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Interview with Jerry Kramer

Recently I had the honor of interviewing Jerry Kramer, the former Offensive Guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960’s. I want to put a strong emphasis on the word honor, because it was an incredible privilege to talk to a man with the accomplishments of Jerry Kramer.

Jerry Kramer 1I am not just referring to his vast accomplishments on the gridiron; among which includes five NFL Championships, two Super Bowl Rings, being named to the NFL 50th Anniversary and 1960’s All Decade team and delivering the most famous block in history in the famed “Ice Bowl” against the Dallas Cowboys. It was not just a genuine legend of the game that I spoke too, and the man that we name as the most worthy player who is not yet in the Football Hall of Fame; as that only a snapshot of who Jetty Kramer is.

The man I spoke too is also a bestselling writer, and a pioneer in the field of athletes entering the literary world. I spoke to a devoted family man and a community leader. I spoke to an ex-athlete who does not just reflect on his past accomplishments but looks at his sport’s future. It was a chance to have a living history lesson not just Football but of life I general. I can honestly that this was the first interview that I have ever conducted where afterwards I wanted to do what I could do be a better person. Please enjoy what I think will be a highlight of this website for years to come.

         
I believe, and please correct me if I am wrong, that you were one of the first athletes to enter the literary world. Was there any hesitating from the book industry of an athlete entering that industry? Often there is a perception that if you are an athlete, that you can’t be intelligent; or if you are intelligent, you can’t be athletic. Was there any negative feedback, or because it was a revolutionary idea at the time, your reception was positive?

“I think there is certainly the perception of the big dumb athlete. I think with linemen there is even more of that perception because they are bigger and often quiet people. I think the key thing that I did was work with Dick Schaap. Dick was a New York reporter and extremely well connected in the literary business and our business. Dick made me feel very comfortable as I had no experience writing prior to that. I got to know Dick and I developed a great deal of trust in him. He was a huge part of the project and I wouldn’t have done it without him.”

Was not your first book based on notes you took in the 67 Season?

“No. First of all there was a publisher by the name of Bob Gutwillig who was bright enough to think about doing a Football book and he suggested that Dick find someone. Dick than called me and said ‘Jerry, you want to do a book?’ I said ‘What do you mean, do a book? What the hell do I know about writing a book?’ He said ‘Record your thoughts, your observations into a recorder and I will transcribe it into a book. We’ll work together on it’. I thought it might be fun and I asked him who would have the final say. He said ‘You do’, and I said immediately, ‘Let’s talk’.

I got more comfortable with the idea and I got more comfortable with Dick. My first thought was that I have to be very literary; that I should be using flowery phrases and “intelligent” conversation. Basically, I was being something I wasn’t. After a couple of days I said to myself ‘it is what it is and you is what you is’. Obviously that’s perfect English! I came to accommodation with my nerves and my emotions and thought that all I can do is tell it like I see it and try to be as factual as I could possibly be. Of course, there were certain areas which I did not feel was the business of the public, like the personal lives of my teammates. We started doing the book and I think I became a much closer observer of the game, of the coaches and everything that was happening around me. It turned out to be a very enjoyable exercise for me.

When we got down to the final phase of it, there was one passage where I suggested that Bart Starr on occasion held the ball a little too long. Between the linemen, we would call him the ‘Statue of Liberty’. Dick wanted to end a paragraph with that. I said no. I think that Bart Starr is a sensational Quarterback and this is just some fun and games that we might have at his expense, but Bart is a wonderful Quarterback and I wanted to end the paragraph with a positive statement on Bart. Dick would do whatever I thought was appropriate.

We didn’t have a clue what we thought the book was going to do (in terms of sales). I asked Dick ‘What is good, how many books do we have to sell to do well?’ He said the average book sells around 10-15,000 copies and if we do that we’ll do good. I thought ‘Let’s aim for 25,000 copies’, so we were hoping to do well. It turned out to be a very rewarding experience and it is still rewarding today. I enjoyed the whole process a great deal.”

So it’s safe to say that you didn’t think that the book it was going to be as successful as it became.  

“I think we were stunned by the success of it. I don’t think anybody, including our publisher who would print about 4,000 books; we did the Tonight Show and the Today Show on the same day and we got orders for 10,000 books that week. We would be out of books constantly. As soon as they were printed they were sold. The publisher wasn’t any more prepared for success than we were. It was a surprise to everyone.”

