Friday, September 10, 2004

The Iceman Cometh

Jerry Kramer on the allure and lore of the Green Bay Packers

Jerry Kramer lines up a putt at the 28th annual Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament at Sun Valley in August

Football fans toss the word dynasty around with the careless ease of a Brett Favre shovel pass, but when you apply the power term to the Green Bay Packers of the 1960?s it?s as authentic as the earth at Lambeau Field.

Under coach Vince Lombardi (1959-1967), the Packers won three NFL championships and claimed the first two Super Bowls ever played in 1966 and 1967. The Packers are still the only team in the NFL to win three consecutive championships, in 1965, 1966, and 1967.

The left guard on the Pack was Jerry Kramer and he epitomized the Packers for the sheer strength, passion, smarts and physicality he brought to the game every time he stepped on the field. If terror and tenacity had a home it was Lambeau Field. For some opposing teams, hell did freeze over along with the tundra every time they lined up against the Pack and its Hall of Fame players of the era, Ray Nitschke, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Willie Davis, Herb Adderly, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung, Willie Wood and Henry Jordan.

A pro player for Green Bay from start to finish, 1958 to 1968, Kramer was inducted into Green Bay?s Hall of Fame in 1975. He is also a member of the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame and was named guard for the NFL?s 50th Anniversary Team.

A five-time All-Pro selection, Kramer was born in Jordan, Montana in 1936. His family moved to Sandpoint, Idaho when he was in the fourth grade and Kramer finished his higher education at the University of Idaho.

(Just to satisfy all you Bronco fans, yes, Kramer watched BSU rout Idaho 65-7 on Saturday and, no, he wasn?t too happy about it.)

Currently settled in Boise, Kramer and his second wife of many years, Edwina, have three children, Alicia, Matt and Jordan. He also has three offspring from his first marriage, Tony, Diane and Danny.

On the eve of pro football?s 2004 season debut, we caught up with Kramer at home Tuesday night.

JZ: What kind of feelings does this time of year evoke for you?

JK: I have more of an interest in the child. (Son, Jordan Kramer plays on the Tennessee Titans). It used to be the heart quickened and I would start thinking a little bit about the season. But the fires are banking. I do look forward to season. I am a big fan and I am excited about Green Bay?s chances. I think they will be in the playoffs.

JZ: What do you think of Brett Favre as a quarterback?

JK: I think Favre has a little too much confidence in his own ability. He has a sensational arm, but sometimes he tries to squeeze it in a knothole when he should dump it, or eat it or throw it to a coach.

JZ: How is your health?

JK: Well, my golf game is pretty good and that is a good gauge. I shot a 77 on the final day in Sun Valley this year. (In the 2004 Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament.) 23 years ago I shot a 103 on the final day at Sun Valley, so I am much better now! I feel pretty good. Overall, I am pretty healthy. I do pretty much what I want to do with no serious restrictions. I hunt, fish, go scuba diving. Life is good.

JZ: Your first year in the league (1958) the Packers went 1-10-1. The next year they replaced Ray McLean with Vince Lombardi. What was the climb under Lombardi like?

JK: Well, we thought they had made a mistake hiring an assistant coach instead of bringing Curly Lambeau back. Lombardi was with the New York Giants, but I think the only time he was a head coach was with St. Cecelia Prep. He was an unknown. Curly had had successes in past. So it was something that people were hoping for. His (Lombardi?s) first season was a get aquainted kind of year. He was incredibly demanding. He was a driven kind of human. He once told me, ?I have a burning incandescence in my gut.? It propelled him. I think he had been passed over because of his Italian heritage. He was about 46 or 47 at the time of the Packers job and he was ready. And he was determined to make damn sure we were ready. He demanded a great deal in terms of performance and conditioning He worked us harder than any team in the business at that time. Dave Hanner of Arkansas was a perfect example. For five days he would spend mornings at practice and afternoons in the hospital getting an I.V. There were guys losing consciousness, passing out and vomiting. That was the age when you didn?t take fluids. No bad water or anything like that. It was intense.

JZ: When did you know you were on a great team?

JK: I don?t think it happened until we lost that first championship. (In 1960, the Packers lost to Philadelphia 17-13 in the NFL Championship). We were chewing up the field and just ran out of time. We knew we were good and knew we should have won. I think we started to believe at that point. It set the tone for next year. It hardened our determination and resolve.

JZ: Did you work in the off-season?

JK: I worked in Boise at Morrison-Knudsen running machines and doing construction. I made damn near as much as I did playing football.

JZ: What did you make in your best year?

JK: 27 or 28 thousand, plus championship money.

JZ: What would you be worth today?

JK: Six million a year.

JZ: If you were coming out of college today would you be drafted? How big were you?

JK: I think so. I played pro at 255 and college about 226. In college I played both ways and worked like a dog. The weight training they do today is so much different. The players are heavier, but 50 pounds of fat doesn?t do anything but make you heavy. I was as strong as virtually any of the ball players I played against. A lot of people I dominated and ate up. One time I took a 290 pound defensive tackle back five yards with his cleats skidding on the turf. I was pretty good at driving. The bigger the guy the way easier he was to handle. The guy that would give you fits was the one that would give you the head feints and the slap. Speed is what kills you, not mass.

JZ: With all the money in pro football today would you trade it for your experience?

JK: Not in a heartbeat. Money is good. But being able to live life on your own terms is a hellava lot better.

JZ: Do you think players from your era got away with more because of the lack of media coverage?

