Instant Replay (GP Putnam, 1968)
Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap
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Listed: Pro Football Journal Top 100 Football Books, #40; Chris Wesseling’s Football Books You Must Read, #15
One vital block won the Green Bay Packers the 1967 NFL Championship Game. It’s an often-told story: the ‘Ice Bowl’, as it has become known, came down to the final drive, the final block. Trailing 17-14 and with the temperature down to -20F, and a wind chill of around -50F, the Packers drove to the Cowboys’ one yard line. On third and goal, quarterback Bart Starr drove through a hole cleared by right guard Jerry Kramer for the winning touchdown.
At the beginning of the season journalist Dick Schaap asked Kramer to keep a diary of the season, with the Packers aiming to become the first team to win three NFL Championships in a row and competing for a second-straight Super Bowl win. Kramer recorded his thoughts on cassette a few times a week and then sent the recordings to Schaap, who compiled them into the book.
Kramer’s block, replayed endlessly on television in the wake of the Packers’ victory, made him a well-known figure. “All I could think was,” he says in his diary, “thank God for instant replay.” And so the book, which would go on to be a bestseller, had found its title.
It has since earned its place, rightly, among the great football books. Kramer talks honestly about the pain of playing football and the challenge of continually pushing his body to its limit. In taking the reader behind the scenes of professional football, Kramer opened the way to a whole slew of books from players and journalists on ‘real’ football, the ‘dark side’ of the game and the toll it takes on players.
As a result, a lot of Instant Replay will be familiar to today’s reader. The brutality and tedium of training camp have been detailed many times since Kramer wrote about Leon Crenshaw collapsing through dehydration while waiting in the lunch line. The annual uncertainty over who will make the team is a routine storyline in shows like Hard Knocks. And many writers have detailed the frustration and disbelief inside the locker-room of a team that loses a game they expected to win.
Those themes were not at all common or well-known when this book was published, however. It’s important for that reason but it isn’t just a historical relic. Instant Replay remains an engaging, funny and often moving read to this day.
At its centre is the relationship between Kramer and his head coach Vince Lombardi. In fact, that’s a major reason why the book is so successful. The football season is the framework that anchors the story, but Instant Replay also follows a narrative arc about Kramer’s feelings for Lombardi. In the first paragraph of the first entry Kramer bumps into Lombardi and tells us: “I have nothing against him during the off-season”.
During the season itself, Kramer is often bemused by Lombardi, who alternates between berating and praising his charges. At one point Kramer writes: “‘I don’t want to seem ungrateful,’ Vince said, at a meeting. ‘I’m awfully proud of you guys, really. You’ve done a helluva job.’ He couldn’t resist adding, ‘But sometimes you just disgust me.'”
Later, with the team preparing for the Super Bowl, Lombardi warns them that they aren’t going on vacation. Kramers asks his teammates: “Can you imagine anyone fool enough to think that going anywhere with this man would be a vacation?”
Ultimately, though, Kramer decides that Lombardi is “a beautiful man, and the proof is that no one who ever played for him speaks of him afterward with anything but respect and admiration and affection. His whippings, his cussing and his driving all fade; his good qualities endure”.
This book’s good qualities endure too. It’s an essential read.
Photo: Paul Kehrer