Dougherty: Packers' Jerry Kramer cleared harrowing hurdles on road to Hall of Fame

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Jerry Kramer is introduced at the opening of an exhibit featuring his Packers career at the Green Bay Packers hall of fame at Lambeau Field on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis. 
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Jerry Kramer’s 11-year career in the NFL and imminent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame make him something of a medical marvel.

If you’ve read Kramer’s book “Instant Replay,” you have an idea of what he’s been through. But if you know of him only as the right guard who played on five NFL title teams with the Green Bay Packers and had a crucial role in coach Vince Lombardi’s famous sweep, then the medical issues that failed to keep him off the field, let alone kill him, might blow your mind.

There was the shop-class lathe that sliced off a chunk of skin, cartilage and muscle on the backside of his ribs when he was freshman at Sandpoint High School in Idaho. He played in his football game the next week, albeit in a limited role.

There was the time he accidentally shot himself in the arm, lung and liver as a junior at Sandpoint. He nearly died from the blood loss – he needed four pints from multiple donors when he finally reached the hospital – and was warned he would lose his right arm from just below the elbow if he contracted an infection. He was back on the football field in a couple of weeks.

And then there was the August day before his senior year, when a calf he was chasing stomped on a piece of a rotting board that sent a chunk of wood into his groin and nearly out his back. He returned to the football field for the opener.

And then, most incredibly, 11 years later, after becoming gravely ill with intestinal problems, he endured eight surgeries before a doctor finally found some splinters that had been in his body since that summer’s-day accident in 1953. After missing most of the 1964 season and watching his sturdy 6-foot-3 frame wither to a sickly 189 pounds while doctors tried for months to figure out what was wrong with his insides, he returned to play four more years in the NFL, including three more championship seasons that were critical to finally getting him voted into the Hall of Fame this year.

'Beyond lucky'

It really is amazing Kramer survived all those incidents, let alone kept returning to the field to forge a career that will culminate with his Hall induction in Canton, Ohio, this weekend.

“Yeah, there’s been some wonder every once in a while about the whole process and what’s gone down and how come,” Kramer told me in a recent interview. “I’ve been very fortunate, no question about that. Beyond lucky.”

The lathe accident was the least horrifying, but it was the first to reveal how difficult it was going to be to keep Kramer off the football field. He insisted on playing in his game that week and finally convinced his coach to at least let him kick off, on the condition that he run straight to the sidelines after hitting the ball.

But of course the return came right at him, so he made the tackle, which tore open the stitches.

Why was it so important for him to play? Some of it surely came from his relatively hardscrabble upbringing.

His father was a big and strict man, and his family struggled financially for most of his childhood, until his father’s radio repair business converted to television when that industry took off.

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“Nobody gives you anything, if you want it you’ve got to work for it,” he said. “You want to go to a movie, go find some pop bottles and sell them and go to the movie. ‘I’m not giving you a dime, I’m not giving you a nickel.’ So you get self-sufficient and learn that if you want something, you’re going to have to go to work.”

Harrowing accident

The hunting accident was far more harrowing. He’d never shot a gun. But late in the fall of his junior year in high school, he and a friend snuck his grandfather’s gun out of the house. While the friend took a boat for a joyride, Kramer killed time rolling moss off a huge rock. At one point, he reached for the double-barrel 10-gauge, knocked the stock against the mound of moss, and the gun somehow went off.

It hit him in the right side and arm.

“Blood is shooting out like a hose from my arm, and it’s hitting the rock, and the rock was cold enough to cause steam,” he said. “I see that and go, ‘Oh (crap), I’m in trouble.'”

Kramer tried to walk across a pasture to Sandpoint but grew too tired and had to lay down. His friend went to a neighbor, who drove Kramer the three miles to the hospital. There he received the transfusion of four pints of blood, including one from the owner of the sporting goods store in town and future governor of Idaho, Don Samuelson.

Doctors told Kramer that letting his arm hang and bleed probably saved him from amputation, because it flushed the wound. He still finished that football season – he thinks he missed one game – but didn’t know for sure that the injury wouldn’t wreck his football career until the spring, when he set a state shot put record with the injured arm. He still has some of the No. 2 shot in his body.

“I still feel them every day or two,” he said.

Finally, there’s the wooden splinters. In August before the start of his senior year, Kramer was at the family’s small pasture trying to get a calf into its pen so he could go swimming. In the chase, it stomped on a rotting fence board that for an unknown reason was on the ground. The explosion sent a spear-shaped chunk of wood in an upward path into Kramer’s midsection just above the groin and nearly out his back.

He had some splinters pulled out, and X-rays didn’t show any other problems. But after a couple of days in the local hospital, Kramer still had a terrible pain in his lower back, so he was sent to Spokane, Wash., on suspicion there were more splinters inside him. Surgeons removed a sliver from his lower back that was 7 ½ inches long and as thick as his finger.

A medical odyssey

Yet he played in the opener a few weeks later and had no issues until 11 years down the road, when early in the Packers’ 1964 season he started struggling to breathe on the football field. That ended his season after two games and began a medical odyssey that confounded doctors in Green Bay and at the Mayo Clinic for half a year.

After several surgeries, a doctor found a benign tumor the size of a grapefruit on Kramer’s liver, but its removal didn’t alleviate his problems and he didn’t fully heal. Another surgery at Mayo revealed he had a perforated intestine. A surgeon resected it, but it still didn’t heal, so he had yet another surgery to fit him with a colostomy bag while his intestines healed outside his body.

Yet, he still didn’t get better after a long rehabilitation that winter and spring. Finally, a doctor in Green Bay convinced him something still was wrong and to undergo an eighth, exploratory operation. This time, the surgeon found and removed several sticks about three or four inches long and as big around as a pencil that had been in him for 11 years and had probably punctured his intestine. That was the root of all that ailed him, and those slivers are now in a jar as part of an exhibit at the Packers Hall of Fame.

By the time Kramer finally was feeling better in early June, he’d gained some weight back, from 189 pounds at his lowest to about 218 (he usually came into camp at 240 and finished the season close to 260). But Lombardi thought Kramer’s football days were finished. When they met to discuss a contract for the 1965 season, Lombardi said he couldn’t count on Kramer and advised he go home to Idaho to heal up. The team would take care of his hospital bills.

Lombardi relents

Kramer refused, because he knew if he missed another season, it probably would end his football career. The two argued until Lombardi finally relented, though the coach was unconvinced. In a sign of what little chance he gave Kramer to play again, Lombardi made Kramer’s return contingent on a move to defense.

When camp started a few weeks later, Kramer was in no shape to play football. On the first day, he couldn’t even complete the three-lap warm-up jog around the field. But with the help of kicker Don Chandler, who coaxed him along by splitting daily running and calisthenics with him – the two would combine to do the requirements of one player – Kramer slowly worked back into shape.

When preseason games began, Kramer was back on offense. By the regular-season opener he was in the starting lineup and splitting playing time, and halfway through the season he was the full-time right guard.

Without those championships in 1965, ’66 and ’67, plus two Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro award, Kramer never would have made the Hall of Fame. But here he is, age 82, about to be enshrined among the greatest who ever played the game, because seemingly nothing could keep him off the football field.

“I was football. Football was me,” he said. “It gave me an identity, it gave me a sense of pride.”

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