denis gullickson | talking titletown | nov. 2018
The term “hard-nosed” first showed up in the English language around 1885-90. It found a face in the mid-1950s when a tough-running college junior emerged from the LSU huddle, took a hand-off and decided that the quickest route between two points was a straight line. If there were one or more would-be tacklers between those two points, you'd just plow through them — making the trip that much more interesting.
Jim Taylor's driving leg muscles were built pedaling a bike on two daily paper routes that helped his widowed mother make expenses. By the time he was selected by the Packers in the second round — 15th overall — of the 1958 NFL draft, those legs had turned into a twin-cylinder engine that pulverized any aspiring tackler.
Items on his college football resume included: First-Team All-American — Football Writers Association of America, First-Team All-Southeastern Conference — Associated Press and United Press and MVP — Senior Bowl.
Like other players drafted by the Packers at the time — including Dan Currie, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer who were tabbed that year in later rounds — Taylor probably thought he was heading for Green Bay, Siberia. The Packers had become the laughing stock of the league since Curly Lambeau's 1949-depature. Talent scout Jack Vainisi was assembling an able crew, but the ship was rudderless without a capable man at the helm.
Taylor showed up to practice in 1958 with a mix of mostly-average veterans and promising draft picks from prior years — guys named Hanner, Forester, Ringo, McGee, Bettis, Gregg, Skoronski, Starr, Hornung, Ron Kramer and Symank.
The Packers posted their worst record ever that season, 1-10-1.
By 1959, Vainisi secured his helmsman as he orchestrated the hiring of Vince Lombardi. With Lombardi, Vainisi drafted Boyd Dowler, '59, and Tom Moore and Bob Jeter, '60, as well as securing Henry Jordan, '59, and Willie Wood and Willie Davis, '60.
Under Lombardi, the upstart Packers posted a winning season in 1959 and, then, lost to the Eagles, 17-13, in the 1960 NFL title game. Vainisi died of a heart attack just prior to the Eagles game. In 1961, Lombardi drafted Herb Adderly at Vainisi's “pre-humous” recommendation.
Thunder and Lightning
Taylor became “Thunder” in the Packers backfield to Hornung's “Lightning.” In short yardage situations, he was the team's not-so-secret weapon.
Taylor's value was apparent in 1960. He ran for 1,101 yards on a league-record 230 carries and notched 11 touchdowns. In the title contest, Taylor carried the pigskin 24 times for 105 yards and had six catches for another 45. While the Packers lost, they would never lose another playoff game under Lombardi. At season's end, Taylor was named to the Pro Bowl where he scored an NFL-record three touchdowns.
No one questioned Taylor's heart or drive. Some backs might have done the “shake and bake” to gather yards downfield; Taylor didn't have time for anything highfalutin. If you were in his way, he was going to run through you, not around you.
In the process, you were going to feel like you'd been hit by Thunder — an earth-rumbling concussive experience that altered your existence, not Lightning — a surging shot that passed through.
Taylor welcomed battles on the field — physical or verbal. He started them. When it came to guys trying to tackle him, his intentions were clear: “You've got to make them respect you. You've got to punish tacklers. You've got to deal out more misery than the tacklers deal out to you.”
Opposing players tagged him one of football's “Meanest Men.” Ray Nitschke said, “In 15 years in the pros, he's one of the toughest men I ever played against. And we were on the same team.”
Taylor had a standing beef with Giants linebacker Sam Huff. “He was always hooting his mouth on the field,” Huff said of Taylor. “He'd tell me, 'Yeah, you're just a big talker.' He brought out the best in you. He was an unusual player, a great player, but an agitator … I did everything I could to that sonofabitch.”
No surprise that Huff and Taylor clashed: The Packers and the Giants had an ongoing feud as two of the very best teams in their divisions — one representing a megatropolis of 7.8 million, the other a puny town of 63,000. If Huff was tackling millions of fans, Taylor ran ten times as hard to compensate.
Taylor's other nemesis was the Browns great running back Jim Brown. Taylor finished second to Brown in rushing four times and edged him once in 1962. Taylor would retire as the second-leading rusher in NFL history behind Brown. However, the Packers and the Browns clashed three times during the stretch — Taylor playing a pivotal role and the Packers taking all three contests.
Since Taylor stood 6-foot and weighed 215 pounds, he countered size with tenacity. If a single tackler thought he was going to bring Taylor to the ground, he could think again. His best bet was to try and slow Taylor up while the rest of the army converged. The images of Taylor carrying one or more defenders with him as he fought for yardage are indelible.
Also indelible is the image of Taylor or Hornung following guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer in the legendary “Packers Sweep.” Rather than a football play, the sweep was a Sherman tank ambling your way.
Like every other perfectly-executed play perfected under Lombardi's command — the Packers rode that sweep to five Championships: 1961 and '62 and a “Three-Peat” in 1965, '66 and '67.
In '62, Taylor rushed for 1,474 yards and set the league record for scoring with 19 touchdowns — just the third NFL player ever to lead in rushing yardage and points scored. At season's end, he was named AP Player of the Year and awarded the Newspaper Enterprise Association's (NEA) Jim Thorpe Trophy as the players' MVP pick. He earned first-team All-Pro honors from the AP, UPI and NEA.
Taylor ended his ten years in the NFL with 8,579 yards and 83 rushing touchdowns. He led the league in rushing touchdowns in '61 and '62. He was the league's first back to chalk up five straight 1,000-yards rushing seasons. He also caught 225 passes for another 1,756 yards and 10 touchdowns and returned seven kickoffs for another 185 yards. The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee named him to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team.
His rushing records with the Packers stood until Ahman Green broke them. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1975. A year later, he became the first of Lombardi's players selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1974 and 2001 respectively. While he only played for his home-state team for one year, 1967, his number 31 jersey was retired by the Saints.
On October 13, 2018, Jim Taylor died unexpectedly.
The Passage of Time
If the Grim Reaper was an opposing linebacker, Jim Taylor would have run him over and left him mumbling.
In death, Taylor trots onto an unknown playing field to join teammates already at mid-field.
Like those halftime-celebrations of the Glory Years — that Taylor so fondly attended — more and more teammates will join them out there as the years tick by. Eventually, all of them will huddle in a realm beyond this mortal coil.
Before too long, quarterback Bart Starr will join them — having gotten Lombardi's sideline instructions. He will kneel at the center of that huddle, scratching out the called play on the palm of his hand: A Sweep.
In December 2014, Gary D'Amato wrote a piece, “'60s Packers struggle against their final foe.” In it, D'Amato stated that “Of the 37 men who played in at least one game on Lombardi's first team in 1959, 19 — more than half — are dead. The youngest living member of that team is 77 and the average age is 79.8. Of the 43 men who played on Lombardi's last team in 1967, 14 are dead (33 percent). The average age of those still alive is 72.2.”
Extrapolate those figures and you realize that the average age of Lombardi's first team is now 83.8 and it's safe to say that most of them have passed away. The guys on Lombardi's last team are now 76.2 and — with an average male life expectancy of 76.3 — we know that it will not be long for them either.
For a kid like me — now 64 myself — it's hard to imagine. Robust, hearty, driven to precision by their pilot, Lombardi — the epitome of personal and team athletic success — these guys can't possibly breakdown with age and pass on.
Farmer, author and educator Denis Gullickson writes about all things Titletown from a farm west of town and a cobblestone cottage “up north.” He also continues to lead the Green Bay Theatre Company on the project to create a vibrant arts and performance center in the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings.