It was a rainy, cold, miserable fall day in Dallas when his Southern Methodist University football teammates selected Greg Gardner to ask coach Forrest Gregg if they could end practice early.
Gardner said yes to his teammates’ request, but as he walked toward Gregg, a 6-foot-4 football immortal, he realized the audacity of his mission. Gregg had played for the Green Packers in the famous/infamous 1967 Ice Bowl when Wisconsin temperatures plunged to 13 below, turning the field into a “frozen tundra.”
It made no sense to complain to Gregg, Ice Bowl survivor, about a rainy day in Dallas. By the time Gardner reached his coach, he realized the utter foolishness of his mission. He returned to his teammates to practice in the rain.
Never quit. That was Gregg’s mantra. His will and humor and devotion to family were remembered in a Wednesday funeral service at First Methodist Church that was at turns funny and tearful.
Gregg had lived near the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo since 2001. He died Friday at Penrose Hospital after a decadelong struggle with Parkinson’s. He was 85.
His will, as much as his talent, carried him to one of the greatest careers in football history. He, like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, won six NFL titles. That will carried him from Sulphur Springs, Texas, a small town 90 miles from Dallas, to victories in the first two Super Bowls. He and Anthony Munoz rank as the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history.
I talked often by phone with Gregg about football. He was blessed with a brilliant football mind. After retirement, he led the Packers, Browns and Bengals before ending his coaching career with a 1989-1990 return to Southern Methodist, his alma mater.
Yet he was a humble man, even in his field of expertise. We sometimes disagreed on a play selection or a player’s talent, but he never played his obvious trump card. He was a football enthusiast talking to another football enthusiast.
Gregg enjoyed a decadeslong walk through football, and there are dozens of superb stories about his toughness and utter hatred of losing.
He once stood up, literally, to Vince Lombardi, the toughest coach of them all. After a defeat, Lombardi wondered aloud if any of his Packers cared about winning. Gregg burst to his feet in a rage and said, yes, he cared very much.
Lombardi, startled, used the confrontation to start a fresh winning streak.
Receiver James Lofton, who played for Gregg with the Packers, added to the list of Gregg stories.
“He had a presence you could literally feel,” Lofton said at the funeral. “Like a strong wind blowing in your face. . . . Like an icy cold day when you couldn’t feel your fingers or your toes.”
In 1984, Lofton and the Packers stumbled to seven straight losses. After the final defeat, players encountered a smoldering Gregg in the locker room. They not only could sense his presence; they could sense his surging wrath.
“The losing,” Gregg announced in his Texas drawl, “stops here.”
Lofton smiled as he thought back to that locker room scene.
“And you know what? We won seven of our last eight games.”