Glance back: Gale Gillingham will periodically feature a former Packers player. Today we look back at former offensive lineman Gale Gillingham, who played for the Packers from 1966-74 and in 1976. A coaching move that had him switched from guard to defensive tackle resulted in an injury and probably cost him a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame. Correspondent Peter Jackel explains.<p>

Gale Gillingham isn't bitter.

That's the truth.

Never mind that he's rarely been seen in Green Bay since his career as one of the greatest guards in Packers history ended following the 1976 season. Never mind that he's only showed up for a couple of the annual Packers reunion ceremonies.

"I never was bitter," he said. "I never knew where anybody ever got that idea. I spent six years taking care of my mother after she had a stroke. I didn't get out of town for anything at that time. I've had family commitments and job commitments."

The presiding opinion appears to be that Gillingham, admittedly an opinionated man who was passionate about winning, limped out of Green Bay in 1976 on a worn-out right knee and with a worn-down psyche.

The presiding logic was that Gillingham was bitter about injuring his knee after abruptly being switched from right guard to left defensive tackle days before the 1972 regular season began. And that he was downright disgusted when he walked away from the Packers for the entire 1975 season, convinced the team under rookie coach Bart Starr and his inexperienced staff was a lost cause.

Well, that much is true. He was bitter at then Packers coach Dan Devine in 1972 when he injured his knee while playing defensive tackle and was lost for most of the season. And he was disgusted with the state of the Packers in 1975, when Starr became head coach and general manager clearly before he was prepared to handle the dual responsibilities.

And, yet, Gillingham also wants this to be known: He was proud to be a Packer and he cherishes his time in Green Bay.

"Obviously, I would have liked to have gone out differently with a little more winning, but I'm really happy with the way my career went," said the 59-year-old Gillingham, who owns Goedkar Realty in Little Falls, Minn. "I was really happy with being in Green Bay with the people I associated with and a lot of the coaches and office people. I still feel close to a lot of them.

"It would have been better if we could have won more at the end, but that's just the way it works."

Then where has Gillingham been for most of the last quarter of a century? And why was it considered to be big news when he would make a rare appearance at Lambeau Field, most notably the time former Packers coach Mike Holmgren designated him an honorary team captain?

The simple answer is this: He's been spending his time running his real estate office, traveling with two of his sons, Brad and Karl, to power-lifting tournaments, being a grandpa to his six grandchildren and spending that all that time caring for his mother.

"I do have a life over here!" he said with a laugh. "I have a small mom-and-pop real estate office and then I spend a lot of time with my boys. For example, I've been overseas the last six years in the World IPF Championships, so that takes some time. Karl's been in the last two World's Strongest Men contests, so I get around with him quite a bit.

"And my youngest son just got married. He was participating in that Strong Man stuff, too, so I get to that stuff quite a bit. I also like to hunt. You get to the point where you can't be gone all the time."

In a sense, it's reassuring to know Gillingham remains a contented member of the Packers alumni, if only because of the caliber of player he was.

He started at left guard by the end of the 1966 season - the same year Packers coach Vince Lombardi made him the 13th overall pick of the draft out of the University of Minnesota. And then in 1969, the year he replaced the great Jerry Kramer at right guard, he started a streak of three straight All-Pro seasons.

Gillingham, in fact, was so exceptional before he injured his knee that a strong case could be made that he belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame.

"The interesting thing was that when I was in Green Bay, guys told me that the two best guards ever to play for the Packers were Mike Michalske (from 1929-37) and Gale Gillingham," former Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "And these were old-time people who had been there a hundred years and seen them all play."

At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds and with a power-lifter's strength, Gillingham had the brute force to be dominant. But elevating him into the elite status he achieved was the fact that all-time great linemen the likes of Kramer and right tackle Forrest Gregg willingly taught him the finer points of the game during Gillingham's first few seasons.

"In those days, I just asked for help and they coached me more than the coaches did," Gillingham said. "And even during practice or the games, if I had to ask something, there was no problem at all.

"Especially with offensive linemen, you learn from the guys who are there and you learn from the older guys. I always helped the younger guys when I was one of the older guys. I mean, that's just the way it was in Green Bay.

