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

Vince Lombardi with coaching cap on.

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the notable ones:

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

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

Boyd Dowler scores TD in Ice Bowl

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

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

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

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

Lee Roy Caffey in the Ice Bowl

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

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

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

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

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

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

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

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

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photo by John Biever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part of that article:

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

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

Kramer said there was calm in that huddle.

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

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

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

“I recall that there was no nonsense at all on that drive,” Anderson said. “It represented the discipline that Lombardi had taught us. We knew that we had to execute and we were determined to get the job done.”

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

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

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

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

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

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

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

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

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

That loss put the Packers in a second and 19 hole, but two swing passes to Anderson netted 22 yards and the Packers had a big first down. If you look at those receptions on film, you see some pretty nifty footwork by Anderson. Not easily done on a truly frozen tundra.

Anderson explained.

“I recall that I had to balance myself,” Anderson said. “Not to run like a sprinter, but to balance yourself. Be a little more flat-footed. I also figured that a quicker guy might be better off under those conditions than a heavier guy.”

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

“On that play, if Bob didn’t block [George] Andrie on that play, Mercein would get killed,” Kramer said. “It was a very difficult block, too. So Bart looked at “Ski” and asked if he could make that block before the play. And “Ski” simply said, ‘Call it, on two.’

Mercein vividly recalls that run.

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

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

“After the run, I’m laying across the goal line with my waist and the ball,” Anderson said. “Cornell Green of the Cowboys yelled that I scored, while Jethro Pugh told him to be quiet. The ref then picks up the ball and puts it 18 inches back from the goal line.

“Later on as we saw film of the game, Coach Lombardi said to me, ‘Young man, I think they took one away from you there.’

After two two unsuccessful running attempts by Anderson to score after that, as he slipped both times, the Packers called their final timeout. There were 16 seconds to go in the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kramer: “Yeah, I think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’

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

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

“Responsibility. I mean I had suggested the play on Thursday. It seemed like the play was squarely on my shoulders,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to perform. I knew that to be successful as a blocker that I had to keep my head up and my eyes open.

“And also put my face into the chest of the defensive tackle [Pugh]. That is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the safest and the surest way to make a block. I felt great personal responsibility to the team on that block. When I came off the ball, I was on fire.”

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

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

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

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

IMAG0498

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

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

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

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: Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb Have Joined a Legendary Fraternity

Clay Matthews XLV (1)

Packer Nation had a very painful day last week, when they learned that both linebacker Clay Matthews and wide receiver Randall Cobb would be moving on to play for other teams.

Matthews will be going back to his old stomping grounds in southern California, as he signed with the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent. Cobb was a also a free agent and he signed with the Dallas Cowboys.

Both signings occurred on the same day, March 19. It was a double punch to the ribs.

Both Matthews and Cobb left great legacies in Green Bay and gave the Packer faithful many great moments to remember.

In his 10-year career as a Packer, Matthews had 482 total tackles, a franchise record 83.5 sacks, 40 passes defended, six interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), 15 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries (one returned for a score).

That type of production led Matthews to be honored with six Pro Bowl berths, as well as being named AP first-team All-Pro once and AP second-team All-Pro once.

Matthews was also a terror in the postseason. In 15 games, No. 52 had 53 tackles, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

No forced fumble was bigger than the one he helped to cause in Super Bowl XLV in the 2010 postseason.  Matthews forced Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to fumble on the first snap of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV, with help from defensive lineman Ryan Pickett.

Pittsburgh was driving for a potential go-ahead score at the Packers’ 33-yard line until Matthews’ helmet dislodged the football, popping it into the air.

The Packers took advantage of that turnover with a touchdown drive and went on to win 31-25 and the team’s fourth Super Bowl prize, aptly named the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Clay forces fumble in Super Bowl XLV

Cobb didn’t arrive in Green Bay until 2011, but he had a great career in both the regular season and postseason. In his eight-year career as a Packers, Cobb had 470 receptions (sixth all time in franchise history) for 5,524 yards (11th all time in franchise history) and 41 touchdowns.

No regular season touchdown was bigger than the one Cobb scored in the last game of the 2013 season, when the Packers played the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The winner of that game would win the NFC North, while the loser would go home without a playoff spot.

Here was the situation: There were 46 seconds to go in the game, with the Packers trailing the Bears 28-27 and Green Bay facing a fourth-and-8 scenario.

In the moment of truth, quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who had returned for this game after missing several weeks because of a broken collarbone) first avoided being sacked by Julius Peppers by sprinting to his left and then getting a chip-block by fullback John Kuhn. Rodgers then delivered a 48-yard touchdown pass on the move to Cobb, as the Packers won 33-28.

Cobb was also money in the postseason. In 11 games, No. 18 caught 47 passes for 596 yards and five touchdowns. No TD was bigger than the 42-yard Hail Mary pass Cobb caught from Rodgers at the end of the first half in the 2016 Wild Card Playoff game between the Packers and New York Giants at Lambeau Field.

In all, Cobb caught three touchdown passes in the game, as the Pack whipped the G-Men 38-13.

Rodgers to Cobb in 2013 vs. da Bears

While there is no doubt that both Matthews and Cobb had great careers in Green Bay, they have also joined a legendary fraternity of players who played with the Packers but finished their NFL careers in other cities.

A number of them were players who ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well.

Most notable was Brett Favre.

