Friday, November 28, 2008

Jerry Kramer: "It's a tough league" (rated M for Mature)

One of the anomalies of American football is that while many footballers achieve great fame, some of the most important people on the field- the offensive linemen- are all but anonymous to all but the most devoted fan. One of the *very* exceptions to this rule, as the great offensive line of the Green Bay Packer teams of the 1960's. When John McCain as interrogated by the North Vietnamese, he named the members of the of that line as his squadron's pilots. In the movie, "Runaway Bride", Julia Roberts' character's third fiance, played by Chris Meloni, is a sports nut, who at one point asks Julia, "Who was that great right guard for the Packers, back in the 60's?" To which she replies, "Jerry Kramer". I thought to myself, dang, even "Pretty Woman" knows who Jerry Kramer was!

For the benefit of nonfootball fans, Jerry Kramer is a very nice, well spoken gentleman, who stands six foot three, and during his playing days weighted about two hundred sixty pounds (18 stone to our English friends; 120 kilos in metric). For a man that size, he was exceptional light on his feet, and apparently he had a pain threshold that I find mind boggling. (*Wimps* do NOT last long in the National Football League- Jerry Kramer played *eleven* *years*)

Right before the start of the 1967 season, Jerry Kramer had a really good idea. He decided to keep a journal of the season, and get it published. No Hollywood screenwriter could have possibly imagined. Green Bay made it to the NFL Championship game that year against the Dallas Cowboys. Since Green Bay had the best record, they had home field advantage. In Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin. In January.

I once read an account by Lance Rentzel, one of the Dallas Cowboys who played in that game. He related that the night before, he called time and temperature and got a recording "The temperature is 15 degrees. the wind is from the north at two miles an hour." He thought, it's cold, but no problem. The next morning, he called again, and heard, "The temperature is 15 degrees below zero. The wind is from the north at thirty miles an hour."

Later that day, the Cowboys and the Packers played what is still remembered as the epic Ice Bowl. With seconds left to go, Green Bay was behind, but had driven to the Dallas one yard line. On the final play, Jerry Kramer threw a crushing block on Dallas defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, enabling Gren Bay quarterback Bart Starr to sneak into the endzone for the winning touchdown. Jerry Kramer enjoyed some spectacular luck that day- the Ice Bowl was one of the first televised games to feature Instant Replay, so every football fan in America got to watch Jerry Kramer throw that key block over...and over...and over...and over...and over....and over...and over...and over again. Shortly afterward, he published his book, and entitled it "Instant Replay"

I read "Instant Reply" when it first came out, and recently looked throught it again. I was quite surprised at how well it stands up 40 years later. A couple of bits stand out: one was Kramer's description of the how he held out for an additional ten thousand dollars one season, and how the Packer's management completely raked him over the coals for *weeks* (today, an All-Pro lineman of Kramer's calibre would get a multiyear contract worth low eight figures.) The labor/management disputes from those days sound like something from the 1880s.

My favorite Jerry Kramer story was in his second book "Farewellto Football",which he wrote after he retired- at the ripe old age of thirty-two (that is *ancient* by American pro football standards). In one chapter he recounted all the injuries he'd suffered- broken fingers, broken ribs, a broken ankle,a couple of concussions, a detached retina...pretty standard stuff. The *worst* thing he ever faced came as the result of a childhood mishap. He'd been chasing a calf on his father's ranch, when the calf stepped on a board which flew up, and Kramer ran right into it, getting a really nasty splinter in his lower abdomen. Many years later that splinter shifted,caused complications- and Kramer's doctors told him that he probably had cancer and was going to die. Well, not quite- but he *did* have to get a colostomy. *Incredibly*,even thought it took him months of rehab, Kramer got himself back into shape, and showed up to defend his starting job at the Packer's summer training camp. After one day's practice, Kramer was taking a shower when he noticed that the guy next to him in the shower- a rookie- was staring slack-jawed at the gaping one inch-diameter hole just below Kramer's sternum. Jerry Kramer smiled and said with a straight face, "It's a tough league, kid."

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