Football Urban Legends Revealed #20

This is the twentith in a series of examinations of football-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, in honor of the two teams that faced each other in Super Bowl XLV, let us examine one legend from the Pittsburgh Steelers and two legends from the champion Green Bay Packers, including whether Mike Holmgren actually impersonated God to get Reggie White to sign with the Packers!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous football legends.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Mike Holmgren impersonated God in an attempt to get Reggie White to sign with the Green Bay Packers.

STATUS: I’m Going With True

The Green Bay Packers have long been an oddity in the world of professional sports. In a thirty-two team league where the Buffalo Bills have the thirty-first smallest metropolitan area population at 1.1 million people, the Packers have less than a third of that population, and Green Bay, Wisconsin sits over 110 miles from Milwaukee’s 1.5 million. So while the Packers (who are owned by the community of Green Bay itself) will almost certainly never move, when the National Football League (NFL) began having unrestricted free agency in 1993, the Packers’ relatively small stature as a metropolitan area was seen as a major disadvantage to the team in its pursuit of prospective free agents.

But then God helped them out…with an assist from Mike Holmgren…or maybe it was the other way around?

Reggie White was one of the most dominant defensive ends of his generation. After coming out of the University of Tennessee, where he set school records for most sacks in a career, season and game, White was recruited by the United States Football League (USFL), the rival league to the NFL that formed in 1983. The USFL pursued rookies aggressively with large promises of money. This allowed the USFL to sign some very big names, like Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier, Steve Young, Jim Kelly (they signed three straight Hesiman Trophy Award winners!) and, naturally, Reggie White.

White played for the Memphis Showboats for two seasons before the franchise (and eventually, the entire league) went under. The Philadelphia Eagles owned White’s draft rights, so they signed him for the 1986 NFL season. White would go on to be one of the best Eagles of all-time. In the eight seasons he played for the Eagles, he made the Pro Bowl every year and was named an All-Pro (first team) each season. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1987, a season he complied a shocking 1.75 sacks per game! In total, he ended up with more sacks for the Eagles than games played for the team.

A court ruling gave White and a group of other players the right to become unrestricted free agents, thereby leading to a settlement with the league that created the modern era of NFL free agency. White did not want to return to Philadelphia (stating so he never felt that the owner of the Eagles, Norman Brama, had done everything it took to field a championship-level team), and in an article by Peter King for Sports Illustrated, White’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, laid out the guidelines for what type of team White was looking for.

White wanted to go to a franchise intensely committed to winning, because in 16 years of high school, college and pro ball he has never been on a championship team. And wherever he goes, he wants to establish a Christian ministry and work with the needy of the inner city.

In the article, King mentions that White would be visiting Green Bay, but lumped them in with a bunch of other teams that seemed unlikely that White was seriously interested in signing with, instead focusing on the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins, with White even noting:

The thing that worries me a little bit, is that with teams like Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta and the Jets, they might figure, Our savior has arrived. In Washington, I think there’d be less pressure. I don’t mind pressure, because I bust my butt on every play. But I don’t want anybody to think I’m the only guy out there. Still, this is a great position to be in.”

See? Green Bay did not even merit a mention as an also-ran team.

However, the General Manager of the Packers, Ron Wolf, kept persisting for White to visit Green Bay, and since White was already going to be in the Mid-West on a trip to Detroit, White agreed to come visit (again, though, this first batch of free agents all went on tons of visits – the novelty of unrestricted free agency was appealing at the time, even unheralded free agents visited over a dozen teams).

The Packers knew that they were facing an uphill battle, most notably the very visible lack of an inner city for White to form his ministry, but also the fact that Green Bay had only had six winning seasons in the previous twenty-five years, plus it was a small town with cold weather and a reputation for not being willing to spend big money on their team. Man, when you put it all together, it sure does sound like a daunting task, huh?

Well, White was taken aback by the Packer approach. He was met by the General Manager Wolf, the coach Mike Holmgren and the defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, and instead of lavishing White and his wife, Sara, with expensive gifts, they just talked football with him. The Packers picked White up at the airport in a 4×4 Jeep Wrangler and interviewed him in a small windowless office in their facility. Instead of taking White to a fancy restaurant, they took him to a Red Lobster so that White could have his favorite food – catfish.

