Jerry Kramer arrived in a wheelchair pushed by his son, Matt. In a gnarled hand he clutched two canes, one metal, one wood.
These may seem the sad trappings of a diminished life, but to hear Kramer, they appear more like accoutrements to keep a wonderful life sailing along or if not that, at least they are no great impediment to the journey.
Kramer, 85, was in Moscow, Idaho, this past weekend to collect an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Idaho, where he was the Vandals’ first football All-America in 1957, and to deliver a commencement address. He stayed through Monday morning to indulge in an hourlong media session that ranged widely from old days at UI and with the Green Bay Packers, where he won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls, to his NFL Hall of Fame induction in 2018, to the Packers’ current quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to Kramer’s own ambitious plan to do the definitive movie on his coach, Vince Lombardi.
After he shifted himself from the wheelchair to a lawn chair on a hotel patio, Kramer settled in and launched into interconnecting yarns that knit together more than eight decades of personal history. His persona expanded, grew lighter and more agile with each anecdote. He was Shakespeare reciting his canon, a sage on a mountaintop holding forth on perseverance, achievement, perspective and appreciation.
The honorary degree delighted him, especially since he received it against the backdrop of academic robes and regalia dating back to the Renaissance.
“It was a little humbling, confusing, looking at myself in that garb,” he acknowledged.
“What am I doing here?
“This can’t really be happening, getting a doctor’s degree, for what? For football?”
Kramer said he gave the UI graduates a version of his Hall of Fame induction speech, a memorable, folksy address built on the theme of something his high school offensive line coach told him when he was a gangly sophomore .
“He told me ‘in a year or two, you’re going to be a heck of a ballplayer.’
“Then he gave a little Mona Lisa smile. ‘You can if you will.’
“Can what? Will what?
“That got me going.”
It has become a through line in Kramer’s life. In an often-repeated anecdote, Kramer told how a word of encouragement from Lombardi that he could be the best guard in football, following an epic on-field dressing down that had Kramer wondering if he could even make the Packers’ team, propelled him to go all in for the remainder of his career.
“From that point on, I never got tired in practice,” he said. “I pushed myself to the limit.”
Accepting that there is a price to pay for any achievement worthwhile is the key that unlocks a lifetime of possibility, according to Kramer. He reminisced about various business ventures after he left football. These included extensive apartment rentals, deep sea diving servicing off shore oil wells, coal mining and oil exploration. Kramer also co-authored with Dick Schaap “Instant Replay,” one of the most consequential books about the Packers’ championship era and the NFL in the 1960s. Two decades later they got together again for “Distant Replay,” in which Kramer investigated the contemporary lives of his old teammates.
Taking on such disparate challenges “wasn’t out of necessity. It was out of curiosity more than anything,” Kramer said. “It was a bit of a challenge, something I needed to do.”
Kramer seems at ease with the fact he is a prominent narrator of a storied time in professional football. His own accomplishments give him perspective to offer advice to Rodgers, the current NFL Most Valuable Player who led the Packers within a game of the Super Bowl last season but who has announced he does not want to return to the team. Kramer said Rodgers needs to appreciate what he has accomplished in Green Bay and enjoy it for the remainder of his career. Kramer says of Rodgers “it has taken a long time to get where he is, as good as he is. His teammates are part of the journey. They helped him a great deal … It’s time for Aaron to get to Green Bay and get about his business.”
In a recent interview, Kramer also said that Rodgers is coasting on about 80% of his talent and mused about what he could do if Rodgers accessed 100% of it. What can Rodgers do 20% better than he is already doing? Use emotion as fuel, Kramer said. He recounted an experience throwing the shot at a state high school track meet. His first throw, “I choked,” and barely managed 30 feet. On his next throw, pulsing with frustration and adrenaline, Kramer said, he threw 51-10.
“Does this,” he said gesturing at his head, “impact this?” And he held up his throwing hand, which was adorned with his Hall of Fame ring, the size of a lug nut.
“That worked for me,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t work for all people, but I needed anger, intelligent anger.”
Other stories, however, suggested Kramer hardly went through his years in Moscow in a perpetual rage. A raid on a UI fraternity to ring its bell left him hanging from a gutter two stories above the ground. Kramer and teammates had a Friday Afternoon Club at a former Moscow watering hole, Ben’s Tavern.
“We took dues, had a lady’s auxiliary group,” Kramer recalled fondly. It lasted until Vandals’ coach Skip Stahley got wind of it. “What the hell is this Friday afternoon stuff?” Kramer growled, imitating his coach.
“Wonderful memory,” Kramer said. “We were young, knot headed, having a good time.”
Although decades removed from the rambunctious Packers guard who raced headlong into history to lead the likes of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the famous Packers sweep, Kramer would like to apply his “You can if you will” philosophy to accomplish one more big project, a movie about Lombardi that is the last word on a complex coach trapped in a characterization that is now almost a caricature of an unbending hardnose. Kramer would like Robert DeNiro to play the lead. Or Kevin Costner.
This, of course, begs the question who plays Jerry Kramer. He has an actor in mind, and Matt helpfully comes up with the name, Channing Tatum, who bears a passing resemblance to the young Kramer. But then so does Matt.
“I’m available,” he says.
It’s a suitable way to conclude one more pleasant event in the sweet stream that has become Jerry Kramer’s life: a Hall of Fame induction honoring his football career 50 years after he retired that Kramer calls life-changing, “it’s a brotherhood, a wonderful feeling,” an honorary degree from his old school.
“The presents just keep coming down the trail,” Kramer says.
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