"I knew their coach, Dave Pudding-ton," he says. "He'd been losing a lot of Ohio kids to other places. The only real blue-chipper he had was Don Nottingham [who went on to play fullback for the Miami Dolphins]. He asked, 'What kind of a kid is Lambert?' I told him, 'Look, you keep complaining about losing solid kids. If you're gonna gamble, this kid is the one to gamble on. He's only 17 and he's been playing against older kids. He hasn't really started to mature.'
"He was still leery about Jack's speed and his skinniness, but in the spring a kid from New Jersey got married and didn't come back, and a scholarship opened up. Jack got it."
A year later, in the Kent State alumni magazine, Puddington was quoted as follows: "We've got a tall, skinny kid named Lambert playing defensive end. Notts [ Nottingham] nearly cuts him in half with his blocks, but he keeps getting up and going for the ballcarrier. When he puts on some weight and learns the position, he'll be a terror."
"He weighed 187 as a freshman, and even in his senior year, when he got up to 217, he couldn't hold the weight," says Denny Fitzgerald, Lambert's defensive coach at Kent and a Steeler defensive assistant now. "He was 203 after the season."
Don James took over as Kent State coach in Lambert's sophomore year and, with three games left in the season, moved him to middle linebacker in the 4-3. But he was due to go back to defensive end as a junior.
"There was some transfer from Buffalo named Bob Bender who was going to be the middle linebacker," Lambert says. "He was supposed to be the next Dick Butkus or something, but he quit two weeks before the season started, so they threw me in there. They had no choice. It was the greatest break of my life. Right away I loved it. Last time I heard about Bender he was a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones."
The Kent State press book for Lambert's sophomore season had included the prophetic words "lust for contact" in his bio, and by the end of his junior year the publicity department was listing his tackles and assists in its weekly mailings—19 and five against Miami, 15 and six against San Diego State. That year Lambert was voted MAC Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Tangerine Bowl, despite the presence of Tampa's John Matuszak, the first player drafted by the NFL that spring.
The pros had a book on him, also some questions. Where do you play a skinny 6'4�" kid?
Rooney pulls out the Steelers' old scouting file on Lambert. The reports run pretty much true to type: "Intense, great nose for the ball, needs to add weight...."
"My cousin Timmy, who's head of personnel for the Lions now, was the guy most in his corner," Rooney says. "He told me that the day he was up at Kent they had a quarterback who was evidently a dissipater, and he did something and they were going to throw him off the team. Lambert was the captain. He went up to Fitzgerald and said, 'You can't. You'll wreck the team.' Fitzgerald said, 'O.K., but he'll have to run a punishment drill.' Lambert said, 'I'll run with him to make sure he does it.' Lambert ended up dragging him through.