After announcing his retirement in March of 2008, Favre later decided he indeed wanted to return to the Packers. But the Packers decided by that time to turn things over to Rodgers at quarterback and instead traded Favre to the New York Jets for the 2008 season.

No. 4 then signed with the hated Minnesota Vikings the following year.  Favre played with the Vikings for two years before really retiring in 2011.

Plus there was Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.

That tandem was the force of the Packers’ vaunted ground game in the Lombardi era from 1959 to 1966.  Taylor and Hornung won MVP awards and helped the team win four world championships.

However, in 1967, Taylor left as a free agent for the New Orleans Saints, and Hornung was also claimed by the Saints in the 1967 expansion draft but never played because of a neck injury.

Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor in 1962

There are many other examples of players who later were given busts in Canton, but who ended their NFL careers in other cities instead of Green Bay.

The list includes Arnie Herber, Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg, Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson, James Lofton and Reggie White. Another player who will soon be joining that club is Charles Woodson.

Another Hall of Famer who could have been in that fraternity is Jerry Kramer. No. 64 retired after the 1968 season and was doing color commentary for NFL games on CBS in 1969.

But because of injuries at the guard position on the offensive line, both the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings wanted Kramer to join them in the 1969 season. Kramer never seriously considered playing for Bud Grant and the Vikings (although he was flattered by the offer), but he did agree to play for the Rams after conferring with George Allen.

But the Packers refused to relinquish the rights to Kramer to the Rams and No. 64 stayed in the broadcast both.

Plus there are the legendary coaches who both have a place among the best of the best at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Team founder and coach Curly Lambeau left the Packers after a dispute with the executive committee in 1950 to coach the Chicago Cardinals.  Lambeau coached the Packers from 1921 to 1949, winning 209 games with a .656 winning percentage and six NFL championships.

But even with that, Lambeau had issues with the executive committee.

Lambeau’s last two teams in Green Bay were a collective 5-19.  Plus, Lambeau ticked off members by purchasing the Rockwood Lodge north of Green Bay for $25,000 for the Packers to practice at from 1946 to 1949.  The facility burned down on Jan. 24, 1950, and Lambeau resigned a week later to coach the Cardinals.

The Cardinals were considered a very talented team when Lambeau arrived there.  The Cardinals had won the NFL title in 1947, and next to the Bears, were clearly the next-biggest rival to the Packers at the time.  Needless to say, people in Green Bay were not pleased when Lambeau joined forces with the Cardinals.

Then another coaching legend arrived a few years later—Vince Lombardi.  The result of his tenure?  Five NFL championships in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls.

Included in that tenure was three straight NFL titles (1965-1967), something that was never done in NFL history except once, when Lambeau did it from 1929-1931 with his Packers when the NFL did not have a playoff format.

Lombardi left the Packers after the 1968 season (Lombardi was a GM-only that season) to coach the Washington Redskins.  The Packers had stopped Lombardi from leaving a couple of times before, as the New York Giants had tried to get Lombardi back to his hometown and back with his close friend and college buddy Wellington Mara, who owned the Giants.

Lambeau and Lombardi

Together, Lambeau and Lombardi brought 11 world championships to Green Bay, with Lambeau winning six titles and Lombardi five in seven years, including wins in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

Now I’m not saying that either Matthews or Cobb will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (although Matthews has a much better chance), but there is no doubt that both will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.

There they will join a number of other Green Bay legends who are not in Canton currently, but who also ended up in different locales to finish their pro careers.

People like Billy Howton, Tobin Rote, Ron Kramer, Dan Currie, Boyd Dowler, Elijah Pitts, Lee Roy Caffey, Donny Anderson, Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens and Mike Holmgren.

It’s always difficult saying goodbye to a great player or great coach who moves on to another NFL city, but the memories that they have left behind will live on forever.

That is certainly true of both Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb.

Jerry Kramer and the Packers Were Both Kicked in the Stomach at Lambeau vs. the Vikings

Jerry getting his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at Lambeau

Evan Siegle, packers.com

Lambeau Field sure looked like the place to be on Sunday. The 1-0 Green Bay Packers were hosting the 1-0 Minnesota Vikings, plus quarterback Aaron Rodgers was cleared to play.

This after the knee injury Rodgers suffered last Sunday night versus the Chicago Bears, as he led the Packers to a thrilling 24-23 victory over da Bears on basically one leg in the second half of the game.

The Vikings are the defending NFC North champs and together with the Packers, the two teams have won the division seven years in a row, with the Packers winning the title in five of those seasons.

The game on Sunday against the Vikings was also the first time Rodgers had played against Minnesota since Week 6 of last season at U.S. Bank Stadium when No. 12 fractured a collarbone. The injury occurred when he was thrown down by linebacker Anthony Barr after he had thrown the ball.

Lambeau was also the place to be for another reason. Jerry Kramer was in town to receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring and to see his name unveiled on the facade at the legendary stadium.

Kramer became the 25th member of the Green Bay organization to have his name displayed on the southwest façade inside the stadium.

I had been in Canton for Kramer’s enshrinement and was invited by Jerry to sit with he and his family in his suite for the game. The Packers had arranged that Kramer and his family would be able to sit in the alumni suite, which is normally used by former Green Bay players.

Unfortunately and regrettably, I was not able to attend. But I truly appreciated the kind offer.

Joining Kramer and his family in the suite was one of No. 64’s old teammates, Donny Anderson.

You might recall a game that both Kramer and Anderson had key roles in from 50-plus years ago at frigid Lambeau Field. And unlike Sunday, when the temperature was hovering around 86 degrees, the classic game from New Year’s Eve in 1967 was about 99 degrees colder.

