Jerry Kramer is best known for playing with the Green Bay Packers when they won the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and ’68. The offensive lineman also played a big role in helping the Packers win seven world championships in the 1960s.
Any discussion of his career is also likely to include mention of the epic contests Kramer participated in, such as the Ice Bowl (1967 NFL Championship Game), or his interactions with almost sanctified figures like Vince Lombardi.
Overlooked in the old game film and the glory of football lore are Kramer’s origins in Eastern Montana. He was born on Jan. 23, 1936, in Jordan, arguably one of the most isolated communities in the state (the nearest movie theater is in Miles City, more than 80 miles away).
“My dad was not a college-educated guy, but a self-educated one,” said Kramer, 80, now living in Boise, Idaho. “My father was a strict German. He got to be quite a religious guy and studied his Bible. He just had a short-temper and he got your attention pretty quick with the strap.”
“We lived in the town of Jordan and we went through the Depression and my dad worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and that pumped the money into the community and the economy.”
Kramer is also related to a pair of memorable Eastern Montana personalities.
“There are two Hall of Famers in the Kramer family in Montana,” he said. “Bobbie Brooks Kramer (1913 to 2005) was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Corwin “Bud” Kramer (1913-1979) was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame last year.
“Bobby Brooks and Bud were married and I remember Bud as a cowboy and me running along as Bud was on his high-riding pony. I remember trying to get alongside and Bud saying, ‘You will ride on the pull of my boot, if you don’t shut up and pull away!’ Bud had a big ranch in Cohagen, a 150,000-acre ranch, that was half BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and half the Cohagen boys.”
Kramer’s family left Jordan when he was 5, but he still remembers a series of little hills they called the “Toy Mountains,” and even at the age of 3 or 4 he would run up and down those hills with his siblings. He also recalled camping out and catching catfish on the Missouri River.
There was some boyish mischief, too. “I set grandpa’s house on fire after I discovered matches and tar paper and I lit it up,” he said. “I remember I created a lot of havoc.”
Then there was the time, at the age of 5, when he “became quite smitten” with one of his cousins, a girl by the name of Donna.
“I wanted to buy her something but I had no money and I went to the local garage to see if he had anything I could help out with. He was using horsehair stuffing. He told me about an old dead horse two miles down the road and he sent me to cut the hair off of it. That horse stunk. I walked out there and I cut the mane and the tail and stuffed it in a paper bag, hustled to the garage, and I made a nickel.
“I grabbed a brown sack at the drugstore, and bought candy, five or ten for a nickel, and planned on visiting Donna. I walked out of the drugstore, but Donna and her family were driving past me, heading to Roundup.”
After Jordan, Kramer said, he and his parents and five siblings spent about a year in Helena, where his father attended an electronics school.
The family later moved to Utah and then to Sandpoint, Idaho. After his graduation from Sandpoint High School in 1954, Kramer was a standout player for the University of Idaho Vandals. The team later retired his uniform number 64.
He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1958. As a professional, his excellence was so enduring—and the Packers’ victories so ritual—that he perhaps didn’t always get the appreciation he deserved. He played on five Green Bay Packers championship teams (1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967) and earned rings in the first two Super Bowls (1967 and 1968).
Kramer retired from football in 1968 and became involved in a wide variety of business endeavors, including projects in oil and gas exploration. He said he last traveled through Eastern Montana seven or eight years ago, on the way to have a look at Williston, N.D., the center of the Bakken oil boom.
“I’ve been involved with oil and gas several times,” he said. “Everybody was doing good and it was an exciting time. We went from being out of energy and then past peak oil and now on the downhill slide, and one of the prolific producers in the world. My two sons, Matt and Jordan—he is named after Jordan, Montana—worked in the industry about 10 years ago, and one is still involved.”
Kramer talks freely about his career, recalling high moments and low, and he remains one of the most popular living Green Bay Packers. He recently spent a week at charity events throughout Wisconsin.
“I retired not because of a loss of talent or interest, but because of the disappointment of the incoming coaching staff (after Vince Lombardi retired from coaching in 1967),” he said. “The Los Angeles Rams called me in the middle of the season and they wanted me to play. Roman Gabriel. Merlin Olsen. Hollywood. I flew out and we agreed to a contract and salary.
“I was retired but the Packers still owned me and they wanted a first-round draft choice and a-player-to-be-named-later. Minnesota heard about it and called to make an offer, too. I figured I might come to Hollywood and Los Angeles, but no way to Minnesota. I took my NFL pension much earlier, because I didn’t think I’d live to 65, so I took it at age 45. I’m 18 in certain aspects of my mind.”
One of Kramer’s old teammates, Paul Hornung, a Hall of Fame running back with the Packers from 1957 to 1966, has sued Riddell, one of the leading makers of football helmets. Hornung asserted that the company knew of the dangers of brain trauma more than 50 years ago but failed to warn him and other players that their helmets would do nothing to prevent concussions.
“I’m not sure that anyone knew about the dangers back then and Paul has been having some difficulties lately,” Kramer said. “He called me a few years ago and he said that he was having a hard time giving speeches and that he couldn’t fulfill his obligations, and he asked me if I would, and I told him I’d check the calendar and try to fill in for him.
“It’s a difficult thing to see. Paul would be at dinner and telling the same story three or four times and it was awkward and his faculties aren’t what they once were. He was so bright—and he still is—and he’s still fun. He’s still getting around and doing all right.”
Another teammate was Willie Wood, a Packers cornerback from 1960 to 1971. Now 79, Wood suffers from dementia in an assisted living center and doesn’t remember anything about his NFL career. The Hall of Famer, a victim of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, told the Washington Post in 2007 that he made less than $20,000 as a Packers rookie in 1960 and never made more than $98,000 in a year during a career that ended after the 1971 season.
“Willie Wood was my roommate and one of my closest friends and it’s terrible to see Wood the way he is,” Kramer said. “The last time I saw him, I spent three to four hours with him in the afternoon and he didn’t know who I was. He said, ‘Are you Jerry Kramer?’ His girlfriend tried to alert him to the fact and he had a tough time believing that he had played himself. The toughest part of the journey is watching your teammates’ disintegration.
“You are acutely aware of it. Doug Hart (Packers cornerback and safety, 1964-1971) is a friend and I got him to go to a Boys & Girls Club event recently. Over the last three, four years, he hasn’t been able to be out by himself. But he can still golf, still shoot a shotgun, and he can still fish. But it’s painful to talk about something he doesn’t remember and he gets frustrated and stumbles along and it gets awkward. So, we stick to things like fishing together and giving each other a little crap about other things. Football? We don’t go there.”
Kramer himself, despite the strain of approximately 22 major operations, moves about with vigor.
“I exercise and try to eat fruit and be really more involved intellectually in the world and the things that are happening. I have a curiosity about things. Several years ago I thought about starting an anti-aging clinic. I’m interested in stem cells and I read scientific journals and keep track of the advancement of the industry. I have had several stem cell injections and I chew that stuff up. I believe having the brain active burns up energy and calories and may burn up the substances that clog your mind when you have dementia problems.”
Kramer doesn’t dwell on his failure to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though his yearly omission invariably sparks lively discussion elsewhere. He was rated No. 1 in the NFL Network’s list of Top 10 players not in the Hall of Fame.
“I really enjoyed the game and it’s been a wonderful ride,” he said. “I had limited expectations coming from Sandpoint and I didn’t really understand what was happening. I didn’t know how to negotiate, or discuss what I might be worth. I didn’t maximize that position. But the game still rewarded me with recognition and wonderful moments—far beyond anything I could have imagined as a youngster.”