A Triple Threat and More

115 years ago today, Verne Lewellen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Were it not for an arm injury, he might have become a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and never have come to Green Bay.  How different Packer history would have been had that occurred.  Lewellen was one of the most intelligent, talented, and versatile men ever to work for the Pack, and his influence was felt on the team for decades both on and off the field.

At Lincoln High School in Nebraska, Lewellen played on two unbeaten football teams including the 1918 state champions, starred on the 1920 state basketball champions, and led his school to two track championships.  In college, Verne would graduate with a law degree from the University of Nebraska.  While there, he displayed enough pitching talent to interest the Pirates in baseball and captained the football team that delivered the only two defeats Knute Rockne’s “Four Horsemen” would suffer in their three years together.  One of the key elements of Nebraska’s victories over Notre Dame in 1922 and 1923 was Lewellen’s running, passing, punting and defensive work.  One of the Horsemen, Jim Crowley, recommended the skilled Lewellen to his old high school coach in Green Bay, Curly Lambeau.  Curly signed Verne in 1924, and the Nebraskan would spend nine years as a Packer, pacing the team in scoring five times.

Verne could do everything well on the football field.  At the halfback position, the 6’1″ 180 pound Lewellen was one of the best runners in the league and was also a skilled pass catcher in addition to being adept at throwing the fat football of the day. On defense he was a sure-tackling defensive back.  Above all, he was known as the finest punter of his time.  In the community, he was so popular that he was elected District Attorney for Brown County as a Republican in 1928 and was reelected in 1930.

There are virtually no official statistics for the period in which Lewellen played, but unofficial press counts provide a partial statistical picture of Lewellen’s talents.  In over 100 games Verne ran the ball 708 times for 2,410 yards and 37 touchdowns.  He caught 84 passes for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns.  He completed 122 of 335 passes for 2,080 yards and nine touchdowns and punted the ball 681 times for a 39.5-yard average.  It should be noted that in the 1920s, punting was a more vital function than today. Teams played a ball control game and would punt from anywhere and on any down.  One reason his punting average stands at 39.5 yards is that teams would often punt from inside the opposing teams 40-yard line and would aim the ball for the sidelines, the coffin corner kick that would bury the opponent near his own goal line.  In defense of Lewellen, it should also be noted that his total of 681 punts is hundreds greater than his nearest contemporaries; he was the punting king of the 1920s.

All good things must end, and in 1933 Lewellen lost both his jobs.  Lambeau urged him to retire from football, just as the voters had urged him and many other Republicans throughout the nation to retire from political office in November 1932.  He focused on his law practice and then took a position as personnel manager for Standard Oil in town.  For a brief time, he coached the Long Island Indians of the American Association, a minor league team with whom the Packers had an arrangement. In 1950 he was asked to join the Packer executive committee.  Four years later, he was hired as the first general manager of the team. When Vince Lombardi was hired in 1959 as coach and general manager, Lewellen was shifted to business manager.  He retired in 1967 and died in 1980. When he left the game in 1932 he was the leading touchdown maker in NFL history with 51 and was the leading Packer scorer with 307 points.  He was elected to the Packer Hall of Fame in 1970 and remains one of the most qualified players not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers.)

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Custom cards are colorized.

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Packers Top Rookie: 2004

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2004 was Mike Sherman’s Waterloo as a GM, the year when he thoroughly proved that he had reached his level of incompetence, ala the Peter Principle. With star cornerback Mike McKenzie demanding to be traded, Sherman drafted cornerbacks with Green Bay’s first two selections in the draft, but both picks — Ahmad Carroll from Arkansas in round one and Joey Thomas from Montana State in round three — were flops. For his other two third rounders, Sherman took Clemson defensive tackle Donnell Washington, who never played a down in the NFL, and Ohio State punter B.J. Sander, who spent one season in NFL Europe and one disappointing year in Green Bay before getting on with his life’s work. Sherman did pick two late winners, Arkansas State defensive tackle Corey Williams in round six, and, Tennessee center Scott Wells in round seven, but it was a disastrous draft that led to Ted Thompson hiring as GM.

From the 2003 draft, fifth round Oregon State defensive tackle James Lee and seventh round Carson Newman linebacker Steve Josue made the roster in 2004. Penn State tight end Sean McHugh was a seventh round pick of the Titans, and quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan came up from New Orleans in the October trade of Mike McKenzie. None of them could play.

Eight other rookies made the Packers as waiver wire pickups or undrafted free agents. Running backs Walt Williams and Vonta Leach, receivers Kelvin Kight, Andrae Thurman and Ben Steele and defensive back Jason Horton left no trace in Green Bay. Nose tackle Colin Cole, though, spent five years with the Packers and 10 in the NFL, while Central Michigan defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins spent the first seven years of his 13 year NFL career in Green Bay as a versatile and reliable player at both the tackle and end positions; Cullen Jenkins was the Packers top rookie in 2004.

