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.
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 �lan, it also spelled the final score: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17.