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Bud Jorgensen: Curly Lambeau of NFL trainers

Was Bud Grant Wisconsin’s best-ever prep athlete?

Tim O'Brien and Bud Jorgensen
Tim O'Brien and Bud Jorgensen

William from Green Bay

Why weren't Bud Jorgensen and George Calhoun inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's "Awards of Excellence" last year?

Good question. For those unfamiliar with the process, the hall issued "Awards of Excellence" last year "to recognize significant contributors to the game" in four categories: assistant coaches, athletic trainers, equipment managers and public-relations personnel. The inaugural class included five from each group, and the only honoree with Packer ties was Fritz Shurmur, who spent five of his 25 years as an assistant coach in Green Bay. From my perspective, Jorgensen and Calhoun should have been the two slam-dunk choices in their respective categories.

Jorgensen was the Curly Lambeau of NFL trainers. In 1968, he was the first athletic trainer who worked exclusively for a major professional sports team in the United States to be inducted into the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame. In other words, 54 years ago, he was recognized by his peers as the most deserving trainer not only in the history of the NFL but also Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL.

Jorgensen worked for the Packers as a trainer for 47 years, the longest stint of anyone on the football side of their operation and a period when they won a record 11 NFL championships. For most, if not all of that time, he also either doubled as the team's property manager, the former title for an equipment manager, or oversaw that position.

Jorgensen started working for the Packers in 1924 when he assisted then-trainer and property man Pat Holland on road trips to Chicago and Kansas City. He replaced Holland in both jobs the next year and held them until 1935, when five games into the season the Packers hired Dave Woodward from the University of Minnesota as trainer. Jorgensen then served as Woodward's assistant for five seasons before becoming head trainer again upon Woodward's death in February 1940.

At one other point in the early 1930s, the Packers also engaged the services of Hugo Quist, trainer for the world-famous Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi to work with Jorgensen and their players while on road trips to New York. None of that should be surprising. One of the reasons the Packers won more championships than any other team during the Lambeau era was because of their innovative approach in many areas.

Overall, during Jorgensen's 47 years, the Packers won 11 NFL titles – six under Lambeau and five under Vince Lombardi – and he was on the sidelines tending to players for every championship game and all but two regular-season games: one in 1929 when his son was born and another in 1958 when his wife underwent major surgery.

"He was one of the most dedicated, loyal and enthusiastic persons I have even seen in the Packers organization," Bart Starr, quarterback of Lombardi's championship teams, said at the time of Jorgensen's death. Cherry Starr, Bart's wife, also expressed appreciation for Jorgensen's work, perhaps because of the time he spent attending to her husband in the mid-1950s when a lingering back injury from his college days nearly derailed his pro career before it started and again at the end of Bart's career when shoulder problems eventually forced his retirement. "He loved the Packers so much," Cherry said of Jorgensen. "They were always something special to Bud. He will always have a special place in our hearts."

As Lee Remmel, longtime Packers public relations director and their first historian, once wrote, Jorgensen's service with the Packers was unmatched. Along with his 47 years as either trainer or assistant trainer – he stayed and helped Domenic Gentile, his replacement, in his final two years – Jorgensen also served longer than any other equipment manager in team history. After he resumed his duties as trainer in 1940, the Packers hired a series of assistants to help him in the equipment room. Even when Dad Braisher was hired in 1956, he was considered Jorgensen's assistant.

"An unflagging loyalist, he was the only constant through the fledgling 1920s and … finally the sweet success of the '60s," Remmel wrote of Jorgensen when he was still working for the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1971.

While Jorgensen himself once stated how primitive things were for a trainer in the beginning – "when I started, I had a bottle of Sloan's liniment and a few rolls of tape," was how he put it – he was widely respected in his profession, self-taught or not.

In 1968, when he was inducted into the NATA Hall of Fame as part of its sixth class, George Sullivan, chairman of the selection committee and employed in the area of athletic medicine at the University of Nebraska, wrote Lombardi to congratulate him on having such an outstanding trainer working for the Packers organization. "He is deserving and we as trainers are proud of him," was how Sullivan punctuated his letter.

Of the 50 inductees in the first five NATA classes, 46 were trainers for college teams, mostly football, two worked with Olympic athletes and two were pioneers in sports medicine. Inducted with Jorgensen was Bob Bauman, who doubled as trainer at St. Louis University and with the city's professional baseball teams for nearly 50 years.

Even NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle appreciated the significance of Jorgensen's induction. "This high honor is both a tribute to you and also to professional football," Rozelle wrote Jorgensen. "You are one of a mere handful who have seen firsthand the development of our game over the past four decades and also played a personal part in its development."

In 1951, at NATA's first national convention, Jorgensen was invited to give a demonstration on ankle injuries that drew praise from orthopedic surgeons and elected vice president of the organization. In 1956, the NFL also chose Jorgensen to be the first trainer to treat players at the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles. For the first five Pro Bowls, the league had used trainers from various universities in LA.

The Packers also honored Jorgensen a number of times. "Bud Jorgensen Day" was held at old City Stadium on Nov. 13, 1955, and he was given monetary gifts from both former and current players. In 1974, the Packers and the team's alumni honored Jorgensen again at a luncheon. In 1976, he was the first contributor inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame, excluding Lambeau, who was previously elected as a player, coach, and contributor.

