Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over (among other things). Today: five-time All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer, the man who delivered the key block in one of the NFL's greatest games.
After playing college ball at the University of Idaho, Kramer joined the Green Bay Packers in 1958. One year later, Vince Lombardi arrived as head coach. He would coach the team for nine of Kramer's 11 professional seasons, during which time the Packers won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.
With Dick Schaap, Kramer wrote Instant Replay , a chronicle of Kramer's penultimate season in Wisconsin and one of the best football books ever published. That year, on their way to their second Super Bowl, the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys, 21-17, in the NFL championship game now known as the Ice Bowl, with quarterback Bart Starr finishing the game-winning drive by sneaking the ball into the end zone behind Kramer's block of Jethro Pugh.
Kramer retired after the 1968 season and has since spent time in business, broadcasting, and founding charities such as Gridiron Greats, which provides grants and medical assistance for former NFL players in need. Kramer was named to the NFL's 50th anniversary all-time team and is the only member of that team yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He lives, and fishes, primarily in the state of Idaho.
* * *
I wanted to be an engineer. My father thought I should be an engineer, and I was good at math and sciences and enjoyed the classes until I entered the university, and it soon came down to a choice. After about six weeks or a couple months, something like that, my engineering professor called me into his office and he said, "I understand you're playing football." And I said, "Yes, I am." And he said, "Well, I suggest you either get out of engineering or get out of football. This is a tough curriculum. It takes a lot of time and a lot of study. So I suggest you get out of one or the other."
And I decided, if I get out of football, I go home. My family can't afford for me to go to college. And there weren't any student loans. In my world there weren't any options at that time. And I've been pissed at that guy ever since, because if he'd had a lick of sense, he'd have told me to take five or six years to get my engineering degree, and to cut my load schedule down to something I could handle, and to take more time with it.
But I decided to go into business administration instead of engineering because I just didn't know what the hell to do or where to go, and that seemed like a good place to park for a while until I got a better idea. And as football became more and more important in my life I saw a possible opportunity there.
* * *
When I go home to Idaho, I'm more like Jerry Kramer, the neighbor, or the next-door guy or the fishing buddy or the normal person. And people don't impose on me out here. Not that the fans in Wisconsin do, but they're much more used to asking for autographs and much more used to seeing the guys around and much more used to talking to them, so it's a totally different atmosphere when I go to Wisconsin. People are saying hello. And people out here sometimes will say hello, but they rarely come over and try to strike up a conversation or spend much time with you.
Idaho's in my heart. That's where I grew up, that's where I was formed, that's where home is. And home, you know, can be a rocky mountaintop or a desert. It really doesn't matter if it's home and you're comfortable there and you have friends there. It just feels good, to me, to be in Idaho.
I used to drive back and forth to Green Bay and I would get through the mountains of Colorado and down into Denver. And coming back from Green Bay to Idaho I would go through Denver and get in the mountains and I was home. And it felt like a soft pair of shoes or an old jacket or a favorite hat or something that makes you feel comfortable, something that makes you feel good. I didn't have to get into Idaho, didn't have to get into Utah, but just as soon as I got into the mountains I felt at home.
I like Wisconsin, too. I feel very comfortable in Wisconsin. It's like having a second home. I spend a lot of time there and I enjoy the people there, and they're just wonderful to me. You couldn't ask for any more.
I love to fish and I used to love to hunt. I hunted a lot. I don't much anymore, but I still fish. But I could fish in Wisconsin, and I have and I do, still, quite a bit. I think that's part of why I enjoy the mix that I have so much. I go to Wisconsin, and I run like hell for about three days and sign autographs and do speaking engagements and do all the things I do there, and I come home and I go, "Whew!" and I put my feet up and I relax and I get back to my other life.
* * *
There's nothing as intense as coming out of that tunnel for the start of the game. That's the highest high in the history of the world, as far as I'm concerned—that emotion, that group of guys with shared feelings and shared emotions, that whole thing.
