Ten Essential Packer Books: #8

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The Ice Bowl: The Cold Truth about Football’s Most Unforgettable Game by Ed Gruver (McBooks, 1998)

To coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Ice Bowl, two books appeared on the topic. The first, by author Mike Shropshire, struck me as slapdash and self-indulgent. The second, by Ed Gruver, was thoroughly researched and imaginatively presented and is essential reading and rereading for Packer fans. Gruver builds the story from the time Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry worked together as assistant coaches in New York, presents the different experiences of the two men as they became head coaches in Green Bay and Dallas respectively and examines how the tension between the two Hall of Famers in both personality and strategy culminated in this epic game, perhaps the most famous in NFL history. Gruver then takes us through the game itself play-by-play, enlivened and illustrated by his interviews with many of the players looking back. The book also includes several diagrams of key formations and plays, as well as an appendix of statistical data. The glory of Lombardi’s Packers is recaptured here.

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Custom card of the play of the era.

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George Blanda in Green and Gold?

In 1950, new coach Gene Ronzani overturned three-quarters of his roster, with only 10 of the 39 Packers from 1949 playing for the team in Ronzani’s first year. At quarterback, second round draft pick Tobin Rote won the starting nod with veteran Jug Girard backing him up during training camp. On August 29, though, Ronzani swung a deal with the Browns for rookie quarterback Tom O’Malley who had played for the Packers’ backfield coach Ray Nolting at the University of Cincinnati.

Girard was moved to left halfback and O’Malley appeared in Green Bay’s final preseason game against the Colts on September 10, just five days after the fledgling Colts had traded their All-Pro guard Dick Barwegen to the Bears for five players including quarterback George Blanda. Like O’Malley, Blanda appeared in his new team’s regular season opener. Unlike O’Malley, Blanda did not throw a pass that week. George did not attempt any place kicks either; he may have appeared only as a defensive player, since the Colts quarterbacks were Y.A. Tittle and Adrian Burk.

O’Malley, as I’ve noted before, threw six interceptions in the opener against the Lions in relief of an injured Tobin Rote on September 17. The Colts put Blanda on waivers early in the week and both the Packers and Steelers put in a claim for George. However, George Halas then interceded and claimed he had made a stipulation in his deal with the Colts that if Blanda were to be cut, the Bears would be given the first chance to reobtain him. Halas gave the Colts $500, and Blanda returned to the Windy City.

On Thursday, September 21, Ronzani purchased the contract of veteran quarterback Paul Christman from the Chicago Cardinals and O’Malley was cut. Back in Chicago, Blanda booted three field goals against the 49ers on September 24th. Christman would appear in the remaining 11 games for the Packers and led the team in completion percentage…at 40.5%.

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Rote, Girard, O’Malley and Christman custom cards are all colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 1995

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For the second consecutive year, Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren overturned the roster of a playoff team as they tried to take the next step up. This year, though, it worked. 14 rookies played for the Packers in 1995 as the team improved from 9-7 to 11-5 and a division championship. Seven would develop into starters and one would go to the Pro Bowl as a kick team gunner.

In the 1995 draft, Wolf selected Arizona State cornerback Craig Newsome in round one and then masterfully used four picks in round three: Colorado defensive tackle Darius Holland, North Carolina fullback William Henderson, USC linebacker Brian Williams and Virginia Tech receiver Antonio Freeman. Add in Citadel runner Travis Jervey in round five and South Dakota State guard Adam Timmerman in round seven, and that’s one great draft. Newsome, Henderson, Williams, Freeman and Timmerman became starters, and Jervey starred on the kick teams.

The top pick from 1994, Aaron Taylor, also made his debut in 1995, as did 1993 draftee Bob Kuberski. Two other draftees cut by other teams – defensive back Rod Mullen from the Giants and defensive end Shannon Clavelle from the Bills – also made the team.

Finally, three undrafted free agents played for the Packers in 1995: North Carolina linebacker Bernardo Harris, Southern defensive back Matthew Dorsett and Pacific kicker Dirk Borgognone. Harris would eventually develop from kicking teams’ contributor to starting middle linebacker.

The two first round picks, Taylor and Newsome moved right into the starting lineup as rookies. Both were effective in 1995, so this is a bit of a tossup.  Taylor seemed a bit more polished at the start to me, but I liked the physical dimension Newsome brought to the defense; Craig Newsome was the Packers’ top rookie in 1995.

Dr. Feelgood Turns 78

On July 12, 1960, Green Bay sent reserve tight end A.D. Williams to Cleveland for Davis, and Lombardi commented with an understatement, “If Davis turns out as good as Quinlan, we’ll be real happy.” Willie started every game at left defensive end for the Packers in the 1960s and accumulated over 100 sacks, a team record, according to the research of Webster and Turney. Five times his sack total was in double digits and seven times he led the team. Lombardi later said of Davis, “You look for speed, agility and size. You may get two of these qualities in one man, and when you have three, you have a great player. In Willie Davis, we have a great one. For a big man, he has excellent agility and he has great sincerity and determination.”

Compared to other defensive ends even at the time, Davis was not big. In fact, left linebacker Dave Robinson was the same size as Davis, and watching those two great Hall of Famers, it’s easy to imagine them swapping positions and being just as successful. Forrest Gregg described Davis to Chuck Johnson for Greatest Packers of Them All,” He’s got great power in his hands and arms and shoulders. I’d guess he has the perfect build for a defensive end. Most of his weight is in his upper torso, and yet he has the legs of a sprinter. He’s one of the greatest pursuit men the game has ever known, he meets a play well, he rushes the passer unmercifully. How much more is there?”

