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God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers
Professional football had never been a goal of mine. I wanted to get my degree and I hoped to coach football, probably at the high school level. But as my senior year progressed, several pro teams expressed interest in selecting me in the annual college draft. The Los Angeles Rams had contacted me by sending a letter asking if I would play for them if they drafted me. I was intrigued by the Rams in particular. Perhaps my attraction stemmed from a movie I’d seen, Crazylegs with Elroy Hirsh, I don’t know.
The Detroit Lions and the Baltimore Colts each sent similar letters. The Lions had Doak Walker, and that was an attraction to me. Plus I’d seen them play on Thanksgiving Day, but that’s as much as I knew about the team.
The Colts had Raymond Berry, who had gone from SMU to Baltimore. I spoke with Raymond when he returned home after his first year and he told me what it was like in the NFL and Baltimore. After our talk I began thinking that I would like to be selected by the Colts, they seemed to be an up and coming team on the cusp.
I heard nothing from the Green Bay, however, until a week before the November 29 draft when I received a telegram from the Packers. The missive asked the same question as the earlier letters had. Would I be willing to play for the Packers, should they select me in the upcoming draft? Since they had waited so long to contact me, I didn’t believe the Packers would really draft me. And unlike the three previous letters, I did not respond to Green Bay’s telegram.
That teams questioned whether a young man was willing to play professional football wasn’t unusual. Believe me, at the time, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between a job in professional football and a “real” job, maybe a couple of grand. There were examples of guys who were drafted by the NFL, but never pursued professional football. In some cases they didn’t want to leave home, and in other instances some already had a decent job lined up. But I was interested in pro ball, since I’d also been contacted by the Canadian Football League; I knew there would be an opportunity somewhere for me.
On the day of the draft I went to class as usual. The draft wasn’t publicized back then anything like it is today, and I didn’t know for sure when it was being held. Following my classes I stopped by the athletic department and while there the school’s publicity director, Lester Jordan, called me into his office. Something must be up, I thought, Lester had never invited me into his office before.
“Forrest,” he said, “we just got a call from the Green Bay Packers. They drafted you in the second round.”
My initial reaction, I have to admit, was disappointment. I was hoping for the Rams or the Colts, even the Lions, but Green Bay
“What should I do?” I asked Lester.
“There’s but one thing to do if you want to play professional football, you’ll be playing for the Packers,” Lester told me. “I suggest you call them.”
I hesitated. In 1955 you just didn’t make long distance calls at the drop of a hat.
Lester must have recognized the concern on my face. “You can use the phone in my office,” he told me.
I called Green Bay and was put on the line with a man named Jack Vanisi.
The Packers are glad to have you aboard, he told me, and then Vanisi informed me that the Packers had drafted a running back from the University of Miami, Jack Losch, in the first round.
“Thank you,” I said, “I appreciate very much the Packers selecting me.
“Now that we drafted you,” Jack said, “we need to come to an agreement on a contract.”
Not two minutes had passed before I was introduced into the business of professional football.
I hung up the phone and searched for a map. I had no idea where Green Bay was, Michigan or Wisconsin? I wasn’t sure which.
It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. At the moment, though, I wasn’t very excited to be a Green Bay Packer. Then I started thinking; there were a couple of guys from SMU on the team. Bill Forester played linebacker, fullback, and defensive lineman at various times for the Packers. And here was Vale Joe Walker, a defensive back up there. We Mustangs are kindred spirits.
Suddenly Green Bay wasn’t looking so bad now.
That’s not to say I didn’t have other opportunities. Two teams from the Canadian Football League contacted me. The Calgary Stampeders put an offer of $7,500 on the table with a $500 no strings signing bonus. Another offer of $8,500 came from the Montreal Alouettes, but that city didn’t appeal to me. Calgary, I was told it was like an East Texas oil town, a town I could relate to. My negotiations with the Packers were conducted with Jack Vanisi over the telephone. $7,500 and a $250 signing bonus if I reported to training camp and was still a member of the team at the end of camp was the Packers office. The money might have been slightly better in Canada, but the NFL was where I wanted to play, it’s where I belonged. I’m sure Jack knew how I felt; our “negotiations” only lasted a few moments before I agreed to the Packers terms.
A few of us Packer rookies were scheduled to play in the College All-Star Game, Bob Skronski, Cecil Morris, Jack Losch, Bob Burris, and myself. The team had us report to training camp at Green Bay so we could work out for a few days and get acquainted with the system before heading to Chicago.
Upon arrival I was surprised to see that the big leagues weren’t necessary “big time.” The Packers practiced on a run-down field, East High Stadium. And the dressing room resembled some high school locker rooms I’d been in back home in Texas. The equipment we were issued was tattered and worn I took a look around and thought to myself, “This is pro ball?”
