It was during a summer practice in 1987 and things were downright ugly with the Packers. This was a team clearly going nowhere under Forrest Gregg and this once proud organization had been taking a beating in the press for some time.
And for good reason.
There was Charles Martin’s ridiculously late body slam of Jim McMahon at Soldier Field the year before. There was the sexual assault cases involving James Lofton and Mossy Cade. And there was plenty of downright crummy football overseen by Gregg, the Hall-of-Fame offensive tackle from Vince Lombardi’s dynasty.
All kinds of negative energy was in the air at the time with this franchise, which had been mired in misery for most of the previous 20 years.
Anyway, I was crossing Oneida Street with some other sportswriters near Lambeau Field during that August afternoon when a car coming from the south abruptly stopped.
The driver’s window came down and a sinister smile widened on the man’s face.
“I just passed on the greatest opportunity I ever had!” he shouted at the sportswriters with a hearty laugh.
It was Gregg serving up his delicious sense of humor at a time when things were most rotten in Green Bay.
Going on 32 years later, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Gregg, who died Friday morning at the age of 85 in Colorado Springs after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. There’s been a lot to think about because he was a man of wild contradictions.
He was named the NFL’s AP Coach of the Year with the Browns in 1976 and came within six points of leading his Bengals to a Super Bowl championship over Joe Montana’s 49ers five years later. Yet, his coaching years are pretty much dismissed as a failure.
He was a class act as the right offensive tackle during Lombardi’s dynasty, appearing 188 consecutive games from 1956-71, an NFL record at the time, and playing with a clinical precision against players who were usually bigger than him. Yet, he oversaw maybe the Packers’ darkest era as their coach from 1984-87 with the thug players he brought in and his outrageously maniacal desire to beat Mike Ditka and the Bears at all costs.
He was a story of inspiration after overcoming a serious case of melanoma in 1976 and was a man of virtue who refused to involve himself in the concussion lawsuit against the NFL, saying, “I don’t need anything from anybody but what I earned.” Yet he was reviled by many of his former players, almost got into a fistfight with Ditka after after a 1984 preseason game and bolted town after the ‘87 season reportedly without even informing his assistant coaches.
As favorite sons go, Bart Starr lost a great deal in nine years as Packers coach, but never lost his image as a classy man. The same couldn’t be said for Gregg, during his dismal four seasons as Starr’s successor. And that’s a shame that Gregg’s legacy has to be tainted so much by those four years.
The hiring of Gregg to replace the fired Starr on Christmas Eve 1983 seemed to make sense at the time. Unlike Starr, he had succeeded as a coach, however limited that success was, and Packers fans would be appeased — finally — by seeing one of Lombardi’s sons lead this team out of the wilderness.
Starr couldn’t do it. Surely, Gregg would.
But things went wrong in a hurry with an organization that should have known better by this point. Gregg was given the dual responsibility of being coach and general manager, even though that arrangement had failed miserably with predecessors Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine and Starr.
Lombardi had warned that the dual role had become too much for one man when he stepped down in February 1968, yet the Packers still refused to listen.
Gregg’s first team in Green Bay started 1-7 after the Packers nearly reached the playoffs under Starr one season earlier and it went downhill from there. A man who demanded final say on personnel decisions before he accepted the job oversaw lackluster drafts that would eventually unravel what good Starr had finally started to achieve in Green Bay.
By early 1988, Gregg was gone, heading back to his football roots at SMU to take over a program that was just reinstating football after receiving the death penalty for recruiting violations. It didn’t work out so well for him at that job, either.
But now that Gregg has passed, I prefer to remember him for who he genuinely was, an all-time great football player and a decent man who was a loving husband and father, than for those four ugly years in Green Bay.
I prefer to remember him for that famous 1960 photo of him looking on from the sideline at Kezar Stradium in San Francisco with his face and helmet caked in mud. A dynasty was on the verge of happening and Gregg exemplified the power of Lombardi’s Packers.
No, he wasn’t a great coach, there’s no getting around that. And there’s no getting around that he gave this organization a massive black eye with his short-sided, ridiculously out-of-touch methods from 1984-87.
But he was a great player, someone Lombardi once said was, “quite simply the finest football player I ever coached.”* And that’s the Gregg I prefer to remember, the one whom Deacon Jones once described as the greatest drive blocker he ever saw.
That’s the Forrest Gregg who will live on for me.
Yes, the man was flawed. But then, aren’t we all?
*In a follow-up story, Jackel wrote this:
Cliff Christl, the Packers' official historian, wrote to clarify some history about the Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman that pertains to coach Vince Lombardi.
"Lombardi did not say, certainly not publicly, that he was 'the finest player' he coached," Christl wrote to me. "I know the Pro Football Hall of Fame has it in his bio and credits it to 'Run to Daylight,' (Lombardi's diary of a week in the 1962 season), but I believe I can say with certainty, if you read the book, you won't find it there.
"I know over the years Chuck Lane, Lee (Remmel), Art (Daley) and Bud Lea all questioned where that came from. Lane doesn't believe Lombardi ever said it, either. It's a long story and not everything has been documented, but this was: Lombardi called Hornung 'the greatest player I ever coached' in a public forum before the 1967 season and was always more effusive in his praise of him than Gregg. I point that out because I believe Hornung has been cheated by history because his stats don't translate to today's game, but Lombardi also called him the best all-around back to ever play football."