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Curtain Calls? : Well, No, Lambert Prefers a Small-Town Life Devoid of Talk of Steeler Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This might as well be Walnut Grove. You know, “Little House on the Prairie,” go past the feed store, take the main road out of town down to the big oak, and that’ll be the Lambert Place.

But beware, ol’ Jack don’t cotton to notebook-toting strangers much.

Fact is, “Jack would rather wrestle a rattlesnake than talk to a reporter,” neighbor Barry Seth said.

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Jack Lambert. “The Man of Steel.” The original Greg Lloyd. A sneering, vicious, angry linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1984. Played without his top three teeth, leaving him with Dracula-like fangs. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Asked once at a public appearance what he would do with drug dealers, he said, “Hang them by their feet in Market Square until the wind whistles through their bones.”

A hermit now. Mountain man. Packs a gun pursuing poachers as a volunteer deputy game warden. Captain of a celebrity hockey team because he wants to be. Imagine getting checked into the boards by Jack Lambert. Drives a red pickup, built a log cabin for his family on 125 remote acres. Can be spotted at the Hardware Store on Main Street in Walnut Grove, er, Worthington most any day. “I’ve seen him around town a lot, but they say he’s not real sociable,” said Fred Clark of Clark’s Barber Shop. “So I never pushed it.”

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Ridiculous. Push it. Who better to talk to than Jack Lambert? If the Steelers are going to be in the Super Bowl for the first time since winning four trophies . . . if the Steelers are going to be in the Super Bowl for a repeat performance against the Cowboys . . . if the Steelers are going to be in the Super Bowl with Greg Lloyd as their emotional leader and he doesn’t give interviews, what’s Jack Lambert got to say about all this?

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Jack Ham, Lambert’s linebacking sidekick during the Steeler glory years, is laughing so hard he cannot speak. “You won’t find him. The guy’s a recluse. Why, I haven’t talked to him in I don’t know how long.”

Now Rocky Bleier is laughing too. “You want to talk to Jack? That’s funny. He was supposed to be here today, yeah right. He’s going to blow us off--that’s just Jack.”

Bleier, the Steelers’ heyday running back, with Franco Harris and wide receiver Lynn Swann and Coach Chuck Noll and just about all the great characters of note were at the Steelers’ headquarters last week to sit in front of the NFL Films cameras to reminisce about their four Super Bowl titles.

But not Jack.

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“Look at the old films,” Bleier said. “Jack was the only one who would not hold hands in the defensive huddle. As far as Jack was concerned, only sissies hold hands. Everybody else did, but not Jack.”

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The Steelers versus the Cowboys in the Super Bowl just like Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl X. Yes, Super Bowl X when Steeler kicker Roy Gerela missed a 33-yard field goal in the third quarter and Dallas safety Cliff Harris tapped Gerela on the helmet and said, “Way to go.” Remember: Lambert then picked up Harris and slammed him to the ground. The Cowboys were winning, 10-7, but the Steelers on the sideline saw Lambert come to Gerela’s aid and they went wild. And on the next series Lambert starts pumping his legs--which would later become a Lambert trademark--and the Steelers go on a rampage and win, 21-17. After that game Noll tells reporters: “Jack Lambert is a defender of what is right.”

Bleier is nodding in agreement. “That was Jack all right, and while I’m sure he thinks someone like Greg Lloyd is a great talent, there’s no way Jack would have used the language Lloyd used on TV. There’s no way Jack would have accepted that from Lloyd.”

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The answering machine fibbed: “Leave your name and number and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Bye.”

Six messages later and not a word back.

“Took me two months of leaving messages, and then one day I get this call,” said Ron Musselman of the Greensburg Tribune Review. “Met him at the ice rink at one of his hockey practices and interviewed him. Damn thing, though, he wouldn’t talk about football.”

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So how’s the weather, Jack?

Oct. 23, 1995: The Greensburg Tribune Review runs the “Lambert talking about everything but football” story: “Warrior of the Woods.”

“I’m really dangerous now,” Lambert is quoted as saying. “They’ve given me a badge and a gun.”

Lots and lots of Daniel Boone quotes about hunting and poaching, but geez, how ‘bout that Kordell Stewart, Jack?

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No, nothing about Lambert, the kid who got Jim Brown’s autograph while growing up a Cleveland Browns’ fan living 30 miles from Canton, Ohio. Nothing about the high school football player who had his jersey--00--retired. Nothing about the Kent State football player who had his jersey--99--retired. Nothing about the great football player who was forced to retire prematurely because of a toe injury. Nothing about the current Steelers, their rise to prominence and Lloyd, the man who would pretend to be like Jack Lambert.

“You have to find a nice big tree to hide behind,” Lambert told the newspaper. “Then you just kind of have to peek around the corner and wait. [Poachers] are so intent on shooting the deer, they’re not going to see you. So, you’ve got them.

“We get a lot of arrests with the mechanical deer because you really can’t tell the difference. I have a radio, and after the deer falls, I radio in and tell the other guys working with me who the shooter was and give them a description of that person. Then we usually take off after them.”

