When Vince Lombardi was hired by the Green Bay Packers in 1959, only 10 African-Americans had ever played for them and just three had lasted more than a season.
In terms of the big picture, playing in Green Bay might not have been any more distressing than playing in any other city for that first vanguard, but apartment-hunting probably was.
Bob Mann, the first black to play for the Packers, spent his first full season in 1951 living in a small cottage heated by a kerosene stove. It was part of Goeben’s Cabins, located immediately west of Kroll’s East, roughly where the back parking lot is today.
There are players from the 1950s who remember some of their black teammates staying at the Downtown YMCA.
In 1958, Len Ford and Nate Borden, the only blacks on the team, shared a room at the Astor Hotel, once a favorite haunt of the Packers that had become a seedy firetrap. Eight years later, eight people would die there in what was described as “the worst fire in the city’s history.”
Players remember Emlen Tunnell staying at the Astor when Lombardi brought him to Green Bay in 1959. To find living quarters for his younger black players in the early 1960s, Lombardi had to lean on friends just to come up with a makeshift option. Herb Adderley said he, Willie Davis and Elijah Pitts shared a small apartment behind Canadeo Exterminating on Velp Avenue in Howard at that time.
But the housing situation soon improved under Lombardi.
Tunnell, for example, moved into the more upscale Hotel Northland. He was 37 years old and near the end of his Hall of Fame career when Lombardi signed him to serve as, essentially, a player-coach before there were any black assistants in the league. Because Tunnell was such a respected leader among blacks and whites some of his teammates suspected Lombardi might have even footed the bill for him at the Northland.
Adderley and Davis also remembered moving into new apartments about the same time. Adderley said he rented a unit on Lore Lane near Franklin Middle School on Green Bay's west side in 1962.
In the recently published book, "Lombardi’s Left Side," Adderley credited Lombardi for not only treating his black players as equals but for changing the culture in Green Bay so the community did, too. Davis, in his new book, "Closing the Gap," wrote that Lombardi did more for diversity than anyone else in the history of the NFL.
What Hall of Famers Adderley and Davis and current senior Hall of Fame candidate Dave Robinson, a co-author of "Lombardi's Left Side," left unsaid was that Lombardi’s open-door policy was what allowed the Packers, more than anything else, to stake claim to being the greatest dynasty in pro football history.
Revisionist historians, statisticians and others – some of whom weren’t even alive in the 1960s – have hailed Bart Starr as the key to those Lombardi teams. Some have gone so far as to suggest that he was the greatest quarterback of all time, in part because his stats translate better to today’s game than some of his contemporaries.
Anybody who closely followed the Packers in the 1960s and has spent any time interviewing players, coaches and scouts from that era knows that wasn’t the case.
Starr called his own plays and executed Lombardi’s offense almost flawlessly at times. He was the offense’s bell cow in 1966 and 1967 when the Packers won Super Bowls I and II. He deserves his place in Canton as one of the game’s great players for winning five NFL titles, the most of any quarterback in league history.
But pro football was a different game then. In those five championship seasons, Starr averaged only 18 passes a game while the Packers ran the ball 60 percent of the time.
In 1961, Lombardi said Johnny Unitas was the game’s greatest quarterback, but if he had to pick one quarterback to win one big game, he’d take Pittsburgh’s Bobby Layne. When asked about Starr, Lombardi said the Packers had a “very adequate quarterback.”
Based on his public comments Lombardi seemed to gain a greater appreciation of Starr’s abilities over time, but many of his aides and friends have said he never considered his teams in Green Bay to be quarterback-driven.
The Lombardi dynasty was really divided into two phases. The first encompassed the back-to-back champions of 1961 and 1962, which probably were Lombardi’s two best teams. The second covered the three-year title run, which crystallized the 1960s Packers’ and Lombardi’s places in history.