The organization of the Packers did a fantastic job in honoring Kramer, especially during the halftime ceremony. The website of the Packers did a very nice job in terms of filming the ceremony, taking excellent photos and also showing Kramer’s press conference with the media.

Larry McCarren was the emcee for the ceremony, plus both David Baker (President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) and Mark Murphy (President & CEO of the Packers) also spoke before Kramer talked to and thanked the 78,461 people in attendance.

Jerry being honored at Lambeau

Evan Siegle, packers.com

Kramer was asked about how he felt when he saw his name displayed on the facade when he talked with the media.

“It felt like a kick in the stomach,” Kramer said. “It was a ‘oomph.’ It was a physical reaction and I wondered if I was going to faint or fall over or what I was going to do. It just lasted for an instant, but it was a noticeable shock.”

Very late in the game against the Vikings, the Packers also felt a kick in the stomach, but this one was painful. More on that later.

I had a chance to talk to Kramer today, as he was getting ready to fly out of Wisconsin and get back home to Boise, Idaho where he can relax (in his Big Chair) for a few days after a whirlwind of traveling over the past few months.

When I asked him about what he remembered most from yesterday, he said it was the response from the Green Bay faithful in the stands at Lambeau.

“It was very gratifying and also very humbling to see and hear the reaction that I received from the fans,” Kramer said. “As I was walking, section after section kept cheering for me. Old linemen like me aren’t used to that type of applause.”

Kramer talked about that dynamic at his press conference.

“It’s surreal, I think is the best way to describe it,” Kramer said. “Especially for a lineman. You know, lineman don’t do those kinds of things. Rarely do they do those kinds of things. It was a wonderful day.”

Surreal is a perfect way to describe yesterday, both in terms of honoring Kramer and also the ball game played by the Packers and Vikings.

The Packers were up 29-21 with less than two minutes to go in the game, when quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Vikings threw what looked like the game-clinching interception to Jaire Alexander.

This is when the Packers were kicked in the gut.

Clay Matthews hit on Kirk Cousins

startribune.com

You see, referee Tony Corrente decided to throw a flag. Corrente called a 15-yard penalty on outside linebacker Clay Matthews for unnecessary roughness after Matthews had tackled Cousins to the ground just as he had thrown the ball.

Matthews had used perfect form in tackling Cousins, as he didn’t hit Cousins with his helmet, leading instead with his shoulder. Plus, No. 52 didn’t hit Cousins high, as he tackled at the numbers.

But still Corrente threw the flag and gave no explanation to Matthews as to why he threw the yellow hanky.

After the game, Corrente said he penalized Matthews because he “lifted (Cousins) up and drove him into the ground.”

I don’t know what game Corrente was watching, but Matthews did not lift Cousins up and drive him into the turf at Lambeau.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Matthews said after the game. “Did I put pressure on him? I thought I hit him within from his waist to chest, got my head across, put my hands down.”

That is exactly what Matthews did if you have looked at this play.

But still the flag was thrown and the gut was kicked.

So what should have been a 29-21 win turned into a 29-29 tie and a real nail-biter for Packer Nation in overtime.

Luckily, rookie kicker Daniel Carlson of the Vikings missed both of his field goal attempts in overtime, including a 35-yard chip shot to win the game at the end of OT.

I had a funny feeling Carlson might miss in OT, even though he was considered one of the best kickers in college football.

I saw Carlson play in the 2015 Outback Bowl when his Auburn Tigers took on the Wisconsin Badgers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The Badgers won 34-31 in overtime, as Carlson missed a game-tying field goal in OT to give Wisconsin the victory.

So although the tie against the Vikings wasn’t great and the penalty called on Matthews was a terrible call, it could have been worse. As in a loss, had Carlson made his field goal attempts.

Rodgers played courageously in the game with limited mobility, as No. 12 threw for 281 yards and threw a touchdown pass without tossing a pick. Rodgers was also sacked four times for 28 yards.

Rodgers was obviously very disappointed in the tie.

“Close to an ‘L,’ ” Rodgers said after the game. “Doesn’t feel great.”

Jerry and Aaron at Lambeau

Evan Siegle, packers.com

But was great was seeing Rodgers get with Kramer on the field after the halftime ceremony.

“Yes, Aaron came up to me and congratulated me,” Kramer told me. “He was real cordial to me and we talked for a bit. It was a real classy gesture by Aaron.”

I reminded Kramer that it was against the Vikings at County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1961, when he suffered the most serious injury of his NFL career, when he broke his leg below the knee and separated the bones in his ankle.

I also reminded Jerry that the final score 29-29, which adds up to 58. Talk about surreal or apropos.

1958 was Kramer’s first year with the Packers.  That was the year he was part of the best draft class that the Packers ever had, as three of draftees ended up getting a bust in Canton. I’m talking about Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and now Kramer.

“It’s hard to believe that was 60 years ago,” Kramer said. “But what a wonderful journey it has been over all these years.”

When I talked to Kramer shortly after he was inducted, he talked about how much he was looking forward to not only being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also about coming back to the stadium at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in Green Bay.

“Certainly the Hall of Fame itself in Canton in August and all of that,” Kramer told me back in February. “But another moment which will be awfully powerful for me is seeing my name on the facade at Lambeau Field and being honored there in front of those great fans.”

I asked Kramer to describe the events from yesterday at the field he played on from 1958 through 1968.

