Bill Kelley on Curly Lambeau, Rockwood Lodge and the '49 Packers

23rd-round draft pick played Lambeau’s last year in Green Bay

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Bill Kelley

Cliff Christl started gathering oral histories with former Packers and others associated with the team in 2000 and will continue to gather them as Packers historian. Excerpts from those interviews will be periodically posted at www.packers.com

Bill Kelley played just one season for the Packers, but it was Curly Lambeau's last and one of the most tumultuous in team history. An end, Kelley was drafted in the 23rd round of the 1949 NFL Draft. He played in 12 games that year and finished second in receiving with 17 catches for 222 yards, a 13.1 average. Kelley said he played mostly offensive end but filled in late in the year at cornerback, although he had never played defensive back before. In college, at Texas Tech, Kelley said he doubled as a defensive end. Kelley reported to training camp in 1950, but left in early August to join Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League, where a back injury soon ended his career. In 1975, Kelley started manufacturing the Kelley Helmet and said he continued doing so through 1984, when litigation concerns caused him to get out of the business. Kelley said the name of his company was Bill Kelley Athletic and that a number of NFL players, including some Packers, used his helmet. In 2011, before Super Bowl XLV, Kelley was 84 and living in Arlington, Texas, when he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he'd be rooting for the Packers that Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. "I'll always be a Packer backer," he said.

On playing in Green Bay in the 1940s: "Green Bay is a fantastic place. I loved it. It was a neat place. Everybody loved the Packers. Everybody bought their season tickets with their weekly paycheck. And back in the '40s, it was really an honor to be a Packer."

On playing for Curly Lambeau: "I caught Curly at the end of his career. I'd say this. When Curly retired, it was time for him to go. The game was changing and Curly was a little bit slow to change over to more of a wide-open passing game. He was a strong disciplinarian. At one time, well, his record speaks for itself. But if you could fault Curly, he just stayed with the veterans too long."

On how assistants Bob Snyder, Tom Stidham and Charley Brock split duties in 1949 when Lambeau quit after the season opener and announced he would function only as an advisory coach: "Snyder handled the offense, Stidham handled the defense and Charley was kind of a buffer. Charley was a good football man. Overall, Charley was probably the best football man of the three."

On Snyder, who played for the Chicago Bears and already had served as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 1947 at age 34: "He came from the LA Rams and was kind of a California type of guy. He had been in Los Angeles and coming to Green Bay, Wis., was probably different for him. He was probably used to the brighter lights, let's put it like that."

On Stidham, who had a 27-8-3 record as head coach at the University of Oklahoma from 1937-40 and then left to become head coach at Marquette University before joining Lambeau's staff in 1949: "He was a good guy, a worker and a good, sound fundamental football guy. But he was the kind who came to work, did his job and went home."

On Don Hutson's role in 1949, when he was no longer officially listed as an assistant coach but was still involved with the team: "Hutson would come to practice and critique everybody from the sideline. Yeah, it was tough to follow that guy."

On reports that Elroy Hirsch wanted to play for the Packers in 1949 after his contract had expired with the AAFC Chicago Rockets and before signing with the Rams, who owned his NFL draft rights: "It was kind of the talk of the camp. 'When is Hirsch coming in?'"

On whether the players knew Lambeau was under pressure from the executive committee throughout the 1949 season: "That didn't come out until later."

On playing at old City Stadium on Green Bay's near East Side: "Right now most high schools would burn it down. Back then, it wasn't all that bad. As I remember it, it held about 25, 26,000 people. What was really bad about it was the dressing rooms. Our dressing facilities were horrible. We didn't have individual lockers. We had a bench to sit on. Really, the stadium was better than the dressing rooms. We had a good turf, an excellent turf."

On other NFL stadiums of the time: "The only decent stadium we played in back in those days was the Coliseum in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic place back in those days. But other than that, we played in the baseball parks. We played in Wrigley Field. We played in Forbes Field. Everything was a baseball park. In Detroit, we played in Briggs Stadium. I never will forget when we went into Detroit and the dressing room kind of reminded me of City Stadium. They had a pot-bellied, coal stove. A pot-bellied, coal stove in Briggs Stadium! That was for the heat in the dressing room in 1949."

On Rockwood Lodge, the Packers' year-round training quarters: "The ground was hard. There were rocks under the turf. But as far as the facilities at Rockwood Lodge, they were great. We had little condominium rooms, a wonderful dining room. But the practice field was hard. You could get shin splints on that thing in a hurry. In fact, later on in the year, we would drive in and practice at the City Stadium just because of the hard turf. It was kind of like a white, chalky kind of rock."

On living at Rockwood Lodge, as well as practicing there: "I was single at the time. Some of the guys were married and their wives stayed right there in these little condominiums. They were like one bedroom, apartment type rooms. There was a bedroom, a kitchen, a small sitting area. They were nice."

On the dorm rooms in the lodge for the single players: "They had rooms for two or three guys. The bathroom was down the hall. But back in those days, it would be considered nice. Now, with their egos and all, they'd think they were camping out."

On the 1949 Thanksgiving Day intra-squad game played to raise enough money for the Packers to finish the season: "I never will forget it. Gosh, it was cold that day. Nobody really wanted to play it, but we knew the team needed the money. And the whole state of Wisconsin turned out pretty good just for an exhibition game for the Packers."

