If there was any bitterness or spite after waiting what most sensible football fans knew was 45 years too many, it sure didn’t show in the wide smile and twinkling eyes of Sandpoint native Jerry Kramer, who finally took his rightful place among the greats in the game on Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
When Kramer, 82, joined daughter and presenter Alicia in pulling back a cloth to uncover the shiny bronze bust of a strapping young Kramer, the route to the final destination didn’t seem to matter anymore.
The hallowed halls of Canton now include Kramer, the iconic Green Bay Packer guard and kicker who becomes just the second Idahoan in the Hall of Fame, joining Arizona Cardinal safety Larry Wilson from Rigby in representing the Gem State.
While we’ve seen the famous footage of a lithe Kramer leading the famous Packers sweep, it was the black and white kicking highlights that ESPN showed during the ceremony that really caught the eye. A big muddy guard, wearing No. 64, toe-punching field goals through what looked like high school goal posts.
The highlight montage merely re-affirmed what a star player Kramer was on one of the great dynasties in sports. A true champion and winner, both on the field and in life, and on Saturday night he finally got his just desserts.
Induction speeches at Canton often run the gamut, from serious to funny to nostalgic, the personality of the player can’t help but shine through.
Kramer’s was vintage Jerry, a gifted storyteller regaling a rapt national audience.
He started by having his six children — Tony, Danny, Diane, Jordan, Matt and Alicia — stand to be recognized, calling them the love of his life.
Then it was a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, starting in his hometown.
“I’ve got to go back to Sandpoint High for just a minute,” Kramer told the tens of thousands in the crowd. “A wonderful town, wonderful times, and we had a great football team.”
He talked of showing up as an awkward sophomore wanting to play fullback, before the coaches told him if he wanted to see the field it was going to be at tackle.
Kramer recalled the line coach, Dusty Klein, pulling him aside one day and offering some sage advice, prescient advice that he took to heart.
“Son you’ve got big hands, big feet, one of these days you’ll grow into them. You’re going to be a hell of a player one day,” recalled Kramer of Klein’s words. “He looked me in the eye and said ‘you can, if you will.’ He walked away and left me to think about that.”
The town of Sandpoint has always been special to Kramer, and he to many of the longtime locals who remember his family well. One of them, Sandpoint native Jack Parker, called the Daily Bee this week to thank the local paper for its efforts to help get Kramer elected.
“I’ve known him all my life, all his life,” said Parker, thrilled to see his friend finally honored. “We all know it’s way, way past due, but it’s happened.”
Moving along chronologically in his speech, Kramer moved south a few hours to Moscow, to touch on his days as a guard and kicker for the Vandals.
He spoke of his days as a Vandal fondly, playing with a great bunch of guys on a great team.
“The feeling of a team is a wonderful thing,” he admitted. “It’s why most of us play, we want to be part of a team.”
Vandal teammate Wayne Walker, who went on to star for the Detroit Lions, was the one who told Jerry he’d been drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round.
“Where the hell is Green Bay?” asked Kramer. “We got a map. Oh, it’s by Chicago, it’s on a big lake.”
Scores of Idahoans followed Kramer’s career as both a Vandal and Packer, including Stubby Lyons, who graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1953 and remembers playing against Sandpoint and Kramer. His Vikings lost to Kramer’s Bulldogs, and head coach Cotton Barlow, each time they faced off, but the memories remain strong.
“They had a great team, and we did too, they were just a little bit better. They weren’t big, but damn they were tough,” described Lyons of Sandpoint. “Jerry was a real nice guy, I always admired him. I used to hitchhike down to Moscow to watch him play. Not everyone had a car then.”
Current Vandals coach Paul Petrino recalled his late father Bob Petrino Sr. always speaking fondly of Kramer, and remembers meeting Jerry while recruiting his son Jordan to the Vandals in the late 90s in Paul’s first stint in Moscow.
“He used to break my hand every time I shook his hand,” joked Petrino of Kramer, sharing the sentiment of many fans regarding the honor. “A little late, but well deserved. It gives us all great pride that a Vandal is in the Hall of Fame.”
Kramer can spin a yarn with the best of them, authentically folksy, funny and endearing, and when combined with great source material from a sports dynasty and coaching legend in the Golden Era of football, it can make for great listening.
During his rookie season in Green Bay, the then-moribund Packers went 1-10-1, including a 56-0 pasting at the hands of the Baltimore Colts, who had a unique way to celebrate.
“They had a white horse that ran around the field every time they scored,” Kramer told the rapt crowd in Canton, before delivering the punchline. “We damn near killed him.”
The next year iconic coach Vince Lombardi showed up, and as Kramer put it, the world turned around.
“He said ‘I’ve never been a loser, I’m not about to start now,’” told Kramer of his new coach addressing the team. “If you’re not willing to sacrifice and pay the price and do the things you have to do to win, then get the hell out.”
The NFL Films footage doesn’t lie, Lombardi was a demanding coach. He worked players so hard that Kramer admitted some even lost consciousness at practice. Kramer said the Hall of Fame coach could be very harsh, and yet very gentle.
Lombardi lit into Kramer after a mistake filled practice as a rookie, and as he sat dejected at his locker, wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life, Lombardi swung by.
“He slaps me on the shoulder and says ‘son, one of these days you’re going to be the best guard in football,’” recalled Kramer. “A surge of energy entered my breast and filled me up. It was his approval and his belief in me that he was passing on to me and it made a dramatic difference in my life. If he believes in me, I believe in me.”
Kramer recited the two key words again, noting approval and belief are powerful tools.
All’s well that ends well in this story. For years, Kramer harbored understandable resentment toward the NFL, but eventually came to peace with the fact he’s led a blessed life, whether Canton ever came calling or not. When they finally did, it was just icing on the cake, and all the previous 10 failed votes were long since forgotten.
Alicia Kramer, who presented her father after years of campaigning to get him in the Hall of Fame, wasn’t even born until after Kramer finished playing.
For years, she’s heard scores and scores of fans express dismay and frustration about her dad’s glaring absence from Canton. The tears she’s been shedding at recent events are tears of joy. It wasn’t until she first visited Green Bay that she realized just what her dad means to Packers’ fans.
“He was always just dad to me. When the fans started coming up and asking for my autograph, I knew things were special in Green Bay for dad,” said Alicia in her introduction. “Coach Lombardi motivated him and told him what he could be, and dad believed him. I’m proud that he’s evolved and transcended football.”
Kramer is the elder statesman in a 2018 class that includes Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Randy Moss, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Robert Brazile and Bobby Beathard, a class many are calling the greatest of all time.
For Lyons, who now lives in Oregon, the long overdue news of Kramer’s enshrinement brought a flood of emotion.
“I just think it’s wonderful. They (HOF) finally pulled their heads out of their armpits and got him in there,” said Lyons. “Jerry should have been in 40 years ago. Why they’d hold him out is beyond me, but we don’t ever have to worry about it anymore, do we.”
Kramer finished his induction speech with a quote from Lombardi, which brought goosebumps to the skin and drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
“After the game is over, stadium lights are out, parking lot’s empty, you’re back in the quiet of your room, championship ring on the dresser, the only thing left at this time is for you to lead a life of quality and excellence, and make this old world a little bit better place because you were in it,” read Kramer, before ending how he started. “You can if you will. You can if you will.”