'Bud Jorgensen Day'

Jorgensen also worked with the Packers Alumni Association to start a clinic for high school coaches in Green Bay and conducted seminars at clinics mostly in the Midwest but also as far away as Montreal, Canada, where he once lectured at the North American Trainers School of Techniques. After retiring from the Packers, Jorgensen also served as trainer for the UW-Green Bay men's basketball team for six seasons from 1972-78.

Yes, Jorgensen was a seasonal employee for most of his career with the Packers, but so was Lambeau, who worked on the floor of a men's clothing store in the offseason in the 1920s, sold insurance from his Massachusetts Mutual Life Co. office in Green Bay in the '30s and enjoyed the life of luxury in California during the 1940s. That was life in the NFL back then. When Lombardi was hired as coach of the Packers in 1959, one of his first acts was to quit his offseason bank job in New York.

As for Calhoun, I can understand where there may have been some confusion over his role as Packers publicity man in 1919 when he co-founded the team and again from 1921-47. There's no question that he served in that capacity for more than 25 years; only whether he did it gratis and received only expense money from the Packers or was paid by the Press-Gazette, where he worked for most of that time as a telegraph editor. That's something I have yet to uncover based on what I've found in our financial records. At this point, I'm aware that other Press-Gazette employees also pitched in and worked jobs for the Packers and that the team's ticket director for several years was an official with Kellogg Bank, but I don't know the pay arrangements or if those companies simply allowed workers to donate time to the Packers while on the job for them.

But it shouldn't matter. Not only was Calhoun the Packers' first publicity man, but he also basically served as the NFL's first PR director, albeit in an ex officio capacity, starting in the mid-1930s when he wrote a newsletter on league activities that he distributed to more than 100 newspapers across the U.S. As early as 1923, he also started polling coaches, club officials and others in order to pick an all-pro team that evolved into the NFL's official all-league team in the early 1930s.

In the Pro Football Hall of Fame archives, there are letters written by former NFL commissioner Bert Bell and others praising Calhoun for his contributions to the league, and the first official NFL encyclopedia where editor Roger Treat wrote in his foreword that his effort wouldn't have been possible without Calhoun's records.

In 1954, when Calhoun wrote a letter to Bell informing him that the Packers had decided to discontinue his Football News Bulletin, the commissioner wrote back to Calhoun on league stationery, "I want you to know that for myself and the members of the National Football League we deeply appreciate everything you have done for us; and this is from the hearts of all of us." Later, Bell added that he appreciated Calhoun's willingness to continue keeping up with his records, knowing "they will be of great assistance to the league office."

In 1963, Calhoun was on the preliminary list of contributor candidates for the Hall of Fame's charter class. He never made it, but one would think almost 60 years later that at least his PR work for the Packers and the NFL would at least be recognized.

Terry from Manhattan Beach, CA

Did the best high-school athlete in Wisconsin history just pass at 95?

Packers' nemesis or not, paying tribute to Bud Grant would certainly be an appropriate gesture here. As Vikings coach for 18 seasons, Grant was 23-11-1 against the Packers, starting with a split against Lombardi in 1967, and then usually by outcoaching Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine, Starr, and Forrest Gregg. A Superior, Wis., native, Grant was talented enough to play for both the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL and the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBA. And, yes, he'd get my vote for greatest high-school athlete in the history of Wisconsin.

In basketball, Grant played four years at Superior Central, from 1941-45, and started as a freshman on a state tournament team. Overall, he scored 897 points, when I believe the state record was 1,180. "He could do everything," Ron Blomberg, a former high school teammate who later coached the Milwaukee Bucks' minor league team and ran their summer basketball camps, told me in 2005 when I polled coaches and others to select an all-time Wisconsin high school basketball team for The Milwaukee Journal. "He was such a great natural athlete. Bud had good height; inside, but go outside, too. He could shoot and he was strong. He was a star as a sophomore."

But what I find most impressive was that after Grant moved from end to fullback as a senior and led Central to a 7-1 record, he enlisted in the Navy and reported to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago. There, as an 18-year-old end, he played on the base football team coached by the legendary Paul Brown and alongside college and pro players. The star of the team was 25-year-old future Pro Football Hall of Fame fullback Marion Motley, and Great Lakes' schedule included a handful of Big Ten opponents. In fact, Great Lakes capped its season with a 39-7 victory over then fifth-ranked Notre Dame after scoring victories over Michigan State and Illinois in two of its three previous games.

At age 16, Grant also was chosen to play in an American Legion All-Star baseball game in Chicago. A pitcher, Grant was once labeled, "The Hired Gun of Town Team Baseball," because of the money he made playing summer ball for, among others, Ridgeland, a community of about 200 located in northern Dunn County in Northwestern Wisconsin. Grant also doubled as an outfielder and was a three-sport star earning nine letters at the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s.

Randy from Nashville, TN

I read your well-written story about Lombardi's black players being snubbed last week on the Packers' website. I have my own added suggestion to why this has been done, in part, NFL Films. I am a huge fan of NFL Films' work during the late Steve Sabol's tenure there. But as much as he was a big fan of the league's players and teams in the 1960s, NFL Films glamourized some players much more than others, and I think this added to your points. I don't remember features being done on any brown-skin players on those teams except for maybe Willie Davis. NFL Films loved Larry Wilson and his safety blitzes, rightfully so. He was tough and a good player, but Willie Wood was also. I think NFL Films' work influenced many voters' opinions without trying to do so. Just my opinion.

Thanks. I agree with you.