SI Classic NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:02PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:39PM
The pros had a book on him, also some questions. Where do you play a skinny 6' 4 1/2" kid?
Rooney pulls out the Steelers' old scouting file on Lambert. The reports run pretty much true to type: "Intense, great nose for the ball, needs to add weight. . . ."
"My cousin Timmy, who's head of personnel for the Lions now, was the guy most in his corner," Rooney says. "He told me that the day he was up at kent they had a quarterback who was evidently a dissipater, and he did something and they were going to throw him off the team. Lambert was the captain. He went up to Fitzgerald and said, 'You can't. You'll wreck the team.' Fitzgerald said, "O.K., but he'll have to run a punishment drill.' Lambert said, 'I'll run with him to make sure he does it.' Lambert ended up dragging him through.
"Timmy told me that story one night, and next day I drove up to see him myself. The field was muddy. They were practicing in a parking lot, with cinders. Lambert dived at someone and when he got up, all these cinders were sticking to him. He went back to the huddle picking cinders off."
The Steelers drafted him with time running out for their second-round pick. It had been between Lambert and UCLA linebacker Cal Peterson, who wound up in Dallas. Lambert was happy to go to a place only a 2 1/2-hour drive away, but there was a problem. Where was he going to play? The left linebacker, Ham, was just emerging as a superstar. Russell, on the right side, had played in four straight Pro Bowls, and Henry Davis, the 235-pound middle linebacker, had been a Pro Bowler two years before. Lambert began driving to the Steelers' office every weekend to watch films.
"I thought everybody did it," he says. "But I guess that it was unusual, since the newspapers made such a big fuss about it."
That was a strike year, 1974. Lambert got an extra-long look in camp. So did Mike Webster and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and a free agent named Donnie Shell. All of them wound up as Pro Bowlers, The veterans returned, and Lambert backed up Ham for a while, but in the next-to-last exhibition game Davis went down with a nerve injury in his neck and Lambert was thrown in the middle.
In terms of defensive talent there has probably never been anything to match the Steelers' first two Super Bowl champions, the '74 and '75 teams. In the Pro Bowl following the '75 season, seven Steelers were on the starting AFC team, including all three linebackers. Another Steeler was a backup, another had made it earlier and another, Shell, was a future. That's 10 defensive Steelers with Pro Bowl credentials on one squad.
"We just shut people down, completely dominated them," Lambert says. "Teams would just give up running the ball against us."
"Bud Carson was the defensive coach, and having Lambert allowed him to do things that had been unheard of," Russell says. "Bud had him covering the tight end all over the field. He'd assign him the first back out of the backfield. Normally the middle linebacker covered the second back, which is a piece of cake; he's just a floater. But the first back, my God, it was thought to be an impossible assignment for a middle linebacker. He'd have Lambert making calls and changing the defense three, four, five times when we'd play a team like the Cowboys that kept changing their sets. No one ever tried to match the Cowboys call for call. Usually Dallas would get a team into some kind of simplistic zone, and that's when Staubach went to work, but Carson would have us changing our calls as many times as they changed sets. Pure genius stuff. Once we changed six times. And Jack had to know everything, call everything.
Against the run he'd read everything right, always get leverage and balance on the blocker. "There wasn't an NFL center who could cut himoff on a sweep," Russell says. "He'd read and he was gone."
Al Davis remembers a play Lambert made in the '75 season's AFC championship game against the Raiders. "There were seven seconds left and we were down 16-10," he says. "We hit Cliff branch deep down the sideline and he was going to lateral to Ted Kwalick, our tight end. Lambert read it and positioned himself on Kwalick to take the lateral away, and Mel Blount tackled Branch on the 15-yard line. It was a great play by Lambert, a great read, and it never showed up in the stats."
In '76 the Steelers were beaten by Oakland for the AFC championship when a plague of injuries hit their running backs. In '77 they lost to Denver in the playoffs. Lambert had missed three games with a knee injury. He'd been a 39-day holdout in camp, over contract matters. A few people partly blamed the demise of the Steelers on him. He didn't take it kindly. Eventually he signed a five-year contract for a reported $1,25 million, making him the highest-paid defensive player in the game.
"I reminded him of what he said when he was a rookie, that he'd play for nothing," his mother says. "He said, 'This is different.' "
The '78 and '79 Steeler teams won two more Super Bowls. Lambert was still a young player, but by now he'd picked up an old-pro image, hard-bitten, no time for chitchat. In '77 Houston had beaten Cincinnati to allow the Steelers to back into the playoffs, and a day before Pittsburgh's first-round game Joe Greene announced that in appreciation the Steelers were sending each Oiler player an attache case, Lambert threw his helmet into his locker in disgust.
