A Few Comments from Johnny Blood

In the early 1970s, MacMillan published a series of team histories that each followed the same format: a large section on the team’s glory years, write-ups of some of the team’s greatest games, interviews with a handful of team notables and a wrap-up on the non-glory years. Ray Didinger wrote the volume on the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, and one of his interview subjects was Johnny Blood.

While Blood mostly spoke of his three years as Pittsburgh’s player-coach, a few of his comments are of interest to Packer historians:

Who were the great embellishers among the sportswriters during your playing career?

Well, a fellow who did a lot of that stuff, dug me up out of the grave quite a few times, was the late Arthur Daley of the New York Times. He was always talking about me taking my life into my hands with my wild antics. Art was a great friend of mine; I enjoyed him very much. He didn’t paint the lily too much himself, but most of his information about me, it seemed, came at night from some guy at a restaurant telling him a story over a couple of drinks. Naturally, it never lost in the telling. You ask what my attitude about these stories was. My attitude was that’s their business, that’s how they make their living, so let them go if that’s what they want to talk about.

Do you remember the expression on Curly Lambeau’s face when came bouncing through the window [of his sixth floor room]?

He was startled, of course, but being around me that long prepared him somewhat. He saw a lot worse in pro football, I’m sure.

Well the last season I played for Lambeau, I held out. I told him I wouldn’t play for less than $175 per game. The Packers played a couple games without me and the Bears beat them bad once, so Lambeau met with me and we settled on $150. What’s that come to? That’s right, $1,800.

Relative to what I did for the ball club, I felt I was underpaid. Several other guys were making $200, such as Clarke Hinkle and Cal Hubbard, and I felt I was putting as many people in the stadium as they were. But I’m not a great man for bargaining. I understand the process, but I don’t have an appetite for it. The reason I held out in 1936 was Lambeau and I were at odds. We had been for two seasons, really. So that was my last year in Green Bay. The following year I went to Pittsburgh as a player-coach.

Actually the nicest compliment that was ever paid to me was by Cal Hubbard. He was asked to pick his all-time greatest team and he said, “If I had a twelfth pick. I’d pick Blood because he’s a clutch ball player.” I was very happy about that. I can’t think of anything I’d rather have said about me–that in the clutch, he produces.

1929jblood  1931jblood3

1932jblood2  1935jblood

1936jblood2  njsjblood

Custom cards all colorized.

A Card for Everyone: Ken Gorgal and Lloyd Voss

Voss and Gorgal not only share a birthday, February 13, but also spent the best parts of their careers outside of Green Bay.

Ken Gorgal, whose father Alex played fullback for the Rock Island Independents in 1923, grew up a Bears’ fan in Peru, Illinois. At Purdue University, he starred on both the gridiron and the baseball diamond at the close of the 1940s. Cleveland drafted him in the sixth round of the 1950 NFL draft, and Ken started at safety for the champion Browns as a rookie, intercepting six passes. After a two-year stint in the military, Gorgal returned to the Browns in 1953 and picked off four passes that year and one the next while winning another championship ring in 1954.

In 1955, Coach Paul Brown tired of defensive end Doug Atkins’ liberated attitude and dealt him and Gorgal to the Bears for two draft picks–a third and sixth that Brown used on end Larry Ross and tackle Sherman Plunkett, neither of whom ever played for Cleveland. It was an awful trade by Brown. Atkins settled into a Hall of Fame career in Chicago, while Gorgal pilfered six passes in his first year as a Bear.

In 1956, though, Gorgal’s career went up in smoke when he agreed to receive and distribute materials to his teammates from the fledgling NFL Players Association. According to Halas biographer Jeff Davis, Ken was cut when the anti-union Halas found out about the materials. The Packers claimed Gorgal on waivers, and he played the last five games of the year for Green Bay. Davis claims that Gorgal was blackballed by the league after that. With his career over, he became a successful insurance man who owned a membership on the Chicago Board of Trade. He passed away at age 87 on May 8, 2016, survived by his wife, four children, four stepchildren and eight grandchildren.