“It was everything I expected and more. Much, much more!”

The Green Bay Packers and Jerry Kramer Have a Couple of Big Weekends Upcoming

Jerry in 2017 at Alumni Day

Both the Green Bay Packers and Jerry Kramer have a couple of big weekends coming up.

The Packers are preparing to open their 2018 NFL season (the 100th anniversary of the Packers being formed) on Sunday night at Lambeau Field versus the Chicago Bears and their newly acquired pass rusher Khalil Mack.

The following week the Pack will host the defending NFC North champions, the Minnesota Vikings.

The upcoming game against da Bears also marks the annual alumni weekend, as Kramer and many of his former teammates, as well as other former Green Bay players will be on hand.

And when the Packers play the Vikings the following week at Lambeau, Kramer will receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring, as well as seeing his name unveiled on the facade, along with the other 24 Packers enshrined in Canton.

The Packers and Bears have been playing each other since 1921 when the NFL was called the American Professional Football Association. When Green Bay defeated Chicago 35-14 last September at Lambeau Field, that victory put the Packers ahead in the series against their long-time rivals for the first time in 85 years.

The series now stands with the Packers holding an edge with a 95-93-6 mark. Kramer knows all about this heated rivalry, as No. 64 talked about that story line in a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

It was an era when Vince Lombardi coached the Packers and George Halas coached the Bears. In the nine years that the two coached against each other, the Packers held a 13-5 edge in the series.

During that period, the Packers won five NFL titles in seven years under Lombardi, which included three NFL championships in a row (which has never been duplicated in the playoff era of the NFL), as well as winning the first two Super Bowl games.

Da Bears won the 1963 NFL title under Halas.

Lombardi was always primed to play the Bears and he let his team know about as well.

“We were practicing on day before playing the Bears and Coach Lombardi brought us together,” Kramer said. “Coach said, ‘You guys go out and kick the Bears’ ass. And I’ll go out and kick old man Halas’ ass too.’

One of Kramer’s teammates who will be at the alumni weekend get-together is Zeke Bratkowski. The former Georgia Bulldog was the backup to Bart Starr for the Packers in the 1960s, but he started his NFL career with the Bears in the 1950s.

Bratkowski had the honor of playing under both Halas and Lombardi and Zeke talked about that scenario in a story I wrote last summer.

Besides Kramer and Bratkowski, there will be several other former Packers who played under Lombardi at the alumni function this weekend. The list includes Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Boyd Dowler, Dave Robinson, Marv Fleming, Doug Hart, Don Horn, Carroll Dale and Donny Anderson.

Dale and Anderson are the featured alumni this weekend and they will be signing autographs and visiting with fans on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 11 to noon in the Lambeau Field Atrium.

Other former Packers who are expected to attend are LeRoy Butler, John Brockington, Lynn Dickey, Paul Coffman, Jan Stenerud, Johnnie Gray, Ezra Johnson, Mark Lee, Al Matthews, Karl Swanke, David Whitehurst, Gerry Ellis, Gary Ellerson, Tiger Greene, Ron Hallstrom, Perry Kemp, Don Majkowski, Ron Pitts, Blaise Winter, Vince Workman, Don Beebe, Bucky Brooks, Mark Chmura, Earl Dotson, William Henderson, Ryan Longwell, Bryce Paup, Bill Schroeder, Frank Winters, Nick Barnett, Kevin Barry, Colin Cole, Brad Jones, Aaron Kampman, Buddy Aydelette, Craig Nall and Jason Spitz.

At halftime on Sunday night, the Packers will be introducing all of those players.

I talked to Kramer earlier this week and he talked about how great it is to see his former teammates. Plus, this will be the first time he has seen most of them since he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jerry with his Gold Jacket hugging his bust.

“It’s always great seeing the fellas,” Kramer said. “But I’m going to bust my ass to make sure that they know I haven’t changed. I want to show that I’m the same guy I have always been the past 40 years.”

From my perspective, having known Kramer for several years now, I can honestly say that Jerry has not changed one iota since he was inducted among the best of the best in Canton.

The game itself will be a big test for the Packers against the Bears, who are definitely a team on the rise. Chicago added a defensive force with the addition of Mack.

Mack and company will be trying to stop Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, which will not be an easy task, based on the way Rodgers has historically played versus Chicago.

In his career against da Bears, Rodgers is 15-4 in the regular season. In those 19 games, No. 12 has thrown 42 touchdown passes, compared to just nine interceptions for 4,596 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 107.2.

Rodgers and the Packers also beat the Bears 21-14 in the 2010 NFC title game at Soldier Field.

The defense of the Packers, which is now headed by new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, will be trying to force some mistakes by second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

When the Packers go up against the Vikings, Rodgers will definitely keep his eye peeled for linebacker Anthony Barr, as it was Barr who broke the collarbone of Rodgers last season when he took No. 12 down hard to the ground after Rodgers had thrown the ball.

And as good as Rodgers is against the Bears, he is almost equally as good against the Vikings historically. In 19 regular season games, Rodgers is 12-7 against the Vikes, plus has thrown 39 touchdown passes compared to just six picks for 4,571 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 111.7.

And like he did against da Bears, Rodgers has defeated the Vikings in the postseason as well, as the Green Bay beat Minnesota 24-10 in a 2012 NFC Wild Card game at Lambeau Field.

I like Rodgers and the Packers to go 2-0 after their games against da Bears and the Vikings.

