CANTON, Ohio - Jerry Kramer finally got the chance to give his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, and in so doing he showed why he has been one of the most eloquent representatives of the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers for five decades.
In his 18-minute, 15-second speech Saturday evening, the 82-year-old Kramer read the short inspirational poem “Invictus,” quoted the statesman and three-time U.S. presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and of course told stories about the Packers’ legendary coach, Lombardi.
And he talked about what most motivated him to play football. Near the end of his speech, he ticked off the names of many of his famous teammates – Paul Hornung and Dave Robinson, who were among the returning Hall of Famers on the stage with Kramer; Bart Starr, Max McGee, Fuzzy Thurston, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Ray Nitschke, Lee Roy Caffey, Willie Wood, Herb Adderley and Doug Hart.
“Just an incredible group of guys,” Kramer said in front of a crowd of 22,205 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. “We also had a wonderful team, I believe a team that played as a team, and lived as a team, and enjoyed one another as a team.”
Kramer finally was voted into the Hall of Fame 45 years after he was first eligible. Remarkably, he was a finalist in his first three years of eligibility (1974-76) and seven more times between then and 1997 before finally getting voted in this year on his 11th time as a finalist. The only players who have been finalists more often before getting elected to the Hall are Lynn Swann (14 times a finalist), Carl Eller (13) and Hornung (12).
Kramer is the 12th Lombardi-era Packers player voted into the Hall and the 25th member of the Packers organization to make it. That’s second most in the league, behind only the Chicago Bears, who are up to 28 with the induction of linebacker Brian Urlacher this year.
Kramer spent a good portion of his speech talking about Lombardi, who built a Packers dynasty that won five NFL championships in a seven-year period. One of the first things Lombardi told the team after he first arrived in 1959 with the Packers coming off a 1-10-1 season was that he’d never been a loser in the past and wasn’t about to start losing now.
“He worked us harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives,” Kramer said. “We had guys losing consciousness every practice, every exercise session, two, three guys would lose consciousness. One kid showered after practice, got on the bus, went back to the dormitory, got to the line in the chow hall, passed out and fell over. So we were not real receptive to (Lombardi’s) philosophical comments. But he would talk to us every night about principles he believed in.”
Kramer also told a story that encapsulated Lombardi’s talent as a master psychologist and motivator. Kramer remembered a practice early in his career when the team was scrimmaging on the goal line. The defense was dominating the offense, and on one play Kramer had a missed block that led to a chewing from Lombardi. A little later Kramer jumped offside, and the next thing he knew Lombardi was in his face.
He remembers Lombard yelling, “Mister, the concentration period of a college student is five minutes, high school is three minutes, a kindergartner is 30 seconds. You don’t have that? Where does that put you?”
Practice didn’t last much longer, and Kramer took it hard. As he sat at his locker deep in thought about what he would be doing next – maybe going to a new team, maybe leaving football – Lombardi saw him with his head down, came up and patted him on the neck, mussed his hair and said, “Son, one of these days you’re going to be the best guard in football.”
Said Kramer: “A surge of energy entered my breast and filled me. It was his approval and his belief in me that he was passing on in me. It made a dramatic difference in my life. Approval and belief, mom and dad. Approval and belief are powerful, powerful tools. From that moment on I wanted to play a perfect football game. If he believed in me, I could believe in me.”
Other highlights of Kramer’s speech were his reading of “Invictus” and his quoting of Bryan.
“Invictus” was written in 1875 by the English poet William Ernest Henley about persevering through hard times.
“If you’re going to be an achiever, if you’re going to be a doer, if you’re going to make something out of yourself, there are certain principles and certain qualities you need,” Kramer said as he introduced the poem.
And then Kramer quoted Bryan about success: “Success in life is not so much a matter of chance as it is a matter of choice. We choose to do the right thing, and we choose not to do the right thing. So a great deal in life is a matter of choice.”
Kramer played his entire 11-year career with the Packers, and his resume includes being the only guard on the NFL’s official 50th Anniversary Team in 1969, which was chosen by the Hall of Fame’s selection committee. He was the starting right guard on all five of Lombardi’s NFL championship teams and had a key role in Lombardi’s famous sweep, the play in which much of Lombardi’s offense revolved.
He also was the lead blocker on the most famous play in Packers’ history, Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak that won the Ice Bowl in 1967.