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John Brockington on Gale Gillingham: 'He was a beast'

Losing Mac Lane, changing the system scuttled star RB's career


*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 ***

John Brockington was the first runner in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in his first three seasons. An explosive, punishing runner at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Brockington had gained 3,276 yards by the end of his third year, averaging a healthy 4.3 yards per carry. As a rookie, he gained 1,105 yards, averaged 5.1 per carry and produced a 52-yard touchdown. In 1973, he rushed for a career-high 1,144 yards with a 4.3 average. "Rated one of the greatest running backs in pro football history after only three seasons," his bio in the Packers' 1974 media guide began. Brockington was a consensus All-Pro as a rookie and a three-time Pro Bowl pick by 1973. But that was the last time Brockington surpassed 1,000 yards. He dropped off to 883 yards in 1974, 434 in 1975 and 406 in 1976. He was waived after one game in 1977. Kansas City signed Brockington as a free agent almost three weeks later and that was his last season. A No. 1 draft pick in 1971, Brockington finished with 5,024 rushing yards with the Packers. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1984.

On his high-knee action, a trait Vince Lombardi once said he greatly admired in backs:"It was just natural to me. I didn't practice it. It was just the way I ran."

On guard Gale Gillingham, the anchor of the offensive line and a Pro Bowl selection for the third straight year in 1971:"He was a beast. Gillie was a weightlifter. He pounded those weights. He was something else. Physical and fast. He was bigger. Mean. He played Mike Reid of Cincinnati in the third game of the year. He made Mike Reid (all-AFC that year and all-NFL the next) look like a baby. Put somebody ordinary over (Gillingham) and the guy had no chance. Gillie was going to pound him to death."

On his other offensive linemen:"We had a pretty good offensive line. We really did. With (Ken) Bowman, Gillie and (Bill) Lueck; (Francis) Peay the first year and then (Bill) Hayhoe; Dick Himes. I did great for three years. Dick Himes was an Ohio State guy. We don't quit. He didn't have Gillie's strength, but he was a good, efficient tackle. He and Gillie complemented each other very well (on the right side). Lueck was good, too. He wasn't as big as Gale, certainly wasn't as strong as Gale. But those guys were scrappers. Hayhoe was good, but he wasn't an overpowering lineman. Francis was more of a position guy. He'd get in the right position and do his job. They'd get into you and in the pros that sometimes is all you can ask – that they get into their guy, keep their hands down; and then you run off their blocks."

On Bowman: "He was a veteran. He was smart. He was a bleeder, though. He was like 'The Bayonne Bleeder' (heavyweight fighter Chuck Wepner). Sometimes you'd look at Kenny and all you could see were the blue eyes on a red face. He was a scrapper, man."

On Donny Anderson and Dave Hampton, the halfbacks in 1971:"Hamp was a (heck of a) back. He went to Atlanta and got 1,000 yards. He was fast. He fumbled a little bit. Donny was the smartest football player I've ever been around. He never made mistakes. As far as I know, he never dropped a pass. He had great hands. And he was a decent blocker."

On Red Cochran, his offensive backfield coach from 1971-74:"I loved Red. He was tough. He was crusty. That was Woody Hayes. I was used to that."

On Bob Schnelker, who ran the passing game and called the plays in 1971:"Bob Schnelker had a good offensive mind and (was) very straightforward with you. For example, we were playing the Bengals and there was a play called for me to go to the flat. A lineman broke through so I blocked him. Scott (Hunter) threw the ball and a linebacker picked it off. That Monday, Schnelker comes in and says, 'Come here, I want to talk to you. You're a great running back, but you don't know (crap) about the passing game. That interception was on you. We had a lineman to pick that guy up. You were supposed to go to the flat. We knew the linebacker would follow you, but then the wide receiver curling back wouldn't have anybody over there to intercept the ball. You didn't go in the flat, the linebacker stepped back and intercepted it.' I didn't realize that. At Ohio State, I didn't know much about the passing game. I didn't know everything was coordinated like that. So that was part of the learning process for me. Little things like running to the inside shoulder of the linebacker rather than the outside shoulder. You run to the inside and (the linebacker) is looking to the inside and can see anything coming over the middle. You run to the outside shoulder he has to look at you and can't see what's happening in the middle. Bob jumped all over me about stuff like that."