At the end of the day, the Packers had three things to sell White. The first was the gentlemen that he met with – Holmgren and Rhodes were (and are) an impressive coaching duo and they certainly could convince pretty much anyone that they had the right view of how to run a championship contender. The second was young quarterback Brett Favre, who had just led a young Packers team to a 9-7 record the previous season as a 23-year-old. The third was that Wolf had received permission from Packers President Bob Harlan to be financially competitive with any other offer out there to White. Years later, White told Harlan that he had no intention of ever coming to Green Bay, but once he got here it was a totally different story. On the plane ride home from Green Bay, White told his agent not to be surprised if White signed with Green Bay.

Holmgren and Rhodes continued to be persistent in their pursuit of White, even both attending a conference where he was speaking. They definitely showed him the love.

Holmgren, meanwhile, also made one of the most famous phone calls in NFL recruiting history. White was a religious man, obviously, and he had made public mention right from the start that he would go where God wanted him to go. Well, as the story goes, Holmgren called White one night and when he got White’s answering machine, Holmgren said into the machine, “Reggie, this is God. Come to Green Bay.”

Awhile later, White signed with the Packers for 4 years/$17 million, an (pardon the expression) ungodly amount of money at the time for a free agent, so while White might very well have appreciated Holmgren’s joke, the money certainly helped.

As to whether Holmgren actually made the joke in question – Holmgren himself has said that he did it, Packers historian Lee Remmel (who is practically the Word of God himself when it comes to Packers history) says it happened. Perhaps most notably was that the incident was reported at the time, as Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune reported it back in July of 1993. The closer to the actual incident that the story is told is a good sign – the incidents you really wonder about are when a guy 20 years later recalls some crazy thing that happened 20 years ago that he never talked about until now. So I’m willing to believe that Holmgren actually made the call in question.

As to the other issues White had with Green Bay, he noted in 1993 that, “I was with a friend one night who said, `God told me to tell you not to worry about the ministry. When I heard that, I realized this could give me an opportunity financially to do some things I need to do and want to do.” It is true; $17 million could do a whole lot of good. And as for the worries about White, as an African-American, coming to Green Bay, Packer star Sterling Sharpe (also African-American) partially assuaged those fears earlier in 1993 at the Pro Bowl. Speaking of the signing years later, White remarked, “It changed the stigma that was on this team, that black players couldn’t have fun up here, that the town was racist. I think by me saying, ‘I’m going to play for Green Bay’ and then liking it here, it changed a lot of guys’ attitudes, black and white. I think it made guys want to play here.”

The Packers certainly did do better with high profile free agents over the rest of the decade, including Defensive linemen Sean Jones and Santana Dotson, linebacker Seth Joyner, tight end Keith Jackson and kick returner Desmond Howard. As Harlan later noted, “It opened up a whole new era of football in Green Bay.”

White continued to play strong football in Green Bay (although, naturally, not as amazing as he was in his youth in Philadelphia), making the Pro Bowl each season and making the All-Pro each year, as well (just with some second teams mixed in there). In addition, he won the 1998 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, he won a Super Bowl ring with the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997.

White passed away in 2004. Two years later he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thanks to Peter King, Lee Remmel, Mike Vandermause and Pete Dougherty for the information behind this piece.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Jack Lambert was ejected from a game for “hitting a quarterback too hard.”

STATUS: I’m Going With False, But There’s Some Truth to It

At the end of the classic John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there’s one of the most legendary lines in the history of cinema. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I think of that when the legendary defense of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers is discussed, specifically the career of linebacker Jack Lambert.

In his book on the greatest linebackers in National Football League (NFL) history, Jonathan Rand described Lambert thusly:

It’s no knock on Jack Lambert to say the myth is bigger than the man. Lambert was, after all, on the light side for a middle linebacker. And the Lambert myth is so entertaining, so full of what both the bloodthirsty and romantics think pro football is all about, that only a killjoy would dare debunk it. And like many myths, those about Lambert contain some truth. So in the interest of truth – or should we say half truth? – the myth is a good place to start.

Very well-written by Rand, but at the risk of being a “killjoy,” I thought it would be fun to examine one of the many Lambert myths, specifically that he was ejected from a game once for “hitting a quarterback too hard.”

Perhaps the most concise description of this legend came in Mark Stewart and Jason Aikens’ fun 2006 book, The Pittsburgh Steelers (Team Spirit), which contains a bunch of different interesting stories from Steelers history. In the book, they state:

Was Jack Lambert ejected from a game for tackling too hard?

Legend has it that he was. In a game against the Cleveland Browns, Lambert was thrown out after a ferocious tackle that left quarterback Brian Sipe seeing stars. There is no rule against hitting a player as hard as you can, but that is what the official accused Lambert of doing when he ordered him to leave the field.