The annual College All-Star Game pitted the NFL champions against the best collegiate players from the previous season. The exhibition contest was played each summer at Chicago’s Soldier Field. We stayed at Northwestern University for a couple of weeks while preparing under the tutelage of our coach Curly Lambeau. It was an educational experience for me. Most of us on the All-Star team were going to play on Sundays, and it was fun meeting guys I’d heard about, or fellows I’d played against. We scrimmaged a great deal in preparation for the Browns, and that gave me a good indication of what competition in the NFL would be like. The game itself was a lopsided 26-0 victory for Paul Brown’s team, however, to play against the best, and to hold my own was pretty satisfying. I returned to Stevens Point ready for professional competition, and confident in my own ability.
While we were at Evanston, Morris and Burris, who both attended Oklahoma, started talking to one another and they decided they didn’t want to play professional football. Jack Vanisi came up to Northwestern University and tried to talk them out of their decision, but neither would. And then, when we returned to training camp Skronski and Losch decided they, too, didn’t want to play. We had an inter-squad on Saturday and on Sunday they hoofed it. Jack sent the state police after them. I think they were caught in Indiana. Vanisi spoke with them on the phone and talked Losch and Skronski into returning. That’s why teams asked prospects, “If drafted, do you intend on playing professional football?”
The Packers didn’t seem to know what to do with me. The defensive coaches wanted to play me on the line, while Lou Remkus, the offensive line coach, wanted me on his side of the ball. Throughout the preseason I moved around a bit. Primarily I was used on the offensive line, though I did see some action on defense. When the regular season began I wasn’t a starter, but I was seeing a lot of playing time.
Starter or not, the entire year was a learning process.
Early in the season we were facing the Baltimore Colts, and for me in particular, Big Daddy Lipscomb. Big Daddy had never played college ball, his only experience prior to the pros was in the Army where he played a little ball.
Boy he was tough, and I knew I was in for a rough day. I wasn’t sure if I could block Big Daddy or not. So, on the first the first couple of pass plays I resorted to holding Lipscomb. Then, about halfway through the first quarter we called a running play. Big Daddy grabbed my arm as I headed back to the huddle following the play.
“Hey Forrest, lets make a deal.”
I was surprised he knew my name.
“What kind of deal Big Daddy?” I asked, though I was skeptical.
“If you don’t hold me,” Lipscomb said, “I won’t kill you.”
I was a reasonable man, and that seemed like a reasonable proposition. “That’s a deal,” And believe me, I didn’t hold Big Daddy again.
The Packers head coach during my rookie season was Lisle Blackbourne, who was in his third season at the helm in Green Bay. As a coach, Lisle could be very caustic; he was quick to criticize performance. But that’s the way it was, if you did something wrong, you expected to get chewed out.
One particular mistake from my rookie year stands out. I had good speed for a lineman and I was given a spot on the special teams punt coverage. Against the Colts I went down to cover a punt with Lenny Moore receiving the kick. Instead of staying outside in good contain position; I went straight for Lenny thinking I could get him. However, Moore juked me and returned the punt about forty yards around my side.
After we watched the game film on Tuesday, Lisle called me into his office.
“Gregg,” he said, “do you know what I called you when I saw you cover that punt?”
“No coach, I don’t,” I answered.
“I called you wild ass,” Blackbourne told me, “You were a wild man. I hope you learned what that word “contain” means.
All I could say was, “Yes, sir,” and believe me, I never did forget.
On December 10, 1956, two days after we lost to the 49’ers in San Francisco, I was drafted into the Army. While the rest of my teammates went on to Los Angeles for the final game of the year, I flew back to Milwaukee where I was inducted into the service. I was put on a bus early the next morning and taken for a physical. I tried to think of every way I could possibly fail that exam- a pulled hamstring, a strained groin but I was told I was healthy. The following day I was put on another bus, the destination this time was Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training.
In the service they try to break you down. If you don’t do what you’re told, they threaten you with jail. If jail was worse than the Army, I didn’t want anything to do with it. We stood in line for everything in the Army. For chow, to be issued equipment, anything we needed- it seemed like all we ever did was stand in line.
My second day at Ft. Leonard Wood was when my Army life really began.
“Grab blankets and pillows,” someone bellowed at the new draftees, “and follow that guy right there.”
I looked over and there was a sharp looking sergeant carrying a swagger stick just like George C Scott did in Patton.
“OK meatheads, follow me,” he said. There were four of us, and we followed the sergeant up a flight of stairs in the barracks. On the second floor there was a big red strip of linoleum on the floor. The sergeant walked along the strip with the four of us right on his heels. He turned, saw what we were doing, and blew his top.
“Kings and very few Queens get a chance to walk on that red stripe,” the sergeant barked at us. “If I ever see you walking on that, I’ll have you court-martialed.”
He then went over to a bunk and halfway turned over the bedding with a sleeping soldier in it. “Private, show these meatheads how to make a bunk!”