Jerry Kramer 2Was the reaction of your teammates relatively positive?

“You know I got one comment from Forrest Gregg which was really my favorite indication of what the guys thought. He roomed across the hall form me in training camp, and he roomed with Gale Gillingham. I had a record that I would play just before I would go to sleep called ‘One Stormy Night’ which had a lot of thunder crashing and rain falling; it is soothing and helped me go to sleep at that time. Gillingham decided to make it ‘rain’ in my room. He got a glass full of water and poured it on my bed and said it was really raining now in Jerry’s room. Willie Davis was my roommate at the time and he said ‘you better watch it or Jerry will put it in his next book!’

Forrest Gregg than responded: ‘That book, that damn book! Everywhere I go people are talking about that damn book! I’ll tell you one thing Jerry, at least you’re dead honest!’

I thought that was a wonderful compliment. I am not sure he meant it as one at the time but I took at one. The big approval came from Coach Lombardi and Mrs. Lombardi. I called Coach Lombardi a ‘short, fat, Italian’ in the book so I was a little hesitant to give him a copy of the book. I had passed out copies to all of my teammates and the coaches except for Coach Lombardi.

First of all I was struggling with the greetings and salutations to write in each copy that didn’t just say ‘Best Wishes’ or ‘Good Luck’. I finally came up with after about a week with what greeting to give to Coach Lombardi: ‘To Vincent T. Lombardi. A man for whom all others will forever be measured’. I thought that might offset the ‘short, fat, Italian’ part!

Now we were waiting for the (team) bus and before that we were all walking around for a bit. I hadn’t given the book out yet. Marie Lombardi came out and comes right in my face and says ‘Where’s my book? The coaches have books, the players have books. Everybody has a book but me!’ I said ‘It’s in the car’ and I went and got her one. She read it on the way to Milwaukee and that night she continued reading it. The next morning I got on the elevator and after a couple of floors, Mrs. Lombardi got on the elevator. She said to me ‘Jerry, I loved the book! It helped me understand.’ I said what ‘Football?’ She said ‘No. Him!’

A little bit later, a couple of weeks or so, Coach Lombardi came over in a shy and pensive way and said ‘Jerry. Good book. You did a good job’ In one way or another all the guys pretty much were positive about the outcome of the book and that was very important to me.”

I know you are asked this on a somewhat regular basis, but I know that your relationship with Vince Lombardi is a special one. Do you think that you would have had the amazing career that you had without him?

“You know, I love the game. I loved playing it and I loved the guys. The guys are just as important as the coach was. I loved playing for them and I loved playing for the coach. I played it much harder after a conversation that he (Lombardi) and I had about how one day I could be one of the best Guards in the NFL. It never occurred to me to think of greatness. I thought like most guys if it happened, it happened. He gave me a butt-chewing one day and said afterwards ‘Son, one day you will be one of the best Guards in Football.’ So, I tried to be the best Guard in football the next five or six years. I tried to be the best Guard in practice. I tried to be the best in meetings. It was a standard of excellence, a standard of quality and it impacted my life to this day.

When you try to the best at anything, but you are a jerk in other areas of life; it is not congruent. It doesn’t fit. It makes you uneasy, and you know that you are not doing the best that you can possibly do. So I had been named the best Guard in the first fifty years, and my book was number one at the same time and I was dislocating my shoulder patting myself on the back. I was constantly telling myself how wonderful I was but a little voice was saying; hey, that’s really great to being selected to the All Time 50th Anniversary and a Best Sellers book, but is that really critical? Is that really important? How about being a better father? How about being a better husband? How about being a better brother, a better family man? How about being a better friend to your neighbor or a better member of your community? How about just having a bigger impact around those around you? This is all more important than being a good football player or a good writer. I changed my habits a bit and tried to be a better and I owe that to Coach Lombardi.”

You talk about a metaphoric injury in terms of dislocating your shoulder by patting yourself on the back; you were injured quite a bit in your playing days. Of course, that is expected in Football. I want to get your opinion on injuries today. Back in your day, and really only as recent as ten years ago players and society in general were not really aware of the long term effects of concussions. Right now there is a big crackdown on blows to the head to protect the player’s safety. I want to know how you view the game today in how they are trying to be a lot more safer, considering that concussion awareness was nonexistent in your day.

