GREEN BAY - They gathered two decades ago in New Orleans, plotting a private celebration on the eve of Super Bowl XXXI. Shirts were printed. A restaurant rented. Jimmy Buffett strummed his guitar deep into the night.
Their movement had carried almost a quarter century, through nine unsuccessful trips to the precipice, each failure more devastating than before. Teammates wrote letters. Opponents lent support. A grateful family huddled to party near the French Quarter.
Finally, it seemed, destiny was aligned for Jerry Kramer. The Green Bay Packers were back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 29 years. Their legendary, pulling guard was the Pro Football Hall of Fame seniors committee’s nominee. All he had to do was pass the board of selector’s vote.
“I kind of expected it,” Kramer admits now.
Expectation has been a painful thing for Kramer. No other man has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist more often without enshrinement. In the first month of 1997, his long, confusing wait was over. It’s what everyone expected.
Kramer got the call later that week. No Hall of Fame. Again. For the 10th time, he fell short of the 80-percent threshold.
It’s how so many Hall-of-Fame bids evolve for Kramer. Hope turns to disappointment. Disappointment to frustration. Frustration to anguish. Anguish to acceptance.
He found peace despite exclusion. Eventually, he moved on without looking back. Others fight for him.
His Packers teammates personally call voters to protest. His son hands out Hall-of-Fame resumes, like someone applying for a job. His daughter collects letters of recommendation across the NFL.
Two years ago, fans lined up outside Lambeau Field. They painted the fences across Vince Lombardi’s statue green and yellow with the words: “Canton Open Your Door for #64.”
They all want the same answer. How can a player reach the Hall of Fame’s precipice 10 times, yet never be enshrined?
Kramer is among the most decorated offensive linemen ever. When the Hall of Fame board of selectors compiled the NFL’s golden anniversary team in 1969, he was the lone guard. The offense included quarterback Johnny Unitas, running back Jim Brown and receiver Don Hutson.
Kramer remains the only 50th anniversary first-team selection not in Canton. Jim Parker and Dan Fortmann, second-team selections behind Kramer, were enshrined decades ago.
“I think he’s the biggest oversight in the Hall,” says Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, who joined the seniors committee in 2004. “… He’s been a candidate. That’s not the issue. They’ve discussed him. For whatever reason, he’s not in.”
Kramer is not Brett Favre, the former Packers quarterback who will be enshrined Saturday night. Favre is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He embodies why the Hall exists.
Yes, you can have a Hall of Fame without Jerry Kramer. It’s happened for 43 years. Yet Kramer is almost universally accepted. In personal conversations, he says, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other enshrined players frequently mistake him as a Hall of Famer. When the NFL Network listed its top 10 players never inducted, Kramer was No. 1.
So why hasn’t Canton opened its door? There is a rabbit hole of conspiracies, an endless trail of theories, but no real, hard evidence. Maybe the best place to start is at the beginning.
Before he was Jerry Kramer, Hall-of-Fame snub, there was Jerry Kramer, starting right guard, beloved teammate, five-time world champion. Somewhere between there and here, something changed.
Nineteen years have passed since New Orleans. Kramer continues slipping through the cracks of history.
He is the black-and-white picture of those Glory Years. Jerry Kramer, elbows pumping, eyes downfield, hunts his next target. Behind him, Paul Hornung follows his lead.
There is no Packers sweep without him. Hornung says he might not be in the Hall of Fame without his end zone escort. Over the years, Hornung wrote Hall-of-Fame voters. He demanded answers. He says they’re hard to find.
Hornung tells selectors it’s a shame Vince Lombardi died so young. If Lombardi knew Kramer wouldn’t be enshrined almost five decades after his career, Hornung warns, Coach wouldn’t be pleased.
“I know Coach Lombardi thought that Jerry Kramer would be in the Hall of Fame,” Hornung says.
Kramer was a symbol for perhaps the greatest football team ever assembled. Five championships in seven years. The NFL’s first dynasty.
Those Lombardi teams may have been too talented. Eleven players are already enshrined. Kramer would be the third offensive lineman, joining Forrest Gregg and Jim Ringo.
Gosselin says a player’s best chance for induction comes in a “10-year window” after eligibility. Kramer became eligible in 1973, five years after retiring. In his window, the Glory Years flooded Canton.
Eight Packers were enshrined from 1973 to 1983. Only four years passed without a Packers inductee. In 1977 and 1981, the franchise had two players enter Canton in the same class.
“You have a starting lineup inducted for a team that won five championships,” Gosselin says. “I think the numbers have worked against him, the fact that there are now 11.”
Lombardi was first from the Glory Years to enter Canton, enshrined in 1971. He is the gold standard for coaching. The Super Bowl trophy’s namesake. The reason Green Bay is Titletown.
At all costs, Lombardi’s legacy is protected.
What would it say about a coach who oversaw more Hall of Famers than football’s rules allow on the field at one time? Could anyone coach that team? Gosselin wonders if some voters set an arbitrary ceiling at 11.
To Hornung, restricting the number of Lombardi players in the Hall is offensive.