The next morning we were all rousted out of bed in a similar fashion. Boy, I was a pro football player who people had treated with respect. I knew right then, when my time was up, I was gone.
Following eight weeks of basic training I was assigned, of all things, to clerk/typist school. I finished eight weeks of typist school and since my fingers didn’t fit the typewriter too well it was onto the 5th Army head quarters in Chicago. I was there one week when an old sergeant approached me.
“Are you in love with staying here in Chicago?” he asked me.
“No,” I told him, “not necessarily. What do you have in mind?”
“Would you like to go somewhere and play football?”
I didn’t have to be asked twice. “Yes sir, I sure would,” I quickly answered.
“Let me make a call out to Ft. Carson and see if the coach I knew is still there.”
A few weeks passed and the sergeant came to me. “I’m cutting your orders today; you’ll be leaving for Colorado tomorrow.”
He wrote a name on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Here’s the guy you look for when you get to Ft. Carson. You look him up as soon as you get to the base. The name on the paper was Doug Dickey.” Dickey later became a successful college coach, first as an assistant in Arkansas and later as a head coach at Tennessee and Florida.
When I arrived at Ft. Carson, checked into my barracks, and went straight to the gym where I was told Coach Dickey’s office was located. I introduced myself to the coach and after some small talk he asked me, “How long are you in for?” When I told him I’d been drafted, he responded, “You’ll be here for the rest of the year most likely.”
“Yes sir,” I agreed, “I’m sure.” I didn’t like the Army life too much, but at least I’d spend the remainder of my days in the service playing ball.
“We’re getting ready to start spring practice,” he told me, “After you get assigned, I’ll make sure you are free in the afternoons to practice.”
I was assigned to Headquarters Company. I was doing clerk work. Sitting at a desk all day didn’t agree with me, but you don’t complain in the Army. Still, I guess someone sensed I wasn’t happy at being stuck inside an office. I didn’t complain, but some people can tell if you’re a square peg in a round hole.
“We have an assignment for you in G-2” “G-2,” I had to think about what that was. “That was intelligence!” I realized “They’re going to want me to be a spy!”
I reported Master Sergeant Tom Sheehan, a genuine died in the blood Irishman. My job wasn’t anything quite as exciting as spying. No, I processed security clearances. If someone was assigned overseas into a system that was delicate, we had to make sure they’d never been in jail. We would fingerprint these soldiers; I felt like I was a lawman. The atmosphere in G-2 was a lot more casual than it was at headquarters; we didn’t see nearly as many officers.
The security work lasted for several months, until the start of the football season. At that point I was reassigned to the football team. I was happier yet when that happened.
In the Army, there were guys coming and going all the time; you never knew who was who. Earlier, in the fall, I took a ten day leave and I went home to Texas for a brief visit. Before I left Ft. Carson I had requested a new pair of shoulder pads to replace the thread bare set I’d been given. When I returned to Colorado at the end of my leave, I walked into the dressing room and sitting two lockers down from me was a big guy; a big guy with a real nice smile. I stepped towards him and this new fella stuck out his hand.
“My name is Willie Davis,” he said.
As I shook his hand I noticed that he was wearing my new shoulder pads.
The two of us got to talking and Willie told me that he’d gone to Grambling and he had been drafted by the Cleveland Browns. The Army, however, got a hold of Willie before Paul Brown had the chance. On the base team, Davis and I each played both ways. On offense we were both tackles, and on defense Willie played linebacker while I played tackle. Though he didn’t have anything to do with it, through the years, I never let Willie forget that he’d taken my shoulder pads.
We played ten games that season. Hamilton Air Force Base in Ohio, Ft. Sill in Oklahoma, and Ft. Bliss in Texas El-Paso, were some of the teams we battled. The level of competition varied from week to week, though most of the time it resembled college play. There was one team, however, Ft. Bolling Air Force Base in Washington DC, they might have been competitive with against some pro teams. In fact their roster was filled out with a number of men who had pro experience. They were good, I’ll tell you that right now.
Once the season began, football is was our job seven days a week. We ate together, trained together, and practiced together Every once in awhile we’d have an Army course to take, like map reading, just enough to let us know we were still in the Army.
Several days after we played the final game on our scheduled, Lt. Dickey called us in for a meeting.
“We got one more game to play boys, down in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” he told us.
Coach Dickey explained that we’d been selected to play in an All-Army Championship, the first Satellite Bowl game. They had just begun to launch the burgeoning space program at Cape Canaveral where we stayed for a week on an Air Force Base. It was like a working vacation for us. They even let us eat out in restaurants a few times instead of feeding us that old Army food.