“I recognize the problem. I think the NFL recognizes the problem and there is a lot of studying in scientific circles about the problem and so far we don’t have answers that I’m totally happy with; or I don’t think the study has been complete. There’s some indication that if we have given a person a certain amount of rest after a concussion that the damage to the brain is not as severe as if you have two or three concussions in a row. Certainly, I believe that the helmet hits that we have seen Commissioner Goodell come down are a good idea. I think the Linemen no longer use their heads like I did. I led with my helmet and I blocked with my helmet. I made contact initially with my helmet. Their changing that a little bit. I think there is a general problem with concussions and the number one cause of it is riding bicycles. So I don’t think we should outlaw the game or make comments on whether our kids should play the game. I think we should continue to study and try to understand and make decisions if and when we finally get the report on concussions.

I am very concerned about it. I have a grandson who had a couple of concussions three days apart from wrestling. He whacked his head on the mat and three days later it happened again. So I am very concerned about it. He’s a young kid, fourteen years old, handsome, bright, just a gifted young child and I’m damned concerned about his welfare. I am watching very closely the studies and the information about chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

You were part of the most famous block in NFL history, although many people have erroneously called it the most famous block in Super Bowl History (it was in the Ice Bowl). You are part of the winning teams of Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II, which ironically enough was not considered a big deal at the time. Football has become the biggest sport in the United States; however it wasn’t at the time when you played. I know that your love of Football remains strong, but did you ever think it would reach the level of popularity that it has?

“No. I don’t think anybody did. I was with a group in 1971 that was trying to buy the New Orleans Saints.”

I had no idea!

“Yeah. A really good friend of mine; Henry Kyle in Dallas and four or five other guys tried to get together to buy it. I did a little survey of NFL General Managers and I went to five of them and I asked them about the future of the game. I said I understand the game, but what about television? What do you see about the future of Football? I got answers like saturation. Overexposure. Leveling off. Our General Manager in Green Bay said ‘Jerry, prices have increased from $2.60 to $5.00 and I don’t know how much the fans can stand.’ That was the general thinking. Look at the Super Bowl Silver Anniversary Edition, published at the 25th Super Bowl. They had an All Time Team, and I was a part of that team and when reading the book, Pete Rozelle, the Commissioner of twenty five years plus. There is a story in the book about Super Bowl XI where Pete Rozelle turned to his assistant Bill Granville and said ‘Granny, did you ever think it would get this big?’

Lamar Hunt may have had a glimpse of what was to come, but he was the only one I ever heard who did say that see a little more than just a football game. I think it was pretty much a surprise to everyone.”

You have been very vocal about the treatment of retired players. You were quoted recently; and I am sure you are tired of talking about this, where you took Drew Brees to task about a comment he made during the lockout where you felt he disrespected the players of the past. That is something that is obviously very passionate to you. You have been very successful in your off-field career, but many past NFL players were not. Unfortunately, not everyone planned ahead and Football kind of left behind. You have been a great champion of those people.

“We have a lot of problems there. There’s a lot of guys out there who are wounded and hurt and having a difficult time. The thing that upset me about Drew’s comments was the general nature of it; that all these guys wasted their money. He not only judged us; he condemned us. He not only condemned us, he judged us as being careless and that was an action of a young man who never really had a problem in life and hadn’t really lived much life. He was making a general comment about a group of guys from a position where all he has ever done is throw the ball and play games and made a tremendous amount of money because of the table that we set for him. It was a very ungrateful attitude. A lot of young players are probably guilty of not looking at the older players and understanding that one day they will be an older player too. The average career in the NFL is only three years, so they will all be ex-players pretty soon, but they are just so intoxicated with their prowess and the applause and the media and the whole nature of the game that they really can’t see beyond that.

The ballplayers who are struggling today had those same problems when they were playing and they probably didn’t prepare as intelligently as they could have, which is why many have the problems that they have today. It’s a very complex issue. I think there is some emotional issues there; self-image issues there. All your life, all you want to do is play the game, and you get to play the game from Junior High, High School, College and the Pros and then all of the sudden you are out in the bushes and you don’t what to do and you don’t know how to do it. You haven’t prepared. The NFL has tried to have sessions for the young players but is almost impossible to reach them. It’s a continuing problem. I suppose there are other aspects of society where that problem exists; like maybe a CEO who has been the number one man all his life and then he retires and is sitting at home wondering what he is going to do next. I am sure there are other industries where people are dealing with a loss of image and a loss of one’s self after they retire. With all of that is a loss of self-worth. I think there is some significant problems that athletes deal with that are more severe than others.”

