Russell, a successful businessman in Pittsburgh these days, shakes his head when asked about the Lambert image.
"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 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 operates 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—123, and 15 or so weren't active players."
Mantua, pronounced man-tu-way, is situated 30 miles due north of Canton. It's a town of some 1,200, living off light industry and the small dairy farms that dot the countryside southeast of Cleveland. The folks in Mantua are impressed by a famous citizen, by a Jack Lambert who goes off and makes a name for himself, but they're not dazzled. Still, in 1980 they renamed Crestwood High's football stadium Jack Lambert Stadium, an honor that Lambert calls "the greatest I've ever had in my life." His mother remembers the night all too well. "I got my first and only traffic ticket while I was on my way to the ceremony," she says. "Only in Mantua would they give a ticket to the star's mother on the way to the dedication. Mr. Post gave it to me. He didn't recognize me and I didn't say anything."
Lambert grew up working summers on his grandfather's farm driving a tractor, baling hay, doing odd jobs. "Farm-boy strength," his mother says. He brushes off his achievements at Crestwood, where he earned nine letters in football, basketball and baseball. "Small school district," he says. "Mostly farmer kids."
"You have to understand this area," says Bill Cox, Lambert's old basketball coach. "Those 6'7", 260-pound high school football players you hear about, you just don't see 'em around here. When Jack played there was a 6'8" center on the basketball team named Denver Belknap and he was the freak of northeast Ohio. Jack was 6'3�" in his senior year, and I don't think Crestwood's had anyone much taller since.
"Things like drugs were unknown in that era. Sometimes maybe a couple of kids would sneak off and drink a beer in the back of a car—all farmer kids like beer—but that was the extent of it. I remember once the kids came to me and said they saw Belknap smoking cornsilk while he was driving a tractor. 'What's cornsilk?' I said. That was how much we knew."