In the Game With A Real Team Player

Green Bay, Dec. 31, 1967: Packers quarterback Bart Starr (15) scores the winning touchdown against Dallas thanks to Jerry Kramer's perfectly executed block. Kramer turned out to be adept as a sports journalist, too.
Green Bay, Dec. 31, 1967: Packers quarterback Bart Starr (15) scores the winning touchdown against Dallas thanks to Jerry Kramer's perfectly executed block. Kramer turned out to be adept as a sports journalist, too. (Associated Press)

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By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

What may well be the most famous play in the history of the National Football League took place on the last day of 1967 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The temperature was 13 below, the field was frozen solid -- the game is known in NFL mythology as the Ice Bowl -- yet for nearly 60 minutes the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys played one of the great championship games in NFL history. With seconds to go the Cowboys held a 17-14 lead, but the Packers were on their one-foot line. It was fourth down. Rather than settling for a field goal and a tie, with overtime to follow, Green Bay decided to go for the victory. Its quarterback, Bart Starr, called for a quarterback sneak, to be run behind his right guard, Jerry Kramer, who was facing the ferocious Dallas defensive tackle Jethro Pugh. Let Kramer tell it:

"I slammed into Jethro hard. All he had time to do was raise his left arm. He didn't even get it up all the way and I charged into him. His body was a little high, the way we'd noticed in the movies, and, with [Ken] Bowman's help, I moved him inside. Willie Townes, next to Jethro, was down low, very low. He was supposed to come in low and close to the middle. He was low, but he didn't close. He might have filled the hole, but he didn't, and Bart churned into the opening and stretched and fell and landed over the goal line. It was the most beautiful sight in the world, seeing Bart lying next to me and seeing the referee in front of me, his hands over his head, signaling the touchdown. There were thirteen seconds to play."

Kramer's perfectly executed block immediately became a signal moment in American sports history, up there with Bobby Thomson's home run and Jesse Owens's four gold medals and Joe Louis's knockout of Max Schmeling. It is a moment that lives not merely in the grainy films of that epic game but also in Kramer's own words. By unlikely but entirely happy coincidence, Kramer had been persuaded to keep a diary of his 1967 season by Dick Schaap, an uncommonly capable and convivial sports journalist. Schaap knew that Kramer was intelligent, literate, observant and thoughtful, and suspected -- rightly -- that he could provide a unique view of pro football from its innermost trenches: the offensive line.

The Block, as it came to be known, provided the dramatic climax for the book that resulted, "Instant Replay." Published in 1968, it became a national bestseller, but the book didn't need The Block to be recognized at once for what it remains to this day, the best inside account of pro football, indeed probably the best book ever written about that sport and that league. There's much to be said on behalf of Roy Blount Jr.'s "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load" (1974), a knowing and amusing examination of the Pittsburgh Steelers as they stood perched on the brink of greatness, but no book matches the immediacy of Kramer's or its intimate knowledge of the game and the punishment men undergo to play it.

My own admiration for "Instant Replay" was wholehearted but reluctant. Since its founding in 1960, I had been a loyalist of the American Football League -- known to sportswriters one and all as "upstart" -- and was still smarting after the whacking the Packers had administered to the AFL champion Oakland Raiders in the 1968 Super Bowl. To me the Packers under Vince Lombardi were like the New York Yankees under Casey Stengel: methodical, ruthless, unbeatable and on all counts unlovable. But when I read "Instant Replay" in 1968, Kramer forced me to reconsider that, not merely because Kramer himself emerged from its pages as entirely likable and admirable but because his portrait of Lombardi brought out the human side of a man who, from a distance, seemed a martinet pure and simple.

Astonishingly, considering the great success and high reputation it enjoyed, "Instant Replay" is now out of print. This seems even more astonishing after a second (or third, or fourth) reading, because the book has lost absolutely nothing over the past three and a half decades. It is funny, smart, evocative, honest and unpretentious. Its prose is Kramer's, dictated into a tape recorder and regularly mailed to Schaap as the season progressed. Schaap's role was "to organize, to condense, to clarify, and to punctuate," but he "did not have to polish Jerry Kramer's phrases or prompt his thoughts." All in all it's as good a job of collaboration between unprofessional writer and professional journalist as I can recall reading, and it is as vivid and engaging now as it was in 1968.