Jerry Kramer 3I think that point was raised constantly during Junior Seau’s recent passing. Of course, that was all speculation as nobody knows for sure at this point what the cause was.

“Well, there was a financial problem that we found out about later, where he was apparently losing about $50,000 a month. When you have been the guy; when you have been the man for so long and all of the sudden you are facing an embarrassing situation you think the whole world will look at you like you are a jerk. Probably to a certain extent you are, because you had the world by the tail and you weren’t smart enough to keep it. Maybe due to the concussion problem, he made bad business decisions. In any event it is very difficult for a guy like Junior to accept failure; especially complete failure like that which is so public. Again, the thinking isn’t real clear, but it seems like the best way out is suicide. I think it is part of the whole syndrome that athletes have when they leave the game.

I can understand because I had some financial issues at one time and I thought that my best exit might be that way. I considered that at one point. I eventually thought that wasn’t the answer and to go to work and quit sucking my thumb and go back to work, which is what I did.”

Do you watch quite a bit of Football today?

“I do. Obviously, I am still a big Green Bay Packers fan. I am a big Idaho Vandal fan. We have a guy in San Francisco (49ers) name Mike Iupate, an Offensive Guard; I try to watch him when I can. I watch Jordan Gross who is with the Carolina Panthers who is also an Idaho kid. I’m still into the game pretty good.”

What do you like about today’s game as opposed to when you played?

“I think the overall athleticism of today’s athletes is incredible. There are several parts of the game I like. The beauty and the grace of the receivers continually amaze me, the way they can dance along the sidelines and the end zones. Donald Driver made a catch last year that seemed almost impossible to make. He had inches to stay in bounds and with a spiral coming at him he made a perfect catch for a touchdown. That’s just like watching ballet. It is incredible the variety of talent of athletes that you have in the game; from the ballet dancer to the 300 pound behemoth Nose Guard. I love a good play, I love a good block. I love to watch the line and see everything they do, whether they are just physical or just occupy the defensive players; it is all very interesting to me. I watch a lot of different aspects of it. It’s a wonderful game that has a wide variety of talent. I think it will be here for a while.”

I am just dying of curiosity. Where do you keep your Super Bowl Ring?

“I wear the Super Bowl II ring. Super Bowl II was by far our most difficult Super Bowl because it was our third consecutive Championship Game. It was something that was very important to us. We wanted desperately to win three in a row as we felt that would set us apart and Coach Lombardi wanted three in a row. That season, the ring has two chevrons on it down at the bottom; one of them says ‘challenge’ and the other says ‘run to win’. At the beginning of the season he (Lombardi) took us aside on our first meeting of the year which was an hour and half meeting about the challenge that we would face and how difficult that challenge was going to be, because every team we faced would be cocked and loaded and studying our films for months, if not the whole year. All of those teams were going to try to beat us. They would make their season if they beat us, and all of that makes it an extremely difficult season.

We got down to the end, and we got to play the ‘Fearsome Foursome’ in Milwaukee which was a wonderful group of Football players. Merlin (Olsen) was one of my favorite players. I loved him as a player. He was a wonderful competitor, and he was a friend too. We beat them and then we have the ‘Doomsday Defense’ of the Dallas Cowboys in Green Bay in the Ice Bowl. We get near the end of the game and in the second half there was a time we ran thirty-one consecutive plays in ten possessions and gained a total of minus nine yards. Obviously, it doesn’t sound like a Championship Game, and it does not sound like the winner of a Championship Game, but near the end of the game we got the ball and we had to go sixty-five yards in four and a half minutes to win the game. Everything was difficult. We were able to do that and we were able to score with sixteen seconds to go. That final drive in the Ice Bowl is perhaps one of my proudest moments as a Green Bay Packer; not the sneak, or my part in it, but how that whole effort showed the kind of club we were. If you want to know about the Green Bay Packers, look at that final four and a half minutes in the NFL Championship against the Cowboys. That’s what we were all about.”

Final Question. We finally have a playoff in College Football. What do you think of the set up?

“I am not sure of the format yet.   I know the top four teams are going to play. I know the top conferences are going to dominate it. I would hope that Boise State would have an opportunity to qualify itself, or an Independent who has a sensational football team would have an opportunity to be a part of the playoffs. That would be a true playoff and not a Big Ten Conference versus The Big East versus the SEC. So, I would like to make sure that everybody has a shot at it so that it could truly be a National Championship.”


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