Two tight ends from the Lombardi Era share a January 2 birthday: Gary Knafelc turns 86 and Marv Fleming turns 76 today.
Strikingly handsome Gary Knafelc was a fine all-around receiver who had some highlight moments in Green Bay football history. In 1955, he caught an 18-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Tobin Rote with 20 seconds left in a victory over the Lions at old City Stadium. The fans were so excited that they stormed the field and carried Knafelc off before the referees cleared the gridiron to finish the game. The next season, Gary snared a 38-yard TD toss from Rote with 1:10 remaining to beat the Cardinals. Then in 1957, Knafelc caught the fourth quarter game-winner from Babe Parilli to beat the Bears in the first-ever game in new City Stadium (now Lambeau Field).
Knafelc was a second round pick out of Colorado by the Chicago Cardinals in 1954 and was acquired by Green Bay after the first league game that year. Having caught two passes in his one game with the Cards, Gary caught just three more as a rookie Packer. However, with Max McGee in the military in 1955, Knafelc became a starter and caught a career-high 40 passes and eight touchdowns opposite Billy Howton. Knafelc injured his knee in practice early in the 1957 season and lost his starting job back to the returning McGee despite his opening day heroics that year.
When Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959, he switched the 6’4” 215-pound Knafelc to tight end, perhaps because he saw what T. J. Troup described in his book as “a bulldog blocking much bigger men and a reliable underneath receiver.” As such, Knafelc held off the much more gifted Ron Kramer for most of Lombardi’s first two seasons because he was a more reliable role player. Once Kramer matured, though, he took over as the most physically imposing tight end in the game in 1961.
After being cut loose by Lombardi, Knafelc caught on with the 49ers in 1963 to get his tenth year in for his NFL pension. Lombardi then brought him back as the team’s public address announcer at home games in 1964, and Gary held that job for 40 years. Knafelc was also involved in several business ventures and even redesigned the Packers’ offices in 1983. His son, Greg, was a backup quarterback at Notre Dame when Joe Montana was there and briefly served as a backup tight end for the Saints in 1983.
Marv Fleming was just 20 when Vince Lombardi drafted him out of Utah in the 11th round of the 1963 NFL draft, but he beat out veteran Gary Knafelc and sixth round pick Jan Barrett to serve as Ron Kramer’s backup at tight end. Fleming had excellent size for the time at 6’4” 235 pounds and proved to be a very strong blocker with five championship teams in two cities in his 12-year career under two of the hardest driving coaches (Lombardi and Shula) in NFL history.
Kramer left as a free agent in 1965, but Fleming did not fully inherit the starting job. Lombardi acquired veteran Bill Anderson from Washington and drafted Mississippi tight end Allen Brown in the third round to hedge his bets. Brown got hurt, but Anderson, a better receiver than Fleming, shared the job with Marv that 1965 championship season. Fleming took over the starting job fully in 1966 and caught a career-high 31 passes.
Fleming told the Miami News in 1971 that Lombardi told him, “the better you are, Fleming, the better we are. The tight end opens everything.” That was certainly true with Lombardi’s power sweep in which the tight end is responsible for sealing off the defensive end on his side. Fleming remained one of Lombardi’s favorite targets as he pushed laid-back Marvin to be his best. Ultimately, Fleming earned three championship rings with Green Bay and two with Miami and was the first player to appear in five Super Bowls. When Don Shula signed Fleming as a free agent in 1970, he said, “Fleming is one of the league’s best blockers. He should help the Dolphins greatly in building a consistent running attack.” That he did. The question remains why Fleming did not become more of a receiver. A lot of it is due to the run-based offenses in which he played, but it still always seemed that he had the ability to be more of a receiving threat.
(Adapted from Green Bay Gold)
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