No slowing down
Green Bay’s Jerry Kramer is still going strong
Jerry Kramer – likely the most-famous Packer alumnus eligible but not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – has turned 80 years old, but don’t think the guard known for his powerful pulling is slowing down.
“I’m busier than I’ve been my entire life,” he noted in a recent interview. “I keep thinking it’s going to die off and then it just doesn’t. So I guess we’ll keep doing it for awhile.
“I’m enjoying it, my mind is fine. How the hell can you not enjoy getting together with a bunch of Packer fans, the greatest thing that ever happened up there? So, it’s just a very pleasant situation. It keeps me moving and I get off the couch, and I get doing things and it keeps me active. So it’s good for everybody.
“I’m feeling pretty good. Just going to get ready to hit a few golf balls.”
All that activity requires frequent trips from Boise, his current Idaho location, after growing up in Jordan and Sandpoint. That adds up to plenty of travel.
“Significant,” he said. “Well, you travel, you travel. You put up with (stuff), you put up with (stuff). It’s not a time tunnel yet, but it’s not all bad. I’ve got 8 or 10 magazines in my briefcase, Scientific American, MIT (Press) Journal, a couple fishing journals and maybe a hunting journal. And I’ve got my iPad and my music.
“It gives me a little time to reflect and it gives me a little time to have to myself. I’ve got my reading material and other things and it’s not that bad.”
Educating the grandkids
The event that stands out in most peoples’ minds when discussing Kramer’s recent activities is his memorabilia auction to build a scholarship fund for his five grandchildren.
When you put up a Super Bowl I ring for auction, it’s going to draw attention.
“Well, you know that was a fairly pleasant experience,” Kramer revealed. “It was a difficult decision to put the Super Bowl I ring in there, but I’ve got six kids and had five rings, so I thought settling the estate and leaving your life in good order so the children don’t have to haggle over it – not that they would – but now they don’t have to.
“Things have been put away and taken care of, properly stowed. So once I got past that, and I decided it was the right thing to do, then it was kind of fun. I got a call from… it’s an odd thing – our ring of course is the number 1 thing – but our stocking hat sold for something like 1,600 dollars. Well, what the hell is that? Who would pay that for a stocking hat?
“And then there was the kicking shoe, it was just kind of an afterthought, ‘Oh well might as well throw it in, clean up the garage,’ and it was maybe something that would bring 5-or-600 dollars, and brought 16,000. So it was kind of interesting to see that and obviously it was kind of fun.
“I got a call the other day from the guy that bought the stocking hat and he’s with a museum down in Madison. And I’m going, ‘What the heck!” and he says, ‘Well Jerry, that’s the kind of thing we wear in Wisconsin. Everybody’s got a stocking cap.’
“He wanted me to have me stop by some day and have a little chat with him and whatnot, and I’m thinking, ‘Isn’t that kind of cool, to have some old stuff in a garage going to a museum where it will be shared with people and be a part of stuff for a long, long time. That’s nice. I kind of get a kick out of that.
“I have still just a tremendous amount of stuff. I’ve been a saver – I’m not a hoarder, but I am a saver – and I’ve been saving stuff since I was a freshman in high school. I got my name in the paper in Sandpoint, Idaho, the sports page, it was the results of a track meet, and you went three-quarters of the way down the article and saw the shot put and you followed that out, there were three names and then J. Kramer, fourth place. And I saved that. I saved up everything they sent.
“It was kind of funny as a young kid. It was kind of a validation of my existence. Hey, I’m here, and maybe I’ll be somebody, but at least I’m here. Now people might know about me.”
The 50-item auction raised in the neighborhood of $350,000 for the scholarship fund, with the ring going for $125,000 and the game-worn jersey for $45,000.
The One ring…
Kramer did keep his Super Bowl II ring.
“Yeah, that’s too close, that’s the one I wear all the time,” Kramer noted. “It was probably the most difficult one to come by. It was our third consecutive championship, people had been studying our films for two years, three years. They were cocked and loaded, and we were on everybody’s schedule. The worst team in the league is going to wait for us and they’re going to play their heart out.
