Veteran guard Gale Gillingham, who was 32, ended a one-year retirement to play one last season for the Packers in 1976. He was the last active player from Green Bay's championship teams of the 1960s. / File/Press-Gazette
Imagine if the Green Bay Packers moved guard Josh Sitton to defensive tackle.
The notion is preposterous, and the Packers’ coaching staff would become the laughingstock of the NFL. No one in their right mind would take an offensive lineman in the prime of his career and stick him at a new position, right?
Well, 40 years ago, that’s exactly what happened to Packers right guard Gale Gillingham, who was a starter on Vince Lombardi’s final championship team in Green Bay, was coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons and was considered the best offensive lineman on the roster.
But coach Dan Devine inexplicably switched Gillingham to defense prior to the start of the 1972 regular season.
In the aftermath of Gillingham’s death Thursday at age 67 of an apparent heart attack, that strange career development nearly four decades ago served as one more example why the great but underappreciated Packers guard deserved better.
Gillingham is considered by some to be one of the best guards in NFL history, yet he never has received serious consideration for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Devine failed to give him proper respect when he came up with the harebrained idea of moving him to defense.
“He didn’t know what he was doing,” said former Packers linebacker and Gillingham teammate Dave Robinson of Devine. “That was a dumb move. Gilly didn’t want to do it. It made no sense whatsoever. Then Gilly got hurt. It was the dumbest thing in the world. That was bad.”
Gillingham tore up his knee two games into the defensive experiment and was lost for the season.
Former Packers running back McArthur Lane is still angered by Devine’s move. The Packers boasted a powerful running attack with Lane and John Brockington. Lane is left to wonder how much better the team might have fared that season with Gillingham playing guard. As it was, the Packers won the NFC Central Division but lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“I was just totally irate, because Gilly was the icon of our offense,” said Lane in the newly released book “The Lombardi Impact,” which has a chapter devoted to Gillingham. “Wherever Gilly went, we went. For him to be taken from us at that point in time I thought was totally uncalled for, No. 1. No. 2, it ended up backfiring because we lost him for the whole season because of the move. Yet today, I’m still upset with the decision they made.”
Former Packers center Ken Bowman, who started alongside Gillingham for six seasons, recalls the Packers’ coaching staff thinking Gillingham could make more of an impact on defense.
“They made the rocket science decision to move an All-Pro guard and put him over on defense and have his knee blown out,” Bowman said.
Gillingham, who was born in Madison and grew up on a farm in nearby Stoughton, was known for his brute strength and was a pioneer of sorts in the weight room, which was almost a novelty in the NFL at the time.
“In Green Bay, at first hardly anybody lifted,” said Gillingham during an interview for “The Lombardi Impact” earlier this year. “So you didn’t do much of anything during the season. But I always tried to hit it in the offseason. The weight setup in Green Bay was what you could go into most garages and find.”
His work with weights paid off. Bowman marvels at the 275-pound Gillingham’s strength and speed.
“He’s the best guard I ever played with, and that takes in some pretty good people,” Bowman said. “The guy had everything that you needed to be a great ballplayer. He was big, and he could run like a deer.”
There are various theories on why Gillingham didn’t garner more Hall of Fame attention.
“He should have been in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame but he would never play the political media game to get in,” said Larry McCarren, who followed Bowman as the Packers’ starting center and played with Gillingham for two seasons.
It didn’t help that so many Lombardi-era players have been inducted.
“I think there is some thought that the Packers have enough players already in the Hall of Fame, at least from the Lombardi era,” said Cliff Christl, former Press-Gazette sports editor and voting member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Christl said Gillingham, Robinson and Jerry Kramer all merit Hall of Fame consideration.
Although he played on championship teams his first two seasons, Gillingham’s Hall of Fame chances were diminished when the Packers went into decline after Lombardi departed.
“We hit the skids once Devine got there,” Bowman said. “Nobody looks real seriously for a Hall of Fame candidate when you go through (losing) seasons the way we did.”
Any honors Gillingham garners now will be posthumous, a fact that saddens Robinson.
“Gilly was just invincible,” said Robinson, who was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame the same year as Gillingham in 1982. “He’s just one of those guys, a strong man, who you thought was going to be around forever.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.