Aaron Rodgers 2018.jpg

At halftime of the Vikings game, Kramer will have his cherry on top of the sundae moment, as he receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring, as well as seeing his name unveiled on the facade at Lambeau Field in front of the great fans he played in front of for 11 seasons.

Kramer will see his name unveiled along side of the coach who made this all possible, Lombardi, along with several of his Hall of Fame teammates, which include Taylor, Starr, Hornung, Robinson, Forrest Gregg,  Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Willie Wood and Henry Jordan.

“That is going to awesome,” Kramer said. “I’ll never forget the reaction of Jim Ringo when he saw his name on the facade. It was back in 1984, when I was writing Distant Replay with Dick Schaap. We had an alumni get-together at Lambeau and Ringo was there.

“A bunch of us went to Fuzzy’s [Thurston] bar, Shenanigans. Then at the game, we were introduced and had some photos taken of us. Jim was a little unsteady at the time and I helped him down the ramp heading to the field before we were introduced.

“We got about three-quarters down the ramp and then Jim saw his name on the facade. And Jim goes, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!’ He just kept repeating that over and over. Jim was just stunned and awestruck by that honor.

“I have a feeling that I’ll have similar emotions.”

One Forgotten Aspect on Bart Starr’s QB Sneak in the ‘Ice Bowl’

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It’s one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. I’m talking about Bart Starr’s legendary quarterback sneak in the 1967 NFL title game, better known as the “Ice Bowl”, as the Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in the final seconds of the game.

That touchdown gave the Packers their third straight NFL championship, a feat that has never been duplicated in the playoff era of the NFL dating back to 1933.

Two weeks later, the Packers won their second straight Super Bowl as well, as they defeated the Oakland Raiders 33-14.

But it was Starr’s QB sneak that made all of that possible.

It was most definitely the signature moment in the legacy of Vince Lombardi during his time in Green Bay as head coach and general manager.

That play was set up by one of the most fabulous drives in the history of the Packers.

Here was the situation:

The Packers trailed 17-14 and had not done a thing in the second half offensively. “We had minus-nine yards in 31 plays in the second half at one point,” right guard Jerry Kramer told me.

The Packers got the ball back at their own 32-yard line with just 4:50 remaining in the game. Somehow the Packers were going to have to trudge 68 yards across a truly frozen tundra to win the game.

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

I wrote about that mythical drive in December, just two days before the 50th anniversary of that historical NFL game. Kramer, halfback Donny Anderson and fullback Chuck Mercein shared their thoughts about that improbable trek across the ice.

The play which won the Packers their fifth NFL title in seven years was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photo by John Biever

“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films. I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’

The do-or-die situation in the game came down to the Packers having just 16 seconds to go with no timeouts at the Dallas 1-yard line.

Starr called a 31 Wedge play in the huddle (the same play discussed on Thursday), which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, after conferring with Lombardi, Starr decided to keep the ball due to the slippery conditions near the goal line.

Starr followed Kramer’s classic block on Pugh (with help from center Ken Bowman) and No. 15 tumbled happily into the end zone for the winning score and NFL immortality.

But history might have been different had Starr tried to cross the goal line with the football in his right arm and not his left.

I mentioned that scenario to Boyd Dowler when we talked recently and he said, “I didn’t realize that.”

IMAG0500

The reason why that was so important is because Chuck Howley, who was the left outside linebacker of the Cowboys, quickly dove into Starr just as he was about to get into the end zone. Howley tried to rip the football from Starr’s empty right arm. Had Starr carried the football in that arm, who knows what may have occurred?

Starr had fumbled earlier in the game during the second quarter, which led to a George Andrie touchdown after he recovered the fumble by No. 15.

The bottom line is that Starr not only called the right play (31 Wedge) and the right way to score on that play (via his sneak), but also the correct way to handle the ball as he made his way triumphantly into the end zone.

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.

Jerry Kramer is Near the Goal Line for the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Time to Run the 31 Wedge

Bart's Sneak III

The parallels and the similarities are striking. That is comparing the 1967 Green Bay Packers, especially their 68-yard march for the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl”, to Jerry Kramer’s quest for being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s apropos that the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl” was just a month ago. That 21-17 victory by the Packers over the Dallas Cowboys with just seconds remaining in the game, was an exclamation point on the adversity that the team faced throughout the 1967 season.

That season was chronicled in magnificent fashion by Kramer and the late, great Dick Schaap in the book Instant Replay.

Kramer has also been on a long march to to receive the recognition that many believe should have happened decades ago. That would be getting a bust in Canton, like his coach Vince Lombardi did in 1971, a year after he died from colon cancer.

Kramer first became eligible to gain enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. That is 44 years ago folks. Kramer was a finalist in his first year of eligibility and was also a finalist eight other times between 1974 and 1987. But while other Packers like Jim Taylor (1976), Forrest Gregg (1977), Bart Starr (1977), Ray Nitschke (1978), Herb Adderley (1980), Willie Davis (1981), Jim Ringo (1981) and Paul Hornung (1986) were all inducted during that time period, Kramer never heard his name called.

10 years passed before Kramer was again a finalist in 1997, but this time as a senior candidate. The timing seemed perfect. The Packers were playing in Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots in New Orleans.

The Packers won that Super Bowl 35-21 over the Pats, but Kramer for some unfathomable reason was not inducted.

In that 10 year period between 1987 and 1997, two more Lombardi-era Packers were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Willie Wood (1989) and Henry Jordan (1995 as a senior).

