Ken Bowman, whose unsung efforts in Super Bowl I and the Ice Bowl contributed to the Green Bay Packers' three straight NFL championships in the 1960s, died Wednesday, Dec. 27, in Oro Valley, Ariz., a town located outside Tucson.
Bowman, who had turned 81 just 12 days earlier, died unexpectedly of natural causes, according to his wife Rosann.
Undersized at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Bowman played center for the Packers from 1964-73 and earned the lasting respect of his teammates for his tenacity and willingness to play through pain.
Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr once said, "I've never seen a guttier guy than Ken Bowman." Bill Lueck, who started at left guard alongside Bowman from 1969-73, once said in even greater wonderment: "How much pain that man could tolerate was incredible. You have to be able to play with pain in the NFL, but he was something else."
Perhaps there was no better proof of that than Bowman's performance in the Packers' 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I or what was then called the AFL-NFL World Championship. It was the game that concluded the second season of Vince Lombardi's three straight championships.
Bowman had played in only four regular-season games after separating his left shoulder in an Aug. 27 preseason game. However, when Bill Curry, his replacement, suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter of Super Bowl I, Lombardi summoned Bowman to take his place. Up to that point, Kansas City's future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Buck Buchanan had been a disruptive force against the Packers' offense, and the score was tied 7-7.
Although outweighed by 35 pounds or more against the 6-7, 274-pound Buchanan and often confronted by him head-on, Bowman held his own mostly with cut blocks. According to Packers' backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, the Chiefs positioned Buchanan over Bowman's "left (or injured) shoulder," rather than opposite left guard Fuzzy Thurston.
Uncharacteristically, Lombardi praised Bowman following the game for playing through what he described as a "painful" injury and one that would require surgery soon after the season. "Fortunately, the shoulder popped out only once yesterday," Lombardi added. "It was easily put back."
What Lombardi didn't say was that it was Bowman himself who popped his shoulder back in place and in between plays by pushing it against the body of one of his teammates.
A year later, when the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the Ice Bowl and became the first team and still the only team to win three consecutive NFL championships under a playoff format that dates to 1933, Bowman, along with right guard Jerry Kramer, combined on a wedge block against defensive tackle Jethro Pugh that cleared the way for Starr's game-winning quarterback sneak with 13 seconds remaining.
Pugh lined up between Kramer and Bowman. Kramer got off the ball quickly and drove into Pugh's left hip. Bowman hit Pugh in the rib cage and stood him up.
A native of Milan, Ill., Bowman played college football at the University of Wisconsin and was selected by the Packers in the eighth round of the 1964 NFL Draft. Bowman took over as the starting center in the eighth game of his rookie year and then started all 14 games plus two postseason games when the Packers won the 1965 NFL championship. Following his injury-riddled 1966 season, Bowman started 85 of 98 games over his final seven seasons with the Packers.
During his four seasons under Lombardi, Bowman earned his spurs – to borrow an idiom – by executing what was arguably the most difficult block in Lombardi's signature power sweep: cutting down the play-side defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment.
"The center, Kenny Bowman, had to do what was called a reach-block to get the defensive tackle," Bratkowski said in a 2016 interview. "Forrest (Gregg) would go pick the middle linebacker off. They formed that seal Coach Lombardi always talked about.
"Kenny was tough. He played strong. He had a shoulder harness on every game, every practice. His head and helmet didn't get along from the first day of training camp. It would rub his forehead, and he'd have blood running down his nose and eyes. The skin would come off the knuckles of his hands and he'd have to tape his fingers up every Sunday and sometimes in practice, too."
Bowman also served as the Packers' player representative from late 1969 until 1974, when he served as vice president of the NFL Players Association during the players' strike that summer. Previously, Bowman was part of the NFLPA's negotiating committee during the 1970 strike.
Bowman attended law school at Wisconsin during his playing days and was a practicing attorney in Green Bay for roughly 20 years following his retirement as a player. He had lived in the Tucson area for the past 30 years and was a retired special magistrate pro tem.
Funeral arrangements are pending.