Playing for Dan Devine on a 4-8-2 team as a rookie compared to playing for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, which was unbeaten his senior year heading into the Rose Bowl:"(Devine) was very strange. When we were getting ready for the Bengals (the third game in '71), I'll never forget, he said, 'This team is bigger than us, they're stronger than us, they're faster than us. You have to do everything just right to win this football game.' Like, why are we going out to play? When I was at Ohio State, we never went into a game thinking we could lose. Woody would say, 'This is how we're going to beat them.' And we believed him because he was Woody Hayes. This guy (Devine) tells us, 'If we don't play a perfect game, we're going to lose. They're better than we are.' I couldn't believe it. But that was (Devine)."

On Devine telling him before the 12th game in 1971 that if he could start a team he'd take Minnesota's Dave Osborn as his running back:  "So we're in St. Louis and I was like chump change away from 1,000 yards and he makes the comment about Dave Osborn. Gillie says, 'We got a back that's ready to get 1,000 yards and (Devine) wants to start a team with somebody else.' I didn't want to get into that crap; I just wanted to play football. But he was a strange guy."

On whether it was common for Devine to do things like that:"He wasn't a coach that brought the team together. The things he said were so obvious that you wouldn't do, but he'd do it anyway. It was amazing. He'd say things like, 'If I was to start a football team, I'd start it with Alan Page or Joe Moore or Dave Osborn.' It was never a Green Bay Packer. It was always somebody else.* *I mean how do you get ready for football games when the head coach doesn't respect the team he is coaching?"

On the acquisition of halfback MacArthur Lane before the 1972 season: "Go back and look at the films. He was awesome. He was unbelievable the way he blocked. You don't see many like that. The fullback now, the position I played, is mostly just a guard. All they do is collide all game. That's how Mac was back then (as a halfback). But he didn't weigh 250 pounds doing it."

On Lane's attitude and toughness:"When I was back as a honorary captain a few years ago, Larry McCarren said to me, 'When Mac Lane came to the Packers, he brought locker room musk.'"

On his role as the fullback and his favorite play, the weak-side or quick slant:"The fullback actually ran the ball when we played. So the 36 and 37 slant – that was my bread-and-butter play. It was a basic off-tackle play, but the linebacker had to be blocked and Mac could do it. Mac was a devastating blocker."

On whether he and Lane ever flip-flopped positions: "In the Giants game in '72, we might have done a little switching. But not much. I was the fullback 99 percent of the time. Mac weighed about 215. I came in at 220 my rookie year, but kind of settled in at 225."

On winning the NFC Central Division in 1972: "Here's what happens, we get three picks. We took Willie Buchanon and then we got Chester Marcol. Willie Buchanon and Chester Marcol turned the team around. In '71, Al Matthews was playing corner and he was being torched because he wasn't a corner. So when Willie came, they moved Al inside to safety. Now we have Willie Buchanon and Ken Ellis at the corners. Those guys were beautiful corners. Teams couldn't score touchdowns on us. They were tough and could cover. And if we got close and didn't score, Chester would come in and kick field goals. MacArthur Lane was the cherry on the cake. But Chester and Willie B were what turned it around."

On how good Willie Buchanon was as a rookie and how good he might have been if not for breaking his left leg in both 1973 and '75: "He could have been one of the best ever. He was big. He was fast. He wasn't any Deion Sanders. Willie could force on the sweep and make tackles. He wasn't soft. Deion used to say, they paid him to cover. No, if you're a defensive player you've got to tackle. You can't do the matador thing and let a guy run by you, and then jump on his back to try and make the tackle. Willie was a great, great defensive back. He did it all. Unfortunately, two (out of three) years he broke the same ankle."

On defensive tackle Bob Brown, a Pro Bowl pick in 1972: "He had a breakout year. You know what, he was quick. Bob could get off that ball. He was something else. Bob weighed about 280, 285 and that was big when I played. He was a big man."