Our opponent in the December 29 game was Ft. Dix, from New Jersey. On that team were a couple of standout players including Rosey Grier and Sherman Plunkett, an offensive tackle who later played for New York Jets. Plunkett was huge; he’d just roll over anybody in his way. Our regular quarterback had received his discharge from the service, so Lt. Dickey had to step in behind center. You talk about pressure. Here was our coach, our commanding officer, playing quarterback, the linemen on the team said to themselves, “We better not let anyone in on him.”
The officers at Ft. Carson had divergent opinions on our football program. Some didn’t care for it- they were career soldiers and believed that the service wasn’t about fun and games. Others, though, saw victory in football games as a point of pride for Ft. Carson, something that built morale among soldiers on base. These officers especially wanted us to beat Ft. Dix, which we did when Lt. Dickey, playing safety on defense, intercepted a pass late in the game, sealing our victory.
We returned to Colorado and enjoyed a big celebration at the gymnasium. I spent much of my remaining days in the Army lounging pool side. I had been lucky enough to be offered yet another job as a life guard at the base pool, and I jumped at the chance.
At the time, when you were drafted into the Army, you were obligated for two years. However, if you had seasonal employment, you got out three months early. And that is what I did. I missed the entire ’57 season, and I returned to the Packers in the summer of ’58. I saved up twenty eight days of leave so I could attend training camp, and though I did not report in time for the beginning of camp, I was present for most of it.
I was discharged from the Army September 10, 1958 and a lot had improved in Green Bay while I was gone. We had better equipment, a nicer practice field, and our own dressing room. More noticeable, the Packers had a new stadium, and for the 1958 season, a new coach. A year earlier, on September 29, the Packers dedicated their beautiful new home, City Stadium. Lisle Blackbourne resigned after a 3-9 1957 season (which followed a 4-8 ’56 campaign). Taking Blackbourne’s spot was Ray “Scooter” McLean. McLean had been an assistant for the Packers several years earlier. He had even served as co-head coach of the team along with Hugh DeVore for the final two games of the 1953 season.
Before the start of the season Scooter made a bold prediction. “We’re not shooting for just a good season, we’re going for the championship,” McLean said.
Scooter had been a player himself years earlier. He was a good guy, but being a good guy isn’t always a good thing in football. With Scooter, he tried to get too close to his players. He’d play cards with them it is never a good idea for a coach to owe a player money, or vice versa. Scooter also was lax on discipline; he was far too lenient with his players, and that leniency was taken as a weakness. He was told mild-mannered and forgiving to be an effective head coach, and Scooter was taken advantage of by some members of the team.
Are these the reasons we fell short of Scooter’s prediction wand finished the 1958 season 1-10-1? Not entirely, but the lack of discipline throughout the team did not help.
As in my rookie year, I didn’t start at the beginning of the season, but by November and December I was seeing more playing time.
Scooter had enough. Or the Packers had enough of McLean. Did he jump or was he pushed? I don’t know and I guess fifty years down the road it doesn’t really matter. The official announcement was that Scooter had resigned as Green Bay’s head coach three days after our December 14, season ending loss to the Rams. But I believe it was a resignation under pressure from management. His was the shortest head coaching tenure in Green Bay Packer history. About five weeks later, on January 28, Vince Lombardi was named as Scooter’s successor. Lombardi had been an offensive assistant with the New York Giants for five years. Around the league Lombardi had developed a fine reputation as an offensive coach, but personally, I didn’t know from beans who he was. Not long after the hiring was announced I was in Dallas at an SMU function where the school announced the hiring of Hayden Fry. The event was held at a downtown hotel, and I was standing outside when Tiny Gross happened by. Tiny had attended SMU as well, but beyond his experience with the Mustangs he had played a little ball in the NFL. Goss was drafted by Cleveland and briefly played for the Browns, more importantly to on that particular day, though, Tiny had spent some time in New York with the Giants when Lombardi was an assistant coach.
“Do you know this guy Lombardi?” Tiny asked me.
“No, I don’t,” I said. “Do you know him?”
His answer was succinct. “Yeah,” Tiny said.
“Well, what’s he like?” I asked.
“He’s a real bastard.” Tiny was short and to the point; I didn’t feel the need to ask any follow-up questions.
Later that summer I rode to training camp with John Symark. John was one of our defensive backs who also lived in Dallas. On the second night of driving we made it as far as Milwaukee. Since we were both veterans, John and I weren’t obligated to report for another two days. Given that, we decided to spend the night in Milwaukee before heading on to Green Bay the next morning. After we settled in our hotel room I suggested to John that we ought to call Dave Hanner, a defensive tackle with us. Dave was an old veteran who had reported early, plus he always knew was going on around the team. So we got Dave on the phone and asked him how this new guy was running camp.
“Ooo-wee!” You wouldn’t believe it,” Hanner exclaimed.
We asked a few more specific questions, and Dave gave us a little more insight into what was going on up there.
After we hung up the phone John and I began talking. Maybe we should get up there tonight. A few minutes of discussion and we both agreed that it was probably for the best. We grabbed our bags and jumped back into John’s car.
