As the closest thing to combat in civilian life, professional football is a breeding ground of legends that echo our rapidly fading warrior past. Reputedly the fiercest of these nascent legendary figures is Jack Lambert, the All-Pro middle linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers who after only two years in the NFL wears two Super Bowl rings on his fingers. According to Lambert's teammates and adversaries, he's the Grendel of the Gridiron, a cleated and bone-crunching blend of Caligula and King Kong who delights in snatching the soft parts from hapless backs and receivers and who performs open-heart surgery on the enemy using naught but his snaggled, bloody fingernails in lieu of a scalpel. He's not just meaner than mean. He's meaner than Greene!
"Jack Lambert is so mean," says Pittsburgh Tackle Mean Joe Greene, a legend in his own right, "that he don't even like himself."
Ever since Sam Huff of the New York Giants first popularized the sadomasochistic side of the middle linebacker's role in the early 1960s, pro football has seen a steady stream of larger-than-death monsters parading through the position, each one trying to be meaner, fiercer, more bloodthirstily outrageous than the next. After Huff, with his rages and that toothless smirk of glee in the midst of havoc, there came the Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus, who boasted publicly (and giggled privately) that he soothed himself to sleep before a game with reveries of dismembered quarterbacks. And Tim Rossovich of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers, who enlivened team parties by setting himself on fire before making his entrance, then cooled off by eating the cocktail glasses.
The latest ogre is John Harold Lambert, better known as "Smilin" Jack" because of his dour visage, who at age 24 has risen to the top of the demonological heap more rapidly than any other legend in a sport that thrives on them. And he doesn't like the legend one bit. This is precisely how mean Jack Lambert can be.
July 11, 1976
It was easily 110° on the airless AstroTurf floor of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium as Smilin' Jack took the last of his morning laps around the empty, shadeless arena. Church bells across the Monongahela River tolled noon. A fun-go bat cracked in crisp counterpoint as a few shirtless, puffing groundskeepers took their lunch-hour exercise, ignoring the lean, lonely figure who plodded under their bloopers. Lambert had begun the workout three hours earlier with weight-lifting exercises in a fetid chamber deep in the bowels of the stadium, bench-pressing as much as 375 pounds straight overhead again and again until his tendons popped like Chinese firecrackers. Next came a series of curls that set his biceps to bulging. Then out to the stadium itself for wind sprints and the slower jogging laps through the boiler-room heat. Sweat soaked the cutoff Steeler T shirt and shorts; the soggy blond hair was matted over his brow.
As Lambert ran, he clicked his two false front teeth in time to some inner music—not the Horst-Wessel-Lied, as the legend makers might contend, but probably just plain old folk rock. It had been a tough morning for a football player in early summer, and the prospects for the afternoon were no less physically agonizing: three hours of tennis—savage, slamming action on the court with his pal and rival Jack Ham, the Steelers' outside linebacker.
Thus the preseason day shaped up as a regimen calculated to turn even St. Francis of Assisi into a kicker of dogs and small children. Yet when a swarm of third-graders from the Boggs Avenue School descended yelping into the stadium for autographs, Lambert stood in the surge of pygmies for fully half an hour, smiling and patting heads and signing, signing, signing his name until he ran out of paper—and the kids ran out of attention span.
"See how mean I am?" Lambert said as he trotted back into the locker room. He winked and flashed a rare smile, a brightly delighted third-grader's grin. "Yeah, I'm mean all right. Meaner than Greene. Sure I am."
Anyone who has watched Lambert's play with the Steelers these past two seasons might be forgiven for doubting his disavowal. He is a hard, quick hitter with a Sidewinder missile's instinct for the heat of action that puts him in the thick of the pileups on nearly every running play, yet with the speed and agility to cover halfbacks and even wide receivers on pass plays, both deep and shallow. During Super Bowl X in Miami last January, Lambert ran stride for stride with Dallas' Preston Pearson on one deep pattern and batted the ball away from a sure touchdown. On another occasion—and this is where the legend-makers' day was made—he picked up Cowboy Safety Cliff Harris by the shoulder pads and "bench-pressed" him straight into the ground. Even when he wasn't on the field playing defense, Lambert was hopping on the sidelines like an animated pogo stick, huffing and puffing through his gapped front teeth, eyes rolling madly, exhorting his teammates on offense and howling invective at the Cowboys.