"This is a bunch of junk," he said. "We're all professionals, We get paid to win."
The week before the Super Bowl in Pasadena in 1980 was a downer. Winter rains had turned the practice field heavy and soggy, deadening the legs. The team had an air of defeat about it. One day after practice Lambert and a couple of teammates were having a beer in the Main Brace, the bar in their hotel in Newport Beach. A bunch of teeny-boppers spotted them.
"There's Jack Lambert," one of them said, "Hey, Jack, do you believe in astrology?"
"What's your sign, Jack? You know, astrology."
"Feces," he said.
The kids in Pittsburgh saw another side of him, thoughSo did the people who'd get him to make one of his rare banquet appearances -- always unpaid.
"In the old days players would go into a place, tell a couple of locker-room stories, talk about the team, take the money and run," he said. "I decided I wasn't going to cheat people."
So he began to talk about drugs, and senseless vandalism, about respect and the pride that he felt when he stood at attention before a game and heard the national anthem played. The audience would stare at him. Is this a put-on or what? Then they'd applaud. At one affair someone asked him what he'd do to the drug dealers. His reply was typically blunt, "Hang them by their feet in Market Square until the wind whistles through their bones."
"I read about sports figures who say the idea of their having an impact on kids is overrated," Lambert says. "I can't believe that. I've had kids at my camp who I know damn well would listen to me before their parents and their teacher. We have a responsibility, and if I can keep one kid from going on drugs I've accomplished something."
The remnants of the Super Bowl Steeler defenses are dwindling. Last year Ham retired; this year it's Blount and Loren Toews. Only Lambert and Shell remain. And in 1982 the Steelers gave Lambert a partner at an inside backer spot, going to the 3-4. Jack didn't like it.
"It was a change for me," he says. "I was 30. I didn't know how I'd adjust. Having to worry about cutbacks, well, it goes against my nature. I always want to go to the ball and pursue all over the field. This way is an efficient way to play the game and I accept it -- but that doesn't mean I like it."
He doesn't leave the field on passing downs. "If I did I'd start looking for another position," he says. His range on deep coverages is still amazing.
"No matter where he plays, he is and always will be the hub of that defense, both physically and mentally," says Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano, whose Browns play Lambert twice every year. "To the Jack Lambert is the Pittsburgh Steelers."
"The old middle linebacker position is pretty much gone forever," Lambert says. "I still think that if you have four really good defensive linemen you could play the 4-3, but maybe that's why we got away from it in the first place."
He has three years to go on his contract, which he signed before the '82 season. He called it a "career ender."
"He wants to be the best at what he does," his mother says. "I think there will come a time when he's not All-Pro anymore, and I'm afraid of that, I heard someone talking about an older player the other day and he said, 'Yeah, that was back when he could play.' I don't ever want to hear that about Jack. He's always said he'd play as long as it was fun. When he was home at Christmas time he didn't look like he was having fun. I'd like to see him get out of it. He's had a marvelous career -- eight years in high school and college, 10 years as a pro. That's a lot of beating for one body."
"I've met some of the old linebackers," Lambert says. "Bill George, Sam Huff. Huff has written me a couple of short notes. "I saw you play. I think you're a fine linebacker.' It was really kind and considerate. I met Ray Nitschke one time and we sat down and talked, about anything and everything. He walks stiff. Most middle linebackers do.
"It's funny to see how different people take their playing days of old -- Jim Brown making a big deal out of coming back because Franco runs out of bounds, Huff sending nice letters. Isn't it enough that Brown is remembered as the greatest running back? I'd like to think I'll be like Huff. I'd like to say I played the best I could. If somebody comes along and makes the fans forget about the, God bless him. I hope he makes more interceptions and tackles. I can't envision myself 15 years from now being bitter about another linebacker."
"Once in the locker room," says Jack Lambert Sr., "Jack told me, 'You know, Dad, I feel like I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time. I belong with the Steelers of the '30s and '40s. Win or lose, I'm a Steeler.'
"The first year he was drafted I had a heart attack, I said 'God, please let me see his first year in professional football. Let me live that long.' Here it is 10 years later and I'm still alive. Someone says, 'Your son's gonna be in the Hall of Fame.'
Here I go again. . . . God, please let me live to see that. Jack gives me something to live for.
This story was originally published in the July 30, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated.
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