of Denver, which was then called Orthopedic Stem Cell Institute (now Premier Regenerative Stem Cell and Wellness Centers). I went up and met with them and observed a procedure where they actually worked on a guy’s spine. I was really impressed.

“To make a long story short, I had them do work on my knees and I’ve had good results. So I’m thinking to myself, that there were a lot of guys I know who had the same issues I had. So since then, I’m kind of the NFL liaison to help promote stem cell treatment.

“We have probably had close to 175 former NFL players who have had a stem cell procedure done, some of whom are in the Hall of Fame. We also recently signed an exclusive deal with the NFL Alumni to be their official stem cell resource.”

Horn has also been a liaison for Premier to partner with Gridiron Greats. Horn worked closely with Kandace Stolz, who is the President and CEO of Premier, as they gained this association with Gridiron Greats.

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Mike Ditka with Kandace Stolz

Gridiron Greats and Premier Regenerative Stem Cell and Wellness Centers have partnered now for two years to help lessen the debilitating effects of long-term injuries that NFL players often suffer from.

Premier certainly has a strong advocate for stem cell therapy in Kramer, as Horn talked about earlier in the story. Kramer is also a member of the Premier Regenerative board of advisers.

Through their exclusive partnership, Premier Regenerative has helped many of the former players avoid extensive surgeries and medication that they may not have been able to afford. Many of the Gridiron Great patients credit Premier Regenerative with a significant improvement in their quality of life and pain management.

Gridiron Greats and Premier Regenerative also partner to work towards facilitating comprehensive treatment for military veterans and retired professional sports athletes through the nonprofit, After The Impact Fund. This fund is designed to help these individuals recover from injuries and get stem cell treatment and other mental health and medical services as needed.

Stolz is proud of this relationship.

“Our work with both Gridiron Greats and After the Impact Fund is an integral part of our company culture'” Stolz said. “We thrive on helping people recover and live a pain-free life; we’re proud to work with organizations that have the same vision.”

Horn has played a large role in helping out former NFL players, just like he himself was helped years before. One of my favorite stories involves Lance Alworth, the former star wide receiver of the San Diego Chargers, who was nicknamed “Bambi” during his playing days.

“Lance came out a couple of years ago,” Horn said. “He was all set to have a knee replaced, but I told him to come out to Premier to have his knee looked at. The doctors looked at his knees and he was not considered a candidate for stem cell treatment.

“I mean, his knee was worse than mine. But because of who he was and because he made the trip from San Diego, they gave him an injection of stem cells into his knee. Six weeks later Lance calls me and says, ‘Don, I can’t thank you enough. I can walk again and I can golf. I’m 85 percent better and the pain is virtually gone.’

Horn is the key promoter of stem cell therapy to former NFL players and the list of players wanting treatment keeps growing. His efforts were aided by Stolz when she came aboard Premier.

“Kandace has such an affinity and a sincere desire to help people, ” Horn said. “”They really want to help former players get better. Kandace saw my value and that helped to open some doors because of my contacts. She saw that I had an ability to communicate well with people, just like Jerry Kramer.

“Kandace put together a marketing and business plan to push this thing further up the ladder. We have added many more former NFL players, and are branching out to other professional sports like the NHL. Plus, we are working with military veterans who we are helping out as well.”

That networking led to a relationship with Gridiron Greats. One can see why Gridiron Greats is inducting Horn.

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Don Horn with Dan Pastorini

Horn was certainly grateful when he heard the news of his induction.

“I’m very proud and honored by the news of this induction,” Horn said. I’m very humbled about this as well. Especially knowing some of the names who have previously been inducted. I’m just thrilled. I’m kind of blown away with this honor.

“I just want to continue to help out my brothers, just like the previous inductees have. It’s just so humbling to be mentioned with all the great previous inductees.

“When I get out there and give my acceptance speech, I definitely want to point out Jerry Kramer. It was all his brainstorm that got this whole thing started. I’m proud to be not only a teammate of his, but also proud to be a friend of his.”