GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There the two legends sat, together. One in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The other, not.
And to Brett Favre, that just didn’t seem right.
The iconic Green Bay Packers quarterback was back in Titletown last Sunday to be feted yet again. This time he was having his name unveiled in Lambeau Field’s Ring of Honor, a distinction reserved only for the team’s Pro Football Hall of Famers -- the latest of which Favre had become in August.
But as Favre, in the team’s alumni suite, waited during the Packers’ game against the Dallas Cowboys for the halftime celebration to commence, he found himself scanning the stadium’s façade, reading all the names.
Starr. Lombardi. Nitschke. Hutson. White. Twenty-three names in all, with the soon-to-be 24th member’s name covered with a forest green tarpaulin.
That’s when Favre turned to the man seated beside him: Jerry Kramer. And it was then that Favre thought the same thing so many other Packers fans have over the years.
He should be in.
And so, Favre told Kramer that. Told him how, although he was the new guy in Canton, he’d love to help. Pull a few strings. Use some of that Southern charm of his. Draw something up in the dirt, as he always used to do on the field. Do whatever he could, even though Kramer, a 10-time finalist, would have to be nominated by the seniors committee at this point.
“And I really liked his comment [back],” Favre said of their exchange. “He said, ‘Life’s been too good for me to worry about will I or won’t I.’
“The honor, would it be a bigger, greater honor for him at this point in his life? I think so. But I think he’s at peace with where he is and how he played and what type of legacy he’s left behind. As he should be.
“We all know Jerry and of course pull for him. It’d be a tremendous honor for him, I know. But he’s in a good place, which is good to see and good to hear.”
Yes, Jerry Kramer says, he would still be thrilled to someday get a call from the Hall. (“It would be great.”) Yes, it means the world to him that his supremely driven daughter, Alicia, has made it her life’s work to convince the electorate that her father belongs. (“I learned not to argue with her mother after about 40 years.”) And yes, he appreciates the ultra-supportive Packers fans who’ve written letters and bandied his name about on social media, expressing what a travesty they believe it is that so many of Kramer’s "glory years" teammates are in, and he is not. (“Packers fans are sensational to me.”)
But as Favre learned last Sunday, Kramer doesn’t need the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a high school student growing up in Sandpoint, Idaho, he remembers saving a copy of the local newspaper from the first time his name appeared in it, for a fourth-place finish in the shot put. So much has changed.
“Now, the Sandpoint Bee didn’t have a lot of circulation, but it was the major paper in the area. And that kind of validated my existence, somehow,” Kramer said on ESPN Wisconsin’s Distant Replay podcast. “It was very comforting to see my name and know that other people might see my name and know that maybe I was somebody.
“[But] this life, it’s so much greater than any life I could have anticipated when I left Sandpoint High that I just feel very blessed to be where I am. I’m comfortable with how I played and what I achieved -- and certainly our championships are a wonderful part of the journey. I know I was a good football player.
“The Hall was a thing that at the time, in the mid-1970s, when the [other] guys were going in, I kind of expected to go in. I was nominated 10 times for it. And finally, you look at it and go, ‘Life is good.’ I don’t think a whole lot would change if I was in the Hall of Fame. [Packers fans] can’t be any better to me. They can’t give me any more applause or any more love than they do.
“So the Hall of Fame would be great, but it’s not really the thing I wake up in the morning and worry about. If it comes along, fine. If it doesn’t come along, fine. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Kramer is widely regarded not only as the greatest Packer not in the Hall but also as the greatest NFL player who hasn't been given the honor. A five-time first-team All-Pro, a member of both the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team and the league’s 50th Anniversary team, Kramer was on five championship teams (including two Super Bowl champions) in his 11 NFL seasons before retiring in 1968.
But his life has evolved into something greater than his on-field accomplishments. Now 80 years old, he keeps a schedule that men half his age would struggle to match, with a variety of charity events to attend and a myriad of interests both related to and outside of football.
He is the unofficial spokesman for the Lombardi-era Packers, the leader of the network of former teammates who constantly check in on one another. He is a passionate advocate for making the game safer, focused specifically on the repetitive head trauma his fellow offensive linemen sustain on a regular basis. And he is fascinated by the possibilities created by stem-cell research, something he has studied extensively and shared with the family of his old teammate, quarterback Bart Starr.
Told that with Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” having retired, he might be a candidate to replace him, Kramer laughed. While he’d be OK with the product -- “I’ve tried that out a couple times and it’s not bad,” he said -- he said he’d be “a little put off by the apparent arrogance” of such a title. “I would tend to vote for someone like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein from the past. Somebody that had the intellect to match the title.”
Instead, when asked about his life, Kramer recalls a lesson he learned from his legendary coach more than 50 years ago, one that continues to guide him today. And one that helps explain why he is at peace.
“It’s, ‘After the game is over, the stadium is empty, the parking lot is empty, the lights are out and the press releases have been filed, and you’re back in the quiet of your room, all alone, championship ring is on the dresser, the only thing left for you at this time is to try to live a life of quality and excellence and make this world just a little bit better place because you were in it,’” Kramer said. “Basically, I think that sums up my philosophy.
“The good Lord has been very kind to me. He checked my situation out two or three different times, looked me over and said, ‘No, he isn’t done yet. Send him back.’ I’ve been trying to break even for the last 20 years, 30 years, to make up for my early years. And the more you do this, the more you want to do this, and the better it makes you feel. And we can blame Bart Starr for this to a certain extent, too. He’s been my model, my idol. He’s a sensational human being, and if I can be half the guy that Bart is by the time we hear the final bell, I’ll be a happy guy.
“It’s an endless story -- the never-ending quest to make the human being a little more successful, a little more of a life. So all in all, when I look back on the journey, it’s been a wonderful ride. I wouldn’t change any part of it. It’s just been a special, special thing that I never could have dreamed growing up as a young boy in Sandpoint, Idaho, and thinking that someday I might be driving a logging truck -- if I got lucky.”