Before Parkinson’s disease made daily life ponderous, before he endured defeat after defeat after defeat at Southern Methodist University, before he became another in a line of Green Bay Packers coaches unable to resuscitate the drowning organization, before he fell one game short of leading the Cincinnati Bengals to their first Super Bowl title, Forrest Gregg was practically invincible.
He was the best offensive lineman of his era. He was so good that he went to nine Pro Bowls, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
Gregg, whose association with professional football spanned six decades, died Friday at the age of 85, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced.
“The game lost a giant today," Hall of Fame President/CEO David Baker said. "Forrest Gregg exemplified greatness during a legendary career that earned him a Bronzed Bust in Canton. He was the type of player who led by example and, in doing so, raised the level of play of all those around him. Forrest symbolized many great traits and virtues that can be learned from this game to inspire people from all walks of life.
"Our heartfelt condolences go to Forrest’s wife Barb and the entire Gregg family. We hope that they find comfort in knowing that his great legacy will live forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Packers fans who were lucky enough to watch Gregg play probably will remember him as the most athletic and ferocious player on Lombardi’s star-studded offensive line. Though considered undersized at 6-4, 249 pounds, he anchored the right side, often blocking down on a bigger end and then setting his sights on a fast-approaching linebacker in the Packers’ famed power sweep.
Those who didn't see him play probably will remember him as the coaching tyrant whith the roiling temper and sub - .500 record, who was unable to bring glory back to the Packers franchise. His four years at the helm in the mid-1980s were turbulent and controversial and the organization became associated more with sexual assault cases and dirty play than winning football.
Coach Vince Lombardi was purported to have called Gregg in an instruction manual as “the finest player I ever coached.” However, team historian Cliff Christl said the quote is often attributed to Lombardi's book, "Run to Daylight", and there actually is no such reference.
Lombardi is on the record calling running back Paul Hornung, "The greate .st player I ever coached," but the Hall of Fame has long claimed Lombardi said the same of Gregg.
If Gregg wasn't No. 1, he probably wasn't behind by much. His.credentials during a 15-season playing career were impeccable
Drafted in the second round out of SMU in 1956, Gregg began a streak of a then-NFL record 188 consecutive games, interrupted only in ’57 when he missed the entire season in order to serve in the army. The NFL did not count those as missed games and Gregg became a mainstay on the Packers’ offensive line, playing mostly right tackle but filling in at guard when injuries dictated.
Gregg played on seven championship teams and three Super Bowl winners, finishing his career in Dallas in 1971, where he played for another Hall of Fame coach, Tom Landry.
"I'm a fortunate man," Gregg once said. "I've played for two of the best men who ever coached, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. They are very special people."
The beginning of his career, however, wasn’t as idyllic. Gregg, a second-round draft choice from SMU in 1956, had three coaches in four years and the Packers won just eight games from 1956-58.
Then Lombardi arrived with his power sweep and Gregg flourished.
"The sweep was the key to the success of the Green Bay Packers,” Gregg once said. “Everything we did came off of that play. The sweep was something we all prided ourselves in running. Every opponent knew we were going to run it, but they just couldn't stop it. It all came down to execution."
Nobody on the offensive line did it better. Gregg routinely received the highest grades from his coaches and his dominance was recognized with his annual election to the Pro Bowl.
Gregg never took his athletic talent for granted and studied his opponents, many of them the best defensive linemen the NFL had to offer. He always looked to gain an edge.
"Deacon Jones, Gino Marchetti and Carl Eller," Gregg said a few years back. "I'd be working out during the offseason preparing for them. I'd think about what works best against them and what they try to do to you."
Gregg’s career ended in Dallas after the ’71 season and after taking a year off he went into coaching, spending two years as offensive line coach in San Diego and one as offensive line coach in Cleveland. After Nick Skorich was fired after the ’74 season, Gregg was named the Browns’ head coach.
He was fired with one game to go in the ’77 season after compiling an 18-23 record.
After a year off, he coached the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Then the Cincinnati Bengals came calling and Gregg took over a 4-12 team from Homer Rice. Within two years, the Bengals were playing in Super Bowl XVI, making Gregg just the second man in NFL history to play and coach in a Super Bowl. Gregg’s team fell to the San Francisco 49ers 26-21, marking just the second time in eight championship games he didn’t walk away a winner.
Two years later, Gregg was able to return to the franchise with which he started, taking over for his former teammate, Starr, as head coach of the Packers. Gregg was touted as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who would bring Lombardi toughness back to Lambeau Field.
Gregg was a disciplinarian and he didn’t hesitate to call out his players publicly or in team meetings. He once was so angry he moved training camp to Oconomowoc after a 33-0 preseason loss to Washington at Camp Randall Stadium.
As much as he tried, he could not let go of losses.
"If you lost a game, he wouldn't let you forget it until Thursday of the next week," quarterback Lynn Dickey once said. "But if you won, you had to forget it the next day. So I'm thinking, 'Where is the good part?' Everything was negative, negative, negative."