The burst Davis added to the defensive line helped Henry Jordan to become an excellent inside rush man himself. The biggest thing about Davis was his motor; he never quit on a play, somewhat analogous to J.J. Watt today. Davis was a sideline-to-sideline defensive end with great lateral movement. Lombardi favored quickness and pursuit in his defense, and he got all that and more in Willie. He also got an upbeat, vocal team leader both on the field and in the locker room. Davis had the respect of every player on the team and could always be counted on to do the right thing for the team and to inspire his teammates as the defensive captain. Willie subsequently parlayed his intelligence and leadership into earning an MBA from the University of Chicago and became a multimillionaire businessman in his retirement.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold)

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A selection of Willie Davis custom cards.

Packers Top Rookie: 1994

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After making the playoffs in 1993, the Packers turned over a lot of players in 1994 in the attempt to keep improving, but the 15-man rookie class that year was a disappointment. Ron Wolf selected All-America Aaron Taylor in round one of the draft, but the Notre Dame guard tore up his knee on the third day of rookie minicamp and was out for the season. The draft picks that made the team in 1994 were Northern Illinois runner LeShon Johnson in round three, Gardner-Webb defensive end Gabe Wilkins in round four, Florida A&M wide receiver Terry Mickens and Georgia Tech runner Dorsey Levens in round five and Tulane linebacker Ruffin Hamilton in round six. Levens would develop into a star, but barely got on the field as a rookie. Wilkins and Mickens were role players, Johnson was a bust and Hamilton appeared in just five games as a Packer.

Backup quarterback Mark Brunell, a 1993 draftee, made the team in 1994, as did three free agents drafted by other teams: punter Craig Hentrich, tackle Gary Brown and defensive back Forey Duckett. Only Hentrich would remain in town more than two years.

Six undrafted free agents who were rookies for Green Bay in 1994: defensive backs Ray Wilson and Lenny McGill, receiver Charles Jordan, tight end Jeff Wilner, linebacker Mark Williams and guard Charles Hope. None made any impact.

Ultimately, the only first-year-man who made a significant contribution in 1994 was the big-legged punter; in a weak class, Craig Hentrich was the Packers’ top rookie in 1994.

Leroy Butler

July 19 is Leroy Butler’s 48th birthday, and he overcame enormous childhood obstacles to play football at the highest level. Often in a wheelchair, Butler was forced to wear heavy leg braces to correct his pigeon-toed condition from age six. Knocking off the braces like Forrest Gump at age eight, Butler found that he had a gift for athletics. Drafted out of Florida State in the second round of the 1990 draft by Green Bay, he began his Packer career as a cornerback, his college position.

New coach Mike Holmgren shifted Butler to strong safety in 1992, and Leroy began to show what a big-play defender he could be. In 1993, he made All-Pro and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. He would repeat those honors from 1996-98. Butler also created a new tradition on December 26, 1993 when he took a lateral from Reggie White after a fumble recovery, dashed the final 25 yards to the end zone and spontaneously kept going right into the stands. The Lambeau Leap was born.

A bout with pneumonia weakened Butler in 1994, but he was back at full strength in 1995 and ready to take a fuller role in Fritz Shurmur’s imaginative defensive scheme. Shurmur liked to line Butler up close to the line to take advantage of the 6’ 210 pounder’s blitzing and run stuffing talents. Butler recorded 6.5 sacks and five interceptions in the championship season of 1996 and became the first player to accumulate over 20 sacks and over 30 interceptions.

Beyond his tackling and ball skills, Butler was excellent in covering tight ends and even wideouts with his good range. In addition, he was the vocal leader in the secondary, making the calls for all presnap adjustments. When he broke his shoulder blade midseason in 2001 making the final tackle of his career, the team lost a leader and a winner.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold)

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Custom card in the 1961 Fleer style.

Ten Essential Packer Books: #9

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Photographer Vernon Biever began his career in 1941 as an 18-year-old newspaper stringer for the Milwaukee Sentinel. After the War, he became the Packers’ official team photographer and served in that capacity until his death in 2006. Over the years, his iconic shots of Lombardi’s Power Sweep or Forrest Gregg covered in mud became very familiar to sports fans, as did his annual coverage of the Super Bowl. In 1997, editor Peter Strupp put together The Glory of Titletown, a retrospective of Biever’s Packer photographs. A paperback update was published in 2003 with eight additional photos from the ensuing six seasons.

The photographs in the book span over 60 years of team history, from Don Hutson in 1941 to Brett Favre in 2002, with the lion’s share of pictures covering the Lombardi era of the 1960s (in black and white) and the Brett Favre years of more recent times (in color). Each photo is given its own page, and the facing page features quotes from players or coaches that generally discuss the pictured player but do not describe the actual shot itself.

Strupp’s selection of quotes adds quite a bit to the presentation. He relies on such articulate voices as Boyd Dowler, Gary Knafelc and James Lofton to give an honest sense of the players depicted and the game itself over time. Although I would have loved to have seen more pre-Lombardi shots, this is exquisite sports photojournalism with more than a touch of art and never fails to please upon further review.