Packers' Jerry Kramer needed time to warm to Vince Lombardi's ways
CANTON, Ohio - Jerry Kramer’s outgoing personality and first-rate story telling have made him one of the best spokesmen of the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers for decades.
He’s a full-fledged Lombardi disciple whose signature photo is of him looking up affectionately at the coach while helping carry him off the field after the Packers’ win in Super Bowl II.
But Kramer wasn’t always such a big fan.
In a recent interview, the soon-to-be Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee copped to disliking Lombardi for much of the legendary coach’s first two seasons with the Packers.
“I thought he was a rotten (S.O.B),” Kramer said. “I really resented him.”
Lombardi’s Packers would win five NFL titles in seven years, but when the coach arrived in Green Bay in 1959, he was an unknown, not a legend. His players at the time only knew that he was being relentlessly hard on them while establishing his program.
In a recent conversation with a four-star general, Kramer asked whether the U.S. Army was similarly tough on new recruits not only to weed out the less committed but also to imbue them with a sense of togetherness.
The general said that was exactly the thinking. Lombardi, not coincidentally, had been an assistant coach at Army from 1949-53.
“Lombardi did that with us, that was team building,” Kramer said. “I’d look at (other players and think), if you resent that guy as much as I do, you and I are teammates, you and I are pals.”
While Lombardi drove the players on the field those first two seasons, in meetings he was a teacher who constantly preached his principles: preparation, commitment, discipline, consistency, pride, character and tenacity. He didn’t just say the words, he defined them and showed how each applied to football.
Preparation, for instance, meant knowing everything there was to know about an opponent’s tendencies, and knowing what you to do to counteract them. Commitment meant pushing yourself physically in long, repetitious practices when the little voice in your head said it’s OK to back off a little.
“(Lombardi would say), ‘Boys, there’s a price to play for winning in blood and sweat and tears,’” Kramer said. “‘You don’t want to pay the price, then get the hell out, we’ve got work to do. But we’re going to be in shape and aware of our plays and our opponent and everything we do.’ That was a whole new focus on the game.”
In Lombardi’s first season the Packers won seven games after winning only one the year before, so his approach seemed to work. Kramer only begrudgingly acknowledged that Lombardi was right about the principles he constantly pounded home.
“I don’t care about his (B.S.) stories about commitment and consistency and discipline at this point,” Kramer said. “He was a monster pain in the ass, and he’s caused me a lot of pain.”
That changed in 1960 after the Packers lost to Philadelphia in the NFL Championship game.
Kramer very much enjoyed the winning – who doesn’t? – and excitement of playing for the title.
But the capper came in the locker room Immediately after the Packers’ 17-13 defeat. Lombardi climbed onto some equipment trunks, called the players to gather around, told them they were a good team, and then assured that in 1961 the Packers would be champions.
“I said, by god he was exactly right,” Kramer said. “We should have won it today, we’ll win it next year. We’re a hell of a football team. He’s right about that and he’s right about everything else he’s done. He’s right about the way he’s worked us, he’s right about chewing our tail on mistakes we’ve made. He’s right about everything. I’m going to throw in with the guy.”
Kramer’s upbringing surely made him ripe for Lombardi’s methods and at minimum steeled him for the coach’s uncompromising ways.
Growing up in Idaho, Kramer’s dad was a big (6-feet-4), intimidating, hard man who made his children not just work, but go find that work if they wanted spending money.
So as a 14-year-old, Kramer and a friend hitchhiked 500 miles to a ranch in Montana to bale hay, with pay based on how many bails they put up in a day.
And after his freshman year in college at Idaho, Kramer spent the summer doing the grueling work of skidding logs 10 to 12 hours a day, again, paid on the number of logs he moved and loaded. When Kramer returned to school, he’d lost so much weight his coach asked him if he was sick.
So Kramer knew what hard work was before Lombardi entered his life. But he also eventually became one of the great preachers of Lombardi’s philosophies and methods. It just took a little while for him to come around.
“In Philly, I just understood at that moment after the game that he’s right, and he’s right about everything,” said Kramer, who received his Gold Jacket during a Friday evening ceremony and will be inducted Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN, NFL Network). “I threw in with him then. I thought he was doing exactly what we needed to do to win, and I was going to quit bitchin’ and start bustin’.”