While the 1961 and 1962 Packers had outstanding defenses, they won largely because of their virtually unstoppable running game. Jerry Kramer said he once was told the coaching staff kept a statistic that showed the Packers, from 1959 to 1962, averaged close to 8.3 yards when they ran Lombardi’s famous power sweep. For comparison's sake, only four teams in the NFL last year averaged that per pass attempt.
Paul Hornung was viewed as the “money player” on those teams by Lombardi and others, but unlike Starr his contributions don’t translate to modern football and his legacy has suffered. He played a role that has become extinct and one that stat geeks can’t appreciate: He was a triple-threat halfback.
Even in 1965, more than three years after injuries had started taking a toll on Hornung’s career, he scored five touchdowns in a late-season fog in Baltimore when a loss would have eliminated the Packers from postseason play. Three weeks later, when the Packers beat Cleveland in the NFL championship, Hornung ran for 105 yards in the snow and mud at Lambeau Field.
“A great pressure player,” was how Lombardi described him after the Colts game.
That said, those Packers teams from 1965 to 1967 won more with defense than offense.
Offensively, they ranked 12th, eighth and ninth in a league that grew from 14 to 16 teams over that span. The defense ranked third, third and first. In the two years it ranked third, it ranked No. 1 in fewest points allowed by wide margins.
The 1965 Packers gave up 224 points, 51 fewer than anyone else. The 1966 Packers allowed 163 points, 49 less than the No. 2-ranked defense.
Most of the Packers’ biggest plays during those years were on defense: Robinson’s 88-yard interception return in that do-or-die fog game; Robinson corralling Don Meredith in the final minute and forcing a game-saving interception against Dallas in the 1966 NFL championship; Willie Wood’s tide-changing, 50-yard interception return in Super Bowl I; Robinson’s blocked kick in the Packers’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1967 Western Conference championship, the only time a Lombardi team was an underdog in a home playoff game; and Adderley’s game-clinching 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl II.
The defense’s crowning moment over those three seasons might have been the 1965 championship, when it held the great Jim Brown to 50 yards on 12 carries.
By then, the Packers had left the other great defensive teams of the early 1960s – Detroit, the Giants and Chicago – in the dust; and in 1967, they were still better than emerging and maybe more ballyhooed defenses in Los Angeles and Dallas. Those units had acquired rather garish nicknames – The Fearsome Foursome in LA and The Doomsday Defense in Big D – and were supposedly coached by defensive gurus, George Allen and Tom Landry, but they didn’t measure up to the Packers when they went head-to-head in the playoffs.
What separated the Packers’ defense from most of the others were its African-American standouts.
When the Packers won their first title under Lombardi in 1961, they had two black starters on defense: Davis and Wood. When they won their last two in 1966 and 1967, they had six.
In those first two championship seasons, the Packers were typical of the rest of the league. Among their chief rivals, the Bears and Colts each had one black starter on defense; the Lions and Giants, two each; and the Browns, none.
But as Lombardi overhauled his defense and brought in more black players, those challengers didn’t keep pace. In 1967, the Colts and Giants still had just two black starters each on defense; the Browns, three; and the Bears and Lions, four each. What’s more, of those 15 players, only one was drafted in the first round and just four others before the fourth round.
Lombardi, on the other hand, used No. 1 picks to select Adderley and Robinson, and a second-rounder to take Bob Jeter, the Packers’ other starting cornerback. In the Pro Bowl following the 1967 season, five of the Packers’ six blacks on defense started: Davis, Robinson, Adderley, Jeter and Wood.
Today, almost 70 percent of the players in the NFL are black. In 1961, it was about 15 percent.
Lombardi wasn’t the lone pathfinder of his time. One of the reasons the American Football League, created in 1960, caught up so quickly to the NFL was because its best teams mined the untapped riches of the all-black colleges.
But because Lombardi was a leader in breaking down color barriers and making personnel decisions based on nothing other than production, the Packers remain the only team in the 79 years since the NFL instituted postseason play to win three consecutive championships.
Cliff Christl is a former Green Bay Press-Gazette sports editor and Packers beat writer.