A great Steelers Tribute site repeated the same story, along with a quote from Lambert about his ejection: “Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard. I hit him as hard as I could. Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I’m going to hit him. And I do. History.”

Before discussing the specific play, let’s take a look at Jack Lambert’s career.

Lambert was drafted by the Steelers in the second round (46th overall pick) of the now-legendary 1974 NFL Draft. That was the draft that saw the Steelers draft an astonishing four Hall of Fame players! Besides Lambert, they also drafted wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, wide receiver John Stallworth in the fourth round and center Mike Webster in the fifth round. The closest any other team has come to drafting that many Hall of Famers in a single draft is two (including the Steelers themselves when they drafted quarterback Terry Bradshaw and cornerback Mel Blount in 1970)!

Lambert was on the small end for linebackers, but he made up for it with his strength, speed, ability to quickly read the offense before him and, perhaps most of all, his ferocious tenacity. In addition, Lambert was an intimidating presence up the middle. During high school, he had lost his four top front teeth in a basketball game (he was on the wrong end of an elbow to the mouth). He had a partial denture that he would wear in public, but he did not wear it during games, so it game him an even more disturbing look to opposing offenses.

He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award as he helped the Steelers go on to win their first Super Bowl in 1975, and was a key part of the Steelers’ remarkable four Super Bowl victories between 1975 and 1980. During this period, Lambert was a Pro Bowl selection every season and was first team All-Pro in the four seasons the Steelers won the Super Bowl. In 1976, following just his second year in the league, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Lambert had a reputation for hard hits on opposing players, but in many ways, his reputation was more fearsome than his actual incidents on the field. In an excellent article in Sports Illustrated in 1984, Paul Zimmerman examined how Lambert’s reputation really could be traced to four incidents, three of which involved Brian Sipe!

The first incident, and perhaps the most famous, occurred during the 1976 Super Bowl (the Super Bowl following Lambert being named Defensive Player of the Year). Steelers kicker Roy Gerela missed a 33-yard field goal. The Steelers were playing the Dallas Cowboys that year, and Cowboys free safety Cliff Harris tapped Gerela on the helmet and told him, “Nice job.” Lambert, naturally, took exception to Harris showing his teammate up, so he threw Harris to the ground. No flag was thrown, but the referees were considering ejecting Lambert until he talked them out of it.

The next incident came in 1978, in a game against the Browns when Lambert was called for a late hit on Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe. It was a 15 yard roughing the passer penalty. Lambert was mobbed by the Browns bench, but he was not ejected. He was, though, called into NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s office to explain his actions. A week after the incident, Lambert and the Steelers were playing on Monday Night Football and Lambert drew more attention to himself by complaining to a reporter about how quarterbacks get too much protection. His choice of expressing this disapproval, though, was stating, “Quarterbacks should wear dresses.”

The incident at hand, though, took place in 1981 in a game in Pittsburgh against the Browns. But for full understanding of the 1981 game, we should also note the 1983 game, which took place at the end of the season and marked Sipe’s last game as a Brown.

In both instances, Lambert hit Sipe as Sipe was releasing the ball. In both instances, the referee Ben Dreith, ruled that it was a late hit/roughing the passer.

Dreith, by the way, is a bit of a legend in his own right. One of the most respected referees in the history of the game, Dreith is perhaps most famous for his 1986 unnecessary roughness penalty call on the New York Jets’ Marty Lyons as Lyons began punching Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly in the head after a tackle, “We have a personal foul on number 99 of the defense — after he tackled the quarterback, he’s giving him the business down there, that’s a 15-yard penalty.” “Giving him the business” became a much-repeated phrase among NFL fans, and was even used decades later by a college football referee to explain an unnecessary roughness penalty.

Okay, so first thing’s first. According to the NFL rulebook on what a referee can eject a player for (on top of a 15 yard penalty), they list (emphasis added):

15 Yards (and disqualification if flagrant)
Striking opponent with fist.
Kicking or kneeing opponent.
Striking opponent on head or neck with forearm, elbow, or hands whether or not the initial contact is made below the neck area.
Roughing kicker.
Roughing passer.
Malicious unnecessary roughness.
Unsportsmanlike conduct.
Palpably unfair act. (Distance penalty determined by the Referee after consultation with other officials.)