“Hell,” Hornung says, “we won more than anybody. Why shouldn’t we have more? We won more championships.”
Hornung believes Kramer isn’t the only Lombardi player deserving of enshrinement. There is tight end Ron Kramer, whose blocks were arguably most critical in the Packers sweep. There is left tackle Bob Skoronski, whom quarterback Bart Starr supported with the same vigor most push for Kramer.
A collection of individuals, the seniors committee sees Starr’s protests differently. Gosselin says it hasn’t swayed his opinion. Personally, he says, an opponent’s perspective carries more weight.
Dan Pompei, a seniors committee member and longtime NFL writer now with Bleacher Report, says Starr’s argument is one of many considered.
“I think it has to factor in somehow,” Pompei says, “because Starr obviously was the quarterback of the team and has a good feel for what everyone was doing. I don’t think that can be the only thing that you judge a candidacy by. You have to look at the big picture and consider what a lot of people have to say and what they thought.”
Maybe the most deserving Packers offensive lineman isn’t Kramer or Skoronski.
Cliff Christl, now the Packers official historian, once served as Green Bay’s lone representative on the Hall-of-Fame’s board of selectors. In that time, Christl says, he was surprised how rare behind-the-scenes politicking occurred.
There was one exception.
“Only once in my 13 years on the committee was I approached by somebody with the organization, and the Packers Hall of Fame, about a candidate they felt strongly should be in the Hall of Fame,” Christl says, “and that was Gale Gillingham.”
Gillingham replaced Thurston as the Packers left guard late in 1966, near the end of Kramer’s career. He earned two first-team All-Pro selections, five Pro Bowls and moved to right guard after Kramer's retirement.
In 1976, public relations director Lee Remmel wrote in the Packers program “team insiders” considered Gillingham the “greatest guard of all time.”
Christl doesn’t pick sides. If the seniors committee nominated Kramer or Gillingham when he was a selector, Christl says, he would’ve voted for either. Christl has told fellow board members he would relish the chance to make “a big presentation” for Kramer.
Gillingham’s candidacy perhaps tempered the Packers’ support for Kramer when his career was fresh, but it hasn’t resonated with voters. Though Gosselin has heard from Gillingham’s advocates, he doubts seniors committee members know much about him. Gillingham has never been a finalist.
It isn’t consensus Gillingham was better. Kramer was more accomplished, iconic. And he played for all five Lombardi championship teams.
“Gilly didn’t play long enough to be a real competitive factor,” Kramer says. “… He was literally only there and making a contribution to our championships for a couple years. If I had been in Gilly’s spot, and Gilly had been in my spot, then I think Gilly probably would’ve been in the Hall of Fame.
“If he played 11 years, if he had five championships, if he made the contributions that I made, and he had more time – because he was a hell of a kid. He was a great kid, and he was a great football player.”
Kramer’s perspective can sound self-serving. It reflects other accounts.
Roger Brown, the Detroit Lions six-time Pro Bowler from the 1960s, isn’t the perfect person to ask. Brown spent his career at right defensive tackle, never against Kramer.
In his career, Brown watched Kramer close. He participated in weekly team meetings designed to stop the Packers sweep. For one reason, Brown says, he’d open Canton’s door for Kramer before Gillingham.
“He played longer,” Brown says.
Gosselin calls it the “abyss.” After that 10-year window, careers are forgotten. The picture fades. Kramer is no different.
He was a finalist seven times in his first decade. Gradually, Kramer stopped seeing his name among that group of 15. He was a finalist in 1984. A finalist in 1987. Ten years passed.
Kramer was a finalist for the last time in 1997.
“I wasn’t around,” Gosselin says, “in the ‘70s, ‘80s, when his candidacy would’ve been fresh. I can’t explain what happened, why he was passed over 10 times, but now that he’s in the senior vote, that’s a bit of an abyss. I tell everybody that I talk to, if you’re a senior vote, you’re a long shot to get in.”
Kramer is the biggest oversight to never be enshrined, Gosselin believes, but hardly the only deserving candidate omitted. Gosselin says 109 all-decade players are not in the Hall of Fame, and 97 of them have never been discussed in the seniors committee. Through the 1990s, 12 first-team all-decade players failed to reach the Hall.
When Gosselin joined the seniors committee in 2004, he examined those cracks in history. Gosselin rummaged through any player who might have a legitimate case. The candidates included league MVPs, Super Bowl MVPs, rushing champions, passing champions, defensive players of the year, anyone who went to multiple Pro Bowls.
Gosselin rounded up 257 players. He keeps notes on each.
“That’s a lot of talent sitting on the outside,” Gosselin says. “Foremost among that group is Jerry Kramer, best guard in the first 50 years.”
Gosselin says another Hall-of-Fame oversight is Alex Karras, who Kramer knows well. Before appearing as Mongo in the comedy "Blazing Saddles," Karras was a three-time All-Pro defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions.
No player, Christl has been told, gave Kramer more trouble than Karras. Kramer doesn’t deny their battles were fierce. He says Karras, like most of the Lions defense, played harder against the Packers.