“So it was a long difficult season to get to the playoffs. On one side of the ring, it says, ‘Challenge.’ The first day in training camp, Vince Lombardi gave us about an hour-and-a-half lecture on the challenge we faced. How everybody was going to be waiting for us and the things we had to do to meet that challenge. The type of commitment, the type of discipline, the type of tenacity that we had to have to win the third in a row, something that no one had ever done. So we started planning to win that game the first night, the first meeting, and we get down to the Rams in the first playoff game and (Lombardi) did a wonderful piece from St. Paul’s epistle on Run to Win. Not sure if St. Paul said it the way Coach Vincent said it (laughs).
“St. Paul said, ‘Of all the runners who run in a race, only one can win. And we don’t run just to be in the race, we run to win.’ That gave us a wonderful locker room chat and we went out and kicked the Rams’ booty, 28-7, and they had beaten us about three of four weeks before. On the other side of the ring I wear it says, ‘Run to win.’
“And then the drive in the Ice Bowl, which is on this ring, also, the final four-and-a-half minutes we’re 65 yards from the end zone, minus 57 (degrees) chill factor at the end of the day, and the previous 31 plays we had gained a minus-nine yards. I asked Bart years later how he thought he could take that team 65 yards when they had lost nine yards in the last 31 plays and he says, the look in your eyes – the look in Forest (Gregg)’s eyes, the look in Gilly’s (Gale Gillingham) eyes, Ski’s (Bob Skoronski) eyes, and I started to say something, and I looked in that huddle and I knew you all knew what you needed to do. So all I said was, ‘All right, let’s go.’
“Every guy on that team elevated his performance and became a different player on that final drive. It was almost something magical. Chuck Mercein was sensational, Donny Anderson, Bowd Dowler, Carroll Dale, Skoronski, Gilly, Bart, the whole team just came together in a wonderful effort and we got down the field and scored with 13 seconds left, and went on to the Super Bowl.
“The Super Bowl was Coach Lombardi’s last game. So the ring remembers that season, and that coach, and that drive, and that hope, so that’s why I kept it.”
Kramer has also teamed up with the National Child Identification Program, most recently participating in a Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin publicity event scheduled by the Sheboygan firefighters on March 2.
The impetus was finding out 800,000 children go missing each year in this country alone.
“That’s stunning information!” Kramer asserted. “That really stunned me!
“Tell you how it all started. A fellow called me and said he was with the child ID program about a year or so, and that Roger Staubach had suggested he call me. Well, I know the kind of person Roger Staubach is, he‘s Bart (Starr)’s half-brother almost. They’re both decent, solid, upstanding citizens. So I returned the call and he said he wanted me to come to a press conference and work with his project.
“So I showed up I think the first one and he told me that 800,000 kids go missing every year. I said, ‘Wait a second, that can’t be right!’ And he said, ‘They’re not all taken, but half of those are runaways, another 350,000 are taken by relatives, and 58,000 go missing without a trace.’ I said, ‘Here! In the United States! Fifty-eight thousand kids!’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, what the hell is going on? How come the country isn’t outraged about that! How come we aren’t hearing more about it, doing something about it, what the hell is happening!’
“So I’ve been involved for awhile, and what we do is we have an envelope with a DNA swab, finger prints and description. They leave it the parents and if they have a problem they give it to the police and they have an immediate information rather than trying to find stuff and take a week to compile. It’s not the best, it’s not perfect, but it’s something. We can do it till we find something better.”
Kramer came to Packers in the fourth round of a stellar draft in 1958 that included future Pro Bowl or HOF selections Dan Currie (1st), Jim Taylor (2nd), Ray Nitschke (3rd), Kramer and Ken Gray (6th)
“I was tickled to be drafted,” he said. “I didn’t have any feelings about up, down or maybe, I was just tickled to be drafted and be recognized by the NFL. I got to play in the East-West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl and the college all-star game, and it was a big deal being drafted and having a chance to pay professional football. It was obviously a miserable season – 1-10-1 and the worst record in the history of the franchise. The Baltimore Colts beat us 56-to-zip. They ran that white colt around the stadium every time their team scored, and I think we damn near killed him that day.”
So that was not a very auspicious beginning, but it would get better fast.
“(A great draft), and they had Ron Kramer, Paul Hornung, guys like that from before that were still there, Forrest and Bart. Quite a group of guys. I played probably half the time my first year, and then played pretty much all the time when I wasn’t injured after that.”
