Titletown Celebrates Legends

"The will to excel and the will to win, they endure. They are more important than any events that occasion them." – Vince Lombardi

It's been 40 years since Lombardi first uttered those words. Or maybe it was only yesterday. For one glorious four-day weekend, Sept. 6-10, Lombardi's spirit, his very essence was back in Green Bay. More than 70 of the players and coaches that Lombardi drove to championship dominance in the 1960s came home for an ultimate reunion.

It was about love and respect. Longtime friendships renewed. A chance for old teammates to laugh, tell tall tales and recall their own special place in arguably the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen. But just as Lombardi's mission went far beyond winning football games, this was an event with a much higher calling. It launched "The Vince Lombardi Titletown Legends", a non-profit organization that will raise money to support various Wisconsin-based non-profit entities. "We have been so blessed in our lives, and so much of who we are today is a direct reflection of our time spent in Wisconsin, with Coach Lombardi and the people in the community that gave us so much support," said Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis.

Davis shares the role of Chairman of the charitable organization with his Super Bowl I co-captain, offensive tackle Bob Skoronski. "Over a period of time since the majority of the Lombardi players retired, there's been talk amongst the players every time we meet about, ‘Gee. Some of the guys have done very, very well. Wouldn't it be nice if we could do something in repayment for the great time, the great people of Green Bay and Wisconsin?' said Skoronski. "Three years ago, when Elijah Pitts died, four or five of us were up in Buffalo at the funeral and the subject came up again. We were going to try to put the Lombardi group together and try to raise some money for charity."

After a few failed attempts to make it all happen, things suddenly clicked. "Through a connection of Jerry Kramer and Willie Davis, they ran into some people out in Los Angeles who were interested in doing a documentary about the Lombardi Era," said Skoronski. "Last year, those people were in Green Bay at the homecoming game and did some filming, made a clip of it and liked what they saw, and decided to come back and try to do it again. At that time, we felt it was a good opportunity and so did the gals who did all this work for it to combine both a documentary and a reunion to raise money for charity."

Skoronski added that the goal is to make the Lombardi Legends a perpetuating charity, growing and raising more money every year.

The reunion centered on a series of special fund-raising events including a big reunion bash in which the players spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 people in downtown Green Bay and signed autographs, Fuzzy Thurston's Poker Party that featured the legends playing poker for charity, and a tailgate party prior to the Packer-Lions season opener at Lambeau Field.

Former wide receiver and Packer radio announcer Max McGee just marveled at the proceedings. "You know, the most amazing thing, I was just looking over and I punched my buddy in the shoulder and said ‘Who is that?' He said, ‘That's Hank Gremminger.' I said, ‘You're kidding me!' And I go over there and also see (quarterback) Joe Francis. I didn't recognize them. You know, it's been 30-40 years and it's so much fun to realize what people look like 30 or 40 years later."

Then, with a sly smile, McGee added that he was really looking forward to Fuzzy's poker party. "Unfortunately, we don't get to keep the money! That's for charity. But it'll be good to play with the guys again. We used to have a regular poker game in the dormitory when Vince wasn't watching."

McGee's longtime buddy and fellow training camp curfew breaker, halfback Paul Hornung, beamed about reuniting with his teammates. "We had a get-together in Canton, Ohio recently for 120 Hall of Famers," said Hornung. "It was fun but it's not going to be half as much fun as this one is."

Ron Kramer, No. 88, the bruising tight end nicknamed ‘The Big Oaf', was all smiles, too. "Coming back to these reunions is like going back to training camp in slow motion! I mean all these guys are walking around crippled. I've had both knees replaced. I've had a hip replaced. I've had a couple of fusion laminectomies, a couple of shoulder surgeries, Achilles surgery. But playing football? I'd do it tomorrow! If I could get good enough replacement parts, I'd be back."

