Glance back

The legend of Jim Ringo lives on.<p>

The enduring mystery will go with him to his grave.

He was once a perennial All-Pro center for the Green Bay Packers and team captain of coach Vince Lombardi's first two championship teams in 1961 and ‘62. He was the one established player Lombardi inherited upon arriving in Green Bay in 1959, having earned All-Pro honors twice and he was elected to the NFL's Hall of Fame in 1981.

But he was gone with one phone call in the late winter of 1963-64 in what was perhaps the most controversial and discussed off-field moment of Lombardi's nine seasons as Packers coach. Instead of finishing his career as a member of perhaps the greatest dynasty in team sports, Ringo was exiled to the lowly Philadelphia Eagles, where he played in obscurity for four more seasons before retiring after the 1967 season.

Ol' No. 51 might have been among those carrying Lombardi off the field in Miami after the Packers' victory in the second Super Bowl, in what was the last hurrah of that dynasty.

Instead, he was coming off a 6-7-1 record with the Eagles, his aching body was telling him to retire and he was a living example of how ruthless Lombardi could be.

And it eats at him to this day.

"I played for the Green Bay Packers when we only won one game or two games and I was going to the Pro Bowl,'' Ringo said. "I was trying to play all-league caliber football. All of a sudden, Vince comes in and he gets the material to be what we were hoping to be and I was gone.''

To this day, Ringo has made infrequent visits to Lambeau Field and the pain he now feels is not limited to the fact he subjected his body to a one-time NFL record of 183 consecutive games played.

"There's something there,'' former Packers guard Jerry Kramer said. "Jim was pleasant and we had a nice visit when I saw him in Milwaukee a few years ago, but if you're the main man, if you're the captain of the football team and then Lombardi trades you and you have to watch your old team win three more championships, including the first two Super Bowls, how would you feel?''

This is how the official story went, a story some say was promoted by Lombardi himself as a warning to his players not to deal with agents.

In March of 1964, Ringo was coming off his seventh straight All-Pro season and decided to hire an agent to negotiate his new contract with Lombardi.

This was an era when agents were simply not a fixture of the sports landscape and Lombardi wouldn't hear of negotiating with one. As the story goes, Lombardi excused himself after the agent appeared and left the room for several minutes. When he reappeared, he supposedly told the agent, "I'm afraid you came to the wrong city to discuss Mr. James Ringo's contract. Mr. James Ringo is now the property of the Philadelphia Eagles.''

Michael O'Brien's excellent 1987 biography on Lombardi, entitled, "Vince,'' purported to shed new light on the mystery. According to O'Brien, the trade was actually pre-arranged by Lombardi and Ringo, who supposedly wanted to be closer to his Pennsylvania home.

Several years later, when Lombardi was asked whether the trade had been pre-arranged before the agent ever tapped on his door, he reportedly smiled and said, "Yeah, something like that.''

Ringo refuses to clairify what really happened, saying that the only three people who will ever know the entire truth are himself, his wife and Lombardi.

"He (Lombardi) didn't say anything, so why should I say anything?'' Ringo said. "I think it should be kept a mystery. Here it is, over 30 years later, and you're still asking questions about what happened. Name another trade in the National Football League that has carried on for over 30 years.''

But ask Kramer and you're led to believe that the original version of the story is closer to the truth than what was reported in O'Brien's book.

"The year before that, I had an extremely long holdout,'' Kramer said. "I wanted $19,000, up from $11,000, and it was hell to pay. They put me on the kickoff team, every coach got on my ass and it seemed like everyone in the city was on my case.

"I finally signed and this was an era where you just didn't talk about salaries with your teammates. It was like, ‘Hey, Ski (Bob Skoronski), how much are you making?' ‘Geez, Jerry, I can't talk about it.' Well, Ringo came up to me and asked how much I was making and I told him. And he said, ‘Well, those sons of bitches are going to pay me $25,000 or they're going to trade me.' "

That's exactly what Lombardi did, packaging Ringo with young fullback Earl Gros for two first-round draft choices. Was this simply a matter of Lombardi trying to get what he could for the aging Ringo, who was 31 at the time?

"Absolutely not,'' Kramer said. "You have to remember, Lombardi didn't have another center at that time. Skoronski had to move over from tackle to center that season before Kenny Bowman moved in.

"I think it was an attempt to nip in the bud the thing about agents. I think he (Lombardi) would have done it to me if I would have brought in an agent.''

O'Brien's book quoted Ringo as saying he still had "wonderful rapport'' with Lombardi after the trade, but Ringo said that actually wasn't the case.

"Our association at that time ended,'' Ringo said. "Even though I was the captain of the ballclub and we were supposed to have had good rapport, I definitely never talked to him again because I felt he treated me unfairly.''

Ringo's name today is immortalized on the northwest corner of Lambeau Field along with his playing dates in Green Bay — 1953-63. You want to wish those dates would instead read 1953-67, just as Ringo would, but he unwillingly traded those final four seasons to become part of a legendary story.

Make no mistake about it, though. While Ringo finished his playing career with the Eagles, he will always be a Packer.

"It's the good things, it's the Green Bay Packers, it's how wonderful the town is, how wonderful Milwaukee is, how wonderful the state is,'' said Ringo, now 69 and living in Chesapeake, Va. "I think that's what's so important, not the things that happened the other way.''


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