Kramer was 31 years old during the 1967 season. He'd been with the Packers since graduating from the University of Idaho in 1958 (his signing bonus was $250). He played for 11 seasons, was All-Pro six times, and in 1970 was selected for the NFL's 50th-anniversary All Pro team. He quit after the 1968 season, pursued various business ventures with considerable success, and retired to Idaho a few years ago. From that vantage point, he doubtless looked with pride the past couple of years as his son Jordan played for the Tennessee Titans and then the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL.

Jordan Kramer's NFL bears only limited resemblance to Jerry Kramer's. For one thing, it's much bigger: It absorbed the AFL in the 1970s and added expansion teams thereafter, doubling from 16 teams to 32. Black players, a distinct if prominent minority in Kramer's day, dominate the league today. Television contracts and media attention have multiplied exponentially. Professional football has replaced major-league baseball as the country's most popular sport, if not as the National Pastime.

Yet the game is still the game, and the pressures faced by the men who play it remain the same. Training camp is hell -- "We started two-a-day workouts today, and the agony is beyond belief. Grass drills, agility drills, wind sprints, everything. You wonder why you're there, how long you're going to last" -- and the possibility of serious, career-ending injury is always present. Competition is strenuous and endless, with a long line of fresh young talent all too eager to send the veterans packing. Each week's game is a new opportunity to make a mistake that costs the team a win.

In the case of the Packers of the 1960s, all these pressures were compounded many times over by the presence of Lombardi. He, not Kramer, is the real protagonist of "Instant Replay," and he is a formidable figure indeed, "a cruel, kind, tough, gentle, miserable man whom I often hate and often love and always respect." He "thinks of himself as the patriarch of a large family, and he loves all his children, and he worries about all of them, but he demands more of his gifted children." He is "a psychologist," or "a child psychologist," and he knows how to build each of his players up to maximum performance:

"In 1959, his first year, he drove me unmercifully during the two-a-days. He called me an old cow one afternoon and said that I was the worst guard he'd ever seen. I'd been working hard, killing myself, and he took all the air out of me. I'd lost seven or eight pounds that day, and when I got into the locker room, I was too drained to take my pads off. I just sat in front of my locker, my helmet off, my head down, wondering what I was doing playing football, being as bad as I was, getting cussed like I was. Vince came in and walked over to me, put his hand on the back of my head, mussed my hair and said, 'Son, one of these days you're going to be the greatest guard in the league.' He is a beautiful psychologist. I was ready to go back out to practice for another four hours."

There were times when Kramer wanted to choke the life out of Lombardi, times when the man left him utterly confused: "He screams at you, hollers at you, makes life unbearable until you're about ready to quit, and then he starts being real nice to you and makes your life enjoyable for a while." But Kramer's final judgment is the one that matters: "I loved Vince. Sure, I had hated him at times during training camp and I had hated him at times during the season, but I knew how much he had done for us, and I knew how much he cared about us. He is a beautiful man, and the proof is that no one who ever played for him ever speaks of him afterward with anything but respect and admiration and affection. His whippings, his cussings, and his driving all fade; his good qualities endure."

More than anything, Lombardi made the Packers into something that's surprisingly rare in the world of team sports: a team . Whether it's playing football, baseball or basketball, what we call a "team" usually is a loose conglomeration of people more motivated by individual than collective goals. It's hard to persuade a group of grown adults to put team above self, but Lombardi was able to do it. As Kramer says:

"We're all different. We all have our own interests, our own preferences, and yet we all go down the same road, hand in hand. Maybe, ultimately, we're not really friends, but what I mean is that no individual on this club will go directly against another individual's feelings, no matter what his own opinion is. . . . There's no friction, no division into cliques. Certainly we have different groups -- the swingers, the family men, the extremely religious young men -- but everyone respects everyone else's feelings."

Maybe that sounds a little old-fashioned now, yet for the past four years the dominant team in pro football, the New England Patriots, has been Lombardi's kind of team . Its coach, Bill Belichick, isn't cast in the Lombardi mold, but he gets Lombardi results by chanting the same mantra: "All for one, one for all." Now as then it's a winning formula, as "Instant Replay" makes abundantly -- and instructively -- plain on every page.

"Instant Replay" is out of print but widely available in libraries and used bookstores.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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