"It's hard to put into words what this reunion means," said Dave Robinson, who played linebacker alongside the late Ray Nitschke and Lee Roy Caffey. "It's an emotional rush to see these guys again. It makes your mind flash back to the '60s and it makes you think you're 23 years old again."

Does Robby ever get that urge to put on the uniform again? "Only on payday," he laughed. "As I told my wife, I can still hit. I just can't get hit."

Jim Taylor, the fiercely competitive fullback who mastered Lombardi's ‘Run To Daylight' philosophy and took great delight in punishing tacklers, also took great delight in this reunion. "We had a certain amount of bonding with our teammates," said Taylor. "Some that played before me, some that played after me and you enjoy seeing them and I think they enjoy coming back and reminiscing about some of the old times."

In listening to these players recount their Packer experiences, there were several recurring themes surrounding Lombardi. Words like love, respect, family, and excellence came up often and with great enthusiasm. Great football seemed a very happy byproduct of an era that featured an entirely different value system than the one we see today.

"I thought he was my coach," said former guard Jerry Kramer. "I thought he belonged only to me and the Green Bay Packers. But I run into people throughout all levels of society that thought Lombardi was the most wonderful thing that ever happened. Tommy Lee Jones, the actor. Regis Philbin. Lee Iacocca. These are some of the better known names but throughout the country, people have hung his ‘What It Takes To Be Number 1' in their offices, in their bedrooms and he has gotten bigger and bigger. It was a wonderful experience to be part of that team and that family."

"We had a lot of guys who wanted to win, guys who had heart," recalled tight end Marv Fleming. "I remember one time when Lombardi gave us a big speech after we lost a game. Forest Gregg sat right next to me and it was so chilling. Gregg got up and said, ‘Coach, I'm with ‘ya! I'm gonna do it, coach!' And I said, ‘Yeah! I'm with you, too!' It just electrified the whole room and that's the way we were. We were a team."

Just becoming a member of that team was Willie Wood's biggest career highlight. The Packers got Wood for the price of a 4-cent postage stamp on the letter he wrote to Lombardi, asking for a tryout in the 1960 training camp. Though he went on to a Hall of Fame career at safety, he never forgot how good he felt just making the team.

"I was a walk-on and my chances of being here were very slim," said Wood. "I thank the Lord every morning that I had that opportunity. It's been a lot of fun this weekend and I don't know if we'll ever be able to do this again. But I'm going to enjoy every moment of it!"

There have been many great teams and dynasties since the 60s Packers. The '70s Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. The San Francisco 49ers of the '80s and '90s. The Dallas Cowboys of the '90s. Man for man, the Packers didn't always have the best talent in the league. But they had a weapon none of the other teams had: Lombardi.

"He pulled us all together," said wide receiver Boyd Dowler. "He was the glue, he was the motivation and he was the personality and the character. We had leaders on the team but I'm sometimes stumped for an answer on who exactly they were because he was the person that pulled it all together."

Center Ken Bowman had a little different take on Lombardi. "You won't get this answer from many of the guys who played for him," said Bowman, "but I didn't like the guy, personally. The way he degraded, berated and ran down a fellow in front of his teammates I really didn't appreciate. But I respected the heck out of him. He was a great football coach. He instilled in all of his players the desire to excel and a commitment to excellence. Don't do anything half-assed. When you commit yourself to doing something, do it all-out and to the best of your ability."

"We all know he was a great motivator and disciplinarian," said quarterback and assistant coach Zeke Bratkowski. "He was very fair. He enjoyed a joke, he enjoyed coaching, he was a great teacher and a great Christian, obviously. The thing that I note all the time is what the guys have done since they've left. The principles that he taught and talked about – if you look at the total group of people that played on his teams, a lot of them did a lot of good things after they got out of football. They all profess the same principles that he taught us. I really believe whether it's coaching or in business or whatever the guys did, they were very successful because they had a great work ethic that they developed here, they knew what it was to win and they did it fairly. That was the key."

Somewhere, Vince Lombardi just has to be smiling.

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