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By CHRIS HAVEL
The Packer Hall of Fame Golf Classic wasn’t merely about honoring Brett Favre, the Class of 2015’s lone inductee.
It was about honoring all of the Packers’ legends.
The Packer Hall of Fame – the best of its kind in sports – isn’t just a museum filled with football lore, though that would be plenty. It also is a living, breathing entity of men who converge each summer to reminisce and reflect with one another.
That allowed me to do a bit of eavesdropping Monday.
Dave Robinson and Jerry Kramer – icons from Vince Lombardi’s great Packers teams of the 1960s – were awaiting the start of the golf event. Their golf carts were side-by-side which allowed for a pleasant chat between the teammates.
They talked about how smart Lombardi was with his practices. Contrary to popular belief, once training camp was completed he dispensed with a majority of the helmet-banging and pad-thumping practices.
“We were in shorts, helmets and jerseys with shoulder pads,” Kramer said. “We practiced fast – Coach taught us that way – and we got in and got our work done. We did very little hitting, I mean really hitting, once the regular season began.”
Robinson recalled several occasions, however, when Kramer and middle linebacker Ray Nitschke butted heads in practice.
“Ray was a different cat,” Robinson said. “He was very protective and territorial with the defense, and especially in the middle of the field. He’d lay (a hit) on you just for passin’ through. He didn’t any other reason.”
Kramer chuckled at the thought.
“Bless his soul, Ray had a difficult life growing up,” Kramer began. “He lost his father at 3 and his mother when he was 11. He was very much alone and had to fend for himself. That’s why he was like a dog with a bone when it came to everything he’d worked hard to get.”
Although Kramer’s occasional battles with Nitschke never escalated, both men understood the need to be strong, especially with the rest of the team’s eyes upon them.
That said, Lombardi was way ahead of his time in terms of practice regimen. He was mindful of not wearing out his players, and of the relationship between fatigue and injuries. He knew when to push, and when to take his foot off the gas pedal.
Lombardi also fostered a “big picture” mindset. It isn’t unlike what Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is doing in terms of yielding the play-calling duties in order to oversee the entire program. Lombardi purposefully would have his offensive and defensive team meetings in adjoining rooms. Each could eavesdrop on the other’s meetings.
“We’d be getting our butts chewed by Coach,” Kramer said. “And then we’d hear (defensive coordinator) Phil (Bengston) on the other side and those guys would be laughing and having a good old time. It sounded like a party over there.”
That natural curiosity promoted competition between the units. Lombardi also took pains to have his offensive players seek out and glean whatever useful information they could get. It also worked the other way, with defensive players doing likewise.
Today, McCarthy actually has taken it several steps further. He has had the offensive coaches give a presentation to their unit while their defensive counterparts look on. It creates more of a “big picture” thought process, where a player understands his role on the team, and also his teammates’ roles.
LeRoy Butler, the Packer Hall of Fame safety, said he routinely asked his offensive teammates about what they might’ve seen on film during the week.
“We know who they go against each day in practice, so why not ask your teammates what they’ve seen in the film study,” Butler said. “All it takes is one good tip, and that might be the difference between winning and losing.”
Butler endorsed McCarthy’s move toward the big picture.
“Now he can coach up the entire team,” Butler said. “I think it’s a good thing. He also gave his assistants a chance to grow and expand their roles. That’s also a positive.”
It’s interesting how the decades pass, and players come and go, but the greatest teams, coaches and players had many things in common throughout eras. Mostly, it was a love of football, and a passion that still sparks energy and enthusiasm from Kramer, Robinson and Butler.
That part of their game, like their greatness, will remain forever.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.