Two 8-8 seasons didn’t make life easy for Gregg and neither did two highly publicized sexual assault trials involving receiver James Lofton and cornerback Mossy Cade. So much attention was paid to those cases, the Packers desperately needed to win to distract fans from the mess occurring outside the facility.
FROM THE ARCHIVE: Packers great Forrest Gregg facing the battle of his life
But Gregg wasn’t making much progress both in games won and discipline. His rivalry with Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka seemed to consume him and when Ditka ran nose tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry on the goal-line for a touchdown during an October 1985 game in Chicago, Gregg never forgot it.
It started a series of games in which Gregg’s team embarrassed itself with late hits and blatant cheap shots.
Just weeks after the Perry game, the Packers, frothing at the mouth from Gregg’s constant prodding, took cheap shots during a game against the Bears, the worst being safety Kenny Stills’ shot on fullback Matt Suhey as Suhey walked back to the huddle. Gregg wouldn’t condemn Stills’ hit and actually condoned it, setting up the ugliest of all incidents the following year.
Prior to the ’86 season, Gregg purged the team of veterans such as Dickey, end Mike Butler, tight end Paul Coffman, linebacker Mike Douglass, linebacker George Cumby and tackle Greg Koch and let offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker go. The team went a club-record six straight games without a victory to start the season.
And during a Nov. 23 loss in Chicago, defensive lineman Charles Martin waved a towel with numbers of various Bears players written on it, suggesting he had a bounty on each of them. Martin later body-slammed quarterback Jim McMahon to the turf long after McMahon had gotten rid of the ball and was ejected from the game.
Afterward, Ditka was furious. McMahon was lost for the season, possibly costing the Bears a second straight Super Bowl and solidifying the Gregg Packers as out of control.
Many years later, Gregg said, “"All the things that had happened had a collective effect on my mind. It was constant. Suspensions, arrests, trials, strikes … we made the headlines an awful lot but not for the right reasons."
The Packers finished 4-12 in ’86 and 5-9-1 in ’87.
Gregg had promised to produce a winner, but after four seasons he was 25-37-1.
"I took over a Packer team that was 8-8 in 1983, and that was as good as they ever were going to be," Gregg said. "I only wish I'd realized that sooner and done something about it. That's all I'd have done differently here."
After the 1987 season, Gregg decided to leave the Packers and take on the gargantuan task of rebuilding the SMU football program, which had been slapped with the NCAA’s “death penalty” and was looking to start over from scratch.
Gregg left Green Bay abruptly and seven of his eight assistant coaches were out of jobs with their contracts about to expire.
With strict limitations on the program, Gregg went 3-19 as head coach of SMU. He was appointed athletic director after one season and stepped down as head coach after two. He remained as athletic director until 1994 when he accepted a job in the Canadian Football League as head coach of the expansion Shreveport (La.) Pirates.
"I enjoyed being an AD," Gregg said at a news conference. "But you find yourself alone all the time. I found myself, when I had free time, going over to the football offices to talk to the coaches, or even going to talk with the basketball coaches, because that's the type of people I'm drawn to."
Gregg went 13-39 as head coach of the Pirates.
He went back to the CFL in 2005, at age 71, to serve as executive vice-president of football operations for the Pirates.
Over the course of his life, Gregg battled intestinal cancer and melanoma and so when in 2011 he was struck with Parkinson’s disease, a condition he thought probably was brought on by all the concussions he suffered as a player, he did not view it as a death sentence.
Gregg remained active in his later years spent in Colorado Springs. Gregg did not try to hide his condition and he spent the latter years of his life speaking to as many people as possible about the challenges of the disease and ways to combat it.
Gregg grew up on a farm in Birthright, Texas. In an interview in his later years, he said he had very few regrets later in life.
"I was born in a little town in East Texas and grew up out in the country," Gregg said. "We didn't even have a football team at my high school, so I had to transfer to Sulphur Springs. I played football, basketball, baseball, and track - did 'em all.”
"In the NFL, I played for a great coach and we had great teams in Green Bay. I have a lot of fond memories. It was a great ride, that's all I can say. A great ride."
The Forrest Gregg file: Facts and figures
Born: Oct. 18, 1933, Birthright, Texas.
School: Southern Methodist University. He was elected captain of the team and was a two-time All-Southwest Conference choice and an All-American as a senior.
Hall of Fame: Packers Hall of Fame, Class of 1977; Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1977.
Packers playing career: Played in a then-NFL record 88 straight games from 1956-71. Was named all-NFL eight straight years (1960-67) and played in nine Pro Bowls. Played on seven NFL championship teams and three Super Bowl winners.
Post playing career: Head coach for Green Bay Packers (1984-87), Cincinnati Bengals (’80-83) and Cleveland Browns (’75-77). Career NFL mark of 75-85-1. Also coached at SMU and in the Canadian Football League.
Quote: "I'm a fortunate man," Gregg once said. "I've played for two of the best men who ever coached, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. They are very special people."