I see that sneak as a responsibility. Whenever I think of it, I think, "Thank God I was able to get the job done." And when I talk about my team, my favorite topic is the drive in the last four-and-a-half minutes of that game. We had the ball for 10 possessions, a total of 31 plays prior to that drive, and we had gained negative nine yards. So as we go on the field with four-and-a-half minutes to go, we're 65 yards away.
And I later asked Bart, I said, "What possessed you to think you could score when we hadn't made a yard in the previous 15, 20, 30 minutes, pretty much the whole second half, and it's now 57 below zero?" And he said, "The look in your eyes, the look in Forrest's eyes, the look in Ski's eyes." He said, "I started to say something when I came on the field but I looked at you guys's eyes and you were all looking at me and I knew I didn't need to say anything, so I just said, 'OK, let's go.'"
Nitzschke was maybe the last defensive player off the field, and he kind of came by our huddle where we gathering, and he said, "Don't let me down, guys. Don't let me down." So we knew where we were, and we knew what we had to do. And Gilly and Bow and Ski and Forrest and Donny Anderson and Dowler and Daleand Mercein and all the guys just played sensationally.
And I think that drive was typified by Bob Skoronski. We ran a give play on the 11-yard line where we pulled the guard in front of the Cowboys' tackle, Bob Lilly, to the right, so that Lilly would follow him and we ran a kind of a naked give into that hole and we took it to the one-yard line. But because the Cowboys had kind of a stacked defense, the defensive end next to Lilly, George Andrie, was off the ball about three yards and his responsibility was to close inside if Lilly took an inside charge. And so Bob Skoronski had a really difficult block on that play. And Bart says, "Ski, can you make that block?" And Ski says, "Call it."
And that typified that whole team in that era and Coach Lombardi's impact on us. We found something down deep inside. We had to reach down and find some commitment, some preparation, some discipline, some perseverance, some pride, some character. I don't know what it was that made us go. I don't know what turned us on. I don't know that anybody knows precisely what the definition of that is, but we found it and I think we found it because of Lombardi. And that drive was what my team was all about.
* * *
Gale Gillingham and I are the starting guards, and Gilly can run. He's got great speed. And we're going around the corner on a sweep, and I'm playing that year with a broken thumb. I've got a big cast on my thumb and on my hand. It feels like the size of a bowling ball, you know. It's awkward as hell. And we're going around the corner, and I notice that I am not quite as swift as I had been in the past. I don't really want to say I've slowed down. That's just, again, something I can't say, but Gilly and I are sitting side by side in the film room and I say, "Gee, I've changed my stride a little bit." And Gilly says, "Yeah, you've slowed down, too." [laughs]
We had had a disappointing season in '68. Coach Lombardi wasn't there. We were doing some things on our offensive line that I disagreed with. I had some arguments with my line coach and we had some blocking assignments that I thought were ill-advised, and I got in a shouting match with him two or three times.
So I looked at the situation: Paul's gone, Jimmy's gone, Max is gone, Fuzzy's gone, Coach is gone, we're not playing that well. Coach Bengtson was a wonderful human being and I loved him dearly, but he didn't have the fire that Coach Lombardi had. He just wasn't that kind of guy. He was more of a Tom Landry kind of guy: Just do your job and do what you're supposed to do. And Coach Lombardi would get your emotions involved, and he would get you pumped.
So I just didn't see Green Bay winning for a while. And I thought, it's going to take this guy two or three years to figure out what the hell end is up, and what's the point of me staying here for two or three more years and losing? I just don't see us going anywhere. And I had opportunities in the books and in broadcasting. And I just had come to the point where it was time for me to move on from Green Bay and to do something else.
Halfway through the next season, I was broadcasting and I got a call from George Allen, who was with the Los Angeles Rams. Both of his guards had been injured and so he wanted me to come out of retirement and come play for him. So I flew out to L.A. and talked about a contract and agreed to numbers and talked about the whole process.
I was still property of the Green Bay Packers, so they tried to trade to Green Bay for me, and Green Bay wanted a player to be named plus a first-round draft choice. And George says "Hey! Hey! Your guy's in the booth! He's retired! He's upstairs!" And I guess Green Bay felt that we were rivals with the Rams and that I might know something that, if they got in the playoffs again, might hurt them. So they didn't want me to play, so they did everything they could to keep me from playing. And then I went through a waiver process and the Minnesota Vikings claimed me.
I'm not going to Minnesota. I might go to Hollywood. I knew Merlin Olsen and I knew Gabe and I knew a lot of the guys out there, and I could be pretty comfortable there and it would be kind of fun town to play in. And George was a pretty good coach and they were competitive. They were a hell of a football team with the Fearsome Foursome, so you could see some upside there. So I considered that, and had we been able to make a decent trade with the Packers, I probably would have come out of retirement.
* * *
I think about it every day. Every time I forget a number. Every time I can't remember the name of a movie star or movie or any time my memory hesitates. My mother suffered from dementia. And my brother died from Alzheimer's, so I watched him die for seven years. And as he dwindled down into that darkness, it was probably the most difficult thing I've ever been a part of.
I'll forget something and go, "Oh, is this it?" You just never know. And I don't know that you're ever going to know.
He ended up being like an 18-month-old child, playing with baby blocks and toys. And it was incredibly painful to watch. And to try to take him on rides or get him out of the house or take him fishing or something. We'd go fishing, which we did all our life. We used to go to Alaska. We had a cabin together in Alaska, and we loved to fish. And I'd take him fishing and he'd throw rocks in the water, like a young boy, a child. So I think about that all the time.
It's bothersome. Like I say, I think about it a lot. I'll forget something and go, "Oh, is this it?" You just never know. And I don't know that you're ever going to know, if you're going to be the one that knows or someone has to explain to you. But I sure as hell do think about it.
* * *
I've been in so many different businesses: I started a commercial diving business when I was playing, and invested in some apartments in Oklahoma and sold both of those and got into the energy business, the oil business, the geothermal business. I mined coal and brokered coal, made motivational films. I had restaurants, ranches, all kinds of shit over the years.
And I'm sitting talking to myself one day with a bourbon and water, and I said: "Why the hell don't you stay in one business? I mean, if you want to make money the thing to do is learn a business, learn the ins and outs, and learn how to be successful and then just repeat it over and over." And I said, "Damn, that sounds boring."
"Yeah, but you'd make a lot of money."
"Yeah, but I don't need a lot of money. I'm happy where I am."
"Well, what the hell do you want?"
"Well, I want to be at that mountaintop again. I want to be at the top of something like I was at Super Bowl time. I want to have some fun. I want to enjoy my life. I don't want to do the same thing over and over. I don't give a damn how much money it makes."
So that has kind of been my personality and my motivation. I'm now working on about five different projects that seem to occupy my mind and keep me busy.
I had been voted on the best team in the first 50 years of football, and Instant Replay was on the best-seller list for like 40 weeks, so it happened to be No. 1 at the same time the announcement of the first 50-year football team came out. So I was in tall cotton, you know. I am dislocating my shoulder patting myself on the back, and I'm thinking that I am pretty hot shit and that maybe I ought to go win one of them Academy Awards or something like that.
I was just kind of looking for what's next, and that voice said, "You know, being a football player, or a great football player, or an exceptional football player, it's a great thing. That's cool. And having a No. 1 bestseller, that's pretty exciting. That's pretty neat. Not a lot of people get to do that."
And then the voice said, "But is that really important? Is that what's going to define your life? Is that something that you take to the grave? How about being a better father? How about being a better husband? How about being a better neighbor, a better member of your community, a better member of your nation? How about doing something that's really important?" And I spent a long time trying to answer that question.
We used to get graded on every play. If we got 65 percent running and 85 percent passing, we'd get a blocking award. I got 100 percent passing and 98 percent running on one game and went "Damn! If I hadn't missed that guy on that one play or got a half block on him, I could have had a perfect game." So when you strive for perfection in one area of your life, it seems incongruous to be a jerk in other areas of your life.
It seems natural that you try to round out your life and round out your journey. So I have worked on that probably a lot harder than I've worked on business over the years. I do a lot of charity stuff. I've worked for the older players and two or three different foundations and I've started a variety of different things. It's probably more important and more critical to me to be a good human being than a rich human being.
