Remembering Fuzzy Thurston, 1933-2014
This story appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The Glory Years era was a period of time in Green Bay filled with favorites. People who still hold that lofty position since Vince Lombardi’s last season as Packers head coach. From that era many found and still have their favorite players, coaches, plays, quotes, games, moments. For many, when they think of the Packers and the 1960s, Fuzzy Thurston is one of the best embodiments of a time and team and place.
Fuzzy Thurston passed away on Sunday, December 14 at the age of 80. Fred Thurston became a household name in Green Bay because of a childhood nickname that invokes a sort of warmth. Because the person he was more than lived up to it. But of course, Thurston became Fuzzy to any Packers fan initially because of his career as starting left guard for Lombardi’s Packers, very often running that famous sweep. If you see an old black and white photo of the play in action, you’re probably looking at Thurston and fellow guard Jerry Kramer pulling to the outside, looking to obliterate defenders and clear a path – getting the seal here, a seal here, an alley up the middle – for running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. One of Thurston’s famous lines over the years was, “There are two good reasons the Packers are world champions. Jerry Kramer is one of them, and you’re looking at the other one.”
When that sweep worked, and it did a lot, it was as cohesive and fluid a play as you’ll see on a football field; everyone moving in unison, exactly how they were supposed to be moving. Punishing simplicity perfected. Like many of the movements and circumstances that put the Glory Years Packers together, Green Bay offered Thurston the ideal situation to make the most of his abilities, but in Thurston, Green Bay also traded before the 1959 season for an all-around athlete. Thurston wasn’t simply a product of the system he was put in – there wasn’t likely a better part for it. Thurston was a consensus first team All-Pro in 1961, a first-teamer again in ‘62 by the United Press International and second-teamer by the Associated Press and Newspaper Enterprise Association. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1975.
He was a two-time All-American at Valparaiso University, where Fuzzy went on a basketball scholarship because Altoona, Wis., where he grew up and went to high school, didn’t yet have a football team. Thurston didn’t play football in college until he was a junior. Perhaps he was undersized, even for those days, as a professional offensive lineman. But Thurston, though maybe it was partially disguised as a guy of his stature constantly going on with his tireless work on the field, was always a talented athlete. As a guard, Fuzzy was part old school bootstraps-and-dirt, part bulldog, part natural skill pushed to its peak.
If Fuzzy’s career would have played out exactly as it did, if he would have retired after the ‘67 campaign as he did, then disappeared somewhere, maybe back to Altoona or out of state, he would have been a Packers legend. Fuzzy is the Packers legend he is, though, the one he’ll always be remembered as, because he never left; because he never wanted to leave. Whether it was at his chain of restaurants, The Left Guard, his Green Bay bar, Fuzzy’s #63, an autograph signing or charity event, Fuzzy stayed not only visible but happily approachable. Often he’d wear a yellow baseball hat that simply read “Lombardi” across the front. He was always wearing a smile too, his eyes present in the moment. After cancer stripped him of speech, the engaged smile never left. For a guy that went through his fair share of personal and financial hardships and loss, Fuzzy never looked bitter or tired of who he was. Only knowing him from afar, from a few meetings much like many fans experience, Thurston never felt like he was taking any of his life for granted. It never became a burdensome routine for him to be Packers Hall of Famer, six-time world champion Fuzzy Thurston. It often felt as though he was enjoying it anew each time we saw him.
For as great of a player as he was, that you can’t separate the Glory Years Packers from Lombardi, and you can’t separate Lombardi from his power sweep, and you can’t take Thurston out of that sweep, Fuzzy’s real lasting legacy with Packers fans might come from the fact that he was one too. Though more athletic than often remembered, Thurston was the everyman world champ, the Packers fan who became a Packer. He gave a generation of fans a glimpse of what it’d be like if a regular guy from a small Wisconsin town rode the wave in Green Bay as the Packers rose to the top of the world.
The Glory Years get further away each day. What we lost with Fuzzy was a real-life connection to it, a beaming bridge backwards. What we won’t lose are the memories those teams gave us on the field – power sweeps and beyond. Then later the moments Thurston happily, no matter what, provided. Whenever Fuzzy posed in those countless photographs with Packers fans over the years, as his health declined, one thing stayed true: You could never tell who was happier.