Birthday Boys

December 29 is a birthday shared by two of the most popular of Lombardi’s Packers: Ray Nitschke and Fuzzy Thruston. With his angry, toothless snarl, 6’3” 235-pound Ray Nitschke was an intimidating sight across the line of scrimmage for quarterbacks in the 1960s. His was the face of the great Green Bay defense of the time, but the key to that defense was how well everyone worked together, met their responsibilities and didn’t make mistakes. Ray was voted the league’s top linebacker of its first 50 years in 1969, but he actually wasn’t; Bill George and Joe Schmidt were probably better. With Bill Forester and then Dave Robinson to his left, Ray probably wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team many years.

That being said, Nitschke was a great and fierce player, the leader of the Packer defense and a legitimate Hall of Famer. Teammate Willie Wood said on Ray’s death, “He was THE man. He was a guy who played with a lot of tenacity. Every time you saw him, you knew he was ready to play.” Lee Remmel added, “He was a thunderous tackler. He didn’t know the meaning of taking it easy on the football field.”

Nitschke had an odd career for an all-time great. He did not burst onto the scene like a Butkus or Lawrence Taylor; instead, Nitschke struggled to find a place in the starting lineup for three years after he was drafted out of Illinois in the third round of the 1958 draft. T.J. Troup wrote amusingly of Ray’s play as a rookie in The Birth of Football’s Modern 4-3 Defense, “This hustling young man of physical gifts was usually out of control and out of position.” Chuck Johnson wrote in the Milwaukee Journal in July 1960, “He’s strong and mean, but still lacks savvy.” Even under the discipline of Lombardi, Nitschke did not emerge as a starter until 1961 and a star in 1962.

An unnamed assistant coach chronicled the change in Nitschke’s play to Chuck Johnson for Greatest Packers of Them All, “Ray used to play on instinct rather than according to the situation. Now he does what the play call tells him to. He reads the play and coordinates with the rest. This is the only way for an effective defense.”

From 1962-69, Nitschke was among the top handful of middle linebackers in the game. He was a sure tackler who once said, “You want them to have respect for you when they run a play at you. You want them to be a little shy and a little shyer the next time.” But the former college fullback also had good speed and was excellent in coverage. To me, his signature play came late in the third quarter of the 1965 NFL championship game against Cleveland. Ray tightly covered Jim Brown 35 yards down the field and knocked away a Frank Ryan pass in the end zone to maintain the Packers’ eight-point lead.

On the other side of the ball, Fuzzy Thurston was the left half of Lombardi’s All-Pro guard tandem. Lombardi said of Fuzzy in Run to Daylight, “He’s a good short-trap blocker and he’s got enough quickness, size, strength and determination so that, when he and Jerry come swinging around that corner together like a pair of matched Percherons, you can see that defensive man’s eyeballs pop.” So you don’t have to look it up, a “Percheron” is an intelligent, muscular work horse or war horse. Imagine Bill Belichick saying that…maybe if he had W.C. Heinz as a co-author.

Fuzzy didn’t get quite the same notice that Kramer did, but he had just as big a personality. Lombardi referred to him in his book as “an intelligent clown,” and he meant that as a compliment – someone who helped keep the team loose and united. And Thurston was a champion when he came to Green Bay. Drafted out of Valparaiso by Philadelphia in the fifth round in 1956, he spent some time in the military and passed through both the Eagle and Bear organizations before landing as a reserve on the 1958 Colts who won the first sudden death overtime NFL championship game over the Giants that year. That was Lombardi’s last game as the Giants’ offensive coach. Needing a guard the next year in Green Bay, he sent linebacker Marv Matuszak to Baltimore for Fuzzy.

Fuzzy was not exceptionally big or talented but was thorough and hard-working. His strongest area was pass blocking even though he had a short, squat build at 6’1” 245 pounds. He told Bud Lea, “When you’re protecting the passer, you’re being belted by some of the biggest men in the sport who have the power and brute strength to overrun you.” Thurston countered with cunning, quick feet and positioning and was a five-time All-Pro.

(adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom card of Nitschke in Packer uniform is colorized.

Atlantic City Layover

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For many years, the Packers tended to end their season on extended road trips for weather-related reasons. 1930 was a good example. The defending world champions began the year 7-0, with six of the games in Green bay and one in nearby Minneapolis. One win came against their chief rivals, the New York Giants on October 5. However, the second half of the season was entirely on the road, beginning with a November 9 victory over the Bears in Chicago. A week later, the Pack lost to Cardinals, also in Chicago.

From there the team hit the East Coast. The Milwaukee Journal reported on November 23:

The Packers arrived in New York Friday night [the 20th], 23 strong and set up their camp at the Lincoln Hotel, Times Square. The squad included Darling, Earpe, Zuver, Frant, Michalske, Woodin, Bowdoin, Perry, Sleight, Kern Hubbard, O’Donnell, Dilweg Nash, Lewellen, Dunn, Pape, Blood, Englemann, Fitzgibbons, Molenda and McCrary.

The Packers would lose to the Giants 13-6 and fall behind them in the standings. The story continues:

The Packers will remain in the east 10 days. Following their engagement with the Giants, they will go to Atlantic City until Wednesday when they will leave for Philadelphia and the game with the Philadelphia [Frankford] Yellowjackets Thanksgiving day. From here they will return to New York to meet the Stapleton club at Stapleton, about 30 miles outside New York, a week from Sunday. They will then go back to Atlantic City and remain there until Thursday when they will leave for Chicago to meet the Chicago Bears again Sunday, Dec. 7.

The Packers were originally scheduled to play Newark a week from Sunday, but the Newark club hit financial rocks and the game with Stapleton was substituted. The Packers have never played Stapleton before.

The above picture on display at the Packer Hall of Fame depicts 18 of the players listed as having made the trip. Jug Earp, Chief Franta, Oran Paper and Johnny Blood did not make the picture. The photo does include two other players though. Rookie Arnie Herber must have joined the team at some point because he appeared in both the Thanksgiving game victory over Frankford and the triumph on Staten Island three days later.

The other player depicted is more interesting. Mule Wilson began the season with the Giants. He was released in mid-November to make room for Red Cagle and signed on with the Stapletons, helping them defeat the Giants on Thanksgiving Day and putting the Packers back in first place. A week later, the Packers announced that Wilson had signed with them on December 4th back in Green Bay. Wilson played for Green Bay in the loss to the Bears on December and then all season in 1931.

Green Bay concluded its championship season by tying the Portsmouth Spartans in Ohio on December 14. They went 3-3-1 in the second half of the season in which they played no games at home. The Packers edged out the 13-4 Giants by .004 percentage points to win the league title for a second consecutive season.

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Sheriff Lon Evans

Probably the most prominent Christmas baby in Packer history is Lon Evans. He was born in 1911, played at TCU under Francis “Close the Gates of Mercy” Schmidt, and signed with the Packers in 1933. Lon played guard for Green Bay for five seasons and drew All-Pro notice the last three years. He later spent 28 years officiating college and professional games and served 23 years as the Sheriff of Tarrant County in Texas. The correctional facility in Fort Worth is named after him.

In 1990, one of his daughters put together a self-published volume entitled The Purple Lawman: From Horned Frog to High Sheriff that is an odd, but endearing mix of memories, anecdotes, tributes and photographs of Evans’ varied life. One of the photos depicts Lon meeting with John Kennedy on the day the President was assassinated.

In the book, Lon’s wife Marion recalled the championship season:

The Packers had another terrific year in 1936. They became World Champions of the National Football League! The town of Green Bay went wild – banquets and appearances everywhere. After Christmas, the Packer Corporation had signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio to make some Pete Smith sports films. All of the members and their wives drove to Denver. The team played exhibition games in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. We stayed in Los Angeles a month for filming and then came back to Texas until August and then on to Green Bay.

