Three of the Packers' offensive linemen from the 1960s have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo and Jerry Kramer – but nobody on that unit was any more respected in the locker room by his teammates or the coaches watching film than Gale Gillingham.
He was the Packers' biggest and fastest, and arguably nastiest and most talented offensive lineman certainly during the years he played and maybe counting the years since. Gillingham's mindset, down after down, wasn't just to win his matchup, but also to intimidate and dominate. Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Henry Jordan once said after squaring off against Gillingham in Vince Lombardi's famous nutcracker drill in a training camp practice, "It was like kissing the front end of a train."
Mano a mano was Gillingham's style and while he might have been listed at 255 pounds, he later revealed he played between 275 and 290 pounds for most of his career. His size and speed were a rare combination at the time. "I don't know of any guard anywhere stronger than Gillie is," Gregg said in 1970, "and he has tremendous speed for a guy his size." Gregg, who doubled as Gillingham's position coach in 1969 and '70, also called him "the finest guard in the NFL," claiming he was better than future Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom Mack and Gene Hickerson, both of whom were active players at the time.
Gregg wasn't alone in his opinions. Several of Gillingham's teammates, as well as members of Lombardi's staff, considered Gillingham to be the best of the Packers' offensive guards, if not offensive linemen, during the 1960s even though he played only two seasons under Lombardi.
Former Packers public relations director Lee Remmel wrote in a 1976 game program that some team insiders considered Gillingham to be "the finest guard ever to play the game." Bob Schnelker, who spent 27 years in the NFL as an assistant coach, was among them. "Gale was the best guard I've ever been around," he said. Bart Starr agreed. "He'll go down as one of the great guards in history," Starr said in 1975. Almost 30 years later, Starr hadn't changed his mind. "When you combine (Gillingham's) size and athleticism, he was unique," Starr said in 2003.
While Gillingham won two Super Bowl rings under Lombardi, he played on mostly losing teams his final eight seasons, which has hurt his legacy. The Packers finished with a winning record only twice and made the playoffs just once in 1972, when Gillingham's season was cut short by injury.
Still, he was selected to five Pro Bowls when NFL head coaches picked the team; and he was named to the Newspaper Enterprise Association All-Pro Team four times when it was selected from 1954 to 1996 by a poll of NFL players and viewed as probably the most credible of the all-pro teams. Gregg also made the NEA team four times and Kramer twice.
Gillingham might have been even more respected by his younger teammates in the later years of his career.
"He was a beast," said fullback John Brockington, a rookie in 1971. "He pounded those weights. He was something else. Physical and fast. He was bigger. Mean. Put somebody ordinary over (Gillingham) and the guy had no chance. Gillie was going to pound him to death."
Larry McCarren, who has stayed close to the Packers as a player, reporter and analyst since his rookie year in 1973, believes that Gillingham was as good a run blocker as New England's John Hannah, considered by some the greatest guard in NFL history, and a better pass blocker to boot. "(Gillingham) was quite simply, the best offensive lineman I've ever seen … bar none," said McCarren.
Bill Lueck, who played behind Kramer and Gillingham as a rookie in 1968, and then lifted weights with Gillingham and started next to him for six years, said he always marveled at how Gillingham stayed patient and true to his techniques for as strong and aggressive as he was.
"Gale could bench 450 pounds. He could squat 600-plus pounds," said Lueck. "(And) you had to be able to run to play guard in Green Bay. He'd never over-commit. He didn't have to hold. To this day, I'm in San Diego part of the year, and I see (former Bear) George Seals, a defensive tackle we used to play against. He says nobody wanted to line up across from Gale Gillingham on a drive block. He'd put them on their back."
It was an opinion held even by the best of the defensive tackles of that era. Bob Lilly, one of three defensive tackles on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team, played against the Packers seven times during his 14-year career, including the 1966 and '67 NFL championship games, and said Gillingham stood out among the Packers' offensive linemen of the time.
"That was sort of my thought," said Lilly, who played from 1961 to 1974. "I played against Forrest Gregg once when he moved from tackle to guard. We always thought Forrest was real good because he had such great balance. He was good. All of them were. But Gillingham was the best physical specimen and just like the other linemen, extremely well trained and competitive."
Gillingham also served as the Packers' offensive captain from 1970 to 1974 and again in 1976.
"He was the best lineman Green Bay ever had. I'll bet if you ask 90% on the club who played years ago, they'll tell you the same thing," said Dave Hanner, who spent 44 years with the Packers as a player, coach and scout, including the Lombardi era and part of the Ron Wolf era. "He was so (darn) strong and a pretty good athlete."
The Packers selected Gillingham, a Wisconsin native, with their second of two first-round picks and the 13th choice overall in the 1966 NFL Draft. The draft was held on Nov. 27, 1965, and immediately the Packers announced they had signed him. At the time, NFL and rival American Football League teams were in a bidding war for players. Thus, AFL teams passed on Gillingham in their draft.
Gillingham played fullback on the freshman team at Minnesota, dropped out of school as a sophomore and then was moved to tackle when he returned for his junior year. Although colleges had resumed playing two-platoon football, Gillingham still doubled as a tackle on offense and defense.
As a rookie under Lombardi, Gillingham started the final two regular-season games at left guard for an injured Fuzzy Thurston and played well enough that the coaches waited until just prior to the 1966 NFL Championship Game before deciding to go back to a now healthy Thurston. "Gillie is one of those rare ones who could have made the first team right away with any team in the league," offensive line coach Ray Wietecha said late in the week during the deliberations.
The next season, Gillingham replaced Thurston as the starter at left guard and the Packers won their third straight NFL championship under Lombardi and also Super Bowl II.
When Kramer retired following the 1968 season, Gillingham replaced him at right guard. In 1972, when Gillingham was 28 years old and hitting his peak, second-year Packers coach Dan Devine switched him to defensive tackle five days before the season opener. Two games into the season, Gillingham injured his right knee and was lost for the year. He had surgery on the knee again following the 1973 season and played in pain the rest of his career.
When Bart Starr replaced Devine as coach in 1975, Gillingham was so disheartened by the team's grim prospects once he reported to camp, as well as the ineffectiveness of the coaching staff, he asked to be traded. When Starr refused to accommodate him, Gillingham announced his retirement on July 24, 1975, and sat out the season. "I could see we absolutely weren't going to win and I had had enough of losing and enough of stupidity," Gillingham told Packer Plus in 2002.
Gillingham returned to the Packers in 1976, but little had changed and he announced his retirement again on March 1, 1977, this time for good. In 10 seasons with the Packers, he played in 128 games and started 116. He also started all three postseason games following the 1967 season
Born Feb. 3, 1944, in Madison, Wis. Given name Gale Herbert Gillingham. Died Oct. 20, 2011, at age 67.
- Guard: 1966-74, 1976
- Height: 6-3; Weight: 280
- College: Minnesota, 1964-65
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1969, '70
- Other years selected to an all-pro first team: 1971, '74
- Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1969, '70, '71, '73, '74
- Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999