The road to Canton was not easy for some of the Packers.

Some players made it into Canton on their first try. This would include Gregg, Starr, Nitschke and Dave Robinson (senior).

For others, it was a little more difficult. Adderley was inducted on his third try. It took four times for Taylor and Jordan (senior) to get enshrined. It took six times for Davis to get a bust, while Ringo had to wait until his seventh attempt to get into the Hall.

Then there are the two double-digit guys. Wood didn’t get into Canton until his 10th try, while Hornung had to wait until his 12th attempt.

But it was especially tough for Kramer. It was tough for all guards in the NFL as a matter of fact. From his first year in eligibility in 1974 up until 1997 when he was a senior nominee, the Hall of Fame inducted just one guard, Gene Upshaw.

This made little sense based on the honors and achievements Kramer compiled in his NFL career with the Packers.

No. 64 was a six-time AP All-Pro and also was named to three Pro Bowl squads. Kramer would have had more honors if not for injuries and medical issues that caused him to miss the better part of two-plus seasons.

Also, in 1969, Jerry was named the best player ever at the guard position in the first 50 years of the NFL, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame named their NFL 50th anniversary team.

The first team consisted of Jim Thorpe, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Cal Hubbard, Don Hutson, John Mackey, Chuck Bednarik, Gino Marchetti, Leo Nomellini, Ray Nitschke, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Emlen Tunnell, Lou Groza and Kramer.

Every one of the members on that legendary team are now enshrined as players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All except one. That would be Jerry Kramer.

In addition to that, Kramer was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s.

Looking back on the players who were named First-Team All-Decade through the year 2000, there were 145 players who were given that designation.

And up until now, 134 of those players have been inducted into the hallowed halls in Canton.

Kramer is one of those 11 First-Team All-Decade players who have yet to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

But Kramer now has another chance to finally be given the honor he so richly deserves, as he is once again a senior nominee finalist, which will be his 11th opportunity to be enshrined. This Saturday, on February 3, the day before Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, No. 64 can be given the cherry on the cake regarding his NFL career when the Class of 2018 is named for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In terms of the 1967 Packers, it also was a hard road to travel. But the journey started for Kramer three years before that.

That was because of some intestinal issues that Kramer had starting in 1964. At first, the doctors thought Kramer had cancer, but after multiple medical procedures, the situation was finally resolved.

But it was not resolved as far as Lombardi was concerned. Kramer explained the situation to me in one of my many conversations with him.

Jerry holding the splinters

“I reported to camp at around 220 pounds,” Kramer said. “I nine operations that offseason, which involved removing 16 inches of my colon because of a bunch of slivers that were in there for 11 years.

“So when I went to talk with Coach Lombardi about playing, he said, ‘Jerry, we can’t count on you this year. I just want you to go home and we’ll take care of your salary and your hospital bills.’

“I told Lombardi that I really wanted to play. I knew that I had already missed most of the ’64 season and if I missed the ’65 season, I would probably never get a chance to play again.

“I told Lombardi that I would not go home and that I wanted to play. We went back and forth about this for about 35 or 40 minutes. Finally Lombardi says, ‘Okay, I’m going to put you with the defense.’

“I said, great. I always wanted to play defense anyway.”

Kramer soon found out that his task of getting in football shape would be very difficult.

“We always used to take three laps around the field to start practice. I ran a half of a lap and my lungs seized up. I just couldn’t breathe or get any air. Don Chandler came up to me and asked, ‘What’s wrong, pal?’

“I told Don that I can’t breathe. Don told me that, ‘Between the two of us, we would do what one of the players does in terms of an exercise. If you can only do a half of a lap, I’ll do the other two and half laps.’

“So Don worked out besides me for the next month and we did just that. If the team did 50 sit ups and I could only do 10, Don would do the other 40. If the team did 50 side-saddle hops and I could only do 15, Don would do the other 35.

“So Don kept me in the game and kept me from being embarrassed. That kept me from feeling like a jerk in front of a bunch of world-class athletes. So by doing that procedure with Don, I gradually was able to do more and after a month I was able to do all of the exercises.

“I gained about 15 pounds. I knew that the colostomy was reattached, the hernia was fixed and the intestines were okay. It was just going through the reconditioning which was so difficult.

“Without Don, I really doubt that I could have made it through that camp. So all the books, all the Super Bowls and all the great things that happened to me after that was because of my teammate.”

Vince and Jerry after Super Bowl II

Lombardi knew Kramer was a tough hombre. He said so in his book, Run To Daylight, which was published in 1963. This is what Lombardi said about Kramer:

Jerry Kramer has the perfect devil-may-care attitude it takes to play this game. He not only ignores the small hurts but the large ones, too, and the evidence of his indifference is all over his body.

When Jerry was a high school kid he was sanding a lamp in the woodworking shop one Friday afternoon and a lathe took a couple of inches of flesh out of his side and he played football that night. On a duck-hunting trip he shredded his right forearm with a shotgun blast, and once, when a rotten board split under him, a sliver went into his groin. He pulled that out and two days later they found seven and a half inches of it still in there. He was in the hospital for two weeks, but three weeks later he was playing football. Then there was the night he was in a car doing 100 miles an hour and it went off the road. He was thrown out of the car. It rolled over him , hit a tree and burst into flames. He walked away from it.