Dealin’ with The Man
Just because he made the team didn’t mean it was going to be all wine and roses with a volatile coach like Vince Lombardi.
“We had some difficult moments in my career,” Kramer reflected. “I’d gotten my ass chewed a few times, and I was ready to punch him out a few times. That was part of his modus operandi. He would chew your ass, and if you didn’t respond, he would chew it again, maybe but if you did respond and it was a serious response and he’d been wrong, then he’d come up to you and say, ‘I didn’t mean you, c’mon, what’s wrong with you,’ and he’d mess up your hair and push you on the chin and reestablish communication. He did that to me probably four or five times. I didn’t take his criticism very well. And you’ve heard Bart tell the story about chewing his ass out on the field and he walked up to Coach and said, ‘You want me to lead these guys, don’t chew my ass and make a fool of me out on the field, and apologize to me in private. Chew my ass out in private,’ and he never chewed him out again. There were similar occasions where he apologized to me, that he was wrong. And that was part of the brilliance of him, I believe, that he didn’t interrupt the communication.
“You didn’t go to the bar and talk about what a rotten sonuvabitch he was. It was left on the practice field, it was forgotten. He’d chew your ass out again and he’d apologize again. He never let it fester. With me, at least, he always apologized right away or as soon as practice was over. That made it all acceptable.
Lombardi is quoted as saying, “Jerry Kramer did not know how good he was when he first joined the Green Bay Packers. You’d be surprised how much confidence a little success will bring.”
Kramer also attributes another angle.
“I find out in later years trying to understand him better, psychologists will tell you that children today prefer approval over sex, money or drugs,” Kramer said. “I think children, going back to the beginning of time, all over the world, and not just children, I think approval runs the world. In business communications, in personal communications, in life, approval makes life a lot smoother. Everybody seems to want approval.
“The other thing I read recently is another psychology study, on tenacity, and they found that is a person, a child , if they had one person that believes in them then they can develop tenacity. They can fail over and over again, but they won’t quit on it because someone believes in them, they have some back-up. It’s like your subconscious says, ‘You’ll never do this.’ And he’s always the negative one. But if anyone out there believes in you, then you won’t quit.
“Coach Lombardi knew that 40 or 50 years ago. He would tell you things like, ‘Jerry Kramer doesn’t know how good he can be.’ He told me how good I could be. And he told me after a major ass-chewing one day, and you’ve probably heard this. He gave me that college lecture, ‘the concentration period of a college student is five minutes, a high school student is three minutes, a kindergartner is 30 seconds and you don’t even have that, so where does that put you?!’
“Well, that hit me pretty hard, and I went up to the locker room 10 minutes later and sat down with my helmet in my hand, looking at the floor and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And he’d been out with Bart and the wide receivers, for 40 minutes and he comes in, sees me at the far end of the locker room, comes over, messes up my hair, pats me on the shoulder and says, ‘Son, one day you’re going to be the best guard in football.’ He gave me approval and a belief in me. I knew him to be a serious man and a bright man, and I didn’t believe he dealt in (B.S.) or dishonesty. He made me believe more in myself because he believed in me. And I believe one way or another he gave that to virtually every guy on the team, and one way or another he got you to be emotionally involved in the outcome of the game or the practice.
“He loved to say, ‘All the money, all the trophies, all the rings, all the headlines linger in the memory only a short time. But the will to win, the will to excel, these are the things that endure. And these are the things that are so much more important than any of the things that occasioned it.”
With Lombardi’s extreme emotional effect on the squad, it’s no surprise things would change under the more cerebral Coach Phil Bengston when Lombardi took a step back into solely the GM job in 1968.
“He took the air out of the room when he left. He took the energy with it. He was a coach of the highest magnitude. Coach Bengston was a wonderful man and wonderful coach and wonderful ‘D’ coordinator, but Coach Lombardi left a vacuum there of energy and we had thrived on energy. We had thrived on emotion and will, those intangibles. Coach Phil did not deal in that, so it was a different football team.”
The next year, Lombardi left the Packers in a combination of killing the calls for replacing Bengston and securing his future. The GM/coach job with the Washington Redskins offered a piece of team ownership – five percent – and Lombardi did the unthinkable by leaving Green Bay.
