Instant Replay, the diary of the 1967 Packers season by Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap, is a testament to what can happen when outstanding candor and beautiful writing converge with outrageously fortuitous luck. What begins as an arduous challenge for Kramer to persevere through yet another torturous Vince Lombardi training camp culminates in the Packers’ triumph in the Ice Bowl–on a final-minute Bart Starr quarterback sneak for a touchdown where Kramer threw the key block–and, somewhat anti-climatically, the Packers’ Super Bowl II victory over the Raiders.
For insight into the daily preparation and psyche of a football player, football coach, and football team alone, Instant Replay would be an exceptional read. That it captures one of the most heralded plays in NFL history, however, leads its relevance to endure more than 40 years later.
Dick Schaap begins Instant Replay by going out of his way to note that he is an editor, not the main writer: “This is Jerry Kramer’s book. These are his thoughts, his impressions, his words. He is, I believe, an observant, perceptive, and articulate young man who happens to be a tremendous football player.” Schaap adds, “My job, with this diary, was to organize, to condense, to clarify, and to punctuate. I did not have to polish Jerry Kramer’s phrases or prompt his thoughts. If anyone suspects that I placed words into Jerry Kramer’s mouth, he credits me with too much courage. I would never put words in the mouth of anyone three inches taller and sixty-five pounds heavier than I.” Schaap is self-deprecating in this introduction but his editing is brilliant. He has left a lasting legacy as a writer; in discussing why he is so universally beloved on a recent BS Report with Bill Simmons, Mike Lupica, who worked for years with Schaap on The Sports Reporters, said that “Schaap was a friend behind your back.”
This editor’s note has major implications. First, it sets the tone that this book will be different than most “as-told-to” sports books where the writer imposes his will on the final output and just puts the athlete or coach’s name on it. For example, as David Maraniss details in the quintessential Vince Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, WC Heinz got virtually no help in writing Run to Daylight from “author” Vince Lombardi, who didn’t have any “audiovisual recall.” This was not meant as an insult–Lombardi was so singularly focused that he marginalized all thoughts and memories that were extraneous to the task at hand: winning football games. Heinz instead had to rely on Lombardi’s wife Marie, interactions with players, and his own perceptions to try to put himself into the mind of Lombardi and write the book.
Instant Replay is different and its authenticity shines through. Kramer uses the diary as a therapeutic exercise to try and figure out why he endures the grind despite not needing the money: “Perhaps, by setting down my daily thoughts and observations, I’ll be able to understand precisely what it is that draws me back to professional football.”
On July 15th, the second day of camp, Kramer has a pretty grim outlook about his eight week stay at Sensenbrenner Hall, a dorm at St. Norbert College in West De Pere: “I went to jail today…Eight weeks a year, since 1958, I’ve lived in this dormitory; I deserve an honorary degree.” Two-a-days start on July 17th: “The agony is beyond belief. Grass drills, agility drills, wind sprints, everything. You wonder why you’re there, how long you’re going to last. The grass drills are exquisite torture.”
During training camp, Kramer’s mood is continually foul and downbeat and he is extremely introspective about why in the world he is putting himself through this misery and whether it’s worth it. Lombardi is a consummate drill sergeant but there is a method to his madness as he re-enforces the motto, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” Kramer understands that this is all for a greater purpose but that doesn’t make it any less painful: “Vince is driving us like a madman; he never lets up. It’s hard to resist hating him, his ranting, his raving, his screaming, his hollering. But, damn him, he’s a great coach.”
On Lombardi, Kramer continues, “He pays such meticulous attention to detail. He makes us execute the same plays over and over, a hundred times, two hundred times, until we do every little thing right automatically. He works to make the kick-off return team perfect, the punt-return team perfect, the field-goal team perfect. He ignores nothing. Technique, technique, technique, over and over and over, until we feel like we’re going crazy. But we win.”
A major reason that, as alluded to in the introduction, Jerry Kramer doesn’t need the money from professional football is that he is a successful entrepreneur off the field. Kramer often speaks about his business interests in bow-and-arrows and diving as well as a deal he has with Kraft Foods. He generated more income from his outside opportunities than from professional football. Although he never says it outright, though, it is clear that these pursuits are not as fulfilling to Kramer as the team camaraderie inherent in the collective pursuit of victory that brings him back year after year despite the mental and physical anguish from playing football.
On Bulletin Board Material and the Media
One surprising aspect of Instant Replay is just how much fanfare and media coverage the NFL had in 1967. Obviously, social media and television have taken it to an entirely new level in current times but Kramer often talks about extensive press coverage and goes out of his way not to provide the defensive lineman he will be lining up against with extra motivation: “I hate to say anything unkind about an opponent, not because I’m a nice guy, but because I don’t want to upset him. I don’t want to give him any extra incentive against me. Our whole team feels this way….We always say so-and-so is very tough. We always say so-and-so is a real competitor. We always sweet-talk out opponents–usually to death.”
Athletes today complain about sites like Deadspin that look to bring them down and we are led to believe that this is an ugly byproduct of the contemporary media. However, Kramer had his own gripes about the media stirring up trouble: “Newspaper reporters seem to have a habit of looking for sensationalism, of distorting and stretching the truth. Of course, there are exceptions, but sometimes I’m afraid they’re few and far between.”
On Lombardi and Injuries
Kramer has a pretty good sense of humor and self awareness about his and his teammates’ trials and tribulations throughout the season. He often alludes to Lombardi’s lack of sensitivity pertaining to injuries, but does so in an ironic, as opposed to accusatory, manner: “Lombardi has got to have the highest threshold of pain in the world; none of our injuries hurt him at all.”