Against the Packers, Kramer says, Karras was every bit as dominant as Merlin Olsen, a Hall-of-Fame member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
“There wasn’t a smidge of difference between the two when Alex was playing Green Bay,” Kramer says. “He played his heart out, and Merlin played every game that way. Merlin was 100 percent in every game, and Alex was 100 percent against Green Bay. The whole Detroit team hated our guts.”
Kramer’s apparent struggles against Karras are problematic, considering Karras isn’t a Hall of Famer. Gosselin believes Karras hurt his candidacy when he was suspended for gambling in 1963. Hornung was suspended for gambling the same season, and it didn’t prevent him from enshrinement.
Gosselin says the difference is significant. Karras never was league MVP like Hornung in 1961. He never won a championship, missing the Lions’ 1957 title by one season. Hornung won four.
Of the players enshrined in Canton, 68 percent won a championship. Regardless, Gosselin says, Karras belongs in the Hall.
“The fact that Kramer had some bad games against a Hall-of-Fame (caliber) tackle,” Gosselin says, “everybody has bad games. I was in St. Louis when Brett Favre threw six picks in that (2002 NFC divisional) playoff game. That’s not going to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.”
As time passed, and one failed Hall-of-Fame bid piled on another, Kramer twisted his thoughts to find rationalization.
Canton is a commercial enterprise, he says. Money is the bottom line. Why select another player from Green Bay instead of a major market like New York or Los Angeles, or a deprived franchise like Cincinnati?
Maybe Kramer made things harder for himself. In 1968, he published a book entitled Instant Replay, co-authored by legendary sportswriter Dick Schaap. It chronicles the 1967 Packers, bringing a curious public into the locker room during Lombardi’s final championship.
It was unprecedented access to NFL life, taboo at the time. Kramer remained close to Schaap through the years. When he was a finalist the last time, Schaap hosted his Hall-of-Fame party in New Orleans.
Whether the book had any effect on Kramer’s legacy is uncertain. Kramer believes it damaged his candidacy.
“I don’t know that,” he says. “I’ve never had anybody face-to-face tell me that. It just makes sense.”
For a while, Kramer says, he wondered whether a tiff between him and former Green Bay Press-Gazette sports editor Art Daley carried into the board of selector’s room.
Daley covered the Packers during Kramer’s career, and he represented Green Bay with the Hall of Fame. A player’s candidacy often relies on his presenter. Daley had the responsibility to argue Kramer’s case to voters.
Late in his career, Kramer remembers, he was walking off the practice field after “getting my ass chewed” by Lombardi when Daley wanted an interview. Kramer wasn’t in the mood. He “blew up,” saying things “I shouldn’t have said.”
Decades later, Kramer says, former New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff called him to share a rumor. Huff heard a Green Bay sportswriter wasn’t adequately arguing Kramer’s case for induction.
“Sam just said, ‘Your guy in Green Bay isn’t supporting you,’” Kramer says. “I kind of took that with a grain of salt. At that point, I’d already come to an acceptance with everything and wasn’t worrying about it.”
In a 2009 Wisconsin State Journal article, Daley said he supported Kramer each time he was a finalist. Christl, who knew Daley well, is adamant his former colleague harbored no ill will. Though skeptical initially, Kramer says he now believes Daley was an ally.
Politics is a bigger problem for Kramer. Even now, the Glory Years continue to flood Canton. Dave Robinson was the last Packer enshrined, the 11th under Lombardi. The seniors committee nominated him in 2013.
Gosselin admits the seniors committee strives for fairness. The Packers have had five seniors candidates, third most behind the Detroit Lions (seven) and Cleveland Browns (six). The San Diego Chargers, New York Jets and Indianapolis/Baltimore Colts never have had a seniors candidate.
“You want to be fair,” Gosselin says. “… “The fact that they have a fairly recent senior nomination in Dave Robinson, I think that works against (Kramer).”
Yes, Gosselin wants to see Kramer enshrined while he and his family can enjoy it. Kramer is 80 now, though still healthy. He travels regularly. Each day, Kramer says, he recites the poem "Invictus" to keep his mind sharp.
But he won’t live forever.
These days, Kramer feels indecision. He knows what’s coming this weekend. It’ll be a party in Canton, celebrating one of the franchise’s all-time greats. Kramer wants to attend this Packers family reunion. He wants to see Favre, hang out with his old buddies.
“I just think I would be awkward there,” Kramer says. “I would be out of place. So I just kind of go back and forth, back and forth, and finally I decided I haven’t been invited. So I guess I won’t go.”
Acceptance. It comes after anguish.
Kramer considers himself a “special” case in history. He says it’s better to be a man everyone believes is a Hall of Famer, rather a Hall of Famer nobody believes should be enshrined. He’s thankful for honors the Packers handed him through the decades. He knows the Hall-of-Fame snub is part of his legend.
The seniors committee will have its annual meeting this week. Once again, Gosselin predicts, Kramer will be one of 15 players debated. After 43 years, maybe he’ll be voted through.
There’s a restaurant in New Orleans just waiting for a party.
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