The shocking decline
Just a short year later, he would be diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer.
Lombardi would die in 1971 after a month-long stay at Georgetown University Hospital.
“(It was) very painful to see him,” Kramer admitted. “First of all, when I walked in the room, laying in bed with his eyes closed, his fists clenched, I believe he was meditating and trying to work on the cancer. He believed the will was everything.
“I went over to him and told him I loved him and how much I appreciated him and how much he had impacted my life. The time we’d been together. I tried to say something meaningful to him. He nodded his head.
“I had been in the hospital before and I know you don’t want me to come in and spend two hours with you when you’re sick.
“I’m marshalling my energy and my forces and I’m using all of the energy I have fighting the problem I’m having. So if you just stick your head in the door, ‘Jerry, I love you,’ and then leave, that’s the best thing you can do for me. So I understood that. I just took a couple of minutes talking to Coach and I was going to leave, to let him get back to his meditating.
“When I got to the door, a nurse came in. Coach looked up, ‘Jerry, come back! Lift up your shirt. Jerry, show her your scars.’ I pulled up my shirt and he said, ‘You see that. He was able to come back from that.’ Then he said, ‘okay,’ and kind of dismissed me. He was trying to beat the cancer with just his will.”
One facet of Kramer’s Packers’ life that doesn’t receive a lot of attention is how he roomed with Willie Davis later in his career at a time when teams weren’t very integrated, much less the sleeping arrangements.
“Well, part of that was Willie and I, and part of that was Coach, who didn’t allow any bigotry or prejudice on the team,” Jerry stated. “Because we were teammates and so close and we judged people by their contribution on the football field on Sunday afternoon. Not by their looks, or whether they were tall or short or fat, ugly or cute, or black or white, or anything else. What kind of contribution do you make to the team?
“And there certainly wasn’t any contribution that Willie didn’t make or I didn’t make, and so we had a certain respect for one another and we were getting to the age thinking that retirement wasn’t that far away. We were talking about business opportunities and it just seemed natural.
“My roommate didn’t come back; Don Chandler decided he wanted to stay home and practice at home and Coach didn’t want him to, so he retired. Willie and I had been downtown, looking a restaurant, a new franchise, and were discussing it and ended up in my room. ‘Well, just room with me because my roommate’s gone.’ It was just kind of a casual thing.
“We have a great friendship today. I have a room down at Marina Del Ray in the Davis home called the Kramer Suite. I stay with him whenever I go to L.A. We just get along super. I have respect for him and appreciation of him. Six years during the off-season earning an MBA from the University of Chicago, on the Dean’s list, just a wonderful character and quality about his life. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
The accomplished Davis – who went on to own beer distributing outfits and several radio stations, and become a member of numerous boards of directors of major companies – later wrote an excellent book entitled, ‘Closing the Gap.’
“I gave him the title,” Kramer said. “I don’t know if he remembers it, we’ve never talked about it, but that’s what I titled my speeches. We’d talk a lot still. He’d call and say, ‘You going down to this thing? How much you getting for that?’ We’d compare.
“We’d look for a story when we’d have an event that was important to us. I’d call and say, ’What are you talking about, what are you thinking about?’ At that point I was talking about closing the gap, as in there’s a gap between where you are and what you can become. You’re born with a certain God-given talent and there’s a gap between where you are and what you can become. You have a responsibility as a human being to close that gap.”
The Packers Sweep
The Packers’ sweep play is legendary in the league and for good reason.
“It averaged 8.3 yards per carry the first three years we ran it,” Kramer stated. “So certainly Hornung and Taylor, that group we had then, it was one of the best plays ever if you can run a play 300 times and average 8.3 yards per carry or have anything close to it.
“It was one of the things, (Lombardi) said, ‘We will make this go, we must make it go, and we don’t make it go, some of you may go.’ So he let us know it was the critical play in his arsenal, and set up everything else on the field for us. So we ran it instead of sprints after practice. We ran it in our sleep. Early on, there’d be a screw-up and Coach would say, “Run it again! Run it again!’ After a few months when there was a screw-up, one of the guys would say, ‘Run it again! Run it again!’ We’d line up and run it again before he even had a chance to say anything. It got to the point we wanted it to be perfect, too. And it was a hell of a play.
