Lombardi said Hornung, not Gregg, was his greatest player Cliff Christl
Let's start with a confession.
On Jan. 17, 1977, in my lead to a story about Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I wrote that Vince Lombardi had called Gregg the best player he ever coached.
I was 29 years old and had covered the Packers as a beat reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette for three seasons. Based on online searches of Wisconsin newspapers, I believe I was the first sportswriter in the state to report that falsehood in a byline story, although the reference had appeared in wire service stories in state papers, starting in 1975.
Looking back, I consider it one of the low points of my career. I could make excuses about how difficult it would have been to research something like that back when old newspapers were basically available only on microfilm machines.
But I'd just be joining the crowd of many who can't admit a mistake.
I had never covered Lombardi or heard him say that when he was coaching in Green Bay and paraphrased something out of the two-volume set, "Vince Lombardi on Football," without doing the proper research.
Three months later, Don Smith of the Pro Football Hall of Fame published a news release about Gregg's upcoming induction and stated, "in his book 'Run to Daylight,'" Lombardi simply stated, "Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached."
Smith's negligence was worse than mine.
There was no such passage in "Run to Daylight." Nothing even close. But to this day, the Pro Football Hall of Fame continues to include that reference in Gregg's bio and repeats it in announcements and news releases, even though it has now had 43 years since Gregg's induction for someone to read the book and realize its error.
What's unfortunate about all of this is that the Hall of Fame continues to cheat another of its inductees, Paul Hornung, who was the only player Lombardi ever publicly stated was "the greatest player I ever coached," and there's documented proof of Lombardi saying so. Sadly, the Hall shortchanged Hornung again last week when he died and continued to perpetuate its falsehood about Gregg when he died a year ago.
Worse, Hornung isn't the victim of just this slight. The Hall of Fame also has a display - or at least it did on my last tour there about five years ago - on Lombardi's famed power sweep, where it created the false impression it was a play run by Jim Taylor as much as Hornung if not more; again, not giving Hornung his due.
The power sweep, when the tight end was lined up to the right, which he usually was in Lombardi's offense, was Red Right 49. The halfback from a split-back formation always carried the ball as Lombardi plainly stated on camera in his film series, "Vince Lombardi's The Science and Art of Football."
Yes, Taylor ran a weak-side sweep as an offshoot of the power sweep, ran the power sweep from Lombardi's seldomly used green formation near the goal line and may have flip-flopped positions on rare occasion when Tom Moore, who was the backup at both halfback and fullback, filled in for an injured Hornung for several games in 1962 and, again, when he was suspended in 1963.
But Lombardi's signature play was a strong-side run with the halfback carrying the ball behind the tight end, fullback and two pulling guards. In turn, that also meant the ball was in Hornung's hands on the halfback option, an almost identical match to the power sweep which Lombardi called the "greatest play in football," in "Run to Daylight." On Taylor's weak-side sweep, Max McGee became the point-of-attack blocker on runs to the left through 1964 and Boyd Dowler on runs to the right starting with the eighth game in 1959 and until Carroll Dale replaced McGee as the other receiver in 1965. At that point, Lombardi started flip-flopping his receivers.
With a split receiver as the lead blocker, rather than the tight end, it hardly fits the image of what you'd expect of a bread-and-butter play in Lombardi's offense. According to Bill Austin, Lombardi's line coach from 1959-64, the halfback carried on more than 90 percent of the sweeps, which means Taylor carried less than 10 percent of the time on the weak-side sweep and green formation plays.
Those details on Lombardi's power sweep were based on his two books, his film series, video clips he used as illustrations in his presentations (not highlights presumably inserted after his death by NFL Films), plus interviews. My interviews, some of which lasted more than an hour, were conducted with Austin, backfield coach Red Cochran, receivers coach Bob Schnelker, backup quarterbacks Zeke Bratkowski and John Roach, as well as other players, including Dowler, Jerry Kramer, Ken Bowman, Hornung, Donny Anderson, Moore and Chuck Mercein.
But that's a story for another day.
So how did I get from being the first in the state to write that Lombardi said Gregg was his best player to being convinced it was something he never said?
My long overdue research started following some conversations with former Packers historian Lee Remmel, and then continued sometime after Gregg took over as coach of the Packers in 1984 and couldn't explain where the statement originated.
Gregg also responded similarly to other writers over the years. For example, in 2008, he told Martin Hendricks of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I didn't know anything about it," in reference to Lombardi's alleged tribute. He further explained that Marie Lombardi had given him and his wife, Barbara, a copy of "Run to Daylight," with a book marker inserted where the passage supposedly appeared. Gregg said this happened over dinner when he was an assistant coach in San Diego from 1972-73.
Fast forwarding, my research really picked up around the time I was hired as Packers historian in 2014.
I reread "Run to Daylight" for the first time since it was published in 1963 - the book doesn't include an index - and confirmed what I suspected: Gregg must have known all along that Lombardi never referred to him as his "finest player" in his first-person book done in conjunction with the unimpeachable W.C. Heinz.
