Aaron Nagler discusses the news that Jerry Kramer is once again a finalist for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Aug. 24, 2017)
GREEN BAY - Family, friends, opponents and fans of Jerry Kramer might find themselves with unexpected free time starting in 2018.
The Green Bay Packers' legendary right guard was nominated as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame through the seniors committee Thursday. It’s the 11th time, and the first in 20 years, that Kramer has been a finalist, more than any current player not enshrined in Canton.
It also threatens to end perhaps the most avid drive to induct a player in the Hall of Fame’s long history.
For years now, Kramer has been considered the best football player not in the Hall of Fame. A member of the 1960s All-Decade team, he was a staple of coach Vince Lombardi’s five world titles during the "Glory Years" dynasty, including Super Bowls I and II.
Kramer, 81, was best known for making the block that ushered quarterback Bart Starr into the end zone, winning the NFL championship against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 Ice Bowl.
Fifty years later, Kramer has a strong chance of being part of the Hall of Fame’s class of 2018. A conversation Thursday with executive director Joe Horrigan showed Kramer what ending that long wait would mean not just for him, but everyone who has supported his candidacy.
“Joe has been there forever,” Kramer said, “and he used to say I was about 25 percent of his mail, people (griping) about me not being in. But he said, ‘Jerry, I want you to know that this is going to end about 90 percent of my mail.’ He said, ‘We’ve gotten so many letters for you, and this will take care of about 90 percent of it.’ So that was nice.”
There’s still one obstacle for Kramer to clear. He must now pass the 80 percent vote threshold when the selection committee gathers at Super Bowl LII in February. Kramer, who has approached the precipice before, knows nothing is guaranteed until the final vote.
Kramer, the lone member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team not enshrined, last was a finalist when the Packers reached Super Bowl XXXI in 1997. Family and friends booked a restaurant in New Orleans to celebrate, thinking his long wait was over. Instead, he failed to pass the vote for the 10th time.
Even now, Kramer said, he remains guarded by his own history with Canton, though he figures to finally break in this time.
“It’s kind of like you’re afraid now,” Kramer said, “after so many disappointments to count on it. So I’m looking at this as a singular event. It’s a wonderful moment, it’s a great honor. It’s an incredible thing for me to have, especially at this age. So if nothing else happens, it’s an incredible honor. It’s a wonderful thing.
"If we are fortunate enough to be inducted into the Hall, then we’re going to blow the doors off.”
Kramer said he watched the Hall of Fame’s selection process “like a hawk” during the first 20 years of his wait. In time, he grew to accept what appeared inevitable, that he would pass through life never getting the call.
He didn’t expect to get another shot at the Hall of Fame after 1997, he said. Even Thursday, Kramer said, he only vaguely was aware the seniors committee would be voting. Kramer said a memorabilia collector from Kenosha first called him with news he was a finalist around 1:30 p.m.
After the conversation, he hung up to find three missed calls from Hall of Fame president David Baker.
“A little disbelief,” is how Kramer described his reaction to learning of his renewed candidacy. “Because I had pretty much gotten comfortable not being in there. I had come to an accommodation with myself, ‘Hey, it’s been a wonderful ride. There’s been a lot of presents. It’s been a great trip. This one is not going to happen, so don’t get your little emotional boat all tippy. Just think of the wonderful presents they’d given you, and the tremendous honors it’s been.’
“So I was fairly comfortable with all of that, and this kind of kicked me in the stomach again. It kind of got everything churned out, and visions of sugar plumbs danced in my wee little head.”
Kramer would be the 13th player from Lombardi’s Packers teams to be enshrined in Canton. He would be the third from the team’s heralded offensive line, joining tackle Forrest Gregg and center Jim Ringo.
Over the years, Kramer watched his teammates enter Canton one by one. Then the next generation began. When Brett Favre was enshrined last year, Kramer said it was too awkward to attend.
“I’ve never been there,” Kramer said, “and I refused to go until I was inducted as part of my little snit with them when my emotional boat was tippy.”
Many, he said, have mistaken him for a Hall of Famer over the years. Each time, he’s been in the awkward position of correcting the record.
Kramer is one vote from never having to answer why he remains outside the Hall of Fame ever again. Fifty years since the Ice Bowl. No, the timing isn’t lost on him.
“It’s almost like there’s kind of an unseen hand,” Kramer said, “where life was good and I was doing fine, everything was OK. Saving some of the best for last."
Former Houston Oilers linebacker Robert Brazile also was nominated by the senior committee.