“But you know we had (Jim) Ringo, who could make an on-side cut-off, Forrest Gregg, who could set up the defensive end and seal on the middle linebacker, Hornung and Taylor who could both block the defensive end after he was set up by the tackle. Bob Skoronski cutting off the backside pursuit, so Fuzzy (Thurston) and I could get around the corner. And (Paul) Hornung was absolutely brilliant at using his interference. He was one of the best runners at following his interference that I’ve ever seen.
Critical to the success of the play was Kramer and Thurston pulling out of their guard spots and racing around the corner. That’s why Kramer thinks it couldn’t work in today’s game.
“I don’t think your linemen can run anymore,” he said. “They’re too fat. And you know what, that really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Fifty pounds of fat makes you heavy and slow. It doesn’t make you strong, it doesn’t make you quick, it doesn’t do a hell of a lot for you, except maybe on pass protection. You’re 330 pounds instead of 270 pounds or 280. Being 320, 330 pounds doesn’t make you run well. You will find one-two-three in the league, but generally they don’t run well.”
So what does Kramer miss most about his playing days?
“The guys,” he stated without hesitation. “You had a bunch of brothers. You want to go fishing, there’s 4-5 guys there. You want to go shoot the bow, want to go bowling, hunting, for a beer, there’s always 4-5 guys to go with, always the pals. Being with them you had a lot of the same interests.
“It was just a brotherhood there that was very special and very unique. That you miss more than anything else.”
One thing Jerry doesn’t miss is the brutal two-a-day practices.
“Absolutely not,” he stated. “Those days are just memory.”
Still collecting accolades
Kramer will also speak at the upcoming Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame banquet.
“The induction happened about 15 years ago,” he said. “They’re reviving the hall of fame and I’m going to speak at a dinner on April 30th for the first meeting of the hall of fame in 15 years. It’s been kind of dormant, this is a resuscitation of it.
“I did make a team that I’m kind of tickled about. They picked an all-time Super Bowl team, USA Today, and they picked Forrest Gregg and I as members of that team. We’re both over 80, so it’s kind of a kick in the ass when you’re picked for an all-star team when you’re in your 80s.”
But he’s still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite concern from fans everywhere. Back in 2010, the NFL Network listed him as #1 on it’s list of deserving players not in the hall, and Kramer has been contacted by Packer backer groups of several hundred members from places like Mexico and Iowa citing their disapproval.
“That’s been an interesting situation. I finally decided that because I’m not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I’m getting a hell of a lot more press than I would have had I gone in in ‘75 and had been drifting around. I’m the only guy on the 50-year (NFL) team not in the hall of fame. That makes me special,” he said with a laugh. “There’s certainly an element of truth there.”
On turning 80
If there’s a downside to living to the ripe age of 80, it’s seeing your friends and former teammates fall down around you.
“It’s just very painful for everyone,” Kramer said. “I think back at the wonderful times I had with Max (McGee), the moments with Nitsch (Ray Nitschke), LeRoy (Caffey) and Tommy Joe (Crutcher), (Max) McGee… on and on and on. They were all very special people, special to me. There’s no easy solution there. It’s part of life, part of the process, I believe it gets tougher and tougher to go to the services and things. It’s never easy.
Another tough loss was fellow pulling guard Fuzzy Thurston.
“I never met a man who was happier in his skin or happier to be who he was than Fuzzy,” Jerry said. “There was (Frank) Sinatra and Dean Martin and George C. Scott, and a (boatload) of guys in that business, and I don’t think any of them loved being who they were more than Fuzzy loved being Fuzzy. He was a piece of work.”
It’s violent, just not as violent
“It’s quite a different situation now,” Kramer explained. “The whole game’s been tenderized a little bit. I remember when Bart was sewed up on the bench, he got hit in the mouth with a forearm, bled like a stuck hog all the way down his jersey and his pants. He went to the sideline after that series, and they laid him down on the bench and sewed him up and he didn’t miss a play. He went right back in the ballgame.
