Somewhere in Canton there probably is a master reel of the greatest, most celebrated plays in NFL history. On it you’ll find fullback Alan Ameche scoring the touchdown that ended the Colts-Giants overtime championship game in 1958, the Greatest Game Ever Played. And Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception against Oakland in 1972. And Dwight Clark leaping to grab Joe Montana’s pass, and make The Catch that sunk the Cowboys in 1982.
But for the sheer symbolism of football the way football was designed to be played - the brawn, the strength and the power of men against men in thunderous combat - there is one play that stands above the rest: Jerry Kramer, the Green Bay Packers right guard, wedging out an opening for Bart Starr to sneak into the end zone on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
The year was 1967. The emerging Cowboys were playing the mighty Packers in the NFL championship for the right to go to Super Bowl II. And the temperature in Green Bay was so cold and the conditions so severe that the game would forever be known as The Ice Bowl.
“At kickoff it was 15 below, and minus-49 wind chill,” Kramer recalled, his teeth all but chattering still. “By the time we called that play it was 17 below and minus-57 wind chill.” So cold that Kramer’s wife had the good sense to leave Lambeau at halftime and listen to the rest of the game on radio at her home.
That’s the last time the Packers played the Cowboys in a championship game, the last year the Packers were considered impregnable. The shoes are on the other feet now; it’s Dallas with the home field, Dallas with the renowned talent. It’s Green Bay that is emerging. This Sunday, 28 seasons later, we’ll see if The Pack is finally Back.
“I wasn’t terribly upset those first few years afterwards when the Packers didn’t win and remove our records,” Kramer conceded. “But after 10 years or so you say, ‘Let’s go, let’s win.’ The Packers are family for me. They’ll forever be a part of me. I’m already emotional about the Dallas game. It would kill me to get beat by them. I’m so angered by the arrogance of the Dallas players and fans - everyone from the owner down to the ball boy. The Deion-Jerry Jones thing makes me sick. I don’t mind the money, it’s the demonstration, the display, the me-ism, the need to say: Look at me. Look how beautiful I am.”
Kramer, who played at Sandpoint High and the University of Idaho in the 1950s, sat at home in Parma, Idaho, on Saturday and watched ecstatically as Green Bay beat the 49ers. That night, when he went to see his son play a high school basketball game, Kramer put on his Green Bay Packers leather jacket - which he doesn’t usually wear, because it brings him too much attention. “I felt so good, I was showing off,” Kramer admitted. “The people who saw me were ya-hooing, and I felt like I won.”
Kramer intends to be at Texas Stadium for the game on Sunday - wearing that leather jacket, by the way. Someone will probably recognize him; someone often does. Kramer’s block on Jethro Pugh is the most familiar play by an offensive lineman in NFL history. Sportscaster Dick Schaap, who collaborated with Kramer 28 years ago on the best-selling book “Instant Replay,” tells how he’s been “walking down the street with Jerry in various cities, and people roll down their windows and yell, ‘Nice block.”’
Kramer’s companion in Dallas on Sunday will be his Green Bay teammate, Hall of Famer Willie Davis. Davis telephoned Kramer during the fourth quarter of the Packers-49ers game, suggesting, “Maybe we ought to make the Dallas game, J.”
They went to Dallas for the NFC semifinals, in January of ‘92 and ‘95. They even walked on the field in warmups. “I came out of the tunnel,” Kramer said, “and I felt my heart pumping and my blood rushing, like in the old days. Then I saw some big ol’ Dallas defensive tackle, about 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds,” Kramer said, pausing to chuckle. “And you know my breathing settled down real quick.”
In both of those playoff games the Cowboys clubbed the Packers. “Green Bay didn’t play like they believed in themselves. I don’t think they went down to win,” Kramer said. “Now with Brett Favre and Reggie White I feel they believe they can beat anybody. And I do, too. I love this kid Favre; what a hard-nosed, stick-it-in-your-ear kid. I was a little skeptical of Reggie at first, because of his contract. But I watched him playing with pain, and I watched him fling blockers around, and I finally threw in with him; he’s a hell of a man. I love the attitude on this team. The total overachieving effort from players like Edgar Bennett and John Jurkovic. That’s the way we were. We weren’t the most talented individuals - Bart was a 17th-round draft choice; Paul Hornung was a 5-flat running back. But we never left anything on the field. We went to the locker room empty.”
It’s a pleasant coincidence that all four teams left in the playoffs have such historical importance. The Colts owned the 1950s; the Packers the ‘60s; the Steelers the ‘70s; the Cowboys with two Super Bowl wins in the ‘90s are once again America’s team.
But these Colts who are in the playoffs aren’t Baltimore’s any longer; they inspire no nostalgia. It’s the long gone Packers who engender the most warm feelings - particularly on these brutally cold days. It’s the Packers’ green and yellow that looks so right on a frozen field in January. Under a gunmetal gray sky, with the air so bone chilling you can see the steam of the players’ breath as they break the huddle and get into their stances.
Third-and-goal from the 1, wasn’t it, Jerry?
“We had 15 or 16 seconds to go. We’d run the same play, 44-dive, twice in a row, and we hadn’t gotten much; Donny Anderson had been slipping and sliding. I’d noticed that on third-down plays Jethro Pugh charged across the line higher than the others. He had a tendency to come up. I’d pointed this out to Coach Lombardi the day before in a team meeting. I said, “If we need a wedge, we can wedge Pugh.’ He put in 61-wedge. It was designed for Chuck Mercein. Bart comes back from the timeout, and calls 61-wedge. An offensive lineman never questions a call. But I felt a terrible responsibility. My play. My spot. My man. As I’m lining up I noticed something like a golf divot in the frozen turf by my left foot. I used it like a sprinter’s starting block, and it gave me a hell of a surge. It allowed me to move Jethro Pugh into the end zone. I didn’t know Bart was carrying the ball behind me - he never gave it to Mercein. I finished my block and turned back and saw Bart tumbling into the end zone.”
Green Bay won, 21-17.
And Starr and Kramer tumbled into history.