The Good Guys: You Don’t Know Jack.
Jack Lambert is not a typical Good Guy. He’s actually not a typical anything. He’s profane and a grouch. He’s certainly not a smiler like Hines or AB. Not a quiet man like Troy or Heath. He doesn’t attend all the Steelers’ events. He does not suffer fools gladly.
But Jack is authentic, honest. What you see is what you get. He was perhaps the greatest linebacker ever to play the game, certainly in the top five. As a teammate, he drove the defense and played every play with ultimate effort. He was obsessively focused on winning, never allowing his teammates any room to play with less than full intensity.
You didn’t mess with the Steelers or you dealt with Jack. Ask the Cowboys’ Cliff Harris, who taunted placekicker Roy Gerela in Super Bowl X. After Gerela pulled a 33 yard attempt, Harris tapped him on the side of the helmet and said “Way to go.” Lambert grabbed Harris by the helmet and pads and flung him to the ground. Classic Lambert.
When it comes to hard-nose, smack ’em in the mouth defensive football, he is the gold standard. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of players I admire for what they do on the field and off, but watching No. 58 bury a ball carrier or sack a quarterback was the ultimate thrill.
I can still see Jack, arms raised, legs pumping, barking out the defensive signals. The ball would be snapped and Lambert would charge after the ball like a starving dog chasing a steak. He was relentless. He enjoyed hitting and unabashedly admitted he hit opponents as hard as he could. Despite his lean frame, 6’4″ and 220, he flew to the ball hit with a maniacal ferocity.
As the middle linebacker in a 4-3 alignment, Lambert dropped into pass coverage when the scheme called for it. His ability to cover deep down the field was legendary. In the eleven years he played, he was named All-pro nine straight times.
Jack was truly one of the game’s iconic players. His irascible personality, ferocious play and pathological need to excel and win made him a legend, on a par with Jim Brown or Lawrence Taylor. He was one of a kind.
Jack’s personality was as legendary as his relentless drive. To call him a curmudgeon is to understate his cantankerousness. According to His Life’s Work by Gary Pomerantz:
Lambert was like the Steelers’ version of Ernest Hemingway, a genius at his craft and an unforgettable character, but in personality so prickly and boorish that some teammates swore it had to be an act. No one could be that obstreperous. Lambert’s closest friends in the organization were the guys in the equipment room, (Tony) Parisi, Jack Hart, and Rodgers Freyvogel. His teammates didn’t understand him, or at times even like him. For the most part, they kept their distance.
Jack was a straight-up guy, uncomplicated by artifice or nuance. Teammates did not found him to be warm or a buddy, but he was always admired for his leadership and honesty.
The sauna at Three Rivers Stadium was where some of the players relaxed and analyzed their play. There, they drank their beers while Jack held court, away from the fans and the coaches. As you might expect, he pulled no punches when calling out himself or others for missed plays and blown assignments in the game. Yet, according to Pomerantz, the regulars, Mike Webster, Gary Dunn, LC Greenwood, Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield, Moon Mullins, Rocky Bleier, Mike Wagner, JT Thomas and Terry Bradshaw, almost to a man, light up recalling those post game saunas. Lambert presided and pointedly but accurately critiqued their performance. Even Bradshaw, not given to nostalgia for his playing days or cultivating friendships with teammates, fondly remembers the post-game saunas.
Jack took crap from no one. Even as a rookie, he immediately established himself as a fearless individual. In Lambert’s first year, the veterans went out on strike. When they returned, the traditional rookie hazing began. At the team meal, several veterans demanded that Lambert sing the Kent State fight song. Jack’s response – “Kiss my ass.” Classic Lambert.
After his retirement from a career in which he earned four Super Bowl rings and a Defensive Player of the Year award, Jack retired to Worthington, Pennsylvania, a rural town about 40 miles north of the ‘Burgh. He got married and has four children to whom he is devoted. For a while, he was a volunteer wildlife officer. Later, he spent much of his time coaching youth baseball and basketball and mowing the town’s ball fields. He is known to his neighbors and former teammates as a recluse. There is no chit chat about his career; he avoids reporters like the plague.
Jack was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Defensive football was and always will be about physical domination of the opposing team. Great defenses physically beat the offense and look to verbally and mentally intimidate runners, receivers, blockers and the quarterback. Few if any defenders have done any, much less all of these things as well as No. 58. In addition to his superlative play, he drove his teammates hard, making them better. By his own admission, he was all about football, 24 hours per day, every day.
We don’t know much about the private Jack Lambert. He rarely goes into Pittsburgh except for autograph signings and special team events. An intensely private man, he dislikes public gatherings. He did not attend Chuck Noll’s memorial service, but did arrange to meet Chuck’s wife, Marianne, the day of the service to pay his respects. Similarly, he arranged a private visit instead of attending Steve Courson’s funeral. More classic Lambert.
Jack Lambert helped establish the Steeler way his way. I respect the fact that he was true to himself and his beliefs and that he played the game the way he believed it should be played — tough. Some thought he was a dirty player. I did not, but he certainly hit with a violence which left opponents reluctant to run at him. With what we have learned about concussions, perhaps the game can’t be played like Jack played it any more. I understand that, but I will always get a thrill watching old Jack Lambert film.
The following sources were used for background for this article – Their Life’s Work by Gary Pomerantz, an L.A. Times article by T.J. Simers, and Steelers Super Bowl X NFL’s Best Ever by Jim Conroy.
I am exercising my editorial privilege to add my favorite Jack Lambert story. It is reported that John Elway described his first game against the Steelers, when he saw Lambert coming for him:
“He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I’m thinking, ‘You can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant.’ I can’t tell you how badly I wanted out of there.”
I remember that game. Classic Lambert.