* * *
You see yourself at a certain level, and your self-image is such that you need to maintain this type of lifestyle. I remember in the '74 or '75 recession, I lost my ass. I made a movie called Defense Defense with Merlin Olsen and Don Shula, and I told everybody that a recession was coming. So I went home and sold $100,000 worth of stock and put it in cash and thought I had prepared myself.
I had my diving company and had a million-plus dollars in stock in there, and it went from $28 to $6. I had about a thousand head of Holstein heifers, young cattle, you know, not ready to milk yet, and they went from $950, $1,000 a head to $300, and the whole world kind of came unglued and I was on the verge of being busted. And I cussed at myself and screamed at myself and just really beat myself to death, and thought about maybe exiting this world and leaving a life insurance policy or something like this, and I had those conversations again.
I had a ranch that was probably 600-700 acres on the Boise River, all kinds of game and just a magnificent spot, and I said, "Well, you could sell this place and you could buy a 40-acre place. You know, there's a place joining this place that's probably for sale and you could buy a 40-acre place or 20-acre place."
And myself said, "I'm not a 20-acre guy. I'm a 600-acre guy." And I said back to myself, I said, "Well then, get off your ass and go to work, and start putting it back together again. If that's what you are and that's what's going to make you comfortable, go to work."
So I went to Kentucky and got into the coal business. And within three or four years I was brokering for 14 different mines and making about $700-800 thousand a year and I got my health back. But again it was the position I saw myself in. I needed to maintain that certain lifestyle. In anything we do, we try to do it the right way and we try to do it the best way we can possibly do it. And I think that's why we've been successful in all the things we've tried.
* * *
The basic fundamentals of Coach Lombardi—the commitment, the preparation, the discipline, all those things—are part of life now. That's part of who I am and that's part of what I'm all about. And so that philosophy will take you a long way in whatever it is that you want to do. And the work ethic that goes with it, the effort that you put into the whole process, the ability to work, the willingness to work, the pride that goes into it. All those things are fundamentals and they create a belief system. I believe in myself and I have confidence in myself. If you don't believe in yourself, you'll probably never try it. You know, you'll never get off the couch. You'll say "I wish I had ...," "Someday I'll ..., " and that kind of bullshit: copouts, rationalizations, excuses you give yourself when you don't really give yourself a chance. So that, all of those lessons of Lombardi, were a great help along the way.
I had a picture in my office for a number of years of him scowling at a photographer who had encroached along his territory along the sidelines. And he had the nastiest look on his face that you could imagine, and I put that over my desk. And whenever I was late making a call or lazy in doing something, I would look up at that picture and say: "I'm going to get it. I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it." And so that, all that attitude, it helps a great deal. But you've got to have a little luck, a little good fortune, a little right time, right place.
* * *
I think Roger Goodell has been doing a hell of a job as commissioner. He's done a lot of medical screening. He's increased the pensions. I know one of my teammates had a pension of $179 a month. He took early retirement, which was probably a logical thing because it appeared that we were going to die early. We had some studies that indicated our life expectancy, as an offensive lineman, was somewhere around 54 years of age. So to wait until 65 to take your pension does not sound like a real good plan.
Anyway, this kid took early retirement and his pension was $179 a month. And I was part of a group that met with the commissioner fairly regularly. And I said: "Commissioner, we got a lot of problems here. We got kids living in storage shelters. We got just all kinds of things that really need some attention, and I can't do all this. I can't handle this." And he said, "Well, what do you want out of it, Jerry?" I said, "Commissioner, I want you to get involved. It's going to take an awful lot of money to help these guys out because there are a lot of guys and there's no way in hell I can raise enough money." "Well, what do you want out of it?" I said, "I don't want anything out of it. I want to go fishing."
This is not my life's work. This is not something that I planned on doing since I was a baby. I said, "You need to get involved. I need some help. And I want to go fishing." He says, "OK, Jerry, OK." He says, "I just needed to know where you're coming from. We're going to get you going fishing."
So when he asked me one day at one of these meetings if we have covered everything, I said: "Commissioner, there's just one problem that I have, and it's with the guys who took early retirement. You know, it was the logical thing to do. We had bad information. We were told we were going to die at a young age, so what the hell were we supposed to do? So some of the guys are really struggling with that."
