The book is actually about amateur baseball centered around Wisconsin's Home Talent League, but in my research, I crossed paths with Bill Short, currently an umpire from Stoughton, Wis., but at one time was a trusted confidant of Lombardi.
One lucky reader will win a free copy of the book. Read to the bottom to learn how. For more on the book or to order your own copy, please visit BrianCarriveau.com.
Long before Bill Short umpired Home Talent League baseball games, he worked as a broadcast journalist for a radio station in Appleton.
In 1961, Ruby, the station’s receptionist, walked into the newsroom to catch Short’s attention.
“There’s a guy on the phone that wants to talk to you,” said Ruby. “Says he’s Vince Lombardi.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Short. “Who you trying to kid?”
Against his better judgment, Short walked into the office and picked up the phone.
“Bill, it’s Coach Lombardi.”
“Yeah, right,” said Short, sarcasm dripping from his voice.
“Goddamnit, mister, listen to me!”
“Shit, it is him,” thought Short.
“Yes, sir,” said Short. “What can I do, sir?”
“I got 350 guys here who think they can kick for the Green Bay Packers against the Bears on Sunday, and I want you and Red Cochran to find one.”
Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, and Boyd Dowler—three of the Green Bay Packers’ most indispensable players—were in the International Guard. Thanks to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Packers had no assurances that any one of those players was going to be available the rest of the year. Hornung, not only a running back, was also the team’s kicker. Short had been working with kickers at Lawrence College in Appleton and area high schools for several years, which was the impetus for Lombardi’s phone call.
So Short and Cochran, the team’s offensive backfield coach, looked at kickers for two full days, more than they could count. And they didn’t find a single worthy one in the bunch. However, the San Diego Chargers, then in the American Football League, had recently cut Ben Agajanian who had been kicking for years.
Short told Lombardi, “He might sign a conditional contract. I really think this wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Lombardi wanted to make sure Short was making the proper choice.
“If we sign him, and Hornung doesn’t come back,” warned Lombardi, “we’re going to lose the toss, and Agajanian is going to have to tee up that football on the opening kickoff, and Doug Atkins who’s 6-feet-8 and 9,000 pounds is going to be waiting across from him.” Atkins was a behemoth Hall of Fame defensive end for the Chicago Bears who also played on their kickoff return unit.
Short assured Lombardi it was their best choice. Lombardi, in turn, would sign Agajanian to a contract under one condition, they would also put Short’s name on the backup squad, a precursor to today’s practice squad. It was only a precautionary move, and Short would only have to play in a worst-case scenario. But with several players enlisted in the military, the possibility he could suit up for NFL football game wasn’t exactly far-fetched.
According to Short, the headlines in the newspapers read “Superfan” and “Morning radio jock takes over kicking coach duties.” His wife resented the attention. His kids thought it was pretty cool.
It turned out Hornung was able to play that Sunday, and Short was spared from any slim chance he had of kicking. He thanked God nothing happened, because he couldn’t stomach the thought of lining up across the field from Atkins. That was enough to give Short goose bumps.
The Packers had the services of their military trio for every game but one. Agajanian kicked in the lone game Hornung was gone, but Lombardi kept Short on staff. While he was never officially considered a coach, Short continued to mentor the kickers until 1970.
“He kept me around more or less just to be out there on the field when they worked with kickers,” said Short. “So for the next several years, I was just kind of the babysitter for kickers until we had to scour again.”
Short was part of the inner circle. He didn’t attend every single game, but he did attend the first two Super Bowls. Back in the 1960s, kicking as a profession all its own was just starting to become en vogue. Mostly he worked with Paul Hornung and Jerry Kramer, guys who primarily played other positions but were invaluable because of their versatility to be able to kick as well. Kramer even signed Short’s copy of his book Distant Replay with the inscription:
My best coach
Even if Short got the “job” in 1961, he considered Kramer to be his big break in 1962. With Hornung missing most of the season due to injury, Kramer took over the kicking duties. The Packers advanced all the way to the NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium, and Kramer had one of the most underrated performances in the history of professional football.
“He kicked off,” said Short. “He kicked three field goals. He kicked an extra point. And he played right guard. He was incredible that day. Bart Starr got the MVP, but I always thought Jerry Kramer was.”
In all the years he spent with the Packers, Short enjoyed just being on the sidelines, memories that would last a lifetime. He distinctly remembered being in awe of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke. In the final preseason game of the 1970 season against the Buffalo Bills, Short stood on the damp sidelines of Lambeau Field after it had rained all day in Green Bay. Starr, rain jacket draped over his shoulders, was parked on one side of the kicking guru, Ray Nitschke on the other. Short stood in amazement as Nitschke called out Buffalo’s plays to his defensive teammates out on the field before the Bills even snapped the ball.
“Trap! Right guard trap!”
“Sweep left! Sweep left!”
“Watch the flat!”
He was right every time. Short got home that night and told his son, “Ray Nitschke is a genius.”
Two years later, still working as a radio broadcaster, Short was able to interview Nitschke about that evening.
“You had never seen Buffalo before,” Short set up Nitschke. “You don’t watch that much film during the exhibition season anyway. How the hell did you know what they’re running?”
“Bill,” said Nitschke, “when you make your money as a middle linebacker, you learn to study a whole lot of things. And one of the things you learn to study is the white knuckles. If those knuckles are white, they’re getting ready to pass block. If the knuckles aren’t white, you know they’re going to pull or they’re just going to block straight ahead.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Short, “but how do you know what the play is?”
“Those are simple tendencies,” said Nitschke. “Anyone in the NFL can tell you that. You look at the down, you look at the yardage, you look at where they are on the field, you figure this out.”
Short liked, admired, and feared Vince Lombardi all at the same time. He tread lightly around the coach, but at the same time, he knew Lombardi couldn’t do much to him other than ask him not to come back. So he sat back and watched Lombardi’s mastery and observed with keen interest as the old man knew just what button to push and when to push it.
“I know at times he made the guys mad at him on purpose so they’d take it out on someone else,” said Short. “And invariably, it worked. It always happened on Friday. That’s when he’d blow his top.
“He had it all down pat. Just when you were getting real tired of him kicking you in the ass, he’d pat you on the back.”
As a nod to tomorrow's May 1st release date, I'll be giving away one free copy of It's Just a Game to the reader who can guess or come closest to guessing how many times the word "first" appears in the book.
Place your guesses in the comment section below. You've got 24 hours from the time of publication.
And once again, to order your own copy, please visit BrianCarriveau.com.