Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Year in the Life of an NFL Offensive Lineman





Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer – Jerry Kramer, Dick Schapp (1968)

            I have loved the sport of American Football, specifically the National Football League, ever since I was a youngster.  It was one of the first “American” things that I fully embraced after my family moved to Houston, Texas from Ponce in Puerto Rico.  I remember the bike I got for Christmas that year.  It was a Houston Oilers BMX-style bike.  I loved that bike!  The Oilers were my favorite team right away, even though it took me quite a few years to actually understand even the basics of the sport.  In fact, to this day I still watch games and learn something new nearly every single time.  The complexities involved have kept me deeply interested.  Even though I have loved football for over 35 years now, I never took much interest in reading about the sport itself.  I read magazine articles and articles online, but I never dug into the vast library of published work on American Football. 
            What I have seen countless times are any and all NFL Films programs put together by the Sabol family.  I learned the game’s history from these films.  I appreciated the stories about teams that won championships when my father was only a decade old.  I especially loved seeing the yearly re-runs that ESPN would air before the Super Bowl.  They consisted of 30 minute highlights of each Super Bowl leading up to the current one.  I saw the great Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers win the first two Super Bowls.  I saw Broadway Joe lead the Jets to a guaranteed victory.  I saw the shots of what seemed to me to be grizzled old men, fighting it out on the gridiron for the championship.  These men were younger than I am now, but to a young kid or teenager, they were ancient-looking warriors!  I learned not only about the past greats, but also the lore of each team, of the league itself, from the Doomsday Defense to the Purple People Eaters.  I learned about players and teams from before the Super Bowl era.  I memorized the names of the great coaches and the great athletes, and I dreamed of seeing my team win the big one.
            Out of all those films, none made the impression on me that the Green Bay Packers’ films did.  There was only one reason for this, and that was Coach Vince Lombardi.  Here was a man who seemed on the verge of a histrionic fit, screaming at his men, shouting about their mistakes and errors, but his men all loved him, admired him, and would do anything to please the man.  He seemed, and still seems, like the epitome of a great coach.  His voice alone was thrilling.  In 1967, the Green Bay Packers won their second consecutive Super Bowl and their third consecutive NFL championship.  Coach Lombardi retired after that year.  In reading articles from sportswriters, they would sometimes quote a book by Green Bay offensive lineman Jerry Kramer.  Mr. Kramer was asked before the season began to use a tape recorder to take down his thoughts daily as the preseason and then the season progressed.  This is the book that resulted from those recordings.
            A wonderful aspect of this book is that it is purely episodic.  It is a nearly daily diary of the events that occurred in Packers training camp and during the season.  There are eleven positions on both the offense and the defense of a football team.  Mr. Kramer played Offensive Line, specifically Left Guard.  That not only meant that he had to block the most fearsome lineman of the opposing team each week, but that he did so in obscurity and anonymity.  O-line players do not accrue stats.  They do not touch the football.  Their work is not glamorous and highly violent.  Anyone could have written a relatively entertaining account of what a quarterback’s season was like, or a running back, or a star defensive linebacker.  It is beautiful how this year’s tale is described by one of the men in the trenches.  This shines a light on a world that even a die-hard football fan sees little of and hears even less of. 
            Mr. Kramer discussed the doubts that come in training camp, whether he is willing to abuse his body once again, whether he can escape injury and make it through the whole season, whether or not he should just quit while ahead and leave the game behind.  He fears for the jobs of the marginal players, as the team rosters must be cut down by the start of the season.  He details life outside the game, and how little things like a group of teammates going to the local bowling alley to have a bottle of “pop” after brutal practices allowed them to feel human.  He describes his relationships with his teammates, with his coaches, and with the other NFL players.  He recounts his most fearsome opponents, men like Alex Karras and Merlin Olsen, huge brutes who were as fast and intelligent as they were massive and violent.  Greatest of all, he describes Coach Lombardi, with unflinching words.  He states flatly at times that he has hated no one more than Coach Lombardi, and then he describes how much love he feels for the man when Coach Lombardi breaks down sobbing after trying to announce his impending retirement.  He paints the full picture, and quotes the great coach liberally.  It is like being there in the locker room.  I got amped up at times just hearing Lombardi’s words echo in my head.  Having seen him on film so many times in my life, I carry his loud, Italian New Yorker voice in my brain with me.  I would guess anyone who worked for him or was coached by him has the same.
            One cool thing about the 1967 Green Bay Packers season is that the NFL Championship game that year was and is remembered as the “Ice Bowl.”  American Football has quite a few legendary games, each with their own nickname, and the Ice Bowl was one of the first I ever learned about from NFL Films.  The Dallas Cowboys and the Packers met in Green Bay and played a game in a temperature of 14 below zero, the coldest game on record at the time.  The game was evenly fought and was won at the last minute by the Packers who, after a masterful drive by QB Bart Starr, plunged into the end zone on a QB run with Jerry Kramer providing the lead block.  It was so cool to read Mr. Kramer’s descriptions of that day as I had seen it on video so many times. 

(*side note, in 2006 I drove by myself to Canton OH to see my old Oiler’s QB Warren Moon get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside other greats.  The day after the ceremonies, I headed to the Cracker Barrel to go get some breakfast and who should I be sitting next to but the great one himself, Mr. Bart Starr and his wife enjoying some fried eggs.  It was like eating with royalty for me.  I did not bother the man, but wow.)
            Now I am hooked on reading books about American Football.  I hope they are all this great.  Mr. Jerry Kramer went on to have a great career as a TV analyst for games, and wrote one other book also.  I am glad he wrote this one.  As he describes in the end, the one thing he would miss upon leaving the game would be his teammates, his coaches, the people who he lived and fought and suffered with.  That is what brought him back year after year. 

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Instant-Replay-Green-Diary-Kramer/dp/0307743381 )

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