This week, let’s take a pass on all things politics to talk about a boyhood hero, a remarkable book and a small measure of justice finally served.
Deep in the announcement of the NFL Hall of Fame class of 2018 was the news that Jerry Kramer, the stellar Green Bay Packers guard of the 1960s, had finally made the cut.
Now, this may not cause much of a wrinkle in your mind. Kramer’s time in the league was long ago, and he played a position that usually drew scant attention. But he’s worth remembering. Besides serving as lead blocker on the Packers’ legendary power sweeps, Kramer was the author — along with Dick Schapp — of the blockbuster 1968 book “Instant Replay.” The book provided one of the first penetrating looks into the inner workings of professional football. It remains a standout in sports literature.
And what a team Kramer had to write about. The Packers, of course, were coached by the fearsome Vince Lombardi, and the 1967 season chronicled ended with the Packers winning their second consecutive Super Bowl. (The first came over the Chiefs the season before). It was also Lombardi’s final season as the Packers coach.
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The game that got the Packers into the Super Bowl that year was the hallowed Ice Bowl in Green Bay against the Dallas Cowboys, played in minus-13-degree conditions. “Instant Replay” recounts the impact of the wrenching cold and the Packers’ final winning play in breathtaking detail. It came when quarterback Bart Starr sneaked into the end zone behind a block from Kramer against big Jethro Pugh.
This is how Kramer recounted that play:
“Jethro was on my inside shoulder, my left shoulder. I came off the ball as fast as I ever have in my life. I came off the ball as fast as anyone could. In fact, I wouldn’t swear that I didn’t beat the center’s snap by a fraction of a second.”
This was exhilarating stuff to a 12-year-old who, like every kid, dreamed of playing in the NFL. In fact, even today I can recall so many stories from “Instant Replay” without even looking at the book. Lombardi’s merciless practices. The coach’s final pep talk. Lombardi’s rage when players broke the team curfew. The game-within-the-game struggles that Kramer faced against opposing tackles Alex Karras and Merlin Olson. His descriptions of fellow Packers, such as Starr (the best football name ever), Jim Taylor and Willie Davis.
“Instant Replay” was a mega-bestseller. I remember buying it in my Kettering, Ohio, bookstore where footprints were pasted onto the floor guiding shoppers to the book.
Kramer didn’t get into the Hall on the merits of that book. “Instant Replay” supposedly had nothing to do with his election. His playing resume sufficed and included his selection as the NFL’s best guard of its first half-century. Now 82, Kramer had been passed over 10 times, and every winter I waited for the Hall of Fame announcement, wondering if this would be the year.
Insiders said the issue was that too many Packers already were enshrined. Packers fatigue was pervasive.
But now, he’s in. He should’ve been a long time ago — both for his play and for a book that fascinates even today.