Kramer not the only forgotten Packers great

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers running back Elijah Pitts (22) follows guard Gale Gillingham through the hole against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field on Oct. 26, 1969.

Ask fans and many NFL pundits around the country what former Green Bay Packers player should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and almost all will say Jerry Kramer.

The last time Bart Starr answered that question publicly, he named Bob Skoronski.

But ask Ron Wolf, a new Hall of Famer himself, and he says Bobby Dillon first, then Gale Gillingham. Bet there aren't many people around who would have named either of them.

Wolf, the former Packers GM who will be inducted into the Hall on Saturday night, brought them up unsolicited at his pre-induction press session Friday at the Hall.

Before the session, I'd spent more than an hour waiting in line touring the room with the bronze busts of all the Hall of Famers. I asked Wolf what he thought when he and this year's other inductees had their private tour Thursday. He said he thought of players who aren't in but deserve to be. And then he named Dillon and Gillingham.

"In Green Bay, there are two guys that everybody that's connected with the game will tell you," he said. "Gale Gillingham and Bobby Dillon are two of the best Packers ever to play, and they're not here. But every team's got that."

I'd argue that Wolf's opinion matters more than most Hall of Famers. His sense of the history of professional football is keen compared even to people who have worked in the league for decades and dates back to his days studying the magazine Pro Football Illustrated and going to Baltimore Colts games as a youngster in the 1940s.

Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf speaks to the media about the legacy of Brett Favre.

Dillon and Gillingham are lost to NFL history because they played on mostly bad teams. The Packers' record during Dillon's eight seasons as a safety was 33-61-2. Gillingham was a rookie backup in the Packers' first Super Bowl season of 1966 and starting left guard for the Super Bowl II winners in the '67 season. Then for the rest of his career (through 1974, then a return season in '76), the Packers went 50-57-5.

What stands out about Dillon's career is his ball-hawking. When he retired after the 1959 season, he ranked second in NFL history in interceptions with 52. The player ahead of him, Emlen Tunnell with 76, was inducted into the Hall in 1967. The player tied, Jack Butler, was inducted in 2012.

The two players directly behind Dillon on that list when he retired, Dick "Night Train" Lane (47 interceptions) and Jack Christiansen (46), also are Hall of Famers. Like Dillon, both had eight-year NFL careers.

Now, football isn't a stats game like baseball, so numbers aren't the only or in some cases even the main criteria. But Dillon's are hard to dismiss.

Wolf also talked about the story surrounding Dillon's return to the Packers in '59, which was Vince Lombardi's first season as their coach. The way Dillon told the story to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2007, he had decided to retire but eventually was talked into returning by Jack Vainisi, the team's top personnel scout. Lombardi had total control of the team from Day 1, so it's a given Vainisi was working on Dillon at the new coach's behest.

However, the Packers were about five weeks into training camp when Dillon agreed. So when Vainisi informed him of Lombardi's policy to fine players $100 for each day of camp missed, and that he would be on the hook for several thousand dollars, Dillon declined to return. The next day, Lombardi called and told him he'd pay the fine himself — the coach needed the fund for the team's postseason party — on condition Dillon tell no one. So Dillon came back for a final season.

Wolf has spoken with many of the Packers' scouts, coaches and players from the 1950s and '60s, so he's heard about Dillon though never saw him play. He's impressed that Lombardi went so far out of his way to talk Dillon into returning — "he's the only player Lombardi went after when he came here," Wolf said — and with everything he's learned about Dillon's athletic talent.

"In those days, the corners were the hitters and the ball-hawks were the safeties," Wolf said. "That's changed now. You're talking about a guy that was a little bit over 6-1, about 200 pounds and was a 9.6(-second) sprinter (in the 100-yard dash). That's a 10.5 100 meter guy, and that's back then. That's pretty fast."

In my years covering the Packers, I've heard more about Gillingham than Dillon, from people with and around the Packers in the '70s. The gist is, he was a stud.

Kramer gets the publicity, and he has a strong case for the Hall, starting with the Hall's selectors in 1969 choosing him as the best guard in the NFL's first 50 years. He's no doubt hurt by all the Lombardi-era Packers players who already are in — Dave Robinson's induction in 2013 makes it 11. Some voters might be loath to add anymore.

Still, I don't think anyone will be surprised if the Hall's Seniors Committee nominates Kramer as a finalist in the next couple years.

Gillingham, on the other hand, is probably known only to NFL cognoscenti, and his chances for nomination are much smaller. Yet he might be the best guard in team history.

Wolf has gone back and watched videotape of Gillingham, so he's seen with his own eyes.

"He was a dominant player," Wolf said. "(The Packers) were horse(crap) at that time. He was a cut above. I don't know how to better phrase that. He was a lot better been the people he was playing against."

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