Hank Gremminger glance back

How could a New Year's Eve in Green Bay, Wisconsin get any better than this?<p>

The sun shone very brightly above City Stadium on Dec. 31, 1961 – the day the name "Titletown U.S.A." was officially born. With the mercury stuck at a relatively balmy 21 degrees above zero and westerly wind gusts of 10 miles per hour, some 39,029 delirious fans were poised in their seats, ready to celebrate a New Year's Eve like none other in the city's history. Their beloved Packers were finally hosting an NFL Championship Game and Coach Vince Lombardi's troops were making the most of every opportunity coming their way in a duel with Allie Sherman's New York Giants.

Defensive back Charles Henry Gremminger was no different than any of his Packer teammates. This was a full adrenaline rush! Cold? What cold? The second quarter was only five minutes old and Green Bay was already in front, 14-0, thanks to a slashing six-yard touchdown run by Paul Hornung and a 13-yard pass from Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler. The TD pass was set up by a Ray Nitschke interception, the first of four picks Green Bay would accumulate.

While the Packers were enjoying a huge day on both sides of the ball, the Giants languished in futility. They would tally a measly six first downs for the entire game. Neither of their quarterbacks, Y.A. Tittle and Charlie Connerly, could get anything going. And for Gremminger, opportunity was about to knock again.

The Giants broke their huddle and trotted up to the line of scrimmage, their own 32 yard line. It was third and 10. With the snap of the ball, Tittle hurriedly retreated into the pocket, surveying downfield and looking for one of his favorite receivers, Kyle Rote. Spotting him, Tittle lofted his pass but he never saw Gremminger who neatly stepped in front of Rote at the 49 and made a nifty return to the Giant 36. Eight plays later, Starr completed the Packers drive with a 14-yard TD strike to tight end Ron Kramer and the rout was officially on.

When the final gun mercifully went off for the Giants, the scoreboard revealed their 37-0 thrashing. Fuzzy Thurston grabbed the game ball and ran into the triumphant Packer locker room. Defensive tackle Dave Hanner and linebacker Dan Currie scooped up Lombardi on their shoulders for his well-deserved victory ride as the fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts.

Fast-forward 40 years. It's Sept. 6, 2001. Hank Gremminger, along with about 70 other players and coaches from the fabled Lombardi era, are arriving at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton for the start of the Lombardi Titletown Legends reunion to benefit a host of Wisconsin charities. Amidst the laughter, hugs and backslapping of old friends – many he hadn't seen in over 30 years – Gremminger was in a festive mood.

"It's very special," said Gremminger. "We get to see people we haven't seen since we left up here. Again, we get to come back to, I think, the greatest fans in the world, the people of Green Bay. It's a big event for us. What's really bad about it, though, is that the guys you haven't seen in 35 years, you don't recognize them and I'm sure they don't recognize me. But it's a tremendous thrill and I think this (the reunion) is the greatest thing that ever happened. We all looked forward to coming back."

Gremminger, a native of Windthorst, Texas, brought Tina, the older of his two daughters, to the reunion with him, "because she knew a lot of the players and the players' children. She's having a ball! Leaving the airport last night, she looked at me and she said, ‘You know where we are?' and I said, ‘I have no idea.' I was on a bus but nothing looked familiar. Things have really changed but it's such a thrill to come back here to Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin. I keep telling those people down there (near Dallas where Gremminger lived) – Dallas Cowboy fans, you don't know what fans are! You all should go to Green Bay and take lessons. Have tailgate parties and all of that. When I was playing, for once I wanted to go through there. Everything they were cooking smelled so good and we couldn't eat any of it! The fans and the people of Wisconsin are the greatest I have ever been around."

The Packers selected Gremminger in the seventh round of the 1956 college player draft as a wide receiver. While at Baylor University, the 6-2, 200-pound Gremminger led his team in receiving in 1954 and '55 but when he got to Green Bay, Coach Lisle Blackbourn decided Hank could better serve the team as a defensive cornerback. Gremminger quickly stepped into the starting lineup where he intercepted two passes as a rookie and then picked off five more in his sophomore season.