Lon remembered meeting Vince Lombardi when he was playing guard for Fordham as one of the “Seven Blocks of Granite:”

We’d work out at Fordham when we were in New York to play the Giants, and Lombardi would come to me to ask questions about how to play guard. Years later, he still remembered those days after he was winning Super Bowls and I’d go up for Packers’ reunions.

While only a small portion of the book deals with his Packer years, there are amusing anecdotes of pranks involving Don Hutson, George Sauer, George Svendsen, Cal Hubbard and others. Here’s to the High Sheriff on the anniversary of his birth.

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Custom cards are colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 2015

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It’s too early to tell for sure, but the 2015 draft does appear to have potential. Ted Thompson addressed the secondary in the first two rounds, drafting Arizona State cornerback Damarious Randall in round one and Miami of Ohio corner Quinton Rollins in round two. He followed that with Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery in round three, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan in round four and both Oklahoma fullback Aaron Ripkowski and Alabama-Birmingham tight end Kennard Backman in round six.2014 fifth round receiver Jared Abbrederis from Wisconsin also made his first professional appearance during the 2015 season.

Seven rookie free agents played for the Packers in 2015 as well: runners John Crockett and Alonzo Harris, linebacker Joey Thomas, guard Josh Walker, corner Ladarius Gunter, defensive tackle Bruce Gaston and long snapper Rick Lovato. Thomas and Gunter have seen the most playing time.

While the elusive and versatile Montgomery’s rookie year was cut short by injury and Ripkowski proved himself as the successor to popular role player John Kuhn, three players saw time as starters in their rookie years. Ryan demonstrated his tackling skills, and Rollins recorded a pick-six, but Randall started nine games, picked off three passes – including a pick-six – defensed 14 passes and made 53 tackles; Damarious Randall was the Packers’ top rookie in 2015.

Goodbye Phil

As a defensive coach, Phil Bengtson was instrumental to the success of the Lombardi Era Packers. As Vince’s successor at head coach and, one year later, general manager, Phil demonstrated the Peter Principle of individuals in an organization naturally rising to their level of incompetence. Granted that several key players to the dynasty were reaching the end when Bengtson took control, but his personnel moves and draft choices did little to alleviate the declining situation.

Coming into the December 20th finale of the 1970 season, the Packers stood at 6-7, and Bengtson’s three-year record as head coach was 20-20-1. Green Bay travelled to Detroit to take on the Lions, a team that had defeated them 40-0 on opening day, causing the distraught Lambeau faithful to boo the listless home team that day.

In Tiger Stadium, the Packers’ defense put on a much stronger performance than in the opener when they allowed over 200 yards rushing, including a record-setting 76-yard run by quarterback Greg Landry. The offense, though, was still pathetic, accruing less than 180 offensive yards in each game. In the first game, Bart Starr threw a pick-six to Lem Barney; in the rematch, Barney not only duplicated that feat, but also set up another touchdown with a 65-yard punt return and a field goal with a 74-yard kickoff return. The 20-0 loss meant that Green Bay had been outscored 60-0 in two humiliating games against the rival Lions in 1970.

Bengtson fell on his sword and resigned the next day. In three seasons his record against the team’s chief division rivals was a dismal 1-4-1 against Detroit and 1-5 against the Vikings. Three weeks later, the team hired Dan Devine as coach and general manager and the diseased seeds of a long fallow period were sown.

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1970 custom card is colorized.

Johnnie Gray, Safety

Another unheralded, unknown undrafted free agent took on Willie Wood’s number 24 jersey and free safety slot three years after Wood’s 1972 retirement. Johnnie Gray, born December 18, 1953, signed with Green Bay out of California State-Fullerton in 1975 because he felt there was a spot for him in the Packer secondary. He was right.