Fascinating, but what about Rod Woodson and Bam Morris?

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“He loves hockey now, will talk your ear off about hockey,” said Don Kalpakis, who played previously for Montreal. “We practice every week, playing 10-12 charity events a year. When he first came out he was a very marginal player, but now he’s very good. He can do everything now, and when he takes his teeth out and gets moving. . . .”

Wonderful, but what about Neil O’Donnell and the city of Pittsburgh’s longtime love affair with the Steelers?

“He may be, or was, the best speaker in Pittsburgh,” Dan Rooney, owner of the Steelers, once said. “I would put him and Tony O’Reilly as the two best speakers I’ve ever heard in Pittsburgh.” O’Reilly is the head of H.J. Heinz Co.

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Pittsburgh disappeared in the rearview mirror a long time ago. So have Etna, Blawnox, Harmarville, Cheswick and Sarver.

There isn’t a 7-Eleven in sight, but lots of red barns, the remnants of a deer that failed to make it across the highway, and just before Slate Lick, a sign indicating the whereabouts of the Transylvania Theological School. Transylvania--why sure--Jack Lambert country.

Oh, how Lambert hated the references to Count Dracula. Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote: “Is that really tomato juice he’s drinking or something he bit out of the neck of Earl Campbell? Was his coffin comfortable last night . . . the pro from Pittsburgh, Transylvania.” Just a coincidence, of course, but now the Transylvania Theological School is only a few football fields away.

“Oh, hell, it’s just an image,” Lambert told Sports Illustrated in 1984. “But it works to my advantage in the camp I run. When I tell the kids to keep quiet and go to bed, they listen.”

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Down at Bowser’s Feeds, owner Rich Grafton grew up admiring that image. And there is no doubt, he says, the punishing linebacker he used to watch on television is now the most famous person to live in this Western Pennsylvania town of about 700. Jim Kelly was reared up the road in East Brady, and Mitch and Gus Frerotte are from the big city--Kittanning--but Lambert’s a Steeler, and this is Steeler country.

“He don’t talk much about football; well, not at all,” Grafton said. “I wouldn’t want to say anything to him about it either, and he not like it, if you know what I mean.

“I remember the first time he came in. He bought scratch feed, you know for turkeys, two 25-pound bags and I asked him if he could handle them? That was really stupid, wasn’t it? And he says, ‘Oh, I can handle it,’ and away he went. Nothing more.”

Most everyone talks to their barber, but John Steffy, who shears Lambert, says there are exceptions. “He don’t like to talk about football.”

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And that’s the way it is up and down Main Street. The Hall of Famer, the man who carved dazzling memories into the lives of so many Steeler fans, has left no doubt: There is life after football.

“It got to the point,” Lambert said in a 1982 interview, “where I couldn’t even go to church without people turning around in the pew and looking at me.

“I hardly go anywhere anymore because of the attention I get. Do you know I’ve even had people stop at the bottom of my driveway and just stare at my house? That’s a little sick, isn’t it? No wonder my friends tell me I’m turning into a recluse.”

It wasn’t really the bottom of the driveway--it was a few blocks away--at Long’s Market. Barry Seth, Lambert’s neighbor and boss in the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was kind enough to take a business card and deliver it to the Lambert household this past week with a request for an interview.

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Twenty minutes later, the phone rang at Long’s Market: It was Lisa Lambert, Jack’s wife. “Jack isn’t doing any interviews,” she said. Click, and the phone went dead.

So maybe Dracula can’t come out during daylight hours.

“No, he’s liable to walk in here at any time,” said Kristin Shaul, working the counter at Long’s. “And if he does, don’t get shook. He’s an intimidator. If he thinks he can intimidate you, he will. He likes to take his teeth out and see how people react.”

Does he think the Steelers have a prayer in the Super Bowl?

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“He doesn’t talk about football,” she said. “In fact, people just don’t ask him.”

The guy has lived in this small everybody-knows-everybody town for almost a decade, but nobody approaches him to talk football?

“It always cracks me up that people take these things so seriously,” Lambert told author Jim O’Brien in the early ‘80s. “So many times I’ve had someone tell me they were hesitant to approach me to ask for an autograph because they were afraid. Hey, I’m a person just like everyone else. I’m not a monster.”

Hazel Montebell McCoy, like most other people in Worthington, had been warned. “ ‘Be careful,’ they told me when meeting Lambert,” she said. “But I see him hitting golf balls, so I took his picture. He yells at me, ‘What are you doing, lady?’ I tell him I’m taking his picture because I want to, and he says, ‘OK.’

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“He’s a nice guy, really, nice. But yeah, I know you don’t want to try and talk football with him.”

A Hardware Store customer butts in. “I know Jack, but I remember Earl Campbell running right up the middle on the first play of a game and right over the top of Lambert.”

And what’s your name, sir, you know, for the newspaper story on Jack Lambert?

“Oh, no, I’m getting out of here,” he said. “I got to live in the same town as this guy.”

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