Frank Winters' career changed in Green Bay

Smart, tenacious center carried a certain reputation in league circles

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Former Packers C Frank Winters

Frank Winters

  • Inducted: 2008
  • Center: 1992-2002
  • Height: 6-3; Weight: 291
  • College: Western Illinois, 1984-86

Honors:

  • Years selected to an all-pro first team: 1999
  • Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 1996

For someone who was predominantly a long snapper over his first five seasons, Frank Winters climaxed his NFL career by starting at center on a Super Bowl champion and ended it with a reputation for having been one of the nastiest – if not dirtiest – centers in the league.

It was an uncommon storyline and one Winters achieved by being tough, ill-tempered and playing-to-the-whistle – not to mention, sometimes even beyond. While Winters claimed he only played hard, he was twice recognized by Sports Illustrated during the height of his career as being one of the 12 dirtiest players in the league. Opponents charged that he wasn't averse to diving over piles to get in one last lick or even sneaking in a poke-in-the-eye at the bottom of one of those free-for-alls.

Either way, Winters' play belied what general manager Ron Wolf thought he was getting when he signed him in 1992 as a Plan B free agent, which was an annual, end-of-season pool of fringe and over-the-hill veterans that were free to sign with any other team over a four-year period starting in 1989. After all, during his first five seasons, Winters had played with three different teams – Cleveland, the New York Giants and Kansas City – and started only six of the 75 games in which he appeared.

Almost immediately, his career arc changed course in Green Bay.

Winters stepped into the starting lineup in the fifth game of the 1992 season when starting center James Campen sustained a knee injury and later replaced Rich Moran at left guard after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game. In all, Winters started 11 games that season and proved his value not only with his versatility but also the other qualities that allowed him to persevere as a starter for all but one injury-shortened season during an 11-year stay with the Packers.

Among them were his durability and consistency. "Frankie doesn't miss any snaps and he doesn't make very many mistakes," Tom Lovat, offensive line coach for Winters' first seven seasons in Green Bay, once said.

Another was his football smarts. "The most important part of Frankie's game is his intelligence," Lovat said before the start of the Packers' Super Bowl-winning season. "Knowing where he has to be. Knowing when to be there and having the ability to be there." Better yet, thanks to Winters' savvy, the entire line was usually on the same page. "Frankie's got a mind like a trap," Lovat also noted. "You feel good if he's on the field if something unusual comes up. It's generally happened before and the adjustment made to handle it is locked in with him."

Then there was Winters' tenacity.

"I love Frank Winters," former Packers assistant coach and 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci said in 1998. "He's a teddy bear off the field, but he'll wait until the tackle is made, then come in high and spear players standing around the ball. Then he'll go back to the huddle laughing."

Beside his makeover from deep snapper to a between-the-white-lines barroom brawler, there was yet another paradox about Winters, thanks to John Madden. The Hall of Fame NFL coach turned broadcaster couldn't help himself but refer to Winters as "Frankie Bag of Doughnuts," whenever he worked a Packers game. However, Winters was anything but soft and unfit if that was the visual upshot of the nickname.

"With Frankie, he gives you the impression that he doesn't look like he's in as good a condition as he is," said Lovat. "But he's … got a lot of endurance."

In 1993 and '94, as he did in his first season with the Packers, Winters split time between center and left guard as a result of injuries to other linemen. Thereafter, he started exclusively at center for most of the next eight seasons, other than 2001 when he lost his starting job to Mike Flanagan and appeared in only four games and also 2002 when he started 10 games but as an injury fill-in.

Beginning with the last eight games in 1992, Winters made 74 consecutive starts until he missed three early in 1997 with a sprained foot. Then, from 1998 through 2000, he started 43 of 48 games, missing only the final three games in 1998 with a broken leg and two games in 2000 with ankle and bicep injuries. Actually, when healthy once he had settled in as the starting center, Winters rarely missed a snap.

"He was at every meeting, every practice, every game," Wolf once said. "Frank was dependable. And that's the greatest compliment you can give to an offensive lineman."

In all, Winters played in 156 regular-season games for the Packers and started 141. He also started 14 postseason games, including Super Bowls XXXI and XXXII. In 2003, he was cut at the end of training camp, leaving Brett Favre as the only remaining holdover from the Packers' 1996 NFL championship team.

Born Jan. 23, 1964. Given name Frank Mitchell Winters.

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