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"Tough, raw-boned, intense," Russell says, "that's the way he'll be remembered, but I've seen a lot of guys like that come into the league. No, Jack's a whole lot more. The range he has...they put him into coverage 30 yards downfield. They gave him assignments that the old Bears or Packers never would've dreamed of. He brought a whole new concept to the position, and that's why, for me anyway, he's the greatest there has ever been. His first step is never wrong, his techniques have always been perfect. His greatness has nothing to do with his popular image."
The image. Close your eyes and you can see Lambert ranging from sideline to sideline in the old 4-3 days, a big wingless bird, half an inch over 6'4", barely 220 pounds, always squared up to the line, always around the ball. He has made the Pro Bowl in nine of his 10 years and leads active players for appearances. He missed out only in his rookie season. He has led the Steelers in tackles for all 10. They didn't keep stats for tackles and assists in the old days, but he probably has more than any Steeler ever.
"Last year, when the Bengals beat Pittsburgh, they ran off 75 plays," says Mike Giddings, who runs a private scouting service and grades all NFL players. "Lambert was in on 31 tackles. He had 22 at halftime. I don't see how his body could stand it."
The Hall of Fame is certainly in his future, but he'll have to wait his turn. Jack Ham, Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw, his teammates from Pittsburgh's Super Bowl era, will probably get in before him. And he'll most likely still be active when Franco Harris has retired to begin his five-year wait for enshrinement.
"I don't like to speculate on something like that," Lambert says. "But you know, it's a funny thing. I grew up right down the road from Canton, and I've been to the Hall a few times, and one thing always struck me: how few people have made it."
He has three years to go on his contract, which he signed before the 1982 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 Christmastime, 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 me, 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."