"People tell me that I get a little bit carried away during a game," Lambert allows with a farm-boy laconicism that betrays his rural roots. "I really don't remember it. I do remember the Harris incident, though. What happened was that our kicker, Roy Gerela, had missed a field goal and Harris came running up to him, clapped both hands on Roy's helmet and said, 'Nice going. That really helps us.' Well, we were getting intimidated there in the first half and, I mean, we are supposed to be the intimidators. We couldn't have that. So I just grabbed Harris by the pads and flung him down. After the game the Cowboys said I was hitting late, taking cheap shots. That's bunk. That's sour grapes. I hit hard, all right, but I hit fair. That's the name of the game." And, thanks in large measure to Lambert's Kamikaze élan, it also spelled the final score: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17.
Needless to say, Lambert's teammates are among his most ardent fans. The greatest compliment comes from Mean Joe himself. "He's our spark, our spearhead," Greene says. "If I was ever in a barroom brawl and needed someone to go back-to-back with me, I'd want Jack Lambert to be the man." Head Coach Chuck Noll is no less sincere but a bit more prosaic, lauding Lambert for his "desire," a quality that coaches seem to value almost as much as victory. Backup Quarterback Terry Hanratty, the team jester, honors Lambert in his own peculiar fashion by making him the butt of Hanratty's nonstop practical jokes. "Last season Terry took to sticking cups of water under my shoulder pads, where I have them up there on top of the locker," Lambert says. "I'd come to grab them down and, splash, instant deluge." Lambert shakes his head, deadpan. "It was all right the first three or four times, particularly during the hot part of the season, but then when we played Oakland here in the AFC championship game and it was six below zero out there...." He rattles his false teeth in a simulacrum of a shiver.
"Before one game, Hanratty got up an hour early, went to a dime store and bought a paper skeleton, which he then hung in my locker along with a paper effigy of me with a cutout head shot on top of it and toed-in white-and-brown wing-tip shoes on the feet. It was Halloween, a date which Hanratty seems to have arbitrarily designated as Jack Lambert's Birthday, though my real birthday is July 8." Again Lambert shakes his head, seemingly in disapproval. "Would you believe he is 28 years old?"
Sure, but what's harder to believe is that Jack Lambert, who has just turned 24, could have achieved the phenomenal success of the past two years as rapidly as he has, particularly when one studies the unimpressive base from which he rose. A small-town kid from Mantua, Ohio (pop. 1,199) who spent summers pitching hay and slopping hogs on his grandfather's farm, Lambert was not particularly outstanding as a 6'4", 185-pound quarterback on the Crestwood High School football team. "I was mainly a hand-offer," Lambert recalls of his Crestwood quarterbacking days, "and my best time for the 40 back then was six seconds flat. When we flip-flopped, though, I played defensive halfback, and even then I loved to hit. Loved it." Nonetheless, only one Big Ten school—Wisconsin—showed any interest in him, and at one point Lambert thought of seeking a basketball scholarship. Instead, he enrolled at Kent State University, where he rapidly honed his skills—and put on much-needed muscle—at middle linebacker. Today he plays at 218 pounds and can run the 40 in 4.7 seconds, excellent speed for a sockdolager.
Though he made a few small college All-America teams, Lambert's prospects for pro ball were not the brightest. "I remember sitting in my dorm the day of the 1974 Super Bowl and actually debating whether I should watch it or not," he says. "If anyone had told me then that I'd be the starting middle linebacker on the winning Super Bowl team the next year, I'd have told him to go chase himself. Don't get me wrong—I knew deep down inside that I could do it, that I was good, but nobody else much seemed to agree with me."
