A Rose By Any Other Name
Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert is not known as a sweetie, but he sure knows the sweet smell of success
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:02PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:39PM
This story was originally published in the July 30, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The painting hangs on the wall outside the office of Art Rooney Jr., the coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers' scouting operations. It's not the kind of thing you'd want your mother or your wife to see. It's what Attila must have looked iike while he was sacking a village, or the way a Viking chieftain was with his blood lust up. Only this Viking wears No. 58 and he's dressed out in flashing in a maniacal frenzy; blood flecking his nose; his mouth, minus three front teeth, bared in a hideous leer Jack Lambert's portrait epitomizes the viciousness and cruelty of our national game.
The portrait was done by Merv Corning. It was one of two he submitted to the Steelers' publicity director. Joe Gordon, for possible use as a program cover, and it was rejected immediately. Too scary. Rooney saw it. He called Corning. "Can I buy the original?" he said. The deal was made, and Rooney hung it outside his office. Then he had misgivings.
"I thought, 'Holy hell. Lambert's gonna pull this thing offthe wall when he sees it,' " Rooney says. So he removed it and sent for Lambert.
"Jack," he said. "I want to hang it on the wall. What do you think?"
"He got very quiet," Rooney says. "He looked at it. He studied it. He stepped back, stepped forward. Then he asked me, 'Can you get me a couple of copies?' "
Is that really the image Lambert wants, a toothless monster ravaging the NFL? Off the field he's a quiet, extremely private man, a bird watcher and avid fisherman. A bachelor, he owns a house in the exclusive Fox Chapel suburb of Pittsburgh, and he spent much of the off-season ensuring greater privacy by building himself a country retreat on 85 acres he bought about 40 miles northeast of the city. At one time he was bothered by all the Count Dracula-Darth Vider stuff everyone used to write about him. When the Steelers played the Rams in the '80 Super Bowl. Jim Murray, the columnist for the Los Angeles Times, referred to him as "the pro from Pittsburgh, Transylvania." That same year the Steelers' highlight film called him "Count Dracula in cleats." In 1981 Azra Records of L.A. put out a platter in the shape of a football it was called Mad Man Jack, and two bass drums pounding all the way were supposed to simulate Lambert's feet pumping before a play, a trademark of his early pro days.
"All that stuff about Jack, it's a had read," says Andy Russell, the right linebacker on the '74 and '75 Steeler Super Bowl teams. "He's a great player and he'll be remembered for a long time, but for all the wrong reasons."
But here's Lambert, carefully scrutinizing that savage picture in the Steelers' office and deciding. "Yep, that's me, all right." How come?
"It's like the old Greek drama," says Rooney, a dramatic arts major in college, "where they'd wear masks, and eventually the mask became the face. Well, the mask has become Jack's face. Right now he thinks he's John Wayne. Actually, though, he's sort of a larger-than-life type guy."
As Jack Lambert reported to camp last week for his 11th Steeler season, he still seemed larger than life. He came to the Steelers a tough, skinny kid out of Kent State, and he found a spot on a team that was just reaching the crest of its greatness. He arrived at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place. Pittsburgh fans have always appreciated talented athletes, but they reserve a special place in their hearts for their tough guys -- Fran Rogel. Ernie Stautner, John Henry Johnson, those people. And Lambert played the ultimate tough-guy position, middle linebacker.
At one time middle linebackers roamed the league like Goliaths. Nitschke, Butkus, Schmidt -- names as tough as the people who carried them. Willie Lanier, with that pad he wore on the front of his helmet. Mike Curtis, the Animal. Bob Griese talks about staring across the line at Butkus and feeling his legs turn to jelly. Gene Upshaw, the Raiders' ex-guard, remembers the terror he felt when he looked into Lanier's eyes.
But then a few years ago something sad happened to these great middle linebackers. The 3-4 defense robbed them of their identity. They divided, like an amoeba. Instead of one, there were two of them, inside strong and inside weak, or, in the Steelers' case, left and right. The great gunfighters of the past had gone corporate. It was as if Wyatt Earp had taken on a job with Pinkerton's, or Bat Masterson had become director of security for the First National Bank. It happened to Harry Carson with the Giants, then to Jack Reynolds when he went from the Rams to the 49ers. And then the last of them, the last of the great old middle linebackers, Jack Lambert, got his two years ago.
"Oh yes, Mr. Lambert, I've heard ot you. And what position do you play, Mr. Lambert?" And instead of snarling out "middle linebacker" through chipped and broken teeth, Lambert would answer "inside linebacker left." Sounds like a traffic signal.
Oh, there are still middle linebackers -- seven of them. They belong to the seven NFL teams that continue to use the 4-3 as their basic defense, but most of them are 60% players. They get the hook on passing downs, when the defense goes into its nickel. There's the Bears' Mike Singletary, the best of the bunch, but the rest of the names won't quicken the pulse: Ken Fantetti, David Ahrens, Neal Olkewicz, Bob Crable, Bob Breunig, Fulton Kuykendall -- all good steady workers, but there's no magic there. So can you blame Lambert for trying to recapture a little of the old imagery, some of the old glamour -- and terror -- that went witht he position?
Actually, if you look at Lambert's career with the Steelers you find a remarkable collection of big plays in big situations, but no trail of bloodied and broken bodies; you find very little to justify all the adjectives of mayhem that give writers so many easy off-day features. Lambert hits hard, of course. Always has, ever since his high school days.