2010cjenkins  Custom card in 1960 Topps style.

Ten Essential Packer Books: #1

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Run to Daylight by Vince Lombardi with W.C. Heinz (Prentice-Hall, 1963).

Prentice-Hall hired revered New York Herald Tribune sports columnist Red Smith as the general editor of series of sports books in 1962, and the Green Bay native began the series by contracting with the coach of the champion Packers, Vince Lombardi, for a ghost-written memoir. Because the sports editor of Look, Tim Cohane, who had known Vince since both were at Fordham in the 1930s, was unavailable, Smith turned to respected New York freelance magazine writer W.C. Heinz to pen the book.

After meeting with Lombardi, Heinz decided the best course of action was a progressive narrative in which he would follow Lombardi around for a week while the coach prepared the team for a game. Within that seven-day structure, Heinz would incorporate relevant stories and anecdotes into the day-by-day chronicle of the life of an NFL coach.

Fortuitously, the game selected was the October 7, 1962 showdown with the arch rival Lions at City Stadium. Both teams came into the game 3-0, but Green Bay had beaten its three opponents by a combined 100-7 score. The game was a rugged defensive battle on an overcast, foggy day that the Packers pulled out in the last two minutes after Herb Adderley returned an ill-advised Milt Plum pass 40 yards to set up the game winning field goal by Paul Hornung. So the book had a happy ending.

What makes the well-crafted book so special and the most essential Packer book of all, though, are two things. First, it gives the reader an inside view of the workings and the strategic style of Lombardi’s Packers at the height of their powers in the midst of a 13-1 championship season. Second, the book features Lombardi’s incisive thumbnail sketches of each of the 36 players on the 1962 roster, as well as the assistant coaches. Run to Daylight connects the reader to the team more than any other book.

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Custom cards in Topps 1961 and 1963 and Philadelphia 1964 and 1967 styles.

Packers Top Rookie: 2003

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The 2003 draft continued the decline of the Packers under Mike Sherman. Although he hit on his first round choice of Oregon State linebacker Nick Barnett, only one of the other eight draft picks made the roster that year – Ohio State defensive tackle Kenny Peterson in round three. Peterson only lasted three years with the team and never started a game.

The fifth round pick from 2002, Craig Nall, made the active roster in 2003 as Brett Favre’s caddy. Free agent punt and kick returner Antonio Chatman was signed out of Arena Football and spent three years returning kicks in Green Bay. 6’7” defensive tackle Terdell Sands was activated off the practice squad for one game before being waived; he spent five years in Oakland as a sometime starter. That’s a pretty unimpressive five-man rookie class.

Barnett, of course, became a starter immediately and was a quick and active middle linebacker for several seasons; Nick Barnett was the Packers’ top rookie in 2003.

With Attitude

September 20 is a day for players with attitude; it’s the birthday of Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor and battling guard T.J. Lang. Taylor was the biggest offensive star on Lombardi’s Packers and always a driven and fiery player. Drafted out of LSU in the second round of the 1958 draft, he joined the Packers that year along with Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer and Dan Currie in perhaps the team’s best ever draft haul. Taylor did not see much action as a rookie until the last two games when he ran for 236 yards against the 49ers and Rams. He won the starting fullback job under Lombardi in 1959, but missed three games after being burned by scalding grease in a home accident. By 1960, Taylor was fully ensconced as the top fullback in the Western Conference and ran for more than 1,000 yards each of the next five years, finishing second to Jim Brown four times. His best year was 1962 when he gained 1,474 yards and scored 114 points to lead the league in both categories, while setting a league record with 19 rushing touchdowns.

Taylor had firm ideas on how to play the game, “Football is a contact sport. You’ve got to make them respect you. You’ve got to punish tacklers. You’ve got to deal out more misery than the tacklers deal out to you.” On another occasion, he described his running style, “I don’t always run at them. Sometimes I sort of veer off. I like to sting ‘em a little.” He was small for a fullback at 6’ and 215 pounds, but he was the epitome of a power runner. Very muscular from his dedicated weight training, he ran hard and had pretty good speed. He liked to lower his shoulders and swing his forearms and elbows to crash through defenders and was a fine blocker with a nasty attitude.

Lombardi commented in 1962, “Taylor may not be as big as some fullbacks, but he has balance and determination. He is hard to knock off his feet, and he fights for every yard.” Vince expanded on Taylor’s gridiron savviness, “He hits the right hole at the right time, He follows the right blocker, and he doesn’t blow assignments. Don’t ever get the idea it’s all legs and power. Sure, Jim blasts past linebackers and crashes through defensive backs, but he’d never get those opportunities if he wasn’t moving in the right direction and using his blockers the way he should.”

