- Fifty years after he hung up his cleats, and after 10 failed nominations, the Packers great received word that he’d been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Joy, relief and a night with family and friends followed
Perhaps even more than blocking, Jerry Kramer is known for his stories. The legendary Packers guard, now 82, is sitting in his downtown Minneapolis hotel room telling his latest.
“We hear that the [personal Hall of Fame announcements] will be at 3:30 or 4:00,” he says. “ And it’s now 3:30 and they say, ‘Uh, we’re going to be a little late.’ So we wait until 3:45. Then 3:50. Then 3:56. 3:57. 3:58. We’ve checked our watches 18,000 times. Finally, at about 4:00, the door is knocked upon. This is it. YEAH! We’re all hootin’ and hollerin’. We go to the door, and it’s the maid.
“She’s from another country and has no idea what the hell we’re doing—a deer in the headlights kind of look. So we sit back in the room and wait. It’s five after 4, then 10 after 4 and we’re starting to lose the air in the room. We’d been giggling and laughing, everybody had been chatting, then all the sudden it starts to get quiet. It’s one of those ominous quiets. It lasts about five minutes and then we hear this BOOM BOOM BOOM on the door. There’s no question about [Hall of Fame President David] Baker’s knock. He is loud and clear. So we go answer the door and there’s Baker, this 6’8”, 340-pound giant, standing there, and he is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.”
The “we” in Kramer’s room were his daughter and intrepid Hall candidacy advocate, Alicia, her four-year-old son Charlie, and Kramer’s adult son Matt. Also, business associate and close friend Chris Olsen, former Texas Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg, friend Robert Cusimano, noted Packers fan and ambassador Steve Tate and longtime business manager Mark Mayfield.
Everyone is still there as Kramer recounts this and other highlights. There was the gracious Drew Brees, who congratulated him on the elevators. Fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Brian Urlacher also had kind words. In return, Kramer praised Urlacher for continuing the Bears’ remarkable legacy of excellent middle linebackers, and then chided him about the team not having had a quarterback since the 1940s.
Kramer’s greatest highlight of the night was Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders congratulating him at the NFL Honors. Kramer had nearly burned that Cowboys bridge back in January 1996 when, leading up to the Green Bay-Dallas NFC Championship Game, he publicly censured their off-field behavior and then, in a misguided fit of competitiveness, refused to shake Jerry Jones’s hand on stage at a shared team function. (Jones, a former guard at Arkansas who followed Kramer’s career closely, still gave Kramer an emotional embrace at NFL Honors.)
Kramer is beaming but looks haggard. It’s just past 8:00. He’s sprawled out in a chair, shoes and jacket off, tie loosened. Calls and texts are flooding in, from teammates to Chris Berman to Billy Crystal. Kramer seems ready to call it a night, but then ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap rings, inviting him to dinner a few buildings over, at Manny’s Steakhouse. Jeremy’s father, Dick, was one of Kramer’s closest friends and co-author of his famed book, Instant Replay.
And so Kramer gets ready to hit the town. But first, an order of business that he’d refused to think about until now. “The introductory Canton speech,” Kramer says. “I think it should be given by the person who busted her ass the most to make this happen.” Everyone concurs … except that person herself. Alicia, a known cryer, sees no way she’d make it through the speech. But it’s not up for discussion—or at least, it wasn’t for long. Kramer goes through the room person by person asking if it should be Alicia. Each yes is more emphatic than the last.
The speech issue resolved, Kramer hobbles over to a wheelchair and heads out. Chris pushes, the group follows, except for Alicia, who stays behind with Charlie. Kramer can still walk, but balance is a problem. Most of the time he leans on someone or something (wall, doorframe, etc.). He receives intrigued stares and compliments as hotel security guides him through the skywalks that connect much of downtown Minneapolis.
Up until a few hours ago, Kramer was unsure he’d be basking in this glory.