So clearly, if a referee determines that the defender has flagrantly roughed the passer, he can eject him from the game. And that is exactly what Dreith determined in the 1981 game. Cleveland defender Ron Bolton said of the play that it was a “killer shot.” That was the 1981 game. In the 1983 game, though, when Dreith once again ran Lambert from the game for a flagrant roughing the passer call, that play was considered by many to be an instance of Dreith over-reacting/punishing Lambert based on reputation.

Next, the above quote, “Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard. I hit him as hard as I could. Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I’m going to hit him. And I do. History” is actually a conflation of two separate quotes.

From 1981:

“Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard,” Lambert said.

“Did you?”

“I hit him as hard as I could.”

From 1983:

“Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I’m going to hit him. And I do. History.”

From early 1984:

“I was seriously thinking about changing my uniform number after that game,” he said. “I felt that I’d been thrown out because I was No. 58. because I was Jack Lambert. At the Pro Bowl this year I was talking to one of the officials. He said, ‘I saw films of that Cleveland game. What did you do?’ I said, ‘Hey, no kidding.”

“But Brian was the quarterback. He lay on the ground like a sniper had shot him, so they threw me out. It’s big entertainment now, protect the quarterback, $200 to your favorite charity.”

As you can see, it is really the 1983 ejection that caused Lambert the most consternation, but years later Lambert would still describe the 1981 incident as being ejected for “hitting the quarterback too hard.”

I can understand Lambert’s frustration with the 1983 incident (as having seen both hits, it did seem to me that it was perhaps a bit of a “reputation” call, especially as it was the same referee from the 1981 game), but I think the 1981 incident was correctly called, and I do not think it is fair to label it today as being ejected for “hitting the quarterback too hard,” but rather as a properly called flagrantly roughing the passer. The difference might not seem like much, but it is clearly an important distinction if Lambert years later was still arguing that it was the former rather than the latter.

Thanks to Paul Zimmerman, Jonathan Rand, Mark Stewart and Jason Aikens and Russell Schneider for the information used for this piece.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Vince Lombardi traded a player five minutes after learning the player had hired an agent to represent him in contract negotiations with the Packers.

STATUS: False

The last two weeks, I featured one legend each week involving one of the two teams who played in this year’s Super Bowl. And I said that this week I would feature a legend about whichever team won. Well, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25, so this week I’m featuring a Packers-related legend!

With the Packers bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, I felt it was only fitting to do a legend involving Vince Lombardi, the larger-than-life head coach of the Packers from 1959-1967 who won five National Football League (NFL) championships (plus the first two Super Bowls) in that time span.

From the new book by former New York Giants placekicker (and longtime NFL announcer) Pat Summerall (just released a few months ago, co-written by Michael Levin) about what he learned from his time spent with Lombardi and Tom Landry when both coaches were assistants on the Giants, Giants: What I Learned About Life from Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, Summerall discusses how different it was for players when they tried to negotiate their contracts during the 1950s and 1960s:

Negotiating didn’t always work out, though. As I’m sure you’ve heard, one year, Jim Ringo, the all-pro center for the Packers, went into negotiations with Lombardi when he was the Packers’ head coach. He brought his agent to the meeting. Lombardi said, “I don’t negotiate with agents. Hold on, let me make a phone call.” He turned away, picked up the phone, and the moment he hung up he said, “I told you I don’t negotiate with agents. You’ve just been traded to Philadelphia.” Ringo was one of his best players and all-pro for several years, but Lombardi chose to trade him rather than deal with his agent. I think it was sort of an unwritten rule at that time not to bring others into negotiations because nobody had agents or other people speaking for them.

Summerall is correct in noting that this is a very popular story, but it also happens to not be true.

