Was Jack Lambert the
Best -- and Meanest -- Ever?|
Steelers' 'Monster in Middle' Was 'an 11 on a Scale of 10'
By JOHN WIEBUSCH
In the land of the intimidators, no one intimidated more than Jack Lambert, his missing front teeth and pronounced fangs suggesting Dracula, his mile-wide shoulders and flapping arms channeling Frankenstein's monster, and his eerie blue eyes looking like a brother from another planet.
And that was before the ball was snapped.
Snap the ball, and hell had no fury like Jack Lambert, middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 11 memorable seasons, a man about whom Jackson Browne might have written the lyrics:
He's the missing link, the kitchen sink, Eleven on a scale of ten. Honey, let me introduce you to my redneck friend.
Jack Lambert was the Steelers' missing link. He was the rivets in the Steel Curtain, the final piece in the puzzle that turned a very good defense into one for the storybooks. Before him, Pittsburgh was zero-for-franchise; with him in the lineup, the team won four Super Bowls in six seasons.
An 11 on a scale of 10? A lot of behemoths in the middle preceded and followed him, but there is this Cult of Lambert -- and not all of them wear Steeler hardhats -- who believe with all their hearts (and, yeah, with all their fists, too) that no one ever did it better than Jack Lambert.
And honey, let me introduce you to my redneck friend? Jack Lambert once had this bumper sticker on the back of his pickup:
I DON'T BRAKE FOR LIBERALS
If you have inclinations in that direction -- if there is blue state blood in your veins-you are hereby warned to stay away from Oakmont, Pa., and the posted 125 acres -- "NO TRESPASSING" signs ring the property -- some 75 miles from Pittsburgh where he lives with his wife Lisa and their two sons and two daughters.
He is a devoted family man, immersing himself in the considerable sports activities of his children (all pre-teens to mid-teens). He was single while he played (1974-1984), saying marriage was not compatible with the life of a pro athlete. He was in his mid-30s when he married Lisa Harbison, a Pittsburgh woman. He turned 52 last summer.
Jack Lambert does not suffer fools -- or "practically anyone except kids and seniors," someone with the Steelers told me -- gladly.
For one thing, he doesn't like to talk with people very much. I tried to call him twice. I left two messages. I said, "It won't take much time and it will be harmless." Then I called Joe Gordon, a retired Steeler executive and one of the world's truly decent people. Joe was on vacation in Florida, and poolside, when I explained my dilemma.
"Lambert won't call you back," Gordon said. "Don't take it personally, but I know he won't. He doesn't talk to any media, even those he knows well. He's just an intensely private person."
Jim O'Brien, the longtime Pittsburgh sportswriter who is the Boswell of the city's sports legends, decided to add Lambert, one of the most legendary, to his biography list not long ago.
When O'Brien approached the man he has known for 30 years, Lambert was indignant, saying he "wanted to be left alone... that I will not talk about anything with you... that my life is none of your business."
Undeterred, O'Brien put together a splendid, new book -- "Lambert: The Man in the Middle" -- with a composite of Jack Lambert as others see him.
The portrait is mostly flattering, off the charts in its remembrance of Lambert the player and only a bit less so in its look at Lambert the man.
Jack Lambert: By the Numbers
"Here's an example of Jack the man," says O'Brien, whose manner is open and garrulous, "and this has nothing to do with my book because it's not in it.
"A few weeks ago, the weekend when the Steelers played the Eagles in early November, the 1979 team -- the fourth and last to win a Super Bowl -- had a twenty-fifth anniversary reunion.
"Guess who was a no-show? The NFL defensive player of the year... the team's defensive captain, that's who. Rocky Bleier, Lambert's road roommate a lot of years, and some other players thought they had things taken care of in advance. They thought that they had made sure that he would be there because he should be there. But he wasn't.
"On the other hand, he always shows up for funerals -- always sits alone in the back row... but he's there. And special occasions for the kids of his friends... he's there for those.
"And he also comes out for selected card and memorabilia shows. He comes in with sunglasses on and a baseball cap pulled tight on his head and then he signs, without a lot of comment, for one of the highest football rates -- forty bucks for a regular autograph and fifty bucks for a signature on a helmet."
I would think that most people would have stopped trying to figure out how to read Jack Lambert's enigma wrapped in a riddle long ago.
But then I don't live in Pittsburgh.