On the 1949 Packers, who finished 2-10, the worst record in club history to that point: "Tony (Canadeo) was approaching his twilight. Jack Jacobs, the quarterback, had arm problems. He couldn't really throw the ball downfield. Ted Fritsch was kind of (beat) up. At one time, Ted and Tony were great football players. But the team was getting older."

On any other memories: "It was kind of strange. Curly, as I remember, kept only about five or six rookies. You'd think there would have been more people turning over to put more new blood into the ball club. Things just snowballed when we started losing. More players became disenchanted."

On his recollection of veteran end Clyde Goodnight and center Bob Flowers getting cut after the first game in what was reportedly a budget-slashing move: "Flowers got cut because he was old and just couldn't play anymore. I really don't know the story behind why Clyde got cut."

On starting quarterback Jug Girard, who completed only 35 percent of his passes: "He was a true professional. He had played a little pro baseball. But Jug wasn't a true quarterback. He was more of a halfback. Jug couldn't throw it in a bucket."

On Jack Jacobs, who had been the starter in 1947 and '48, but only threw 16 passes in 1949: "He had a bad arm. He had had his arm operated on and he didn't really gain his strength until 1950. When we went to Canada, his arm was in good shape. In fact, we went to the Grey Cup finals."

On rookie Stan Heath, the fifth overall pick in the 1949 draft, who completed only 24.5 percent of his passes: "He came out of Nevada and had all kinds of collegiate records. He had an arm on him. He could throw the ball like the boy (Aaron Rodgers) they have up there now. He could throw it through a car wash and never get it wet. But he threw the ball so hard, it was hard to catch. And then he got crossways with some of the coaches because his work ethic wasn't all that good. He was kind of loner and he came with all these credentials. Everybody was expecting him to set the woods on fire. But he was slow afoot. He wasn't quick. He just had a hard time getting along with people. In fact, in the All-Star Game in Chicago, whoever was coaching, he and Stan got crossways. Stan wouldn't even warm up with the quarterbacks during pregame. He warned up with the receivers. He was a strange guy."

On going to training camp in 1950 and then bolting for the Canadian Football League: "Jack Jacobs had gone to Canada and me being a receiver and Jack a quarterback – and I had had a decent year as a rookie – he called me about the first of June and asked, 'Bill, what kind of money are you making in Green Bay?' I said, 'Jack, I just signed a contract and I got a raise and I'm making $5,500.' Jack said, 'Well how would like to come to Canada? Bill, I can get you about $6,500.' I said that's interesting, but I've already signed my contract. I wanted to honor my contract. So I reported for camp in Green Bay. But the two leagues (NFL and All-America Football Conference) had merged and when I got to Green Bay, they had like 120 people out on that football field. It was survival of the fittest. I mean there were players coming in and leaving day in and day out. Jack kept calling me from Canada, but I stayed in Green Bay for two weeks. Jack called me again and said, 'Bill, I really need you up here. I don't have one decent receiver.' So they raised the ante $250. Finally, I said, 'Jack, I'm coming. There are so many football players here.' And I had a guaranteed, no-release contract from Canada. And back in those days, $6,000 was a lot of money. In Green Bay, I would have been paid if I would have made the ball club, but if I hadn't, I'd have been going home and getting a real job. So I just left."

Didn't Jacobs punch you in the face on a train trip during the 1949 season? "We were playing in Washington, I believe, and we were walking down the aisle. Jack had had a bad day and had had about four beers. I said something to Jack about having a bad day. He swung on me and busted my lip. Very uncharacteristic. (Jacobs) was so sorry it happened. I mean he followed me around for two weeks apologizing. It didn't bother me because in the heat of the battle I was kind of ragging Jack about having a bad day. And he having had about four beers, it just kind of set him off. But there wasn't any animosity at all."

On whether there was a lot of heavy drinking among the players in those days: "Everybody after a ball game, went to a bar there in Green Bay. They shut it down and it was just for the Packers and their families and dates. I think Bud Jorgensen kind of handled that for us. He was kind of our equipment guy and trainer, a great guy. It was kind of a smoke-filled bar. It was across the river. That guy just closed it down on Saturday night."

On any other hangouts in Green Bay: "At the old Astor Hotel, we had a meeting room there where we used to hang out all the time. They had a bar there and we used to close it down. We had some pretty heavy drinkers on the ball club in that day. If that place could tell some stories, it would be something. Curly knew about it and Charley Brock being an old Packer and on the staff, he used to come to the party. I never will forget the first week I was in Green Bay. After practice a bunch of guys came back and said, 'Let's go have a beer.' Hell, I had never drunk a beer in season. I had drunk a beer at Tech in the offseason. But it was unreal for me to have a beer during the season. I thought I was breaking every training rule in America. But the people in Green Bay, instead of taking a coffee break, they took a beer break."

On fellow end Nolan Luhn, a fifth-year veteran in 1949: "He wasn't real fast, but he had good hands."

On Damon Tassos, a guard in his third year with the Packers in 1949: "He was a character, an overachiever. Just a fun-loving guy. Nothing wrong with his character, he was just a happy-go-lucky, fun guy."

On tackle Paul Lipscomb, another fifth-year veteran who had a reputation for being a dirty player: "Paul was aggressive. I don't know if you'd call it dirty."

On coaching legend Clark Shaughnessy helping first-year coach Gene Ronzani install the T-formation in training camp in 1950: "He was a sharp guy. He worked on percentages. He was a technician and it showed."

Kelley died in 2015 at age 89. The above interview was conducted in 2011.

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