Minnesota-native Lloyd Voss played for the powerhouse 1963 Nebraska Cornhusker team that also featured Hall of Fame offensive tackle Bob Brown, future coach Monte Kiffin, All-Pro cornerback Kent McCloughan and future Packers Dennis Claridge and Tony Jeter. Voss was the Packers top pick in 1964 (13th overall) and a second rounder for the Jets (11th overall).

Vince Lombardi signed Lloyd and put him on the defensive line, where he was a reserve for two seasons, winning a ring in 1965. Pushed by rookie defenders Bob Brown and Jim Weatherwax in 1966, Voss was  traded with third round pick Tony Jeter to Pittsburgh for a first round pick in 1967 that turned out to be center Bob Hyland.

Voss started at defensive end for the Steelers for six seasons, including the first three of Chuck Noll’s long tenure. He then spent one season with the Broncos and one in the World Football League before retiring. He subsequently worked for the Allegheny Parks & Recreation department for 26 years.

When Lloyd passed away from liver and kidney problems at age 65 on March 1, 2007, he was remembered by Steeler roommate Andy Russell as, “one of those very dependable guys who did it just the way it was supposed to be done…he was a leader in the locker room.” Joe Greene added, “He was tough. Lloyd helped me a lot. He was the guy who helped me run the stunts, and I taught LC [Greenwood]…A lot of the stuff we learned from Lloyd.” He was survived by three children, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.

1956tkgorgal  1956tbbkgorgal

1964plvoss4  1964tlvoss

1965plvoss3  1965tblvoss2

1966plvoss

Gorgal and Topps Voss custom cards are colorized.

Hall of Fame Congratulations

When Jerry Kramer was finally elected to the Hall of Fame two years ago, the question became who’s next? Which neglected former Packer is most deserving of pro football’s ultimate honor?

While Gale Gillingham is a name often bandied about, the chances of another member of the Lombardi Era getting in would appear to be very slim. Three other names were championed by various factions.

There has been a campaign for 1920s two-way end Lavvie Dilweg for over a decade. Dilweg received All-Pro notice eight times in his nine-year career and, with Guy Chamberlin, was one of the two finest wingmen of his era. Named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the ‘20s, he and guard hunk Anderson are the only two members of that squad not in the Hall.

However, team historian Cliff Christl forcefully advocated here for Dilweg’s teammate and backfield ace Verne Lewellen. Five-time All-Pro Lewellen was not only widely regarded as the finest punter of his time, a time in which field position was critical in team success, but he was also the leading scorer for his time. Official statistics were not kept prior to 1932, Verne’s final NFL season, but one figure that was tallied was touchdowns. Lewellen’s 51 was the league record until Don Hutson surpassed it a decade later.

Former Packer GM and football historian Ron Wolf’s opinion was that 1950s safety Bobby Dillon was the most underestimated Packer. Bobby was a five-time first team All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler whose 52 interceptions were the second most in league history at the time in retired. Although he primarily lined up at safety, Dillon also played cornerback at times to cover the opponent’s top receivers.

In this 100th season of the NFL, the Hall of Fame created a special Centennial Class of players who were judged to have been unfairly passed over. When the 15 player finalists were announced, Dilweg, Lewellen and Dillon were part of the group, as was passing tailback Cecil Isbell. On January 15, Dillon, who passed away last August, got the nod and will be inducted this coming August. He was a great Packer in some dark days for the franchise, and I am pleased he has been recognized at long last.

1955bdillon1  1952bsbdillon

1956tbdillon3  1957tbdillon5

1959tbdillon2  1958twbdillon

All custom cards are colorized.