At three o’clock one morning at the University of Idaho, Jerry bet somebody that he could ring the bell on the roof of one of the dorms. He threw a rope on a railing around the cupola and while dangling three stories above the ground the railing started to give. If a couple of them looking out the window hadn’t grabbed the rope he probably would have walked away from that, too. In 1960 he suffered a concussion and a detached retina in hi left eye in one of our games and had to undergo a four-and-a-half-hour operation. And in 1961 against the Minnesota Vikings he broke his left ankle and had to wear a 2-inch pin in there for four months.

“But where did you get that big scar on the back of your  neck?” someone asked him once. Because of it they call him Zipper Head.

“Where the hell did I get that?” Jerry said, and he wasn’t kidding. This typifies him. “Oh yeah, I remember now. In my sophomore year in college I couldn’t turn my head and they X-rayed it and found out I had a chipped vertebra.”

I remember our Dallas game a couple of years ago and on our 49-Sweep Jerry got two defenders and picked up a piece of a third. We were playing the 49ers later and they say Red Hickey, their coach, was screening our game and he called his staff and said, “My God! Just look at this guard!’

It took Kramer a few games to get back into the starting lineup for the Packers at right guard in 1965, but by season’s end, he was playing exceptionally well. Case in point, the 1965 NFL title game at snowy and muddy Lambeau Field versus the Cleveland Browns, the defending NFL champs.

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

Jerry in the '65 title game

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.

That wasn’t the first time Kramer excelled in a title game. Three years earlier, the Packers played the New York Giants at frigid and windy Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL title game.

Besides playing at a high level at right guard, Kramer was also the placekicker for the Packers at that point due to a knee injury suffered by Hornung.

Kramer had to kick that day under very difficult conditions. It was a bitingly cold day, plus the wind was gusting up to 40 miles per hour. Plus, Kramer played the entire game at right guard as well battling in the trenches.

Kramer ended up scoring 10 points (three field goals and an extra point) in the 16-7 victory for the Packers, plus helped lead the way for fullback Taylor to gain 85 yards rushing and also score the lone Green Bay touchdown. As a team, the Packers gained 148 yards rushing that day.

No. 64 also recovered a fumble by Taylor to keep a drive alive.

When the Packers were up 13-7 late in the fourth quarter, Kramer knew that he had a chance to put the game away with a 30-yard field goal.

“The wind was really blowing hard that day,”Kramer said. “The wind was blowing so hard that at halftime our benches on the sideline were blown 10 yards onto the field. That wind was really swirling that day.

“The ball was being moved pretty well by the wind. On that last field goal, I aimed 10 yards outside the goal post because of the wind. At first, the kick was heading to where I aimed before the wind caught it and brought it back in and split the uprights.

“It was a great relief to me that I had guessed right, because if I missed the Giants still had a chance to win the game.

“After I made the kick, the guys were jumping on me and pounding me on the back knowing that we probably had clinched the game then. I got to feel like a running back or a quarterback for a moment or two and it was a wonderful feeling.”

After the victory by the Packers, Nitschke was named the game’s MVP, as he had been tenacious with his tackling on defense and also recovered two fumbles.

 

Jerry's game ball from 1962 NFL title game

Kramer certainly could have received that honor as well, based on the way he played that day. As it was, the coaches and the players presented No. 64 with a game ball because of the great performance he had in that year’s championship game.

Anyway, after the 1965 season, the Packers won their second straight NFL title by defeating the Cowboys 34-27 at the Cotton Bowl in the 1966 NFL title game. Two weeks later, the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the very first Super Bowl.

That set up the challenge of winning a third straight NFL title in 1967, as well as a second straight Super Bowl.

Kramer and his teammates overcame a lot during that season. Hornung and Taylor were gone. There were multiple injuries on the team. Quarterback Bart Starr missed a couple of games due to injuries. Both starting running backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, were lost for the season with injuries in the eighth week of the season.

Despite all of that adversity, the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967 with players like Donny Anderson, Travis Williams, Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein filling the void.

The team also lost a couple of heartbreaking games (one to the Baltimore Colts and one to the Los Angeles Rams) in the last minute during the course of the season.

A couple of weeks after that loss to the Rams, Green Bay whipped Los Angeles 28-7 at Milwaukee County Stadium in the Western Conference Championship Game.

The week after that came the “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field. The Packers were down 17-14 to the Cowboys with just 4:50 remaining in the game. It was extremely cold, as the game-time temperature was 13 below zero. The offense of the Packers had to trudge 68 yards across a truly frozen tundra to win the game.

I wrote about that drive recently, as Kramer, along with Donny Anderson and Chuck Mercein recounted that epic drive.

It didn’t look promising, as the Packers had minus-nine yards on 31 plays prior to that drive. But thanks to great efforts by the entire offense, especially Anderson and Mercein, the Packers were in position to win the game in the final seconds.

It came down to a third and goal play from the one-yard line with 16 seconds to go in the game and the Packers were out of timeouts.

After conferring with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr called a 31 wedge play in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, unknown to anyone in the huddle, Starr decided to keep the ball himself due to the slippery conditions near the goal line.

That wedge play was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.

“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’

So after Starr called the play with just seconds to go in the game, what was going through Kramer’s mind?

“Responsibility. I mean I had suggested the play on Thursday. It seemed like the play was squarely on my shoulders,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to perform. I knew that to be successful as a blocker that I had to keep my head up and my eyes open.

“And also put my face into the chest of the defensive tackle [Pugh]. That is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the safest and the surest way to make a block. I felt great personal responsibility to the team on that block. When I came off the ball, I was on fire.”