In fact, Lombardi's strongest comment about Gregg appeared on page 190. It read, "Marie calls Forrest a picture ballplayer and that's what he is." Otherwise, in his evaluation, Lombardi wrote that Gregg wasn't as strong as his other two tackles, Bob Skoronski and Norm Masters, and "his speed isn't great," but was complimentary about almost everything else. "When you combine all this in an offensive tackle with his ability and willingness to play guard you've got quite a man," was Lombardi's conclusion.
I also took another look at "Lombardi on Football," the original source for my 1977 lead. On page 104 of Volume I, there's a caption that reads: "Forrest Gregg is, quite simply, the finest football player I ever coached."
But upon further inspection the veracity of the caption was highly suspect. Lombardi died Sept. 3, 1970. The book was published three years later and nowhere in Lombardi's text did he say anything about Gregg being his finest player. In fact, Lombardi's own words next to the caption all but contradicted it. This was what Lombardi wrote: "The individuals on that offensive line - Thurston, Ringo, Skoronski, Kramer, Bowman, Gillingham and Gregg - were all talented, but their greatness was as a team, one single driving force that over the years proved itself in so many winning games."
What's more, it appeared to me it might have been the only caption in the entire two volumes that didn't match what Lombardi had written. Obviously, it raised serious questions about the credibility of the statement and strongly suggested it was written by someone else after Lombardi's death.
I also researched what Lombardi said about Gregg at two milestone moments and here was what I found.
On Gregg's announced retirement in January 1969: "He has been an outstanding offensive lineman. The record indicates that. But more important was his contribution to the Green Bay Packers in spirit, dedication and willingness to pay the price without regard for personal glory."
At the first Pro Football Writers Dinner in Milwaukee on Feb. 9, 1969, where Lombardi was the featured speaker, only days after announcing he was leaving for Washington, and Gregg was honored as the Packers' lineman of the year: "(Gregg is) a player's player, a coach's player." Interestingly, it was longtime Chicago Bears defensive end Doug Atkins, not Gregg, who was given the first Vince Lombardi Award for his dedication to pro football. In fact, Lombardi personally presented the award to Atkins.
On a research trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame archives, I also was able to obtain a transcript of Marie Lombardi's speech when she served as Gregg's presenter at the 1977 induction ceremonies in Canton.
Here was how she described Gregg: "He was probably the finest all-around team player that ever played this game. Proof of the fact being that when he was an all-pro tackle with the Packers he was perfectly willing to make the supreme sacrifice of switching from tackle to guard when he was needed and to be able to make that switch and then to be voted an all-pro guard at that position."
Here was something else I found instructive. Lombardi named Skoronski as his offensive captain in 1964, replacing Jim Ringo, while Jerry Kramer offered this additional nugget in a lengthy 2012 interview: "Bob had the best grades of anybody on the team. The grading day after day, year after year. Bob was the most consistent player on our team, and he had the grades. That's not my opinion. Those were the grades."
Finally, I also sought answers from former Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter Bud Lea, who had covered Gregg throughout his career as a player and coach and as fine a Packers beat reporter as there ever was at a Wisconsin newspaper; Chuck Lane, Lombardi's director of public relations his last three years in Green Bay; and Tom Olejniczak, former Packers' executive committee member and someone who grew up with the 1960s Packers as the son of Dominic Olejniczak, who had hired Lombardi and served as club president during his entire tenure.
I asked each one if they had ever heard Lombardi call Gregg his finest player or had heard it from some other reliable source? They all answered no. They also believed the story started when someone close to Gregg passed it on to writers and others in Ohio when Gregg became coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Sure enough, an online search at newspapers.com and an archival search of both the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel using various combinations of the names, Gregg and Lombardi, and a mix of related terms came up empty, except for one December 1973 story in a Pittsburgh paper about the "Lombardi on Football" books, prior to January 1975. Then the day after the Browns hired Gregg, the "finest player" quote gained wings and kept on spreading.
In other words, it was five years after Lombardi's death when writers put the words in his mouth even though he had never publicly uttered them when he was alive.
Actually, I find it more than plausible that Lombardi might have told his wife and others that Gregg was "the finest team player" he coached even though that exact quote was never attributed to him, either. While that description has an entirely different meaning, it's close to what Lombardi wrote about Gregg in "Run to Daylight" and what he also said about him when he announced his retirement.
The fact is Lombardi called Hornung "the greatest player I ever coached" in a widely reported speech in Oshkosh, Wis., on April 20, 1967, shortly after losing Hornung's services and only months before he resigned as coach. Lombardi's comments on Hornung that day also were very much in line with what he had said about him on numerous other occasions, including calling him "the best all-around back ever to play football" and "the greatest of the great when games are on the line."
The Pro Football Hall of Fame decided to slight Hornung in its tribute following his death last week, presumably because it would have contradicted what it falsely peddled about Gregg and "Run to Daylight" when he died the year before.
Unless the Hall can present credible proof about Lombardi's comment on Gregg, it's time to change his biography and Hornung's. Ditto for members of the national media, who got both players' obits wrong.
What I feel worst about is thoughtlessly putting words in Lombardi's mouth 43 years ago that he never said. In all candor, that might be the cardinal sin when it comes to writing about pro football history.
I can hear Lombardi now bellowing at me from his grave.
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