Willie Wood, Rest in Peace

Lombardi’s Packers continue to hear the inevitable final gun. Willie passed away last week, and he will not be forgotten. Wood grew up in Washington D.C. and went west to go to college, starting at Coalinga Junior College before ending up at the University of Southern California.  At USC, Wood was a three-year letterman as a 5’10” running quarterback.  His position coach was Al Davis, future owner of the Raiders.  Wood broke his collarbone as a senior, and that was the third strike against the injured, undersized, black quarterback who went unclaimed in the 1960 NFL draft.  He and his high school coach Bill Butler started writing letters to professional teams requesting a tryout, but received no response until Jack Vainisi and Vince Lombardi of the Packers decided to give him a look.  Given a chance, he made the Packers in 1960, and it was his good fortune for two reasons.  Not only had he gotten in on the ground floor of the Green Bay glory years, but he got to spend two years with one-time free agent Emlen Tunnell who was winding down his career in Wisconsin.  Tunnell, who had been the premier safety in the league throughout the 1950s and would be the first black player inducted in the Hall of Fame, was a generous individual who became both roommate and mentor to Wood.  Willie would later say, “Em taught me everything”

Although Wood was listed as the team’s third quarterback after Joe Francis broke his leg, Willie made a strong impression in practice when he laid out Jim Taylor with a solid tackle.  Lombardi ordered the play run again, and Wood dropped the larger Taylor again.  Lombardi and the whole team were impressed with this little man’s toughness.  His first appearance on defense came in the sixth game of the 1960 season against Johnny Unitas and the Colts. Starter Jesse Whittenton got hurt, so Willie was inserted at left cornerback against All-Pro receiver Raymond Berry.  Wood repeatedly was beaten and eventually was replaced that day by Dick Pesonen.  After the game, Wood was badly shaken and uncertain about his future when Lombardi took him aside and told him to shake it off because he was going to be here as long as the coach was.  The coach had good reasons to have confidence in Willie Wood.  Although he was not extremely fast, he was very quick and a great leaper–he could dunk a basketball and played pickup hoop games against NBA star Elgin Baylor back in DC.  Wood was said to be able to touch the crossbar of the goal posts with his elbow. Beyond that, he was a smart player and became the surest tackler on the team.

In 1961, Willie won the starting free safety position replacing the aging Tunnell, and the Packers won their first title in 17 years.  Shades of his mentor, he intercepted five passes and led the league in punt returns with a 16.1 average return.  Two punts he took back for touchdowns.  The next year, he led the NFL in interceptions with nine and averaged 11.9 yards per punt return.  He also kicked off for the team. Oddly, he was ejected from the 1962 title game when he jumped up quickly to protest a penalty call and accidentally bumped into the official.

The most memorable moment of his career came in the first Super Bowl when he intercepted a Len Dawson pass early in the third quarter and returned it 50 yards to the Kansas City five.  Elijah Pitts scored on the next play, and the game was essentially over.  His teammates ragged Wood for being run down from behind by fellow USC alumnus Mike Garrett, but Willie was never known for his speed.  Willie still is the all-time team leader in most punt returns (187) and most fair catches (102), but after his first five years he wasn’t very effective at it.  His punt return averages in those first five years were 6.6, 16.1, 11.9, 8.9, and 13.3.  After that, he never averaged more than 5.3, and his overall average for the last seven years was a pitiful 3.8.

As his punt return talents dwindled, though, his safety skills became more highly respected.  Wood was named All-Pro for the first of six consecutive seasons in 1964.  In that same year, he was named to the first of eight straight Pro Bowls.  While he never approached Tunnell’s 79 lifetime interceptions, Willie trails only newly-minted Hall of Famer Bobby Dillon with 48 in 12 years as a Packer, and he returned two picks for touchdowns.