We arrived very late, signed in, and a camp boy showed us to our dorm. I told the young man, “Since we got here so late, just let us sleep in and we’ll report for the afternoon practice.”
At 7:00 am there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and opened it, standing there was another camp boy. It was this kid’s job to wake up all the players.
“Breakfast is at 7:30, and Coach Lombardi wants to see you,” he told us.
John looked at me, and I looked at him. Without saying a word we got dressed and went over to meet the new coach.
First impressions can last a lifetime, and I certainly remember vividly the moment Vince Lombardi stuck out his hand and welcomed me to training camp. I can still it see now.
Lombardi had a real nice smile, a firm handshake, and as he spoke to me he looked me directly in the eye. “I want to thank you guys for coming up early because we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The niceties over, Coach Lombardi then told us what time practice started, and after breakfast John and I took the bus out to the field. Because we were veterans, we didn’t have to wear pads for the first practice. But I quickly found out a Lombardi practice was anything but easy. That day was my introduction to grass drills, or what we call “up downs.” Conditioning; that is what Lombardi believed in for his players. I’ll tell you right now, after about fifty of those “up downs,” I didn’t know if I’d survive.
When that aspect of practice was over someone ventured that surely the worst part was over. We assumed the rest would probably be ordinary as far as football is concerned. But that was just hope. There were two more grueling hours of calisthenics and agility drills.
It quickly became very obvious that this team was going to be very well conditioned. Under Blackbourne and McLean I had never truly felt like I was in condition. At SMU I always forgot like I was in shape. We ran a lot, we hit during practice, ran wind sprints after practice training in Dallas, in that ungodly August heat, you had to be in shape. If we weren’t in condition, we never would have made it through. So I knew the difference. The first couple years in Green Bay I never felt like I was in proper condition to play an entire game you expected the coaches to get you in condition; I didn’t expect to do it myself. In the past when things got tough during practice veterans would convince the coaches let up on us. “It’s a long season,” someone would say, “We’ve got to take it easy.”
Somehow we all instinctively knew that wouldn’t work with Lombardi.
What happens to people in general, not just football players; if you suffer through something- in our case the demands of a Lombardi training camp, the misery has a tendency to draw you together. It was a shared experience, we survived and preserved under Lombardi. It bonded us as a team and that first day you could feel a surge among the players. We were starting anew and everyone had a chance to show what they could do as football players. Lombardi’s obvious intent was not to just play, but to win.
The evening the rest of the veterans reported, Lombardi gathered us all together. He laid everything out for us step-by-step. What we were going to do, how we were going to do it. He talked about winning, something we hadn’t been doing much of recently in Green Bay, and before Lombardi nobody even talked about winning.
“I am not remotely interested in just being good,” he declared.
“Only three things should matter to you,” Coach Lombardi told us, “Your religion, your family, and the Green Bay Packers. In that order.”
He didn’t just talk about winning; Lombardi had a definite plan on how to accomplish that goal. In our first offensive meeting Lombardi stood in the front of the room, he stepped to a blackboard and drew up a play. What he diagramed for us was the play that would become known as “the Green Bay sweep.”
“Gentlemen,” he said, “in order for us to be successful, this is one play that we have to make work. Everything we do is based on the success of this play.”
We worked on that play continuously, the nuts and bolts, everything was broken down into minute detail everyone on the field knew his assignment and what was expected of him.
A lot of pieces were in place. What was there was a nucleus of a good football team. I think the Packers had done a good job of recruiting, scouting, and putting together a talented group of guys. Take a look at our 1958 roster. Hornung, McGee, Jim Taylor, Dan Curry, Nitchski, Jerry Kramer, Starr the nucleus of the championship team was there. What the team needed was discipline and direction, and that is what Lombardi gave us, discipline and direction.
One other thing we needed was confidence. We needed to believe we were good enough. Regardless of what position we played, Lombardi’s demands, his expectations, had a lot to do with our own expectations.
I don’t care who we were playing, I could be across from Gino Marchetti, who in my opinion was the best defensive linemen that I ever played against Lombardi didn’t cut me any slack because I was up against Marchetti. He expected me to win most of the battles. And after awhile you begin thinking to yourself. “If he believed I can do this, then I must be able to do it.” My expectations should match Coach Lombardi’s. Pretty soon everybody on the team felt that way.
He talked about conduct. He talked about conduct.
“No one man is greater than the team.” He repeated that over and over again. “No one man is greater than the team.”
A few days after camp began, I was going through drills with the offensive line and all of the sudden I heard someone yelling and screaming on another part of the practice field. I looked over and Coach Lombardi was giving it to Max McGee. Max had run a pattern and on the way back to the huddle he made the mistake of walking rather than jogging. I don’t believe I had ever heard a coach, any coach; yell at a wide receiver, running back, or even a defensive back. They saved their yelling for us poor linemen. But with this Lombardi one thing had become obvious; this guy is going to treat us all the same. The quarterbacks; Vince expected them to be leaders on the field. He didn’t yell at them, he talked to them in private about whether they were doing things to suit him or not.