Jim Ringo was drafted in the seventh round of the 1953 NFL Draft. Somewhat small for an offensive lineman (6 feet 2 inches and 232 pounds), Ringo made up for any size problems through his speed and great blocking skills. In 1957, Ringo made his first Pro Bowl and was selected as a first team All-Pro. He was a Pro Bowler in 1958 again and was a second team All-Pro. During his career, to that point, though, the Packers were a combined 20-52-2. Things would soon change with the arrival of new head coach Vince Lombardi in 1959. When Lombardi came to the Packers, Ringo was his only All-Pro, but luckily for Ringo and the Packers, a great center was just what Lombardi needed. You see, Lombardi had developed a play while the offensive coordinator (they did not have that term back then, but that’s what Lombardi was) for the New York Giants called the “power sweep.” Essentially, the guards (and the fullback) would create a blocking convoy for the halfback to run behind (or if the fullback got the ball, then the halfback would take the fullback’s blocking role). They would seal off the defenders so that the halfback could run without having to worry about the defensive tackles – they would theoretically create lanes for the halfback to run through (the famous Lombardi quote is “run to daylight,” which means run to the opening). The tight end would be responsible for blocking the linebacker, allowing the halfback to determine whether he wanted then to cut inside or outside. It is a very simple play in theory, but in practice you need total dedication from the team. The play involves reading defenses perfectly, because the guards have to adjust to what the defensive alignment is – if they are wrong, they won’t be in the right position and the defensive tackles will penetrate and pummel the halfback. In the power sweep, the player who determines where the guards go is the center, so the ideal center for the power sweep is a fast, quick-thinking player who is a great blocker. That describes Jim Ringo to a tee, and he (along with guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston) helped make halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor stars (and eventual Hall of Famers) and helped the Packers to two NFL championships (in 1961 and 1962). Ringo did well for himself, star-wise, as well, as he made the first team All-Pro in Lombardi’s first five years with the Packers (also, paired with quarterback Bart Starr, Ringo was able to please please all the Beatles fans out there with a Ringo-Starr tandem).

In 1963, though, Ringo was now 32 years old and clearly losing a little of his great quickness. In addition, with his career winding down, Ringo was interested in playing closer to his home near Philadelphia. He was not necessarily looking for a trade, but he did want a raise on his salary, and if the Packers were not interested in giving him more money, he would not mind being dealt to a team closer to home. However, in the negotiations, Ringo dealt only with Pat Peppler, the Packers director of player personnel, not Lombardi himself. Lombardi, for his part, contemplated the situation for weeks before determining that the best cause of action would be to give Ringo what he wanted and also to get the Packers younger. In the deal with the Eagles, the Packers gave up fullback Earl Gros along with Ringo and acquired young linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, who would go on to be an All-Pro himself and a first round draft choice that eventually became fullback Donny Anderson, who made a Pro Bowl as a Packer. Caffey and Anderson are both in the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame.

Both Peppler and Ringo later noted that the confrontation with Lombardi and Ringo never took place, and in fact, even Lombardi admitted it to a friend of his, stating, “Hell, no, the trade didn’t take place in five minutes. That’s no way to general-manage a football team.” That was privately, though. In public, Lombardi totally confirmed the story to reporters when asked about his take on agents and players, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! They both get out of my office in a hurry. And the one with the ultimatum, if he does not relent, gets traded!” Peppler noted that Lombardi made a point of spreading the story, with the hope that it would dissuade other players from hiring agents or making strong contract demands. While the story was popular at the time, it became even more popular over the years as agents became a bigger part of professional sports. The public tends to have poor reactions to players negotiating to become millionaires, and a lot of that ire gets directed at agents. So it becomes a very comforting approach to be able to take a nostalgic look at the past and say, “Lombardi never would have allowed this!”

Interestingly, in 2002, Ringo actually denied even using an agent with Peppler. A player using an agent in 1963 would be quite rare, especially if they were not a star quarterback or running back, but it is believable that Ringo might have used one, as he was a popular veteran player. It would be a real hoot, though, if none of the story turned out to be true! Enough reports, though (including Peppler) have included the fact that Ringo was using an agent (also including earlier versions of the story by Ringo himself) that I think he likely was.

Thanks to Pat Summerall, Michael Levin, David Maraniss (whose brilliant Vince Lombardi biography, When pride still mattered: a life of Vince Lombardi, was an important resource), John Maxymuk and Donald T. Phillips (whose Lombardi biography, Run to Win: Vince Lombardi on Coaching and Leadership, is no slouch, either) for the information for this piece.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

4 Responses to “Football Urban Legends Revealed #20”

  1. good stuff!
    typo on the Lambert story – “now-legendary 1977 NFL Draft” should be 1974 not 1977

  2. Thanks, Freddy. It’s funny, as soon as I put it up, I knew I had had a typo in ONE of the three legends (as someone pointed it out when I had them at the LA Times), but for the life of me I couldn’t remember which one had it. That’s the one, though! Thanks a bunch!

  3. Hey Cronin… just curious, would it be an Urban Legend to discuss fans running on an NFL field and paying the price for it? If so, is this the first instance?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdP2G7UtS9I

    1971… I can’t think of any recorded examples from before this.

  4. There are some interesting deadlines on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There may be some validity however I’ll take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish extra! Added to FeedBurner as properly

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