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 of 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 with the 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.
"After a while teams would stop running curl patterns in front of him," says Gerry Myers, his coach at Crestwood High in Mantua, Ohio. "I can close my eyes now and see him hitting the split end from Streetsboro. Knocked his helmet and one shoe off."
As for the missing front teeth, they were the victims not of the thundering hooves of Pete Johnson or Earl Campbell, but of the head of Steve Poling, a high school basketball teammate. Poling's head collided with Lambert's mouth in practice one afternoon.
"Jack was very sensitive about it at first," says his mother, Joyce Brehm. "Once, when he was swimming in an old gravel pit after school, he lost his bridge, and he stayed out of school until the dentist made him a new one."
Then there are the feet, the way he'd pump them up and down before the ball was snapped, a picture of intensity. He got away from that after his first few years.
"I've had people tell me I'm not playing as hard as I used to because I don't pump my feet up and down," he said in 1978. "I'd hate to think I only played hard when I pumped my feet."