“I paint you all with the same brush,” Coach Lombardi told us. The rules he laid out weren’t just for a few, but for everybody. Vince expected us all to abide by the rules of the game and the rules of the team.
At one of his first meetings with us, Vince told the team, “You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.” We took him at his word, and in short order backed up his words with action
Every year we played the Redskins in preseason. We would stay in Greensboro, North Carolina and in my first two years when we went down there, the Black players stayed in another hotel in a separate part of town. Come meal time the Black members of our team had to come through the back door to eat at the training table with the rest of us.
When Vince saw this he blew up. He addressed us as a team and promised, “We’ll never do this again.” And we didn’t. In ’61 we went to Ft. Benning in Georgia. There we could bunk together, eat together, we were all together as a team. From that point on, if we couldn’t come in the front door together as a team, we didn’t go.
We learned very early in Lombardi’s tenure a new way to tell time. You were either fifteen minutes early, or you were late.
I was fined once in my entire career. We were in training camp in the summer of ’59 at a country club in Pewaukee, outside of Milwaukee. This was before our last preseason game and we had meetings scheduled that day. You were never late to a meeting, and you certainly never missed a meeting or it might be your last. Well, I lay down to take a nap after lunch; I think my roommate had been cut, so I was in the room by myself. The ringing phone in my room woke me up. On the line was Jack Vanisi, who in addition to being player personnel director had a multitude of other duties.
“You know you’re late for a meeting,” Jack told me.
“Oh my God!” was my instinctive response. I jumped up, grabbed my playbook, and took off for the meeting room. Lombardi was at the chalkboard diagramming a play that we had just put in the playbook. I tried to sneak in, but Coach looked up and saw me.
“That’ll be ten dollars Gregg.”
That was the last ten dollars he got from me.
Even today I follow Lombardi time. Barbara always tells me that socially you don’t have to get there fifteen minutes early, that it’s not the thing to do.
“You will have a coat and tie!”
It was a mandate and no one ever got fined that I can remember for being out of dress code. Lombardi had sports coats made for us- green with a gold emblem. Vince had everyone measured so the coats fit well and we looked good. “You are professionals and I want you to look like professionals when we travel,” he told us.
On the bus to the stadium, in the hotel lobby, and on the plane we were the Green Bay Packers and we were professionals.
We were proud to have the sports coats, and it was nice not having to worry about what to wear on road trips. Importantly, though, to get a free sports coat was a pretty good deal. Most of us worked in the off season. At the end of the year, I’d come home with a little cash in my pocket and if I didn’t work all my money would be gone before the next season started. I didn’t want to negotiate my next contract from weakness. For awhile I sold cars, but it was difficult to find a job in the off season because employers knew you’d only be there six months at the most.
Lombardi’s transition in Green Bay was helped considerably by the addition of Emlen Tunnel to our team. Vince acquired Tunnel in the off season from the New York Giants. Emlen was a defensive back with the Giants while Lombardi was in New York, and he became a vital source of information for us. Maybe this was planned as far as Vince was concerned, but Emlen definitely helped smooth the transition for us.
“He don’t like this,” Emlen would tell us, or, “He don’t like that.”
After a few days we got used to Coach Lombardi’s screaming and raving; his expectations to get us to put out more. And then one day Emlen called him, “Vinny.”
He was “Coach Lombardi,” no one had the nerve to call him anything else.
When I heard Emlen say “Vinny” I’d like to have passed out. “Man, this guy is brave,” I thought, “or he knows him real well.” It turned out to be both. The rest of us marveled at Emlen, but nobody else took that assumption. It would be “Coach Lombardi” for the rest of us.
Among other changes that Coach Lombardi brought with him was filming practices, scrimmages, most anytime there was hitting; the coaches would film us. We’d break up into offense and defense that night and go over the film. Lombardi would just give you hell if you made a mistake.
There were things that Vince just wouldn’t tolerate. One was lack of effort- two, not getting the job done. The players believed that credit should be given to the other guy; sometimes you’re going to get beat on an individual play. Lombardi didn’t view things that way you were supposed to win.
Through the years these sessions became legendary among Packer players. Those sessions were like going into a courtroom knowing they got the goods on you. Even if you thought you’d had a good game, Vince would find some mistake you made. Most of the time guys would be sweating, sweating all over, while we waited. Usually we sat in silence, but occasionally someone would ask, “How did you do?”
“Man, I don’t know. I think I did all right.”
Even after a good game I would think, “Is there anything he can get me for?” We not only had to get ready for the game, we had to be ready for the film on Monday.
