‘67 Packers Make Return to Daylight
In the world of football, everyone remembers the long runs, the 80-yard passes, sometimes even the goal-line stands. They write books and songs about them. “Greatest Plays in History.” “Ten Seconds to Glory.” That sort of thing.
But there is only one block that makes this anthology of gridiron heroics, only one recollection in story and song of the man who won the game without the ball, who didn’t take the path to greatness, but cleared it.
That block occurred on Dec. 31, 1967, on a piece of frozen tundra in Green Bay, Wis.
It sprang a guy loose for the winning touchdown, all right. If you consider 32 inches loose.
There were 13 seconds left to play, the score was 17-14 in favor of the Dallas Cowboys, the temperature was 13 degrees below zero and falling, it was third down, the offense had no timeouts left, and a second straight berth in the Super Bowl was on the line.
The greatest pro coach of the ages, the legend in his own time, the Caesar of the sidelines, Vincent T. Lombardi, decided to pass up the sure tie, the 18-yard field goal, and go for the win, the one-yard touchdown.
Not everyone remembers who scored that winning touchdown--it was Bart Starr, the quarterback--but everyone remembers who laid the block and moved the dreaded Cowboy defenseman, Jethro Pugh, the critical three feet out of the play.
The Green Bay Packers were a noted offensive scourge of the gridiron, gulping up yards by the shovelful in their storied run-to-daylight offense in those days, but this was probably the most important, certainly the most dramatic, 32 inches in all their history.
Jerry Kramer became the most famous right guard in history with that one wedge-out on the goal line, so celebrated that some people think the deodorant was named after him. Fifteen years later, people were still recognizing him in his travels around the country.
Jerry Kramer, who came out of the mountain west to play on those great Green Bay teams of Lombardi’s, immortalized them once before in a diary-type documentary, “Instant Play,” which became the most successful pro football book of its kind ever published.
He has returned now with a sequel, “Distant Replay,” which is published by Putnam and is a study of what becomes of the heroes when the music dies and the cheering stops.
It’s not “That Championship Season.” It’s not a story of psychological betrayal, not a story of a band of men-boys for whom life stopped on the one-yard line or a free-throw line 20 years ago. It’s not “The Boys of Winter,” a football version of Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” recounting of the 1947 Dodgers. The ’66 and ’67 Packers, who won the first two Super Bowls, were not visited with a series of catastrophic and disproportionate personal tragedies.
By and large, these boys of winter are still running to daylight, still sweeping into end zones with the ball held high, still laying those precise, crisp blocks their coach taught so well.
It seems as if almost the whole first-string line is either in the millionaire class or living as if it were. Fortunes were made in fast-food franchises, restaurants, heavy industry. Most of Lombardi’s Packers are still executive-class performers.
Kramer is reporting on a class reunion of the 1966 Packer team, the mythical green and gold gang that won the first Super Bowl.
Kramer thinks it’s a love story, but Horatio Alger would like the moral here, too.
There are a few members missing as the squad reconvenes in Green Bay for its commemorative weekend. Some are dead, others are unable to leave current posts for the long voyage home, but only one, Lionel Aldridge, is unaccounted for as the book opens.
He is traced down in the last chapter by a teammate, Ron Kostelnik, who puts aside his $18-million-a-year business to drive down and find the lost Lionel working in a Milwaukee post office.
Aldridge had hit bottom. He had had serious emotional problems and didn’t stay long in one place. He was sleeping in the streets when someone lifted his Super Bowl ring from him, but he has regained his pass rush on life by the time Kramer catches up to him.
“You need anything?” Kramer asks.
“I don’t need money,” Aldridge tells him. “I need people. I need friends. I need family. People need people, not money.”
In a sense, these old grads are still playing for the old man. When Dave Robinson, who played linebacker, is denied a beer distributorship, he heeds not despair but Lombardi-isms.
“The greatest glory is not in never falling, it’s in getting up,” he remembers the coach telling him. “I got up,” Robinson tells Kramer. “I got my distributorship.”
Kramer writes: “The answer has to be Lombardi. The fierceness of Lombardi--combined with the smallness of the city in which we played--forced upon us a camaraderie and a closeness that, nurtured by victory, grew into love.”
A Packer who turned to coaching uses Lombardi-isms to turn his players from uncertainty to determination. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” he quotes the coach. “Winning is just a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Willie Davis, the defensive end who became a Los Angeles business tycoon with distributorships, radio stations and a seat on the board of MGM, remembers Lombardi stressing the positive aspects of rejection.
“Willie,” he asked Davis, tears welling in his eyes, “do you know I applied for the coaching job at Notre Dame twice and never got so much as an acknowledgement to my letter?”
It was Notre Dame’s turn to cry by then, but Jerry Kramer’s book is an affirmation that leadership does not die with the leader.
The Green Bay Packers of 1967 are still trying to please the coach. In a sense, they’re succeeding. As usual, they’re winning. As the coach said, it’s the only thing.