Friday, May 24, 2013

Book review: "Instant Replay" by Jerry Kramer

 Take some pro football fans, put them in a time machine and send them back to 1967. They'll think they've landed on another planet.

They'll see a National Football League with no weight training, where quarterbacks call all the plays, where players have off-season jobs to pay the bills.

Bizarre, huh?

"Instant Replay" is Jerry Kramer's diary of his 1967 season as a guard with the Green Bay Packers. It turned out to be quite a season: The Packers won the Super Bowl, it was coach Vince Lombardi's last year with the team, and Kramer threw perhaps the most famous block in NFL history.

Still, the thing that struck me was how different things were back then.

Players showed up at training camp fat and flabby. The did calisthenics, running and "grass drills" to get in shape, but lifting weights was not even considered.

Lombardi didn't send it plays via messenger or through signals; the quarterbacks (Bart Starr and Zeke Bartkowski) called the plays in the huddle.

Today, we have all sorts of concerns about concussions. Back then, they just said you had "your bell rung" and sent you back in the game.

"Four or five years ago, against the Los Angeles Rams, I played most of a game with a concussion," Kramer writes. "Forrest Gregg told me what to do on every play. He said, 'Block the tackle,' or 'Pull and block the end,' and I I actually played fairly well. I did what I was supposed to. Between college and the pros, I've had four or five concussions noew and I suppose I'm getting used to them."

And get this: Even though the Packers were going for their third championship in a row, there was no mention of the word "threepeat."

"Instant Replay" is a great look inside a football team of the 1960s. Kramer is frank and honest, naming the players who are too cocky or don't work hard enough. He is perhaps hardest on himself he is so critical of his performance that it seemed he was having a mediocre season. I was surprised to find near the end that he was selected for the all-pro team.

It was in closing seconds of the NFL championship game against Dallas the famous "Ice Bowl" that Kramer pushed open a slim hole that allowed Starr to score the winning touchdown.

Kramer gives a more nuanced portrayal of Lombardi, who is often popularly conveyed as a screaming monster of a coach. In this book, Lombardi is shown to be more of a master psychologist, who will tear a player down one day, then pick the right time to praise the player and build his confidence back up.

"I loved Vince," Kramer writes. "Sure I hated him at times during training camp and I had hated him at times during the season, but I knew how much he had done for use, and I knew how much he cared about us. ... His whippings, his cussings and his driving all fade; his good qualities endure." 

If you like this sort of book, you should also read John Eisenberg's "That First Season," which nicely recounts Lombardi's first year with the Packers.

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