On middle linebacker Jim Carter: "He had the bad luck of coming behind Ray Nitschke. They gave Ray Nitschke his day my rookie year and he came back two more years. So Jim caught all that hell about putting Ray on the bench. He didn't put Ray on the bench. Ray got to the point where he was a liability in the passing game. He didn't have the feet anymore. (Carter) had a good year in '72, too."

On what happened in the 16-3 playoff loss to Washington that year: "If you remember, we played the Redskins during the regular season. Maybe the (11th) week. They showed a five-man line and you can't run against a five-man line. It's impossible and we never made the adjustment. So we get to the playoff game, Bart (Starr) coached Scott (Hunter) and said, 'If you see that fifth lineman come into the game, get out of whatever you're in and go A Option, B Circle because they won't be able to cover. They'll have one less linebacker in coverage.' But no! In comes the fifth lineman and we run 30 Dive, we run 36, 37 and they stop us. I have like 13 carries for 9 yards. It was embarrassing. That was the day Devine decided to coach. He decided he was going to be the guy and he had his plastic-covered board. It was ridiculous. By the end of the game, Bart was down on like the 30-yard line. Scottie had gone to him and said, 'I thought you said…' Bart said, 'I told you what to do.' But Dan Devine overruled Bart's instructions."

On what he thought was Devine's reasoning:"Some newspaper article came out that week that the Packers had three coaches: Bart Starr coaches the offense, Hawg Hanner coaches the defense and Devine does whatever. That was what did us in. (Devine) decided to coach. I got to the Pro Bowl that year and Chris Hanburger was one of the Pro Bowl linebackers. He said to me, 'Why did you stick to what you were doing against that defense? We didn't expect that. But when you didn't try to pass us out of it, we stayed.' I'm telling you we had that conversation. When Robbie went to the Redskins, George Allen had the same conversation with him. 'What was that all about?'"

On whether Devine and Starr had words on the sidelines: "I don't think so. You know Bart was a gentleman. He wasn't going to challenge the head coach like that. It wasn't his team. Bart had been a player the year before. No, he would have never challenged coach like that. That was not his style."

On quarterback Scott Hunter: "I think Scott would have done a whole lot better if anybody had said, 'I believe in you.' But every year they were bringing in somebody: Jim Del Gaizo one year, (Jerry) Tagge drafted No. 1. He had the slowest feet you ever saw in your life. Oh (gosh)! I didn't understand that draft choice. (Scott) was always looking over his shoulder."

On whether Hunter could have led them to the Super Bowl:"He was a great leader. He had great courage. He was commanding in the huddle. I don't think we would have had to lean on his arm that much. Look at the Redskins. They had Billy Kilmer for crying out loud. Was he a great passer? And they went to the Super Bowl with that guy. They played great defense, they had a strong running game and their passing game consisted of outs and slants. They had a very simplified passing game."

On why there was no carry-over from 1972 to 1973: "We come back in '73 at our first team meeting at St. Norbert, (Devine's) got like a pink cardigan sweater on and he's got these cans of films. He threatens to show us the Washington playoff game. He says, 'You guys think you're so good, you want to see these films?' We should have said, 'Yeah, so we can see what a great coaching job you did.' That's not the way you start a new season."

On trading two second-round draft picks for Del Gaizo before the 1973 season: "He could throw the football. He threw a pretty pass. But physically I don't think he was up to the task. He was little. He had small shoulders. He was a left-handed passer and threw a great ball. But he wasn't that tall. And he separated his shoulder."

On his negotiations with the Chicago Fire of the World Football League before the 1974 season and then signing a no-cut contract with the Packers: "You know what's funny? I got to Chicago and (Red Cochran) met me at the airport. First of all, it was, 'How did he know I was going?' I hadn't told him. It was at O'Hare. Then he said, 'Don't do anything stupid.' It was the Chicago Fire. I wasn't going to that stupid league. Are you kidding me? I'm going to trade the Green Bay Packers in for the Chicago Fire? I was just doing it for leverage. I just wanted to put a little fear in them. My third year I signed one contract for three years."

