When 82-year-old Jerry Kramer is inducted, at long last, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, it will likely be the last great public event for the surviving legion of players and fans associated with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, one of the most storied teams in sports. Though I haven’t been a football fan for years, Kramer’s return to the spotlight has me remembering a time when I followed the sport avidly. And Kramer’s accomplishments as an author remind me of the role that books played in fostering a youthful passion for sports.
Literacy advocates often say that kids should read books that they enjoy, regardless of quality. The main thing is to derive pleasure from reading; taste and discrimination will come later. I’m not sure about that second premise, but I’m a living example of the first. Except for an occasional stumble into a classic, like Robinson Crusoe, or the summer when I pulled A Tale of Two Cities off my parents’ shelf and swallowed it whole, my reading tastes as a kid were none too literary, running the gamut from encyclopedias to mysteries to comic books, from U.S. history to westerns to sports.
Lots of sports: I was a sports-mad kid, raised in a sports-mad house, where games of some kind took precedence whenever the television was on. Books on baseball and football crowded the shelves in my older brothers’ bedrooms. Random House ran a series for young readers—the Punt, Pass, and Kick Library—with titles written by distinguished sportswriters like Dave Anderson, Bill Libby, and Phil Berger: Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers, Baseball’s Zaniest Stars, Great Running Backs of the NFL, Great Quarterbacks of the NFL, Championship Teams of the NFL, and so on.
Growing up in suburban Chicagoland, I should have been a Bears fan, but the Packers captured me at a young age, for unknowable reasons, and the allegiance stuck, like some new identity from an initiation ceremony. I was devout, and my parents were indulgent, buying me extensive Packer paraphernalia—shirts, winter wear, pajamas—and even a transistor radio in the form of a Packer helmet, with the audio emanating from where the face would be. It could pick up Packer games, with static, from WTMJ in Milwaukee. I started reading books about the Packers, especially the Lombardi era, which I’d been born too late to see. At nine, I wrote a letter to Lombardi’s stalwart middle linebacker, Ray Nitschke, by then retired. Nitschke wrote me back, enclosing a black-and-white glossy photo and a benediction I’ve always remembered: "May you always have the very best of health and happiness."
Prominent in the Lombardi lore was Kramer, who played guard on the right side of an offensive line that included, on the left side, Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg. With sportswriter Dick Schaap, Kramer wrote Instant Replay, recounting the 1967 season, in which the Packers became the first and only team to win three consecutive NFL titles, culminating in their victory in Super Bowl II. That win was overshadowed by the NFL championship game that preceded it, the fabled Ice Bowl in Green Bay, where the Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit. The climactic play, unfolding with just 16 seconds remaining, had quarterback Bart Starr sneaking into the end zone behind Kramer, who, with center Ken Bowman, put the most celebrated block in football history on Cowboys’ tackle Jethro Pugh. The book that appeared shortly afterward made Kramer more famous than any offensive lineman had ever been.
Instant Replay was written from an audio diary that Kramer recorded during the season, offering a real-time look at the ups and downs that a team experiences. He made the tapes at least twice a week, sometimes more often, and sent them to Schaap, who transcribed and edited them. Neither man knew how the season would turn out, let alone that it would end so triumphantly, or that it would be Lombardi’s last as Green Bay coach. Raising the bar for sports books with its urbanity and insight, Instant Replay is justly regarded as a classic, and like most classics, it contains passages that resonate more for today’s readers than yesterday’s: “Four or five years ago, against the Los Angeles Rams, I played most of a game with a concussion. Forrest Gregg told me what to do on every play. . . . Between college and the pros, I’ve had four or five concussions now, and I suppose I’m getting used to them.”
Candid about his feelings for Lombardi, whom he loved deeply but could also hate, Kramer was a keen analyst of football and a sharp-eyed observer of his teammates and himself. Schapp had selected him for the project when he spotted him reading poetry on his bunk at training camp, and the book never lacks for wit or irony, especially since Kramer is aware of his own vanity and ego (he once told Frank Sinatra how to sing a song). Yet this self-consciousness makes him a compelling and even sympathetic narrator. Kramer resented the stereotypes about football players as unthinking brutes, and he went on to a successful post-athletic life, as did many of the Lombardi Packers.
At an old-book drive at my Catholic elementary school, I discovered a less-remembered Kramer book, the melancholy sequel Farewell to Football; my copy was one of those old Bantam pocketbooks that sold for a buck and a quarter. It was part autobiography—Kramer details an illness and injury history that made his survival, let alone his football prowess, something of a miracle—and part post-mortem on the Packers’ 1968 campaign, played under new head coach Phil Bengston, in which the team stumbled to its first losing year since before Lombardi arrived. I wound up preferring the later book to Instant Replay, perhaps on the old sportswriting principle that the better story is always in the losing locker room. Kramer tells of how he and his offensive line mates, charged with protecting their quarterback, devised a name for blown assignments: they called them “lookout blocks,” because they would yell, “Lookout, Bart!” to warn Starr that a rampaging defensive lineman was headed his way. In 1968, such warnings increased. Directionless without Lombardi, the aging and exhausted Packers, winners of five NFL titles in nine years, had nothing left to prove.
During a late-season game, Kramer looks up into the press box and sees Lombardi (still serving as the team’s general manager), along with some of his old teammates who have retired. It occurs to him that that’s where he should be, too. “That was yesterday up there in the press box,” Kramer writes, “and I was a part of yesterday.” He knows then that he will quit at the end of the season. The book’s last words occasionally come to mind when I’m trying to close the door on something: “Lookout, Bart! Good-by football.”
Kramer’s pending Hall of Fame induction would probably seem less poignant to me if I still cared about pro football. The disconnection began gradually decades ago, when devoting valuable Sunday time to watching the games began to feel like an imposition. I held on to the playoffs and the Super Bowl for longer, but these dropped away, too, in part because the sport became so uninspiring—over-managed, over-analyzed, and oversold, a far inferior product to what once was. And the game presented, with each passing year, players harder to sympathize or identify with. Eventually, a feeling of repulsion prevailed. Last year’s national anthem controversy put the final nail in a coffin lid that was already closed.
Still, Kramer’s reemergence has brought back memories of a younger self, for whom the doings of athletes seemed invested with grandeur and nobility, and for whom books were crucial in forming that impression. Even if some of that grandeur and nobility was manufactured, or conjured within the mind of an eager kid, a remaining portion was real—and never more so than with Vince Lombardi’s Packers, who ennobled sports, if any team ever has. So congratulations, Jerry; and so long, football.