“Another time, I remember Kenny Bowman dislocating a shoulder, and his shoulder went down over his chest, down his left breast – it had completely moved to the center of his body – and it was the most God-awful thing I think I’ve ever seen. The trainer laid him down by the bench and put one foot under his armpit and one foot on his neck and jerked as hard as he could jerk to put the shoulder back in place. Bobo went (shrieking noise), screamed, it just was God-awful, but they didn’t take him inside and hide him from the world in privacy.
“Many hurts gave a small price to pay for having won. There’s no reason that’s adequate at all for having lost.”
While Kramer started 130 games over 11 seasons (12 games in regular season at the time )in his career, he still missed some time with injuries from the brutal sport.
“A lot of odds and ends,” held him back, he noted. “A variety of things I did to himself and happenstance. I ended up with 28 operations in my lifetime, and that’s enough of that, too, thank you very much.”
The bulk of those operations related to the infamous three slivers of wood left in Kramer’s groin after an calf-chasing accident in his youth. The slivers – two of them four inches long – can be seen in the Packers Hall of Fame.???
“It had only been in there for 11 years,” Kramer said facetiously. “I’d had little twinges of pain in my groin. ‘Dang! What was that! It must be some old scar tissue breaking up.’ It’d go away. Later it punctured the intestine and you’ve got a tumor the size of a grapefruit, and I went to Mayo and had eight or nine operations. Had a colostomy and an intestine burst. Had a lot of fun with that. Went down to about 190 pounds (from his playing weight of 260). I was damn fortunate to be able to come back and play.”
Distant Replay now distant
It’s been three decades since Distant Replay was printed in 1985 as a follow up to Instant Replay, an inside look at the 1967 championship season.
“(It was a) hell of an experience,” Kramer said. “Thank Dick Schaap for that, actually, a guy named Bob Dettwilling??? said he had an idea for a book and why didn’t (Dick) find somebody. Dick had been there back in ‘62 to do a book with Hornung, and he had been walking down the hallway and went by my room. I was reading a piece of poetry to Jimmie Taylor, who was probably asleep. Dick walked past the room about 10 steps and came back and looked in to make sure he had seen what he thought he had seen. Six years later, when (Dettwilling) asked him about doing a book, he said, you know, I’d be interesting. So they called me and the rest is history.
“That was time to do Distant Replay. It had been 18-19 years since (the players) had left the field and the coach and I was curious.”
“It’s especially difficult,” Kramer said. “Obviously, it can (happen again), but it’s only been done once in 100 years.
“Now the efforts of the NFL to have everyone be competitive– the worst teams drafting first, the salary caps and all the things they do to encourage parity, makes it even more difficult than it was when we were playing. So, it’s a diff
“I don’t think we’ll see it right away. With the free agency and the trading of players… the players don’t have the emotional tie to the team that we did. They have an emotional tie to the money, which is logical and I’m not criticizing that, I think that’s normal. The fact that you have to pay the quarterback a huge amount of the money and you can’t pay and you can’t pay the offensive line and the defensive backs maybe what you could if the quarterback was in a normal range it would make you a better team. But you can’t do that, you’ve got a salary cap. So it makes it even more difficult than it was back then.”
Talking about the iconic photo of him looking up at Lombardi, who is up on his shoulders after the Super Bowl II victory, Kramer noted, “It was just a happenstance. I was doing Instant Replay that season and I was watching Coach very closely, had my (tape) recorder with me all the time. And he gave us instructions on Thursday and walked away from the podium about 10 steps, then came back and said, ‘This may be our last time together.’ We looked at one another and said, ‘What the hell is that all about?’ We didn’t know, but the more I thought about it, this could be our last time together. Maybe some of the players would be let go, maybe it would be that he would go on, a lot of things could happen.
“So I mentioned at halftime, that somebody needed to carry Coach off the field. We were going to win this game, and guys that should be doing it would be Willie Davis and Bob Skoronski, our team captains. When the game ended, I happened to be standing on the sideline with Forrest, and Coach is close to us and he started walking out on the field to go across the field to the dressing room. Willie was on the field and I don’t know where Bob was, but Forrest says, “Jerry, let’s get him.’ So we just grabbed him and hoisted him up on our shoulders, kind of in a nobody-else-was-there-to-do-it moment. It turned out to be a great photo.”