Our first preseason game in ’59 was against the Bears in Milwaukee. Chicago beat us on the last play of the game on a screen pass; I think it was to Rick Casares. We were not at all happy that we lost the game, but we felt pretty good about ourselves. In the past the Bears beat us handily, but we were able to stay in there right to the end against a pretty good team.
We returned to Green Bay and waited for the film session that Monday. Everything was calm and quiet waiting for the meeting to begin. When the coach finally entered the room he was smiling. “My God!” I thought, “He’s going to kill us.” We were all expecting to have our rear-ends chewed out, instead he told us that we had played a good game. That we’d been beaten on the last play, which he wasn’t happy about, but we “played good football against a good team and that shows what you’re capable of.” He corrected a few things we did wrong, but it was in a positive manner. That day we found out, depending on the circumstances, a loss could be acceptable.
We began the season 3-0 with three wins against Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. The great start was exhilarating for us; for a young team not accustomed to winning. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep the momentum going. Jimmy Taylor carried the load in those first few games, but suffered severe burns in an accident in his kitchen home accident and missed several contests. (Vince made certain to instruct the rest of us to “keep out of the kitchen”) Following those first three games, we dropped our next four. LaMar McHan started the season behind center, but during the losing streak Lombardi tried Bart Starr at quarterback. Bart joined the team the same year I did, in ’56. That season Starr served as a backup to Tobin Rote. While I was gone in ’57, they had Babe Parelli and Bart, with Starr playing time increased.. But when he was finally given an opportunity by Coach Lombardi, Bart took advantage of the chance. He learned the offense that Vince taught, backward and forward, up and down. The confidence Lombardi placed in Bart made an enormous difference.
I don’t remember the game, I think it might have been against Washington From the sideline, Vince would yell at us out the field. “What the hell is going on out there?” Anytime something went wrong, a fumble, maybe someone jumped offside, we would hear from the Coach. He would pick on us more than the official, which I guess was a smart thing to do. Well against the Redskins we were struggling to get a first down. Vince was hollering at us so loud that Fuzzy Thurston yelled back, “Coach shut up, we can’t even hear in the huddle.”
I don’t know if Vince heard Fuzzy or not, he never did say, but it relaxed us and if memory serves me- we went on to score a touchdown.
The final in ‘59 began with wins over Washington and Detroit before we headed out to the coast for our last two games. At the time Green Bay always started the season with several homes games, and close out the year on the coast due to Wisconsin’s unpredictably cold December days. With twelve teams and twelve games it wasn’t difficult to schedule, though it did seem to be a competitive disadvantage closing the year out on the road every season. We would stay on the coast for those two weeks. In ’56 we took a train out to the west coast following a game in Chicago. It took us two nights and two days, and we ate all our meals on the train. Things had progressed in three years. We now flew out to the coast, and we were now winning.
We beat both San Francisco and Los Angeles to close out the year at 7-5. It was the first time a Packer team had won both games on the coast. We flew home feeling good about ourselves, our coach, and the city of Green Bay- and I think the people of Green Bay could see some light at the end of the tunnel. It was a heckuva lot more fun winning than it was losing.
Jack Vanisi phoned a few weeks after the season ended and asked me if I knew of a certain player from Grambling, “His name is Willie Davis and he plays for the Cleveland Browns now,” Jack said.
“Yeah, I sure do know him. I know him real well,” I admitted.
“Is he a good football player?” Jack asked me.
My interest was piqued. “Do we have a chance to get him?”
“Yeah,” Jack acknowledged.
“Well you better get him right now,” I told him. “He can help us. If you have the chance to trade for him, do it today. If you can’t do it today, do it tomorrow.”
I didn’t know how much my endorsement meant, but I knew Willie was a better defensive end than anybody we had on the Packers. And, a couple of days later it was in the papers that we got Willie Davis. The trade was lopsided in our favor; we got Willie and gave Cleveland A.D. Williams. Years later I asked Paul Brown about the deal. “We had an experienced football team, that was also a winning team,” he told me. “I just felt like [Davis] was expendable.
Willie coming to Green Bay was not only good for the Packers; it would prove to be good for me. I went up against a great in practice every day. I had to stay on my toes all the time. Even though practice wasn’t always a full scrimmage, it was physical. Willie and I would work extra, he would work on his pass moves, and I would practice my pass blocking. We would come out before practice started and do some extra work, anything to make us better individually and as a team.