After contracting hepatitis and turning 30 in 1965, Taylor’s rushing average dropped to a paltry 3.5 yards-per-carry, but he still managed to have a superior 1965 championship game against the Browns and score a touchdown on a sweep in the very first Super Bowl a year later. That would be his final Packers’ touchdown, as he played out his option and signed with the expansion Saints as a free agent in 1967 and played one last very diminished season.

 

The feisty Lang was drafted out of Eastern Michigan as a tackle by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2009 draft and has proved to be a very nice complement to the more celebrated and accomplished Josh Sitton on the other side. For five years, the two gave the team its best set of guards since the Rivera-Wahle team ten years before.

Lang has played all five positions along the offensive line and has started at every slot except center. He has great size and power and is a brawler at 6’4” 305 pounds. Teammate Howard Green once said in admiration of him, “When T.J. comes off the ball he can deliver a blow to you.” Although Lang spent his first two seasons partying too hard off the field to reach his potential, he began to mature in 2011, the year he took over for departed free agent Daryn Colledge at left guard. In the stretch from 2011-15, he has missed just two starts as part of one of the top guard tandems in the league. Like the pair of Gale Gillingham and Bill Lueck forty years before, Lang and Sitton swapped sides in 2013 with T.J. moving to the right side. Both guards proved their toughness in 2014 by playing all season with injuries. Lang played through a left ankle sprain that year, and had previously won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award in 2011.

(adapted from Green Bay Gold)

2010tjlang  1960tjtaylor2

1964tjtaylor2  1965tsjtaylor2

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Custom cards in Topps styles from 1960, 1964, 1965 (altered) and 1966.

Ten Essential Packer Books: #2

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Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer edited by Dick Schaap. (World, 1968).

Instant Replay was something of a publishing phenomenon in 1968. It was just the second football book to hit the best seller lists (after George Plimpton’s Paper Lion a few years before). It also fully established the seasonal diary as a standard form for sports books, although it was not the first sports book to follow that custom.

The book was Dick Schaap’s idea, and his skill at editing makes the volume still highly readable nearly 50 years after its original publication. However, the observations, reflections and anecdotes are all those of Packer All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer. Despite the fact the language and sexual content were toned down from reality, the book provides the best glimpse of life in the locker room and on the field for an NFL team at that time when football began to surpass baseball as the national pastime. And it was Schaap’s perfect sense of timing that allows us to experience as insiders the culmination of Lombardi’s Packer championship run, including the thrilling climax of the Ice Bowl, the chaser of Super Bowl II and the hangover of Lombardi’s denouement.

The book is light and frothy at times and quite insightful and poignant at others. It remains the greatest literary gift to Packer fans that anyone has ever written. Through Instant Replay, we all connected with the most beloved Packer era of all.

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1967pjkramer1  1968tjkramer2

Custom Kramer cards for 1961, 1966, 1967 and 1968.

A First for Angelo Fields

September 15 is the 59th birthday of tackle Angelo Fields. The 6’6” 300+ pound Fields was drafted out of Michigan State in the second round of the 1980 draft by the Houston Oilers. Angelo played in 30 games over the next two seasons with Houston, but was more noted for his weight problems than his performance. The Packers obtained his rights for a number three pick in July 1982, but he suffered a knee injury a month later and was assigned to the injured list. He was activated for the finale of the strike-shortened 1982 season, but did not appear in that game.

According to the team’s 1983 media guide, Fields appeared in both playoff games that season, but he is not listed in the all-time roster of the team. That makes him one of two Packers who only appeared in the postseason for the team; the other being linebacker Mike Merriweather in 1993, but Merriweather is listed in the team’s all-time roster. Fields was cut the following year, and neither he nor Merriweather ever appeared in another NFL game after their Packer playoff exposure.

Two other Packers made their first appearance as Packers in the postseason. Receiver Bill Schroeder was promoted from the practice squad for the 1994 playoffs. He then played for the team from 1997-2001. Linebacker Jim Nelson played his first game as a Packer in Mike Holmgren’s last game as coach, a postseason loss to the 49ers following the 1998 season. He then played for Green Bay during the 1999 season before moving on to the Vikings in 2000.

One other name that comes to mind with this obscure topic is tight end/linebacker Dick Capp, who was activated from the Packer taxi squad for Super Bowl II to replace the injured Allen Brown. Capp made the most of his opportunity by recovering a muffed punt at midfield at the end of the first half that led to a Don Chandler field goal to put the Packers up by nine at the intermission. However, Capp previously had appeared in the team’s first two games in 1967. He finished his brief NFL career with the Steelers in 1968.

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Fields’ custom card is colorized.