The Packers’ greatest free agent, Willie Wood, had the full respect of his teammates.  Fiery Ray Nitschke said, “I hate to miss a tackle because I know if I do, I’m going to get a dirty look from Willie.  He’ll kill you with that look.” Wood was a leader on a defense of stars so it was not surprising that he went into coaching after retiring as a player after the 1971 season.  He served two years as the defensive backs coach in San Diego before becoming the first black head coach of a professional football team with the Philadelphia Bell in the World Football League in 1975.  The Bell had a losing record that year before the entire league folded.  Willie got a second chance in the Canadian Football League when he took over the Toronto Argonauts from his former teammate Forrest Gregg in 1980. The talent-poor Argos went 6-20 over the next two seasons and Wood was fired.  Wood left football for business at that point and moved back to his hometown of DC.  He was elected to the Packer Hall of Fame in 1977, and his long-overdue induction to Canton occurred in 1989. Sadly, the last dozen years of this hard-hitting defender’s life were marred by a steadily darkening fog of dementia and were spent in an assisted living facility. He was 83 and is survived by three children.

(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers)

1960fwwood  1962fwwood

1963fwwood2  1964twwood2

1968alttwwood  1969xwwood2

1970kwwood   1971bwwood

Custom cards 1,2,5 and 8 are colorized.

A Card for Everyone: Ted Cook

Born on February 6, 1922 in Birmingham, Alabama, end Ted Cook had a brief but eventful career in Green Bay. The slender Cook played for the Crimson Tide as a sophomore and junior from 1941-42 and then went into the military in 1943. While playing service ball, Ted played in the 1944 Blue-Gray Game and the 1945 College All-Star Game. In fact, he once claimed in a wire service report that his greatest thrill, “occurred in the 1945 All-Star Game. I tingled all over upon being singularly introduced to the 100,000 fans along with 10 others in the Collegians starting lineup that night against the Green Bay Packers.” He caught one pass for nine yards in that game won by Green Bay 19-7.

Out of the army in 1946, Cook returned to Tuscaloosa for his senior year, catching passes from ace tailback Harry Gilmer. A year later, he signed with Detroit, but caught only seven passes as a rookie. In July 1948, Curly Lambeau traded draftees Bob Rennebohm and Howard Brown to the Lions for Cook and veteran center Frank Szymanski. Szymanski ended up in Philadelphia that year, and the two draftees never played in the NFL, but Cook was used extensively on defense for Green Bay and led the team with six interceptions.

In 1949, Ted played both ways for most of the year, averaging 50 minutes per game. He led the team in interceptions again with five, but also led the Packers in receptions with 25, despite missing three games on offense due to injury. That was through 11 games. On Sunday night, December 4, following a 30-0 loss to Washington, Curly Lambeau waived his top receiver/defensive back with one game remaining in the season. Although many of his teammates were aware of the release, Cook was not informed until noon on Monday. No reason was given, and Art Daley wrote a disbelieving piece that Wednesday in the Press Gazette.

The story then gets even stranger. Curly Lambeau left Green Bay to coach the Cardinals at the outset of 1950. In March, Lambeau signed Cook, the player he dumped, to a contract with Chicago. However, with the All-America Football Conference merger in place, the NFL held its first professional players draft in June to disperse the defunct league’s players who had not already been divvied up. Cook, as a free agent, was put into that pool of 218 players, and he was one of 150 selected.

Ted was picked in the sixth round by the new coach of his old team, Gene Ronzani, and rejoined Green Bay for the 1950 season. Other draftees to make the ’50 Packers were ends Al Baldwin and Ab Wimberly, halfback Billy Grimes and linebacker Carl Schuette. Cook was used on offense in 1950 and caught 16 passes that season. The following July, Ted retired to attend to his used car dealership in Alabama, but Ronzani continued to negotiate with him. Finally, in September, Ronzani traded Cook to Washington where he could reunite with Harry Gilmer, and  Green Bay received defensive end John Martinkovic in return.

Cook appeared in the Redskins final preseason game against the Packers on September 23, but then was cut from the squad two days later to end his football career. He returned to his car business and lived till the age of 84, passing away on October 16, 2006.

