We caught up with the Hall of Famer at his Colorado Springs home and reminisced about his playing days in Green Bay and Dallas, his coaching tenure in Cincy and how he survived both the Ice Bowl and Freezer Bowl
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Despite his willowy frame, it’s not hard to look at Forrest Gregg at 82 years old and imagine the mud-caked bruiser Vince Lombardi once called the “finest player I’ve ever coached.” Gregg’s Hall of Fame ring fits snugly on his massive hand, and at 6-4, the weight of time has had little effect on his towering presence.
Gregg is a veteran of two Super Bowl victories as a Packer, one as a Cowboy and one appearance as a coach with the Bengals after the 1981 season. He is one of five men who have played and coached in the Super Bowl. (After this weekend, that list will grow to seven and include both Carolina’s Ron Rivera and Denver’s Gary Kubiak). Gregg wears just the one HOF ring, his wife Barbara says, “so he doesn’t get robbed!”
We met Gregg at his home in the snow-covered foothills of the Almagre Mountain in a two-story ranch home where he and his wife relocated from the Dallas area 14 years ago. In 2011, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a neurological disorder that affects the brain stem and has been linked to repeated concussive blows.
Though his speech has grown labored by the disease, Gregg retains the bulk of his football memory and all of his charm. When he takes his cane for a neighborhood stroll and sees fellow ex-Packer Willie Davis, who suffers from hip trouble, Gregg will exclaim, “There goes another ex-football player!”
The MMQB: What do you remember about that first Super Bowl?
Gregg: Looking at the film, you sure didn’t take anything for granted. Vince Lombardi was aware of that himself and the league put a lot of pressure on him because they felt that how well you did would define the two leagues. We had a day when all the sportswriters and everything came to talk to us, and I’d never seen so many. Some players loved it, like Henry Jordan. Henry loved the media. He would just ask them, “Write a story about me.” I don’t think there was anybody that didn’t like it. We all claim that we are modest, and we are in a way, but in a way we are not.
The MMQB: This is the first game where you have two head coaches who coached and played in a Super Bowl. You accomplished that. What do you remember about being a player at a high level and managing a football team?
Gregg: As a player, you worry about yourself and the guy you are playing against. As a coach, you’ve got everybody to worry about. There’s so much going on this week, and you’re out in California. Whatever you need to get done, if you are doing anything special, if you are changing anything, you better do it before you get to the place where you play because there is just no privacy. You aren’t going to get a lot of work done. There’s closed practice, but man, it’s not closed.
The MMQB: When people talk about Peyton Manning and what he might do after he retires, those who know him say he might not have the patience to coach, to deal with players who don’t match his level of dedication. When you became a coach, did you find it tough to have patience with guys who didn’t put everything they had into the game?
Gregg: I don’t really think I had any problem with that, there is always going to be that. You’ve got everything riding on you personally as a coach. Some players live up to expectations and some don’t, but what you try to do is you try to motivate the players to get them to play to the best of their ability and I got to say I was fortunate enough to have some good players at Cincinnati and most of the guys were dedicated to the game and I was really happy about that and proud of those guys.
When you go into coaching and you try to be somebody else, players know that you’re a phony and they’re not going to relate to you. Be who you are.
The MMQB: Do you blame football for your health issues?
Gregg: I don’t. It’s a hard situation and it’s not fun. But no, I don’t blame it. I can’t go back. I just have to accept the situation that it is and make the best of it. The league is trying it’s best to do what is needed to be done as far as changing rules. Players get injured and it’s a sport that people are going to get injured. You can change rules and everything else but you can’t totally change the integrity of the game.
The MMQB: Of the modern players, who do you really admire?
Gregg: Clay Matthews from the Packers. To go further back, Reggie White. I met Reggie White and I started thinking about if I had to block him, with his size and speed. I said, this would be a day’s work. I told him, I would have had to cut you. Go low.
The MMQB: Were you the only one who played in the Ice Bowl (1967 NFL Championship) and coached in the Freezer Bowl (1981 AFC Championship)?
Gregg: Probably. I never will forget the morning of the Freezer Bowl game. Those are the times that stand out in your mind. They announced over the radio that it was like 15 below zero and we always have a meeting on Sunday morning and I was trying to think, what am I going to tell these guys? Am I going to tell them to just get out and play? How am I going to get them ready to play this ball game when they haven’t experienced weather that cold? I decided to do what I always did with those players, tell them the truth. I told them at the team meeting, I said, I just heard what the temp is going to be at game time and it’s going to be cold. You might as well face it, it’s going to be cold, you are going to be uncomfortable, and so is the other team. Put as much on as you can get on and still play. We got ready for the introduction and I looked over there and the offensive linemen had short sleeves on and Vaseline all over their arms. They did well, they played the game and I don’t know that there has been another game that cold for the actual temperature.
The MMQB: Did you take any lessons from Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry when you coached?
Gregg: Number one, you have to always be yourself. When you go into coaching and you try to be somebody else, players know that you’re a phony and they’re not going to relate to you. Be who you are. Take things that you have learned from different people. I played all those years for Vince Lombardi and I learned a lot about football and about people. I tried to take what I could take from him and let it be mine. I did the same thing with Tom Landry. I was fortunate to play Super Bowl VI with Tom, and Tom was totally different than Vince; you didn’t have to worry about Tom yelling at you. He would find a way to tell you if you were doing something you weren’t supposed to do. I took the attitude that I was not Vince Lombardi, and I was not Tom Landry, who were both successful coaches. I took what I learned from them and did what I thought was the best for the players.
—Kalyn Kahler contributed to this story