It goes without saying that the Green Bay Packers of the mid-1960s were the most storied team in the history of professional football, and it also goes without saying that much of the credit for this goes to the team's right guard, Jerry Kramer -- not merely for his performance on the field, which ranged from exemplary to brilliant, but for his celebration of the team in a book called "Instant Replay." It was a book not so much about a group of men as about the one man, Vince Lombardi, who brought them together and made a team out of them; it was funny, knowledgeable and touching, and it was a huge success.
Now Kramer returns (along with his collaborator, Dick Schaap) to describe what has happened to him and his teammates in the nearly two decades since they won their second, and last, Super Bowl. The occasion around which the book is constructed is a reunion of the 1967 championship team that the Packers sponsored in Green Bay a year ago, though oddly enough Kramer never really has much to say about what actually went on during the reunion and spends relatively little time describing the emotions it aroused. Instead he concentrates on thumbnail "where-are-they-now?" sketches that, though interesting to anyone who followed the team, are largely devoid of narrative movement.
Still, there is no getting around it that these are a few dozen men whom millions of Americans once cared deeply about, and that as a result "Distant Replay" has considerable appeal notwithstanding its rather artless structure and prose. What we are reminded of as we read it is not merely that we cared about these men, but that they were actually worth caring about, unlike so many athletes of the 1980s whose exaggerated wealth and extreme narcissism put too great a distance between them and us. Whatever their shortcomings and disappointments as individuals, the Packers of the 1960s were decent, hard-working, deeply motivated men who deserved our admiration.
Further, it seems that for the most part they still do. The same qualities that made them first-rate football players have served all but a few of them equally well off the field. An impressive number of them have had considerable success in business, not because they exploited the fame and connections that football gave them -- though a certain amount of that is inevitable -- but because they were committed to what they did and were willing to take risks. Even those whose lives after football have been less successful have conducted themselves with dignity, and a number have made valuable contributions to the communities where they live.
Though only a few of them have stayed in football as coaches, all were stamped for life by their years as Packers and, most specifically, by their love-hate relationship with Lombardi. "We had something most people will never experience," Max McGee says. "Forty guys who all fit in together, who all loved each other. It was all created by winning and by Lombardi." Indeed, the testimony to Lombardi -- who died of cancer in 1970 -- is so unanimous, so deeply felt and so honestly expressed that it demands reconsideration by those of us who have felt that his very considerable virtues were canceled out by his obsession with winning.
What he seems to have taught all of these men, and doubtless many others who came under his somewhat peculiar spell, is that they needed to decide what they wanted to do and then direct everything in them to doing it well. But neither this lesson nor the general fear with which they regarded Lombardi fully explains their drive to succeed. Rather, what is especially noteworthy is that, as Kramer puts it, "so many of us were living proof that deprivation was a great motivator." They were "poor, smart and driven," and determined to seize every opportunity that football offered them to raise themselves above their stunted, impoverished beginnings.
For these men, according to the great defensive end Willie Davis, football "was a way -- the only way -- to change our lives." That this is so, and that the Packers made the most of what it offered them, is a valuable and moving reminder of the extraordinary fluidity of American society. The men who gathered in Green Bay last year are living evidence of the rewards this society offers for determination, diligence and faith; "Distant Replay" pays them touching, affectionate tribute.