“I’ve had 10 nominations; how the hell am I going to get confident about making it,” he’d said at the hotel. “You get a call in August [informing you of your nomination] and you’re surprised by that. There are six months to go. That’s a lot of time, a lot can happen. Then all the sudden you have FOUR months. Then you go down the road and soon it’s TWO months.”
“And it’s the holidays,” Alicia had interjected.
“Yeah. You’re still trying to be positive,” Kramer said. “Then it’s six weeks. You think, ‘Boy, it’s coming pretty damn quick.’ Then it’s a week. So, now you really feel the emotional roller coaster go up and down. You hear yes and no, positives and negatives. People start saying, ‘Oh you’re going to make it, it’s a cinch.’ And you go, ‘It ain’t no cinch! I’m 0-and-10, what the hell makes me think I’m going to win 11?’”
Just before reaching Manny’s, a man in a Packers sweatsuit approaches.
“You’re the reason I’m here, Mr. Kramer.”
“He’s the reason we’re all here,” says Greenberg.
“No, I mean you’re literally the reason I’m here,” the man says. “After the Ice Bowl, my dad was so fired up that he, well, I was conceived. I was born exactly nine months after you made that block.” This induces spit-choking group laughter.
Manny’s is located behind a thumping nightclub called The Living Room. Kramer, out of the chair and walking with his hands on Chris’s shoulders, passes dozens of millennials lined up outside the club. Matt notes the strangeness of seeing his father amidst flashing lights, techno hip-hop and throngs of suggestive dancers.
Waiting for Kramer in a back room at Manny’s is Schaap, who delivers an enormous hug. Two of Schaap’s friends are there, as is Packers president Mark Murphy. Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson pops in to praise the new inductee.
Toasts are made, champagne is guzzled and five courses of steak and lobster and any other expensive food you can imagine is eaten. Kramer sits at the head table alongside Schaap, telling story after story (after story after story). He touches on off-field exploits of teammates, and on things he did that Vince Lombardi didn’t know about. Even better are the things Lombardi found out about.
“Once, in training camp, Max McGee was out at 2 a.m., way past curfew, and he got a citation,” Kramer says. “The next morning he got up early to throw away all the newspapers around the dorms so that the coaches wouldn’t see the story. Three days later, Lombardi found out. ‘McGee!’ he yelled. ‘If you break curfew again I’ll fine you $500! And then the next time will be $1,000! And if you find anything that’s worth sneaking out to do for $1,000, you let me know, and I’ll go with you!’”
Kramer also tells stories about running amok with Frank Gifford. And how once, after the Packers beat the Giants in a playoff game, someone on the Pack told Gifford, “Sorry you have to go home a loser.” Gifford responded, “Sorry you have to go home to Green Bay.”
Kramer’s storytelling continues long after he finishes his meal (half of an eight-ounce steak). Someone shows Kramer a tweet that says, “maybe if jerry kramer didn’t hold jethro pugh like a little b---- in the ice bowl he’d have already been in the hall.” The table roars. “Like a little b----,” Kramer cackles.
After that, at Chris’s suggestion, Kramer signs books for everyone. He feels sheepish adding “H-O-F ’18” at the end of his signature and botches it a few times. (Some of the books say P-F-H-O-F, which, Kramer explains diffidently, stands for Pro Football Hall of Fame. Other say “2018” instead of just “ ’18,” which, according to Mark, an expert in autographs, is improper. One of the signatures, perplexingly, reads Jerry Kramer, P-H-O-F 2018.”)
Just before 1:00 a.m., as the gathering disbands, someone asks what’s next for Kramer. For now, there are myriad Hall-related appearances and events. Baker warned that the next few months would be busy. There’s also, they hope, a movie based on Instant Replay with TriBeCa productions and Robert DeNiro. Milwaukee native John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, would lead the endeavor.
But before all that, Kramer has a Super Bowl to attend. He and the other 2018 Canton inductees will be honored between the first and second quarter of Patriots-Eagles. It’d be a perfect cap, except Monday promises to be even better. That’s when Kramer will finally get measured for a gold jacket and bronze bust.
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