"You learn by participating, but you learn by watching those other guys and asking questions. Everybody's a little different, but you steal something from this guy and something from that guy and try and put it into your body style and it helps you."

Interestingly, Gillingham said he probably learned more from Gregg than any other lineman, even though the two played different positions. Gregg, not blessed with the sheer strength of so many other offensive tackles, compensated with precision footwork and leverage that Gillingham studied and mastered.

"That's what I copied," Gillingham said. "He had the best feet in football and he was another great athlete. Forrest wasn't very physically strong, but he was probably the best athlete playing right tackle maybe ever. He was extremely gifted."

On the verge of fame until ...

By 1969, Gillingham put together all the components to his game so well that a strong case could be made the he was the finest offensive lineman in the game. These were the days when all-time warriors the likes of Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly and Dick Butkus were in the primes of their Hall-of-Fame careers and Gillingham held his own against each of them.

"I thought Bob Lilly was the best I ever played against," Gillingham said. "He was the most intense guy and he was the quickest guy. And he was long. He was like 6-5 and he had long arms. He was very strong ... I thought he was the best. I thought he was the best defensive linemen who ever played.

"Then there was certainly, in that next tier, a ton of guys ... Joe Greene, Curley Culp, Alex Karras, Merlin Olsen, Mike Reid, to name a few. As far as linebackers, I thought Butkus and that guy from Kansas City (Willie Lanier) were two of the best.

"Those were the two best middle linebackers I played against. I think the best outside linebacker I played against was with Green Bay and eventually ended up with Washington and I played against him there - Dave Robinson."

Gillingham might have joined those players in the NFL Hall of Fame if not for that fateful 1972 season. Just 28 at the time and coming off three consecutive All-Pro and Pro Bowl seasons, Gillingham remembers that it was the Tuesday before the season opener against the Browns at Cleveland when Devine informed him a change was being made.

Because of injuries in the defensive line, Gillingham was being moved from right guard to left defensive tackle, a move which might be likened today to Ahman Green making the transition from running back to strong safety. Remarkably, Gillingham started five days later at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in his new role.

"It probably wouldn't have bothered me quite as much if we would have done it at the beginning of training camp," Gillingham said. "But you play six exhibition games and you're going into your first league game ... I went home for about two hours and said, ‘To hell with it.' Then I thought, ‘Well, they have so many problems over there' and I was one of the captains, so I thought I'd better get back over there.

"So, I went back and made the best of it."

Gillingham was actually effective in that game and even pressured Browns quarterback Mike Phipps into an interception. One week later, the Packers played against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field in a game remembered for a controversial 104-yard return of a recovered fumble by Raiders safety Jack Tatum.

Gillingham remembers it for another reason.

"I tore my knee up some time during the game and roughly during the fourth quarter, I went to take step and the leg opened," Gillingham said. "I thought I'd better get off the field. I tore three ligaments in my right knee.

"I was concerned about coming back. I poured all my energy into rehab and then came back the next year and played."

Sat out in '75

Remarkably, Gillingham returned to earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition at his familiar right guard position in 1973 and '74. But by 1975, a frustrated Gillingham realized his wasn't getting any younger and his team wasn't getting any better.

Frustrated largely by new Packers offensive line coach Leon McLaughlin, Gillingham ultimately demanded a trade. When the Packers didn't comply with his wishes, Gillingham chose to sit out the 1975 season.

"We weren't approaching things properly," Gillingham said. "We just couldn't throw the ball. That's why we couldn't win at the end. But I think as long as we were approaching things properly in the way we attacked teams and the way did things, yeah, I wanted to win more, but you still could live with it.

"When I got out of there, it was because I didn't think they had any chance to win at all. That's the way I saw it when I left. I just didn't think we were going about things right and I was too old and too beat up to stick around and change."

Gillingham returned to play one final season in 1976 before retiring at the age of 32 satisfied that he had nothing left in his tank. "I had nothing more to give when I left," he said. "I mean, it was over."

As far as Gillingham's relationship with the Packers, though, that will never end. And he doesn't want it to end.

"I was talking to someone on the field once," Gillingham said, "and he asked, ‘Geez, wouldn't you like to be playing now because of the money?' I said, ‘Hell, no. I wouldn't have passed up the guys I played with for anything.' I mean, we had a good time."

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