He said, "Jerry, that's a collective-bargaining issue, but we'll put it on the table. We'll talk about it." I said, "Well, that's number one on my hit parade. That's the number-one thing that's bothering me is that pension of $179."
So this last collective-bargaining agreement he put it on the table, and he was primarily responsible for the increase in pensions that we received. It damn sure wasn't our players association rep. It was Commissioner Goodell who made that happen.
* * *
I came close to buying the New Orleans Saints with a couple of friends of mine, and we drove up to Oklahoma to see John Mecom Jr., and John started crying and snotting and saying he couldn't sign the deal and so we didn't get the deal done. But in the meantime, I had looked at the game, the financial side of the game, and I had gone to see probably four or five general managers, and I said, "OK, what do you see in the future? You know, we've had great growth, we've been very successful and what do you see coming down the road?" And they used words like "peaking," "saturation," "overexposure," "leveling off." There wasn't a guy out of the five or six who saw any growth. Our guy in Green Bay said, "Jerry, I just don't know how much more these folks can stand. You know, our ticket prices have gone from two-and-a-half to five dollars. I don't know how much more they can stand." [laughs] So, we didn't know what we had. I don't think anyone really knew.
There's a Silver Anniversary Super Bowl book that is kind of a celebration of the first 25 years. And Pete Rozelle was interviewed for that book, and he was at Super Bowl XI with his longtime assistant, Bill Granholm from LA, and they're looking out over the crowd at Super Bowl XI and Pete says to Granny, "Granny, did you ever believe it would get this big?" And that is Super Bowl XI, right? And so Pete was stunned by the growth of the game. And so if Pete's stunned, generally the world is stunned, because if he didn't know about the game, I don't know who did.
So we got started in that kind of an atmosphere and a different kind of game and different everything, different world, and we didn't expect any help. We didn't expect to be taken care of after we left. We knew that it was a game that we were playing for a while, and it was going to go away, and then we'd go away, and thank you very much, it's been a hell of a ride, and see you later. But now that the game is so successful and people are doing so well, it just seems fair that they help some of the kids out that need help, that really are suffering.
The whole nature of the athlete and the business is against believing they're going to get hurt. If you don't have a great confidence in your ability you'll never play that game at a high level, so you've really got to believe in yourself well before you get on that field. And I think that confidence that got them into the game, that made them successful from high school on, when they first started having success, I think that's a big reason for their lack of success later on. They cannot make an investment that is sensible. They need a 100 percent return instead of a seven or eight or six, whatever's logical, right? So they will take the shot with a brother-in-law or bullshit stuff that's got no chance, and they have no hope of ever coming out of it alive, financially. And yet, they have such confidence that they can knock the ball over the fence that they go ahead and do it. And, again, that's a blessing at one point and a curse at another.
* * *
I'm 76 years old now. And I get such wonderful compliments and wonderful feedback from so much of the society, and yet they refuse to put me in the Hall of Fame. It's just a bit peculiar. I don't understand it.
Football has been awful good to Jerry Kramer. It's just been a wonderful ride. I had a chance to have a semi-reunion with my Super Bowl I team a couple weeks ago and we had a little autograph session. I'm trying to raise some funds for Olive Jordan, Henry Jordan's widow, who's got ALS now, and we had a kind of a poster and 24 guys there and everybody signed it. It was just a warming, wonderful day-and-a-half, hanging out with the guys again, and it was like we'd never been apart. And so that part of football is so sweet, and the game has given me so much, that I really can't get terribly pissed for one prize they didn't give me.
You know, the whole universe is opening up in an incredible manner the last few years. It's the intelligence, the understanding, the whole thing. It's just blossoming. It's just incredible to watch some of the programs on television and see the planets and see the universe and see the whole package, you know. And so, there aren't any easy answers. There's no slam-bam, got it, got it figured, going to be fine, I'm out of here. So I guess fundamentally I have—and this is personal stuff, but I think I can share it: I want to live a life that is pleasing to my God, pleasing to my mother and father, pleasing to my children, and pleasing to myself.