SI Classic NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:02PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:39PM
"You'd never see Jack lose his temper out there. When he got mud he got real quiet. When he didn't like a call he'd hold the ball maybe an extra second or two before he threw it back to the ref, but he wasn't the kind of guy who'd throw a basketball up to the ceiling. "
In football Lambert played quarterback ("Handed the ball off mostly," he says) and on defense he made all league as a weakside cornerback -- squirmback, they called it at Crestwood.
"He was my fourth-fastest of four starting defensive backs," Myers says. "He didn't get his speed till he got to college, but no one ever completed anything deep over him. His first step was always correct. He always knew the angles. And God, would he hit 'em. First they stopped throwing curls in front of him, then they just stopped throwing to the split end in general.
"He was intense, dedicated. He used to say, 'I don't know where I'm gonna play someday and I don't care, but I will play.' He'd play in pain, too. He played against Field High his senior year with a sprained ankle, a deep calf bruise that was black and blue, a knee sprain and a thigh bruise that was starting to turn purplish-yellow. Oh yes, he also had a hip pointer that would have kept anyone else out of the game. Our wrestling coach, Frank DiNapoli, taped him from ankle to waist. We held him out on offense, but he went the whole way on defense and we won 20-0."
Myers, who'd played tight end and captained his team at Miami of Ohio, tried to get Lambert into his old school. Miami's coach was Bill Mallory. He told Myers that Lambert was too slow to play the secondary in college; maybe, if he got up around 220, he'd be a defensive end someday, but not at Miami.
"I told Malory, 'You'd better hope he goes outside the Mid-America Conference,' " Myers says, " 'because someday he's gonna come back and beat you.' He did, too, hisjunior year at Kent. Beat 'em on a goal-line stand. He made four straight tackles inside the two.
"But I'll tell you the truth, I was worried. I mean if you can't even get a guy into your own school, geez. Wisconsin toyed around for a while. So did a few MAC schools, but no one would give him a full scholarship."
Cox finally swung the deal for him at Kent State.
"I knew their coach, Dave Puddington," he says. "He'd been losing a lot of Ohio kids to other places. The only real blue-chipper he had was Don Nottingham [who went on to play fullback for the Miami Dolphins]. He asked, 'What kind of a kid is Lambert?' I told him, 'Look, you keep complaining about losing solid kids. If you're gonna gamble, this kid is the one to gamble on. He's only 17 and he's been playing against older kids. He hasn't really started to mature.'
"He was still leery about Jack's speed and his skinniness, but in the spring a kid from New Jersey got married and didn't come back, and a scholarship opened up. Jack got it."
A year later, in the Kent State alumni magazine, Puddington was quoted as follows: "We've got a tall, skinny kid named Lambert playing defensive end. Notts [Nottiagham] nearly cuts him in half with his blocks, but he keeps getting up and going for the ballcarrier. When he pats on some weight and learns the positiom, he'll be a terror."
"He weighed 187 as a freshman, and even in his senior year, when he got up to 217, he couldn't hold the weight," says Denny Fitzgerald, Lambert's defensive coach at Kent and a Steeler defensive assistant now. "He was 203 after the season."
Don James took over as Kent State coach in Lambert's sophomore year and, with three games left in the season, moved him to middle linebacker in the 4-3. But he was due to go back to defensive end as ajunior.
"There was some transfer from Buffalo named Bob Bender who was going to "He was supposed to be the next Dick Butkus or something, but he quit two weeks before the season started, so they threw me in there. They had no choice. It was the greatest break of my life. Right away I loved it. Last time I heard about Bender he was a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones."
The Kent State press book for Lambert's sophomore season had included the prophetic words "lust for contact" in his bio, and by the end of his junior year the publicity department was listing his tackles and assists in its weekly mailings -- 19 and five against Miami, 15 and six against San Diego State. That year Lambert was voted MAC Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Tangerine Bowl, despite the presence of Tampa's John Matuszak, the first player drafted by the NFL that spring.