1948btcook2  1949ltcook2

1950btcook2  1950tftcook

All customized cards are colorized.

A Card for Everyone: Jack Spinks

In Green Bay, the football field is named after Packer Curly Lambeau; in Lorman, Mississippi, home of the Alcorn State Braves, the football field is named after a less famous Packer, Jack Spinks. Spinks was born in the backwoods Mississippi town of Toomsuba on February 4, 1930. In his hardscrabble childhood, Spinks later recalled chasing down rabbits for food. When his high school principal drove him to the Alcorn campus, the 6’ 230-pound Spinks joined the football team where he was assigned to the line as a freshman and appeared in the first football game he had ever seen.

Due to his speed, Spinks was shifted to fullback as a sophomore and led the team in rushing as a junior and senior, while being named All-Conference both seasons. The Steelers selected Jack in the 11th round of the 1952 NFL draft, making him not only the first Alcorn State player to be drafted, but the first black collegian from Mississippi as well.

Spinks carried the ball just 22 times in his rookie year in Pittsburgh and found the team clubhouse to be an unwelcoming place for a young black man from the Deep South. Released in 1953, he appeared in three games for the Chicago Cardinals that year, but did not stick. In 1955, he tried out for the Packers, and Coach Lisle Blackbourn told him that the team would only keep two fullbacks so he was switched to guard. He appeared in six games in ’55 and one in ’56 for the Packers before being waived to the Giants.

Reflecting back upon his election to the Mississippi State Hall of Fame in 1985, Spinks told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson Mississippi:

Clarion_Ledger_Mon__Mar_25__1985_

Spinks won a championship ring with the 1956 Giants and returned to his home state in 1959 when his alma mater offered him an assistant coaching position. He joined the staff the same year as Marino Cassem and the two became good friends. Cassem was promoted to Head Coach in 1964, and Spinks remained on the staff until retiring in 1985.

Alcorn’s football stadium was dedicated as Jack Spinks Stadium in 1992. Jack passed away on September 29, 1994. Since then, the name was altered to Spinks-Cassem Stadium to also honor the school’s winningest coach, Marino Cassem, for whom Jack worked for two decades.

1955bjspinks  1955tjspinks

1956tjspinks2  1956tbbjspinks

All custom cards are colorized.

Happy 45th Birthday, Donald Driver

An obscure seventh round draft pick at his first minicamp in 1999 told Bud Lea, “I’m fearless. I don’t mind getting hit. What really excites me is catching the ball and running to the end zone. Then I can dance. That’s what I want to do.” Donald Driver was indeed fearless going over the middle for 14 years with the Packers, as a longshot wide receiver, and in the spring before his final season of 2012, he got to dance big time when he won the 14th season of Dancing with the Stars.

Driver had a rough childhood in Houston, but made it out as a track star and late-blooming football player at little Alcorn State in Mississippi, where he just missed playing with Steve McNair. Driver’s track event was the high jump, not sprinting. He had decent speed, but was never a true burner. As the 213th person chosen in the 1999 draft, it was an upset that he even made the team, let alone that he won a starting job three years later after Bill Schroeder left as a free agent.

The 6-foot 190-pound Driver quickly developed into a Favre favorite because he ran good routes and had good hands. And he was indeed fearless. Ray Sherman, Driver’s position coach, said of Donald in 2002, “he has a knack for making people miss, but he’s very strong for his size. That’s the thing that people underestimate about him. He’s very strong for his size.”

Driver was more steady than spectacular and was remarkably durable. Not only lasting 14 years, but also racking up seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons on his way to becoming the all-time team leader in both catches (753) and yards (10,137). He had his best years with Brett Favre, but also was a reliable target for the first few years of Aaron Rodgers. He had a lot to be proud of in his long journey to success, but ultimately he was more a supporting player than an outstanding star.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

1999ddriver  2000ddriver2010ddriver  ncddriver

Custom cards in a variety of styles.