On how much the NFL players strike divided the team before the 1974 season: "I stayed in Columbus. I didn't come until it was over. Scott Hunter called Bear Bryant and asked, 'What should I do?' Dan Devine was offering him 10 grand to cross the line. Bear Bryant said, 'What are your offensive linemen doing?' (Scott) said, 'They're staying out.' Bear Bryant said, 'Then, that's what you do. You don't want to cross your offensive linemen.' So Scott stayed out, too."

On the John Hadl trade:"That was a mistake. We gave up so much of the future. Devine, oh my gosh, he was a disaster."

On Starr taking over as head coach in 1975, hiring Paul Roach as offensive coordinator and the changes that were made to the offense:"(Roach) came in with that read thing. I never ran like that. Take a step, level off and run under control. Those were the coaching points on that play. I wasn't used to running like that. I'd come off the edge flying out there and I was running too fast and couldn't make the cuts. When I'd finally get under control, it was too late. Paul Roach was the bane of my existence when he got there. I could never do anything right. All he did was criticize."

On what replaced the 36 and 37 slant: "It was 38 and 39. If you watch football today, you see it all the time. They call it a stretch play. You see how the guy from Pittsburgh runs? That kid (Le 'Veon Bell) has the patience of Job. But it wasn't suited to me at all. I just wasn't used to running like that. Plus, they let Mac go. That was huge and bothered me a lot."

On how much those factors played in him never again rushing for more than 434 yards in a season:"I was really depressed about Mac leaving. I had a really bad attitude. I think I was sulking is what I was doing. I really felt that loss because there was no reason to trade him. We had that strike in '74 and we had some bad moments during that strike with Mac, Hawg Hanner, Jim Carter and all that mess."

On what happened between Lane and Hanner: "As I understand it, there was a big fight down at My Brother's Place. Mac and Hawg got into it, and I think Jim Carter might have been part of it. Mac was a fierce guy and definitely pro-union."

On whether any blows were traded:"No, I just think it was a heated argument."

On Hanner's role in the trade: "Bart called Mac and said, 'Hey, it's a new season, let's just play some football.' Mac says, 'I agree.' The next thing you know, Mac gets traded. Mac calls Bart and asks, 'What happened coach?' Bart says, 'I had to please my coaches.' It had to be Hawg Hanner who wanted him to go. That was a disaster for me. We had Willard Harrell and Eric Torkelson. Good guys. Eric had a good, long career. But they didn't have the upper body strength to block linebackers. They were no Mac Lane as blockers."

On the Packers playing hardball with Ted Hendricks and losing him in free agency, also before the 1975 season: "All he did was lead our team in tackles, interceptions and blocked kicks. What the hell? He goes to the Raiders and wins the Super Bowl. When you let a guy like him go, it makes you question: Do you really want to build a football team? This guy was unbelievable."

On Hendricks' demands for a no-cut contract: "He deserved it. That man was incredible. You know what he meant to the corner on his side? You throw the ball over him, you're going to be throwing into that defensive back's arms. He was so tall. He was a stud."

On the changes to the offensive line:"By that time, our offensive line was totally different. Gale was gone. Pat Matson (age 31) was playing. Come on! Bruce Van Dyke (age 31). Ernie McMillan (age 37)."

On those who theorize that his collision with Cincinnati's Ken Dyer, who was left almost completely paralyzed, took a psychological toll on him: "I've heard that story, but you realize that was the third game my rookie year and I think the first quarter. I had a big game that day and had a hell of a year in '71."

On the toughest player he ever faced: "Dick Butkus. He was unrelenting. He was a 100-percent football player. There was no dog in that guy. There was no letting up in that guy. He was a special ballplayer and he let it all hang out. He was unbelievable."

On finishing his career in Kansas City: "The faces changed, the culture changed. It was very strange. In Green Bay after practice, we would sit around the locker room for hours. In Kansas City, they split. As soon as things were over, they were gone. It was just a different culture."

Brockington, 68, lives in the San Diego area. The excerpts above were taken from interviews conducted in 2001 and two within the last week.

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