On Alex Karras
Karras, the all-pro defensive tackle on the Lions, is Kramer’s most formidable opponent and many pages of Instant Replay are spent obsessing over how to beat him. “Playing against Karras is like playing a chess game,” Kramer writes. “If you try to pop him, he’ll beat you like a stepchild. You’ve got to be thinking all the time. You’ve got to be thinking about the move he beat you with two years ago. You’ve got to remember that everything with him is a countermove.” For the week leading up to the game, Karras is literally all that Kramer can think about.
In the first match-up, Karras gets the better of Kramer, the Lions win, and Kramer is hurt physically but in an even worse mental state: “My right ankle’s extremely sore today, all discolored, black and blue and red, bruised, painful, everything. I guess it’s going to be all right, unfortunately. For a while I was kind of hoping it was broken. Then this dammed season would be over for me.”
Kramer goes into detail about the opposing tackle he will be facing off against every week but he is particularly obsessed with Karras. Because they never touch the ball, guards don’t really get noticed on the football field so the passages where Kramer talks at length about blocking technique, the nuances between pass protection and run blocking, what it takes to win individual match-ups, and how this all affects the mechanics of the overall play are particularly informative and fascinating.
The Ice Bowl
“During breakfast, I found out the temperature was 16 degrees below zero, the coldest December 31st in Green Bay history, and I started to shiver. Still, I figured it would warm up a little by noon,” Kramer writes. “It warmed all the way up to 13 below by game time.” It is so frigid that Kramer almost feels sorry for the Cowboys: “As bad as the cold was for us, it had to be worse for them. We were freezing, and they were dying.”
Down 17-14 with five minutes to play in the fourth, Bart Starr led the Packers down the field, finally getting first-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 1. Stopped on first and second down, and now with 16 seconds to play, the Packers opted to go for it instead of kicking a game-tying field goal.
The call was a quarterback sneak. Kramer narrates, “I came off the ball as fast I ever have in my life. I came off the ball as fast as anyone could. In fact, I wouldn’t swear that I didn’t beat the center’s snap by a fraction of a second. I wouldn’t swear that I wasn’t actually offside on the play.”
“Bart churned into opening and stretched and fell and landed over the goal line. It was the most beautiful sight in the world, seeing Bart lying next to me and seeing the referee in front of me, his arms over his head, signaling the touchdown. There were thirteen seconds left to play.”
Fiction could not have been scripted any better; after dutifully keeping this diary all season, Kramer had thrown the key block on one of the most crucial plays in NFL history. The Packers went on to beat the Raiders in Super Bowl II for their third consecutive championship, an accomplishment that was dangled as motivation dozens of times by Lombardi throughout the season. No team has since accomplished this feat.
The Aftermath: Does Jerry Kramer Belong in the Hall of Fame?
Currently, Jerry Kramer is considered one of the best players of all-time not to be in the Hall of Fame. The debate about whether or not he belongs still rages on. In this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback, HoF voter Peter King made the case against Kramer, writing:
The way I view it is this: The vast majority of voters who watched Kramer and the Packers live are no longer on the committee — including the writers who covered the great Green Bay era, with the exception of Sid Hartman from Minneapolis. The rest, veteran scribes like Art Daley from Wisconsin, Cooper Rollow from Chicago, Chuck Heaton from Cleveland, Jerry Green from Detroit, are gone from the committee. In their place are young writers and voters.
We are being asked, basically, to overrule those who watched Kramer’s entire career. They had 15 chances to enshrine Kramer after watching the Packers win five titles in the ’60s. They had years to nominate and push his case as a senior candidate. And the media people who saw him the most and knew the Packers the best didn’t think he was worthy.
The Big Lead’s Jason Lisk, meanwhile, made the case last week that Kramer’s play on the field deserves Hall of Fame recognition but is being kept out because of his candor in Instant Replay (click-through HIGHLY recommended):
Yes, the Packers went on to win the NFL Championship [in 1961], without Kramer. With him in the lineup, though, in a season where we have a split of games, his Packers averaged over a full yard more per run and almost two yards more per pass when Kramer played. That was a season in which he did not win an all pro selection because of injury. With five other full seasons as an all pro, you can see why he was selected the best lineman of the first half century of the NFL.
Of course, the real reason he is not in is likely politics and personal gripes. Kramer wrote a book, Instant Replay, with Dick Schaap after the 1967 Super Bowl season, where he kept a running diary of the season and let people inside the locker room. He was the Ball Four of the football world, and some writers and league members may still be holding a grudge. Between the lines, he merits the Hall of Fame, and year after year, he is bypassed.
In Instant Replay, Kramer definitely violates the “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room” ethos but not to a flagrant or irresponsible degree. Names are named, whether it be anecdotes about card games, Max McGee’s nights out on the town and curfew violations, or Fuzzy Thurston’s getting chewed out by Vince Lombardi. However, Kramer exercises discretion and deftly straddles the boundary between being candid and destroying the reputations of his teammates, coaches, and opponents. It is not as if he outs teammates for, say, adultery or anything else that would truly violate their privacy.
If he is being kept out of the Hall of Fame more than 40 years later for what he divulged in Instant Replay, Jerry Kramer is being unfairly punished. If this is in fact the case, then King’s reasoning for not voting him in–that those who saw him play deemed him unfit–does not hold water because it would mean that an unjust grudge is being held against Kramer. If anything, Instant Replay provides such a brilliant glimpse into the totality of a football season that it should enhance, not detract from, his candidacy.
Obviously, any Hall of Fame voting process is going to be open to subjectivity. However, in the case of Jerry Kramer, that subjectivity should be confined to what he accomplished on the field, not because he wrote a book that revealed secrets about the inner workings of professional that the media does not feel the public should be privy too or, perhaps, feels should be relayed by the media and not players.