"I saw him when he came in for the Lombardi thing and he was looking good," said John "Red" Cochran, a current Packer scout who was a Packers assistant coach for the final seven years of Gremminger's Green Bay career. "He was a steady player. He wasn't a spectacular type like (Hall of Fame safety) Willie Wood, but he was just a steady player."

Gremminger's third season, 1958, was his low point personally as well as for the team. Though he picked off three passes, the Packers floundered to a miserable 1-10-1 season under Coach Ray "Scooter" McLean.

In 1959, the winds of change howled fiercely on the banks of the Fox River signaling the arrival of Lombardi as the new head coach. Following that first season, Lombardi asked his assistants to help him evaluate the squad and determine where improvements could be made for 1960.

According to a recent book, Launching the Glory Years – The 1959 Packers by Jay Bengtson and Len Wagner, Gremminger's reviews were not exactly stellar. "Hank is not too bad a ball player," wrote one assistant coach. "He plays the ball well and has played well in our last two games. Fair tackler. Good speed. Until we can improve this position we will have to keep him around." Another wrote, "(Hank) has speed, quickness and ability to do the job. Plays the ball quite well. I believe with more seasoning and playing our type of defenses he can do the job for us."

The last comment proved to be prophetic. Gremminger did, indeed, find a way to fit nicely into Lombardi's defensive scheme. He played both cornerback and safety for the Packers from 1956 to 1965 and was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1976. Gremminger developed a reputation as a solid tackler and he still ranks eighth on the Packers' all-time list in career interceptions with 28. He also recovered seven fumbles. In 1963, Gremminger literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Minnesota. With the Vikings attempting the game-winning field goal, Herb Adderley blocked the kick. Gremminger scooped up the ball and raced down the sidelines to an 80-yard touchdown to clinch the 37-28 Packer win.

At this year's reunion, Gremminger was more than happy to recall what it was like to play for Lombardi. "We really didn't know how good we were. We didn't know if we could win and then came Lombardi. He kept telling us that if we did certain things we would win. We thought at first when he got here that he was a crazy man and he was trying to kill us! But he installed discipline. It was his way or the highway. Through all this process he said ‘Winning is contagious and losing is, too.' We learned a lesson about winning and all about life. I'll never forget that he always carried that Sunday missal in his back pocket and he'd say, ‘Now, boys, there's three priorities in life: God, your family and the Green Bay Packers.' And he said, ‘Don't get them mixed up, either!' But I think the biggest lesson we learned was discipline and I've used it throughout my life and my career. 90 per cent of it is mental – knowing that you can do it. And then you just go out and do it."

Over the years, so many people have asked Gremminger what Lombardi was like. "Let me just sum it up for you: He was the type of person that could tell you to go to hell and you'd look forward to the trip!"

Gremminger got to play on three of Lombardi's World Championship teams before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966. He played that season and then retired to work in banking, insurance and, finally, he worked 26 years as a contractor in residential and light commercial construction near Dallas. About a year ago, Gremminger got involved in politics as the county commissioner in Parker County, Texas, in Weatherford, just west of Fort Worth.

"Some people in the Republican Party got me to run for politics against one of the commissioners there and I don't know why I did but I did and, fortunately, I won," Gremminger recalled. "I thought football was bad! I didn't know how cruel politics was until I got into it. Politics is just brutal. The court just about runs the county and everything that's passed has to go through the court. We had a person that wanted to be El Duce down there but we got him out and things are getting back to normal now. My indoctrination into politics wasn't very good. The first thing they tried to get me to do was build a private road that you're not supposed to do. They wanted me to do it and then they could kick me out! But I got past that first hurdle and everything's downhill now."

The Lombardi Legends reunion was one final moment for Gremminger to re-live glories past. One last time to shake hands, look old teammates in the eye, swap tall tales and revel in an era of pro football that likely will never be duplicated. Sadly, just two months later, Hank Gremminger would be dead at the age of 68 after suffering cardiac arrest.

He is remembered as a tough competitor and valuable contributor to some of Lombardi's best defensive squads. One 1960s Packer publication described him as "one of the best-liked of all Packer players and he frequently appears at various sports gatherings around the state during the off-season." Gremminger is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren.

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