Vince Lombardi is rightfully praised for making Green Bay “Title Town USA.” But Vince had a lot of help putting together the Packer roster. Especially from a guy named Jack Vanisi. He scouted personally, and he had people all over the country who would scout for him. Jack spent a lot of hours putting all that information together. He had the confidence in his scouts around the country giving him information. I guess you could call them a football version of birddogs. He was always asking about guys I played against college. Jack wanted to quiz me about ‘that Hornung.” Jack Vanisi was responsible for a number of us being members of the Green Bay Packers including myself, Bart, Jimmy Taylor, Hornung, Nitschke, Jerry Kramer. . .Heck, Jack played a big role in bringing Vince to Green Bay. He did his homework- asking football men he respected who they would recommend for the open coaching position. After several endorsements for Lombardi, including the stamp of approval of Paul Brown, Jack brought Vince in for an interview. After their talk Vanisi was convinced that he’d found the right man, and once Vince was in Green Bay, the two men enjoyed a great partnership.
As we did every season, the Packer played the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Detroit beat us that afternoon, handing us our second loss in five days. Our record stood at 5-4 with three games remaining. For us to win the Western Conference, we needed to sweep our final three contests. But before we played another game, the Packer family was jolted by a tragedy that put football into perspective.
When he was young Jack had rheumatic fever and the illness did some damage to his heart. For the rest of his life, Jack suffered from heart problems. On November 27, three days after our loss in Detroit, shortly after coming home from mass with his young family, Jack Vanisi suffered a fatal heart attack.
Jack’s death was deeply felt by the organization, the team, and Coach Lombardi particularly. The day after Jack died, Vince gathered us together. He struggled to keep his emotions in check as he spoke to us. “We lost a real good friend,” was all he could manage to say.
The loss of Jack Vanisi clouded an otherwise successful 1960 season. We made our annual season ending trip to the west coast with the Western Conference title within out grasp. We managed to shut out the 49’ers 13-0, and beat the Rams 35-21, and the Conference championship was ours!
The flight home from California was filled with celebration and speculation. We had been told that the people in Green Bay were so happy that the Packers were winning again, that they had planned some kind of party for us when we arrived home.
“I wonder what they’re going to do,” somebody wondered aloud. So we all started guessing.
One fella said, “I think they’re going to buy us all cars.”
All the way home the speculation continued.
We were flying in a DC-6B, a four engine prop plane, from Los Angeles to Green Bay. As we approached the airport the pilot came on the intercom, “The people of Green Bay want us to circle the city one time before we came in for a landing. Everybody in town is going to blink their porch lights.”
We circled the city and boy, you looked down there and it seemed like every porch light in Green Bay was on. The view was unbelievable. “I know they’re going to give us all cars!” someone excitedly said.
The plane landed and we disembarked. There was a stage set up at the airport. Dominick Olejniczak, who was the president of the Board of Directors, stood up and congratulated us. The whole town, he said, was behind us. And with that the big crowd that came out to greet us let out a roar.
And they did give us something. It wasn’t a car, though. They gave us all blankets. Green Bay Packer blankets.
We left for Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, and woke up the next morning to a white Christmas. Because the holiday fell on a Sunday, and in those days Christmas was still sacred, the championship was played on Monday, December 26 at Franklin Field. It was a cold Philadelphia day the muddy turf was flecked with snow and the footing was poor; a combination not conducive to offensive production. The Eagles were led by their quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and Tommy McDonald, the team’s top receiver. But the soul of the Philadelphia club was the last of the sixty-minute men, Chuck Bednarik, who played center on offense and linebacker on defense. Bednarik was a big factor in the championship, playing every minute of the contest.
On the opening play from scrimmage Bill Quinlan intercepted a Van Brocklin pass at the Eagles 14-yard line. We ran the ball on three consecutive plays, but we failed to cross the goal line or get the first down. Lombardi opted not to kick the short field goal, though, and it was a decision that would be second guessed following the game. Vince was trying to set the tone for the game, though, he wanted an early advantage. He knew it was going to take more than three points to win the game. “We got here on the run ” was the philosophy, and we tried again on fourth down, but the play was stopped cold.
A similar situation played out on our opening drive of the second half. At the time we were down 10-6, Vince again decided to go for it on fourth down and we were stopped. I didn’t question either of Coach’s decisions. An offensive lineman always thinks he make it. Later, in the fourth quarter, we briefly took the lead, 13-10, after a Max McGee touchdown. The Eagles, however, scored a touchdown of their own and they were ahead 17-13 as we conducted a final drive for the championship. With eight seconds remaining, we had reached the Philadelphia 22-yard line. On the final play Bart hit Jim Taylor with a pass. The only thing between Jim and the goal line was Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik dropped Taylor at the eight, and for good measure, he lay on Jim as the clock expired.
You don’t remember much about the ones you lose, and it’s not because my memory is faulty. We had substantially more first downs and yards gained than the Eagles, but we couldn’t cross the goal line. Maybe it was a moral victory for a young team, but it was a loss, a loss that still stings today.
In the locker room afterward Coach Lombardi had a few words for us. “Perhaps you didn’t realize that you could have won this game,” he said, speaking to our relative youth and lack of experience. “We are men and we will never let this happen again Now we can start preparing for next year.”