JK: I think that was one of the major reasons it was such a joy. It was not at all like it is today. There was limited TV exposure. We were there when it started to grow. It was a great marriage of TV and football and we were the team of the era. Things just got bigger and bigger and it was a continual set of surprises. I think they got away with more in my day. It was a gentler time when reporters didn?t look at everyone?s backsides to see the dirt. It was a friendlier media. There were three or four major media players in the game. If they wrote something bad about you, by God they wouldn?t get a seat the next time. Even when I wrote Instant Replay I didn?t go into the dark side. It was pretty much the way society was.

JZ: Who is part of your football fraternity?

JK: Most of the guys in Green Bay. Whoever happens to be there. It is a family and I have a close emotional bond with all the guys. It?s a kick to be with them. It is like we just came off the field yesterday. Time has not taken a toll on our relationships.

JZ: How would Lombardi stack up if he was coaching today?

JK: Lombardi knew everything you had to do to win and how to win. There are some current coaches like that: (Bill) Parcells, (Joe) Gibbs and (Dick) Vermeil are some of the guys that come to mind. They all have the same intensity, focus and concentration. There is a sense of passion and drive. They give a damn about winning.

JZ: Of course you are heralded for The Block. Are there any plays that you are equally or more proud of?

JK: There were so many years and so many championships. A lot of things stand out. I kicked three field goals in our second NFL championship against the Giants. That was a great part of that game. People talk about The Block. I like to talk about the Drive. (In the Ice Bowl) We had five minutes to go and we were on the 32-yard line. Bart made some sensational calls. We got caught a couple of times. Don Anderson lost seven yards on a sweep. On second-and-17 we had a give play against Lilly and it went for a first down. It was really a special play on that drive. The Block was a quarterback sneak. Whoop-de-do. I am still amazed at all the attention.

JZ: Why is the Ice Bowl so mythical to people?

JK: We had a great rivalry with Dallas and played a hellava ball game the year before. It was the NFC championship. Of course the cold. It was a crowning achievement in the era. I still have people yell at me about The Block. I just shake my head.

JZ: Lining up against which players made for a long Sunday?

JK: In the 11 years I played there were five guys I remember well. Guys I studied. Artie Donovan on the Colts. He was a big fat tub, but a dancer and a shaker. I had never encountered a player like that. Leo Nomellini of San Francisco. Leo the Lion. He was a pro wrestler with great control and wonderful balance. Charlie Krueger of San Fran. He would work all day and all night. He was just coming and he was bringing it. Alex Karras and Merlin Olsen. They were probably the two best of the crop.

JZ: Did you hold your own?

JK: Yeah, I think I did hold my own. I always got my job done. I didn?t dominate them and didn?t get whupped on. Merlin and I had great battles.

JZ: It seems players from your era were expected to play while injured. Do you think today?s players are mollycoddled?

JK: A six million-dollar knee is pretty damn important. Should you play or take care of it? It puts a great burden on the kid. We were expected to play with injuries. I had broken ribs one time. The doc said you have a pulled muscle. It won?t hurt you. I had to play against Merlin and 10 days later I go back to Green Bay and get a x-ray and I have two busted ribs. But the doc said I bet they don?t hurt anymore. Once, Lionel Aldridge broke a small bone in his leg. They told him it wasn?t a weight-bearing bone. So he?s out there for 10 days trying to run on it. Yeah, there were needles and pain pills. Whatever you had to do. You just didn?t want to let the team down. There was a wonderful team feeling and no one wanted to be the one to let the other guys down.

JZ: Any significance to the #64?

JK: Just happenstance. I always liked 16. I like to add numbers and do things in my head. 16 plus 16 is 32. 32 plus 32 is 64. There is just a nice symmetry to it.

JZ: Who would be on your all-time best offensive team?

JK: Well, if I were picking my team on the sandlot my first choice would be Jim Brown. Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Ron Kramer at his peak. (Paul) Hornug. He was the smartest player I ever knew. Jerry Rice, Ray Berry. He didn?t have speed but he was so precise. After Bart (Starr) I would take Johnny Unitas. Anthony Munoz. Jim Parker from Colts. Larry Allen and myself. I don?t know about a center. (Jim) Otto was kind of small. Maybe (Jim) Ringo.

JZ: After two Super Bowls championships and three NFL championships with Lombardi, he retired in 1968. What was that final year like under Phil Bengtson when you went 6-7-1?

JK: Lombardi gave up the coaching position, but was made general manager of the Packer organization. He tried very hard to stay out of Bengtson?s way.

JZ: Did he?

JK: Not entirely. We had a conversation about one play I had a lot of problems with. The coaching changes brought out a lot of personalities that were there. All the little flowers wanted their day in the sun. After 11 seasons my line coach wanted to change the way I played. It drove me nuts. It was difficult to get beat. It was difficult to do stupid things that you knew better and to get beat.

JZ: When did you decide to retire?

JK: I had had a lot of success with books and TV and was working on some other things. I broke a thumb in my last season. Fuzzy was gone. Paul gone. Willie was gone. I was watching film with Gilly (Gale Gillingham) and I thought I had slowed down. But I wasn?t going to say anything. So I remarked ?I changed my stride,? and Gilly goes, ?Yeah, and you slowed down a lot too.? That registered.

JZ: What did you mean by ?When the game is over it is really just beginning.??

JK: Did I say that? I think I meant life is just beginning. The life you live in the pro football world and athletic world is kind of synthetic. I meant get out there. Get in touch. You get tickets in the real world.

JZ: Would you rather be a Hall of Fame player with no Super Bowl rings or Super Bowl champ not in Canton?

JK: I think I am happy where I am. I don?t hold out any real hopes of making the Hall. It has lost its importance for me. I have my family, my health, my neighbors. Real things. It would be nice, but life has been awfully good, and pro football has been awfully good to me. I have received a tremendous number of presents and gifts and continue to receive them on a daily basis.

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