First in a series on living Lombardi-era Packers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Herb Adderley and Forrest Gregg caused a scandal among their Dallas Cowboys’ teammates when they hugged in the middle of the locker room upon Gregg’s arrival to the team in 1971.
The two former Green Bay Packers teammates were reunited, but the natural greeting for them was something much different to players with a franchise in the Deep South that had a racially segregated locker room.
“Every mouth in the place went open, they’d never seen anything like that,” said Dave Robinson, another former Pro Football Hall of Famer from the Packers’ Vince Lombardi era who heard the story from Mel Renfro, a Cowboys defensive back at the time.
“Renfro said he knew right then and there that Dallas would never win the championship until they got that kind of relationship in Dallas that they had in Green Bay between the white and black players.”
It was an eye-opener for Adderley, who is one of eight living Hall of Famers remaining from the Lombardi era. Though the NFL was a more run-oriented game in the 1960s and early '70s, Adderley still ranks among the great cornerbacks in NFL history and was a key player on Lombardi’s five championship teams with the Packers along with helping Dallas get over the top to win its first Super Bowl in the 1971 season.
How difficult it must have been for Adderley to live the contrast between two highly successful coaches in Lombardi and Dallas’ Tom Landry, whose bitter rivalry dated to their days as offensive and defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the 1950s.
Adderley, now 76 and living in New Jersey, didn’t return several phone messages this week and apparently rarely if ever consents to interviews aside from several in 2012 to promote a book he co-authored, “Lombardi’s Left Side.”
But from his book and interviews from 2012, along with interviews with former teammates, we can get at least a sense of the culture shock after Adderley's fallout with Lombardi’s successor with the Packers, Phil Bengtson, led to his trade to the Cowboys in 1970.
Lombardi, in fact, owed much of his later success with the Packers to being well ahead of the NFL curve in playing African-Americans and intolerance for a racial divide in his locker room.
Lombardi drafted Adderley and Robinson in the first round (1961 and ’63, respectively) at a time when it was rare for teams to select African-Americans that high. Only nine of the 42 first-round picks from ’61-63 were African-Americans.
Also, in a video interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin from 2012, Adderley described sharing a one-bedroom rat’s nest apartment outside Green Bay city limits with African-Americans Willie Davis and Elijah Pitts in ’61. When Lombardi found out, the next season he arranged better housing for them in the city near the stadium.
This was two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and six years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“(Lombardi’s) tolerance of racism was zero,” Adderley said.
Though Landry by the mid to later '60s had caught up with Lombardi in the number of African-Americans on his team, he still had a segregated locker room and was a distant figure who did nothing to foster the love and camaraderie that Lombardi had instilled in Green Bay.
The city of Dallas' culture also contributed to a racially hostile atmosphere. Most obviously, white players were able to live near the team’s facilities on the north side of the city, whereas African-American players were confined to live in neighborhoods on the south side.
Sports Illustrated’s respected NFL writer Tex Maule reported in 1970 that it was an open secret in league circles that African-Americans didn’t like playing for the Cowboys because of the city’s racism, and that “a few of the white players have no love for blacks and don’t bother to conceal it — a situation that exists on other clubs as well.”
“Tom Landry and (general manager) Tex Schramm knew what was going on in Dallas and were a part of it for not stopping it,” Adderley said in his book. “The two of them made the decision to keep a less talented white player and cut the more talented black player. … This stuff was the exact opposite of Lombardi’s policy of putting the best players on the field and not judging anyone by the color of their skin.”
It’s worth noting that when they met in the NFL championship games of 1966 and ’67, the Packers and Cowboys had an almost equal number of African-American starters — both had eight in ’66; the Packers had nine and the Cowboys eight in ’67.
But the Packers had an edge in the locker room because Lombardi’s racial inclusiveness — he was sensitive to discrimination because he’d suffered from it as an Italian-American — pervaded his team. The Packers won both of those titles in games that were decided in the final 30 seconds.
“It’s one of the reasons we beat everybody,” Robinson said “We had a unit, we didn’t have two teams in the same uniform, a white and a black team. … You were first a Green Bay Packer. If you sacrificed for the team you made it. It wasn’t something he casually mentioned. He lived it every day of his life.”
Adderley might have been as good as if not better at his position than any of the other 10 Lombardi-era Hall of Famers, and he still was a top player when he went to the Cowboys despite being 31.
Lombardi had drafted him in ’61 as a halfback — Adderley played in college at Michigan State during a single-platoon era, so he’d been a defensive back as well. But when one of the Packers’ starting cornerbacks, Hank Gremminger, was injured in the first half of a game late that season, at halftime Lombardi unexpectedly tabbed Adderley to replace him.
Adderley hadn’t played in the defensive backfield since joining the Packers but intercepted a pass and found his calling in the NFL. He went on to intercept 48 passes in a 12-year career, which ranked No. 13 in league history when he retired, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1980. One of his signature plays was his 60-yard interception return for a touchdown that put away the Packers' 33-14 win over Oakland in Super Bowl II.
“He was the best I played with,” Robinson said. “I played with a lot of guys.”
When Adderley was traded to Dallas in ’70, the Cowboys were coming off four straight losses in NFL title games. With Adderley as a starter in ’70 they finally advanced to the Super Bowl but lost, and then in the ’71 season they won their first Super Bowl.
“Herb came in there and was immediately a powerful presence in the locker room,” said Pat Toomay, a rookie defensive lineman with the Cowboys in ’71 who played five seasons with the team.
However, Adderley and Landry clashed. For one, Toomay and Adderley are convinced that Landry was against Schramm bringing in Adderley — and later Gregg and linebacker Lee Roy Caffey — because they’d played for his hated rival, Lombardi’s Packers.
Also, with the Packers, Adderley had been allowed to play instinctively and take calculated risks. But Landry had a much more rigid defensive system. Toomay remembers it culminating in a halftime confrontation in which Landry went so far as to lambaste Adderley for abandoning his man and knocking down a potential touchdown pass against the Giants.
About halfway through the ’72 season, Landry benched Adderley, so Adderley finished his final season as a scout-team player.
“To watch (Adderley) up close, unforgettable,” Toomay said. “Never have I seen such grace. And he could just hang, hang, hang. It was like he was in slow motion. He’d go up and up and up, and hang and hang and hang, and then bat down the ball or pick it.”