The Pequod Review:
Vince Lombardi looms large in this very good memoir of Jerry Kramer’s experiences as an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers during the team's 1960s glory days. Kramer's book is essentially an oral diary that he maintained during the 1967 season (and was later transcribed and cleaned up by the sports journalist Dick Schaap). The legendary Packers coach exerts an all-encompassing influence over the team:
Lombardi thinks of himself as the patriarch of a large family, and he loves all his children, and he worries about all of them, but he demands more of his gifted children. Lee Roy Caffey, a tough linebacker from Texas, is one of the gifted children, and Coach Lombardi is always on Lee Roy, chewing him, harassing him, cussing him. We call Lee Roy "Big Turkey," as in, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you big turkey," a Lombardi line. Vince kept saying during the drill today that if anyone wanted to look like an All-American, he should just step in against Caffey.
"Look at yourself, Caffey, look at yourself, that stinks," Lombardi shouted. Later, Vince added, "Lee Roy, you may think that I criticize you too much, a little unduly at times, but you have the size, the strength, the speed, the mobility, everything in the world necessary to be a great football player, except one thing: YOU'RE TOO DAMN LAZY."
In 1959, his first year, he drove me unmercifully during the two-a-days. He called me an old cow one afternoon and said that I was the worst guard he'd ever seen. I'd been working hard, killing myself, and he took all the air out of me. I'd lost seven or eight pounds that day, and when I got into the locker room, I was too drained to take my pads off. I just sat in front of my locker, my helmet off, my head down, wondering what I was doing playing football, being as bad as I was, getting cussed like I was. Vince came in and walked over to me, put his hand on the back of my head, mussed my hair and said, "Son, one of these days you're going to be the greatest guard in the league." He is a beautiful psychologist. I was ready to go back out to practice for another four hours.
Kramer also provides some very detailed descriptions of how he does his job. Here is one of my favorite parts of the book:
Obviously, I spend a lot of time thinking about defensive tackles. Football is a team game, but especially for the linemen and the receivers, there's a dramatic, and important, individual game within the game. To help your team succeed as a team, you have to succeed as an individual; you have to win your own match-ups. In my position, sooner or later I've got to block almost every man on the opposing team — every lineman and every back. But 75 percent of the time I've got to block the defensive left tackle. Naturally, he dominates my thoughts and consumes most of my energy.
Professional defensive tackles can be divided into the strong ones and the quick ones. This simple division works as long as you remember one thing: The quick ones are strong, too. if there's a weakling playing on the defensive line in the National Football League I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him. They all weigh upwards of 250 pounds, some considerably upwards, and even though several of them have paunches that you'd notice in the dressing room, they've all got muscles that you notice on the fields. They can all hurt you.
When I analyze a tackle I'm facing and my first thought is of his strength, and my second thought is also of his strength, then, in a real sense, I'm criticizing him. I'm telling myself that he isn't fast. This doesn't mean that he can't give you trouble. Anybody's going to beat you at least two or three times in a game — even if he doesn't have great quickness — and if he happens to beat you at critical moments, you've wasted the whole game. (And you almost never know in advance when a critical play's coming up.) The strong guys pound, pound, pound. They're ramming their helmets into you all the time, and if they catch you the slightest off-balance, they'll knock you right on your can — and they'll run over you. Normally, they won't cause too much damage because no matter how strong a tackle is he just uses up too much time running over an offensive guard. The crucial first two or three seconds of a play have passed, and if the play is perfectly executed he's too late to stop it. Unhappily, from my point of view, the perfectly executed play is rare, rarer than you'd think, considering all the planning and practice that goes into every play.
By now, of course, my thought process before each play is automatic, almost subconscious. First I think about my spacing, how far I should be from the center. I'll vary the distance. If the center has to cut my man off, line up closer to him to make his job easier. But if I'm going to pull to my left, I'll make certain that I don't edge closer to the center because I don't want to tip the direction I'm going. Then I think about my stance. I don't want to vary my stance at all; I don't want to give the tackle any hint of the direction or nature of the play.
On rushing plays, my blocking is aggressive. I've got an assignment and I get off the ball as fast as I can and try to carry out my assignment. It's relatively simple. Pass blocking is a stiffer test. You seldom lash out on a pass block; you receive the blow. It's mainly a negative block; it's a countermove. The tackle moves, you move. It's dangerous to commit yourself.
Suppose I'm up against the typical defensive tackle, which means, in our league, that he's a pretty good tackle. Usually, his first move will be to hit you with his helmet — boom! He's got his forearms moving and he's reaching up with his hands to try to throw you, probably by the shoulder pads. It's sort of a one-two punch — hit you low and throw you high — without any real time lag between the two moves. You have to meet him with your head or give him a little jab with your left hand or with both hands — it's illegal, but you do it a lot — and sometimes you'll go down fast and cut out his legs. If you cut him down, you're gambling. He's liable to get up quickly and if the pass play isn't exactly on rhythm — one, two, three, throw — he'll be in the quarterback's face before the pass is released. You use the cutoff mostly as a change of pace, and once you and your man both hit the ground, you try to keep scrambling on all fours, try to keep your body under his feet so that he can't get up. Logically, you don't want to do the same thing every time. Occasionally — almost never against a Karras or an Olsen — on a pass block, I'll come off the ball real quick and pop the guy and take the initiative away from him. Or, if I want to be real cute and risky, take sort of a half step to the outside, fake the man that way, then stand up and try to shield him.
Against the great tackles you can't relax for a second. They beat you with their quickness and their intelligence. They won't go directly at you more than one time out of twenty. They go around you. They go inside. They go outside. Then it's a matter of agility against agility, knowledge against knowledge.
He is also honest about the team's high degree of confidence, to the point that it often bordered on complacency — something that anyone who has been part of a great team can probably recognize:
The Browns were really laying for us tonight, and they jumped out in front by two touchdowns, 14-0. Some people thought we were in trouble, but we knew we were going to win. We go into every game we play knowing we're going to win. And we always do. We never lose a game. Sometimes, of course, the clock runs out while the other team still has more points than us, but we know that the game isn't really over, that if we kept playing we'd end up ahead.
From our point of view, we haven't lost a game in years. There were almost 85,000 people in the stands, and they kept screaming and hollering as Cleveland built up its lead, but, finally, toward the end of the first half, they began to quiet down. We wear the crowd down the same way we wear our opponents down. They come into the game high — all keyed up for the Green Bay Packers — and we just do our job and do our job and do our job and methodically grind them down, grind their enthusiasm right out of them. Finally, they just say, "Aw, hell, I knew we couldn't beat em."
Kramer sometimes has doubts about the job he has chosen for himself, but he finds ways to persevere anyway:
We started two-a-day workouts today, and the agony is beyond belief. Grass drills, agility drills, wind sprints, everything. You wonder why you're there, how long you're going to last. The grass drills are exquisite torture. You run in place, lifting your knees as high as you can, for ten, twenty, sometimes thirty seconds. When Lombardi yells, "Down," you throw yourself forward on your face, your stomach smacking the ground, and when he yells, "Up," you get up quick and start running in place again. We call the exercises "up-downs," and when Vince is in a good mood, he gives us only three or five minutes of them. If he's upset, he'll keep going till someone's lying on the mound and can't get up, till everyone's on the brink of exhaustion.
You try to block out all the pain, all the gasping breaths, block it all out of your mind and function as an automaton. Just up and down and up and down and move and keep moving and legs up and when you feel like you can't get up, like you can't possibly make it, then you've got to get up. You've got to make it. You've got to think, "Get up." We did seventy up-downs this morning, and the only thing that kept me going was that I looked around and saw some of the other guys my age looking worse than me. Then I figured I wasn't going to die.
The only thing that keeps you going is a little relaxation, a few moments of the civilized world. At times, you really wonder about football, if you need it, what makes you drive yourself, what makes you go through all that pain. You look at the people who come out to watch you practice and you see them in their cool summer shirts, their golf slacks and their sunglasses, and you wonder, "Why in the world do I beat my head against a 280-pound lineman for six months every year?"
I don't know, and I guess I never will.
Somebody once said that a person lives from want to want, or from pain to pain, or something like that. I don't know exactly what he said, but I know what he meant. When you want it desperately, the smallest pleasure, a sip of Pepsi, a sliver of ice, can be so beautiful. You savor it so much. It tastes so fantastically delicious. I can take a sip of Pepsi and almost go into an ecstatic state. It just is unbelievable, the pleasure you get when you're so hot and so dry and so tired, and you get ice-cold Pepsi and you just roll it around in your mouth, and it's like one of the sweetest things that ever happened to you.
There is much more intelligence in this book than in typical sports memoirs. Highly recommended.