Bart's sneak II

Starr followed Kramer’s textbook block on Pugh and happily scored the game-winning touchdown.

It also meant the Packers won their third straight NFL title and two weeks later won Super Bowl II when they beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14.

In this NFL Films video of the No. 1 player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is about Kramer, go to 1:38 of the video which shows Starr’s quarterback sneak behind Kramer and you will hear Vince Lombardi say, “Watch that No. 64. That’s Jerry Kramer. The best right guard in football doing his job.”

Which takes me to Saturday. Now it’s time for the 48-person selection committee to do their job and induct Kramer.

I had the opportunity earlier this week to speak with both Rick Gosselin and Pete Dougherty, both of whom are voters.

It will be Gosselin who will be doing the main presentation on Kramer’s behalf to the selection committee on Saturday, as he was part of the Seniors Selection Committee who nominated Kramer. That will be followed up by a presentation by Dougherty, who is the Green Bay representative for the Hall of Fame.

I was privy to some of what both will be presenting to the selection committee during our conversations, plus I was able to share my ideas. Both Gosselin and Dougherty are confident that Kramer will indeed be inducted as part of the Class of 2018 on Saturday.

I share their confidence, as I did an unofficial straw poll of a dozen or so voters about Kramer’s chances of getting inducted, and every one of those voters told me that they support No. 64’s enshrinement.

It would definitely be appropriate. Because just like in the “Ice Bowl”, Starr will be behind Kramer, as a recent story of mine indicates with his endorsement letter for Kramer to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Besides Starr, there are several peers of Kramer who all have a bust in Canton and also support No. 64’s enshrinement.

One of whom is Merlin Olsen, who many consider the best defensive tackle in NFL history. This is what the nine-time AP All-Pro and 14-time Pro Bowl player said about Kramer:

“There is no question in my mind that Jerry Kramer has Hall of Fame credentials. Respect is given grudgingly in the trenches of the NFL and Jerry has earned my respect as we battled eye to eye in the pits on so many long afternoons.

“Jerry Kramer belongs in the Hall of Fame and I hope you will put this process in motion by including his name on the ballot for this coming year.”

Jerry with the 5 NFL Championship rings

So as we come close to the vote for the Class of 2018 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the 48-person selection committee on Saturday, just as Kramer and the Packers were close to the goal line in the “Ice Bowl”, the selection of Kramer as one of those who are inducted should be obvious. As obvious as to why Kramer thought the wedge play on Pugh would work, which it did.

So, it’s time for the 31 wedge play (the obvious call) on Saturday for the committee on behalf of Kramer. In this case, Kramer won’t be in the end zone celebrating another championship, but instead will be celebrating his place among the best of the best in the annals of pro football history.

And after the selection committee does it’s job, Kramer will later on get a knock on his Minneapolis hotel door by David Baker, the President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After Kramer opens the door, this is what he will hear from Baker, “Jerry, it is my great pleasure to tell you that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.”

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

Bart Starr QB sneak II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then Sunday came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boyd Dowler scores TD in Ice Bowl

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

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

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

The Packers truly struggled offensively in the second half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kramer said there was calm in that huddle.

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

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

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

“I recall that there was no nonsense at all on that drive,” Anderson said. “It represented the discipline that Lombardi had taught us. We knew that we had to execute and we were determined to get the job done.”

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

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

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

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

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

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

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

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

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

That loss put the Packers in a second and 19 hole, but two swing passes to Anderson netted 22 yards and the Packers had a big first down. If you look at those receptions on film, you see some pretty nifty footwork by Anderson. Not easily done on a truly frozen tundra.

Anderson explained.

“I recall that I had to balance myself,” Anderson said. “Not to run like a sprinter, but to balance yourself. Be a little more flat-footed. I also figured that a quicker guy might be better off under those conditions than a heavier guy.”

Donny Anderson in the Ice Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

“On that play, if Bob didn’t block [George] Andrie on that play, Mercein would get killed,” Kramer said. “It was a very difficult block, too. So Bart looked at “Ski” and asked if he could make that block before the play. And “Ski” simply said, ‘Call it, on two.’

Mercein vividly recalls that run.

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

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

“After the run, I’m laying across the goal line with my waist and the ball,” Anderson said. “Cornell Green of the Cowboys yelled that I scored, while Jethro Pugh told him to be quiet. The ref then picks up the ball and puts it 18 inches back from the goal line.

“Later on as we saw film of the game, Coach Lombardi said to me, ‘Young man, I think they took one away from you there.’

After two two unsuccessful running attempts by Anderson to score after that, as he slipped both times, the Packers called their final timeout. There were 16 seconds to go in the game.

After conferring with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr called a 31-Wedge in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, unknown to anyone in the huddle, Starr decided to keep the ball himself due to the slippery conditions near the goal line.

That wedge play was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.

“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’

So after Starr called the play with just seconds to go in the game, what was going through Kramer’s mind?

“Responsibility. I mean I had suggested the play on Thursday. It seemed like the play was squarely on my shoulders,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to perform. I knew that to be successful as a blocker that I had to keep my head up and my eyes open.

“And also put my face into the chest of the defensive tackle [Pugh]. That is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the safest and the surest way to make a block. I felt great personal responsibility to the team on that block. When I came off the ball, I was on fire.”

Starr followed Kramer’s textbook block on Pugh and happily scored the game-winning touchdown.

Bart's QB sneak behind Jerry

Photograph by John Biever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince at the Ice Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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