The 5’ 11” 185-pound Gray moved into the starting lineup as a rookie and made an immediate impression with his hard hitting. He told the Milwaukee Journal, “Tackling starts out with want and desire. Mostly, it’s just a feeling, a desire to play hard. My big thing is knowing they’ll be coming at you, and you don’t want to get run over. That means you’re being dominated. But I want to dominate the game. I want to play the dominating role.” He also outlined his goals to the Milwaukee Sentinel, “My goals are to lead the team in tackling, interceptions and fumble recoveries. If you’re around the ball, a lot of things will happen. The main thing is to be around the ball all the time.”

Gray was around the ball for Green Bay. He accumulated over 1,000 tackles in his decade with the Packers, recovered 22 fumbles, intercepted 22 passes and led the team in picks in 1976, 1979 and 1980. He never played in a Pro Bowl, but was a solid starter at free safety for six seasons before moving to strong safety in 1981. He missed half that season with a knee injury but returned in 1982. In 1984, a training camp leg muscle injury kept him on the injured list until being activated for the final game, although he did not play that day and retired in the offseason.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom cards of two Packer safeties who wore 24 with distinction.

Happy 74th Birthday, Kenny Bowman

In 1964, Vince Lombardi made a risky move by trading both his centers. The trade of aging starter Jim Ringo brought in young linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and a first round draft pick, while four-year backup Ken Iman was delivered to the Rams as compensation for the Packers’ midseason acquisition of backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski. Iman was good enough to spend the next decade as the Rams’ starter. The original plan was for tackle Bob Skoronski to take over at center in 1964, but Vince also drafted two centers, Ken Bowman from Wisconsin and Bill Curry from Georgia Tech. While Curry was a future pick who would not report until 1965, Bowman proved to be a rarity, a Lombardi-era rookie who won a starting job.

The 6’3” 230-pound Bowman would maintain that starter status for most of the next decade despite separating his shoulder so severely in 1965 that he spent the rest of his career wearing a leather harness, similar to that once worn by Packer tailback Cecil Isbell, in which a chain ran from his chest to shoulder to prevent him from raising his arm above that shoulder. Of course, this is the same guy who told Bud Lea in 1969, “I’ll tell you what I like about football. When I go on the field and see the green grass and feel the wind blowing in my face, I feel alive. I feel if a guy has never had a bloody nose, he hasn’t lived. In so many other things in life – so many businesses I know – it’s too easy to go through the motions. In football, you give everything you’ve got. I’ll question if 80% of the population ever gets this involved.”

It was that toughness that allowed him to win back his job from Curry for good after Curry left Super Bowl I with a sprained ankle. Bowman finished that game despite his badly damaged shoulder. Although Ken and Vince had an adversarial relationship, next month it was Curry who was gone in the expansion draft, indicative that Lombardi valued Bowman’s toughness. Bowman told Lea that Ken’s brother asked if Bowman called Lombardi “Vince,” and he replied, “Can you imagine anyone calling Attila the Hun ‘Tillie?’” With Bowman earning his law degree and being heavily involved with the Players Association, he never had a close relationship with his authoritarian coach, but appears to have had Vince’s respect.

And he was good. Personnel man Pat Peppler recalled to the Milwaukee Journal, “Ringo was traded and Bowman basically took over. Not much of a drop-off in performance, actually. My recollection is that his performance never became an issue, because I don’t remember Lombardi hollering about Ken Bowman during his weekly film sessions.” Former teammate Bill Lueck added, “He was a very good athlete who understood the game and had the respect of his fellow linemen. He was smart, athletic, tough – all the attributes of a great lineman. It’s crazy he didn’t make the Pro Bowl.”

Although he is well-remembered, the unsung Bowman’s career did not end well in Green Bay. The union leader was arrested while picketing during the ill-fated 1974 players’ strike. Once the strike ended, Bowman was placed on the injured reserve list against his wishes and then released the following spring. He finished his career in 1975 by playing for the Hawaii entry in the collapsing World Football League before focusing on his legal career. Not an illustrious finish for the guy who teamed with Jerry Kramer to make the most famous block in NFL history on the game-winning quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom cards all in Philadelphia style.