Livingston: A toe above the rest

The year was 1970 and all was not well in Titletown. Far from it.<p> Treasured images of the glorious '60s were but a fleeting memory. No more glimpses of a screaming Vince Lombardi pacing the sidelines, urging — no, willing — his teams to victory. No more heroics from Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, slogging through the snow and mud behind the thunderous blocks of Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston. <p>

Five world championships and two Super Bowl trophies. Testaments to much happier times — times that never may be duplicated. If you wanted to get a taste of Packers glory, it was available at the new Hall of Fame exhibit inside Brown County Arena. Old game films. Championship pennants, photos and other relics.

There was precious little Packers magic, however, on display at Lambeau Field.

Soft-spoken Phil Bengtson was entering his third — and last — season as Packers head coach. Bengtson, who was Green Bay's defensive coordinator during the entire Lombardi era, walked into the job fully expecting the winning would continue. He looked forward to the challenge of winning a fourth straight NFL title.

But after two painful seasons, his record stood at 14 wins, 13 losses and a tie. Clearly, he was grappling with the impossible task of replacing a legend. Bengtson's rusted, tattered war machine was in desperate need of repair and replacement parts. Nowhere was this more evident than at the vital position of kicker.

Packers fans, you see, were spoiled. During the championship years of 1965, '66 and '67, Don Chandler handled the place-kicking and punting duties with remarkable efficiency.

The ex-New York Giant whom Lombardi had coaxed out of retirement booted 48 field goals — he was successful on for what was at that time an amazing 58 percent of his attempts — and 117 extra points to score 261 points during those three seasons.

After Super Bowl II, he retired for real, triggering a seemingly endless procession of troops hoping to take his place. Jerry Kramer. Chuck Mercein. Erroll Mann. Mike Mercer. Booth Lusteg. Skip Butler. Joe Runk.

Up in the broadcast booth, the words, "It's up, it's long enough ... it's good" were replaced all too often with, "It's up, it's up ... it's wide to the left ... it's no good."

Besides Butler, a 1970 fourth-round draft choice, and Runk, who was cut the previous year and re-acquired in a trade, the Packers picked up a free-agent kicker/punter named Dale Livingston.

Livingston, who had played the two previous seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, says he sensed immediately that coming to Green Bay would be a major improvement for his career.

"I remember when I came from Cincinnati it was just unbelievable," said Livingston at this summer's Packer Hall of Fame Golf Classic. "People told me what a great football town this is and it is. Donny Anderson was the first guy that I met and he said ‘If you make it, you're going to really enjoy it.' I had only been playing for two years and I walk out and I meet Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Gale Gillingham. I was like a little kid in heaven!

"The more I got to know them, the more I got to appreciate not only how much talent they had but what great guys they were. They were truly a ‘team' concept. In Cincinnati, I found more of a ‘me, me, me' attitude. (The Packers) won championships and they knew what it took to win as a team."

But the euphoria Livingston experienced when he first met those Packers legends quickly evaporated when he walked into the Packers' locker room for the first time and met assistant coach Dave Hanner and the late defensive end Lionel Aldridge. Time for a reality check.

"I remember Lionel Aldridge, God rest his soul, saying ‘Not another kicker! This is a graveyard for kickers,' recalled Livingston. "I said, ‘No, I'm the guy that's going to be here.' And they looked at me and I said ‘I'm telling you I'm going to beat these guys out.' And I did. I had confidence in myself."

That confidence paid off for Livingston as he won the kicking job. He had a respectable year, booting 15 of 28 field goals for the Pack in 1970. "I stayed here that first year," said Livingston, "and I didn't have a real bad year, I had a fairly good year. Then Dan Devine came in. He had some different ideas. I guess I had some different ideas and it was just a parting of the ways. I wish I could have stayed but I didn't."

Livingston moved on to the Oakland Raiders for part of a season before retiring. Meanwhile, in Green Bay, the annual parade of kickers marched on. Karl Kremser. Wes Bean. Henry Brown. Dewey Graham, son of NFL Hall of Famer Otto Graham. John O'Dell. Tim Webster. One by one they trotted onto the field and broke Packers fans' hearts until, finally, Chester Marcol arrived to solve the kicking mystery in 1972.

Though he only played in Green Bay for one season, Livingston managed to lay down roots that last to this day. After hanging up his cleats, Livingston, his wife Liz and their two sons, Dale and Scott, returned to Green Bay where Dale got into the insurance business, where he stayed for 20 years.

But those were difficult years. In 1986, a trip to the doctor's office revealed a lump in Livingston's neck. It was Hodgkin's disease, an often fatal form of cancer.

"They gave me some radiation treatments and I lost a lot of my hair," recalled Livingston. "Then, in 1988, it (the disease) came back. I had a lump in my groin. They took that out and they gave me chemotherapy. I've been free of this since 1990. In fact, since 1989 I've had no problems. It was rough. I lost a lot of weight.

"Of course, with chemotherapy, the good news is that it helps cure this disease. The bad news is it doesn't know good cells from bad cells. I thank the good Lord that I'm back on my feet. I'm playing golf and fishing and just loving it."

Beyond the recreation, Livingston made a career change that has been profoundly rewarding.

"I decided to go back into teaching, which is something that I wanted to do. I've always had a love for kids and coaching so I've been teaching out at Freedom Middle School (just southeast of Green Bay) the last seven years. I teach kids with learning disabilities and I really and truly enjoy it.

"I think one of the big misconceptions about kids with learning disabilities is that they're ‘dumb' or ‘stupid' or ‘they just can't learn.' That's really untrue.

"They just have a different way of learning things. So you just have to present strategies and teach them different ways to develop the skills they have so they can learn. Many times we'll tell them something and the student will look up and say ‘You mean that's all I have to do to know this? Nobody ever told me that before.'

"So my job is to try to get them into the focus of mind that they shouldn't worry about themselves because a lot of times kids think ‘I just can't learn.' And that's not true."

Livingston's wife also teaches at Freedom, and they have no plans of leaving Packerland. They love the outdoors, enjoying fishing and golfing together. Livingston is living testimony to the adage, ‘Once a Packer, always a Packer.'

"Even though I haven't played here since 1970," he says, "people still walk up to me and say ‘Oh, I remember you!' And that's just a nice feeling."

Maybe even better than making a 50-yarder against the wind.

Editor's note: This story appeared in the Oct. 14, 1999 issue of Packer Report.

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