One man who did was the Steelers' linebacker coach, Woody Widenhofer, who had recently come to Pittsburgh from Eastern Michigan University. Widenhofer helped Noll decide to choose Lambert second in the 1974 draft, right behind Lynn Swann. Immediately after the draft, Lambert called Widenhofer and asked if he could drive from Kent State to Pittsburgh on weekends to study films. Lambert would get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday and drive the 2½ hours to Pittsburgh in his Cougar, then watch eight hours of movies per weekend, studying the pro linebacker formations and sets. "Something like this never happened to me before," Widenhofer says. "I don't think it ever happened here. I figured he was either putting me on or else he had a great attitude."
"I guess I was just naive," says Lambert today. "I figured every rookie would be up there looking at films. I thought it was just plain logical." For Smilin' Jack, the logic paid off. There were six veteran linebackers in camp at Latrobe, Pa. when Lambert showed up for his rookie season. Andy Russell and Jack Ham held down the outside slots, with Henry Davis, a seven-year veteran finally coming into bloom, in the middle position. "I knew I couldn't beat out Ham or Russell," Jack says, "but I thought I could take the job away from Henry." After a few preseason starts on the outside, where he scarcely distinguished himself except for "attitude," Lambert moved to the middle. He was aided by two big breaks. In 1974 the players went on strike, and for most of the preseason Davis was out of camp. Then when Davis came back he suffered a neck injury and a mild concussion that put him on the injured list. Seizing these opportunities, Smilin' Jack promptly took the job away from Davis with some brilliant, hard-hitting, wide-ranging play in the early part of the season.
How did it feel to unseat a seven-year vet? "Henry was always nice to me the few times I saw him," Lambert says. "He helped me, taught me a few things. But this is a professional game, you play it to win at all levels. There's no room here for easy sentimentality. Either you play or you don't play. I wanted to play."
And that Lambert did, starting every game of the 1974-75 season and winning honors as the NFL's defensive Rookie of the Year. In Super Bowl IX, against the Minnesota Vikings, he played a hard-hitting first half but missed the second half with what was initially diagnosed as an ankle sprain. "I was chasing Chuck Foreman near the end of the first half when Joe Greene landed on my right ankle," he remembers. "I wanted to get back in there but the doc said no. Two days later I was down in Florida and the ankle still hurt, so I went to another doctor. He X-rayed it and found it was broken, just a hairline fracture but a break nonetheless. I'm damned glad they didn't let me go back out there."
With one Super Bowl ring and a Rookie of the Year designation to his credit, Lambert set his sights a tall notch higher for his second season: All-Pro. Despite the earlier honors, he was not at all satisfied with his day-in, day-out performance. "There wasn't a single game in which I didn't make a number of glaring errors," he says. "In fact, there still isn't. What a real pro does is to play without mistakes, no mistakes at all—that's what I'm shooting for."
Having mastered the intricacies of the Steeler defense his first year (he calls defensive signals with assistance from Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson on the sidelines), Lambert set out to refine his skills. He particularly improved his pass coverage, which helped let the Steelers stick with a straight 4-3 defensive alignment. "We've got some 30 pass situations in which the linebackers provide coverage," he says. "That's a lot, but all three of us are fast and relatively light. And we get her done." With Lambert at 218, Ham 220 and Russell at 214, the Steeler linebacker corps is one of the lightest in the NFL, but Lambert's philosophy of impact over weight infuses each member of the trio. "I give away 20 pounds every time I step on the field," he allows. "So I have to be 20 pounds more aggressive."
