Five minutes with a legend: Forrest Gregg

Posted Aug. 20, 2010 @ 5:42 p.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

For 14 seasons, Forrest Gregg served as the cornerstone of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. He was there for Vince Lombardi's arrival in 1959, and was named to seven All-Pro squads during an eight-year span (1960-67). After retiring in 1970, Gregg changed his mind and joined the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he won his sixth pro football championship.

As a coach, Gregg experienced a series of ups and downs. He helped Cleveland improve its win total by six games during his second year there, but was out of a job after the 1977 season. In Cincinnati he did the same, helping the Bengals improve from 6-10 in 1980 to 12-4 and a trip to Super Bowl XVI the following year. After a four-year stint with Green Bay, Gregg left the NFL and spent time coaching SMU and the Shreveport Pirates of the CFL before calling it a career.

The man Lombardi once famously referred to as "the finest player I ever coached" was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 1977. Today he resides in the same Colorado neighborhood as former Packers teammate Willie Davis, who stops by every now and then to share stories and a few laughs.

What prompted your decision to return to football for the 1971 season? And did you have any internal conflict about playing for Dallas, one of the Packers' chief rivals in the 1960s?

When I left in 1970 I had no intentions of playing football again. I missed it, and knew I would miss it, but I also knew that there would come a time when it would be time to hang it up. But I was happy and enthused when I talked to Tom Landry. He asked me to come see him … and we came to an agreement of how we would handle it. I had no qualms about playing for the Cowboys. I had done my duty at Green Bay. Green Bay was ready to move on and so was I. They had all new coaches and brought a bunch of new players in. I felt it was a great opportunity for me because I thought Dallas had a great opportunity of winning the Super Bowl.  They had just gone to the Super Bowl and been runner-up.

Much has been made about the league selecting New York to host Super Bowl XLVIII. Are you in support of the NFL having more cold-weather Super Bowls?

Football, at one time, was a game that was played in whatever the weather was. It was played in outside stadiums. Over the years there have been very few games that have been postponed. I don't see anything wrong with it. It's not necessarily comfortable, but people who are true fans, like they proved in Green Bay, are going to come to the game and support their team, regardless of the weather. There weren't many people who stayed home when we played Dallas in the Ice Bowl, and they didn't stay home when we played in Cincinnati against the San Diego Chargers (1981 AFC championship game). They put on the proper attire, they showed up and cheered, and they had a great time.

Which game was colder: The Ice Bowl or the Freezer Bowl?

I could put on more clothes in Cincinnati (laughs). I was wrapped up pretty good for that game. The Green Bay game … we lived in some apartments over on the East Side, and several players lived there. Jim Grabowski called me that morning and asked if he could ride to the stadium with me. And I knew he had planned on driving, we had just talked about it the day before. I said 'Sure, what's the matter with your car?' and he said 'It won't start.' Then he asked, 'Have you been outside this morning?' I looked out the window and it was a bright, sunshiny day. He said, 'What do you think the temperature is?' and I said, 'Oh, about zero,' thinking it was morning and knowing it had been six- or seven-below that night. He said '15-below' and I thought 'oh, my God.' I went out to see if my car would start and sure enough, it did.

When we were in Cincinnati, I woke up that morning of the game and turned on the TV and they were talking about the weather, the forecast and so on, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, what did I do to deserve this?' But I felt pretty good about it because I felt our guys were more in tune with the weather and we had worked out in cold days prior to that game. I told the players, 'Look, let's face the facts: It's going to be cold. You're going to be cold, you're not going to be comfortable. In fact, you're going to be uncomfortable. It's kind of like going to the dentist; you know it's going to hurt, you just don't know how much.' (laughs) My dentist told me I hurt his business bad by saying that."

Ever get tired of people reminding you that Lombardi famously referred to you as his finest player?

Oh, Lord no. I should never get tired of hearing that. I can't explain how that made me feel, personally, when I first read that. That was a very humbling experience because he had coached some great football players.

How soon after Lombardi arrived did you realize things were about to change in Green Bay?

The first practice … we did those grass drills — up-downs — and boy, that was something different. It got your blood flowing (laughs). We were running through some drills with the defensive line, and all of a sudden I heard somebody yelling and screaming and looked over and Coach Lombardi was following Max McGee back to the huddle. And every step Max took Vince took another bite. He was yelling and screaming, telling him, 'Mister, we don't EVER walk on this field. You're a Green Bay Packer and it's not going to be easy.' … it was obvious from that point on that he didn't have to tell anyone not to walk back to the huddle again. That's the only time I remember.

What was your relationship like with Paul Brown during your time in Cincinnati?

I'll tell you what. I was really lucky. I played for two of the best coaches that ever coached the game — Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry — and I worked for Paul Brown, who was one of the best coaches. Sometimes when I'd have a problem with a player, and maybe if I was worried about it, I'd go to Paul and tell him to put his coaching cap on and I'd get into the scenario of what was going on. And he'd say 'Well, I'm not telling you to do this, but if it were me, this is what I'd do.' It was good to work for him. I enjoyed my time in Cincinnati, and Mike Brown and I are still good friends. Every year we get to Cincinnati. My son lives there but we'd go even if he didn't.
One thing I really enjoyed about Paul was when we'd go on trips I'd get him to talk about the old All-America Football Conference. I learned a part of the game's history, and I'd get him talking about all those guys. It was just great to have that history fed back to you from someone who'd been there.

You dealt with a number of off-the-field distractions during your time as Green Bay's coach, most notably the Mossy Cade and James Lofton trials. How would you advise an NFL coach facing a similar issue today?

You can't come out and say 'No, it didn't happen,' but the one thing you do want to do, and it's just my opinion, I couldn't throw a player out, I couldn't throw him to the wind. I was going to support him until he was proven guilty. I couldn't say they were right — I wasn't there — but on the other end I was going to give (the player) the benefit of the doubt. That's the way I did it, and right or wrong, if it came up again I'd do it the same way.

Who was the best defensive lineman you ever faced?

There were three guys when I was a player that I dreaded on Sunday: when we played the Colts and Gino Marchetti was in his prime; when we played the Rams and Deacon Jones was in his prime; and the Vikings when Carl Eller was in his prime. Those guys were all awesome. You ask who was the best … just my opinion, Marchetti was the best all-around player I ever played against. Great pass rusher. Great against the run. And he never let you rest.


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