"It's been three decades since he retired," said a current Steeler official, "and the people here are still obsessed with him. He's like our Lord Di! When he didn't show up for the 25th reunion, that's all everyone was talking about.
"Don't forget, Jack endeared himself to this town forever when he ended his Hall of Fame speech 14 years ago by saying, 'If I could start my life all over again, I would be a professional football player, and you damn well better believe I would be a Pittsburgh Steeler.'"
When Jack Lambert first showed up in Pittsburgh in the spring and summer of 1974, he was more a who's he than a who's who.
He was the team's second-round draft choice, a Bambi-ish defensive end out of Kent State. Lambert, born and raised in Mantua, a town of 1,000 in northeast Ohio, was almost 6-foot-5 -- "closer to 6-7 if you straightened my legs," he said later -- but he weighed only a lean, mean 215. The team already had two great outside linebackers, Jack Ham and Andy Russell, and a good middle linebacker, Henry Davis.
But Steelers linebacker coach Woody Widenhofer had recently come from Eastern Michigan, where he had coached against Kent State. On draft day, Widenhofer pleaded Lambert's case with coach Chuck Noll. "We'll find a place for this kid," Widenhofer said.
A relatively short digression here: Think the trade winds of fate -- with Noll, coach since 1969, at the tiller -- weren't blowing at the Steelers' backs in those days? The 1969 draft produced defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene (Hall of Fame Class of '87)... the '70 draft produced quarterback Terry Bradshaw (HOF '89) and cornerback Mel Blount (HOF '89)... the '71 draft produced Ham (HOF '8 ... and the '72 draft produced running back Franco Harris (HOF '90).
That was only a prelude to 1974, which would net four Hall of Fame Steelers -- wide receiver Lynn Swann (first round, HOF '01), Lambert (second, HOF '90), wide receiver John Stallworth (fourth, HOF '02), and center Mike Webster (fifth, HOF '97).
Lambert began his own myth-making early, driving 2 1/2 hours (each way) every Saturday from Kent, Ohio, to Pittsburgh to watch eight solid hours of game film. Noll and Widenhofer were dazzled by the dedication because rookies simply did not do things like that. No, rookies stayed home, drank beer, and waited for big-money offers. Lambert was different: He worked and studied hard now... and got paid well later.
In camp, it took an act of nature worthy of Wally Pipp to give Lambert his last little boost. Pipp was the New York Yankee first baseman whose injury permitted Lou Gehrig to take over at first base; Gehrig then held the job for 13 years. An injury to incumbent middle linebacker Henry Davis gave Lambert the job at the start of the 1974 regular season; Lambert kept it for 11 years, until he retired after the 1984 season.
The Steelers won 30-0 over the Colts in Lambert's debut, but that was followed by two bumps in road -- a 35-35 tie with the Broncos and a 17-0 loss to the Raiders. The rookie middle linebacker "was looking a little tentative," according to one report.
The report fired the after-burner of Lambert's rocket. He began to play like a man possessed -- and the Steel Curtain became his personal mission control.
Over the remainder of the 1974 season and the five seasons that followed, the Steelers played exactly 100 games. They won 79 of them, going 66-19 in the regular season and 13-2 in the postseason.
They were NFL champions in 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979, winning Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, and XIV.
For six years, it was as close to perfection as a pro football team can get. And for six years, playing with a remarkably instinctual passion, Jack Lambert played middle linebacker as perfectly and completely as any man ever had done it -- or has done it since.
As good or better, you're asking, as Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke or Ray Lewis? Lambert had incredible speed, quickness, and economy of motion. His instinct for the football was astonishing, and he was as strong defending the pass as he was the run (he had 28 career interceptions).
And you want tough? Joe Greene, who put the "Mean" in his name and in his play, said, "If I was ever in a bar-room brawl and I needed one man to go back-to-back with me, I'd want Jack Lambert to be the man. This is one rough, tough guy... someone who'll never give up."
"Jack had the image of a wild man," said Russell, "but he killed opponents with his perfection."
"Jack was the most complete middle linebacker ever to play the game -- no question," said Ham. "Watching game films of him every week was a privilege."
Yeah, toothless, snarling, here-he-comes Jack Lambert no doubt was an 11 on a scale of 10. Oh, and if you can read that bumper sticker on his pickup, be warned:
Like all of his opponents for all of those years, you're definitely following too close.