That aggression, along with a few minor bad breaks, has led to some scary moments. During a hayride at Tackle Jon Kolb's farm, Lambert tried to get too frisky in a new pair of cowboy boots and fell and sprained an ankle. He missed an exhibition game against the Cowboys and the Steelers lost 17-16. Later, during the regular season, he cut a finger while washing dishes in his bachelor apartment—the cut was worth seven stitches—but played anyway in a game against the Eagles and came away with the game ball, plus the intrastate joy of a 27-0 victory. Then, during a little friendly tussle in the locker room, Gerela threw a can of Fanta cream soda that caught Lambert on the ear. That cut took eight stitches. (The infamous pop can is now ensconced in the locker room trophy cabinet, along with such other memorabilia as Mel Blount's record-setting 11th interception ball.) Lambert may be a bit accident prone, and with his relatively slight bone structure he could find the injuries catching up with him before his career has peaked, but that's the price of high spirits and aggressiveness. In any event, it hasn't caused him to change his wide-open style of play.
One Pittsburgh sportswriter has called Lambert ' "the Nureyev of linebackers," a clear reference to his ability and balance in the middle of muddle.
"Who's Nureyev?" Lambert asks, deadpan again. The ballet dancer is defined for him.
"I don't know if that's a compliment or an insult," he says, after pondering the information. "But I guess those guys are pretty good athletes, whatever else they do. I'll take it as a compliment."
Other oldtime Steeler fans liken Lambert to the tough players of the team's early, losing years—men like Ernie Stautner and Bobby Layne, who hurt you when they played you, win or lose. "I like that comparison better," Lambert says. "That's what I'd really have liked, to play back in those days even though the money was hardly there. They played for the game—and to hit. Cripes, 50 bucks a game, but they loved it."
Lambert's spirit may be akin to Johnny Blood's and Ed Sprinkle's, but his life-style is certainly different. His apartment in the Village in the Park on Pittsburgh's north side is natural-wood modern, replete with a supertrick stereo outfit. A wide wooden veranda overlooks the gorges of the Ohio River. In one corner stands a Taso set. Lambert explains that Taso is a Korean version of the Japanese samurai game of Go, which in turn is related to chess, though much more complex and free form. Lambert plays it regularly with friends "to keep the strategy cells healthy."
An avid reader, he is one of the rare football players familiar with the works of John Updike, Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka. On a recent USO tour to the Far East, Lambert discovered Hawaii and fell in love with the water, the sun and the scene. "Skin diving, fishing, boats—that's what I always dreamed of on the farm back in Ohio," he muses. "I've got to find me someplace in the sun, someplace on the water."
Right now, though, it's time for a tennis workout with Jack Ham. Lambert jumps into his Corvette with the paint job called "red pearl," done by his friends Art and Walt Arfons of Bonneville and Akron, and tools over to the Airport Racquet Club. Ham has been there an hour already, slamming balls against the wall and getting his "game face" on. Lambert took up tennis only this year, at Ham's urging. "It's good for the legs, good for changing direction fast and keeping your eye on the ball," Lambert says. His backhand is awkward, his serve scrunched-up and too tightly controlled. But when Smilin' Jack gets a clear shot at a forehand drive—and doesn't get overeager to kill the ball—he burns it past Ham with no chance for a return. Ham, for his part, plays a cruel, taunting game, trying to psych Lambert into even more grievous errors, a mind game calculated to test things that can become quite serious when translated to football—things like cool.
"Fault!" yells Ham when Lambert pops a serve into the net. He chuckles to himself.
"Out!" he yells when Lambert blasts a ball home-run-like over the retaining wall behind the court. At one point, Lambert misses an easy lob shot and hurls both himself and his racket to the clay. Still, you can see, in another year or two, with that kind of desire, he'll frizzle Ham's bacon.
"You know what it was, Lambert?" Ham asks after the workout. "It was 6-0, 6-2. I won. You were never in it, Lambert." He snickers and walks away to his car. "How about Friday?" he asks just before he gets in.
"Great," says Smilin' Jack. "I'll get you then, you blankety-blank!"
They both laugh, and Ham drives away.
"You know what I'm proudest of the most?" Lambert asks. "Prouder than of the Super Bowl rings, even? We all made All-Pro last year—Jack and Andy and me—all three of us. That's the first time in history that all three linebackers came from the same team. It shows that I fit in, that we work together. That's what I'm the proudest of."
Oh sure, Jack Lambert, he's mean. A legend in his own time.