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.

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