Shortly after the 1967 Ice Bowl, Cowboys’ defensive tackle Bob Lilly saluted one of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive linemen, calling him one of the best he ever faced … and nothing unusual about that. The Packers had Jerry Kramer, the Hall-of-Fame guard who threw the key block on Bart Starr’s game-winning sneak.
But it wasn’t Kramer Lilly was talking about. It was teammate Gale Gillingham.
Like Kramer, he was a guard. And, like Kramer, he’s now in the Packers’ Hall of Fame.
But where it took Kramer 45 years to graduate to Canton, Gillingham’s never been considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s never been a finalist, and he’s never been a semifinalist. And call it what you will – an oversight, a mistake, a lapse – but it is what it is.
And what it is … is wrong.
Gale Gillingham was more than an integral part of Green Bay’s Power Sweep. He was a premier player who was a six-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion and first winner of the 1970 Forrest Gregg NFL Lineman of the Year award. Moreover, he was so accomplished that Starr and Dave Hanner called him the best offensive lineman on the Packers.
OK, so that’s their opinion. All I know is that Gale Gillingham was so talented that once he took over for injured guard Fuzzy Thurston in the Packers’ 1967 training camp, he never sat down. In fact, he played every game of all but one season in his 10-year career with the Packers, missing time only when he was hurt in 1972.
That was the season that then-coach Dan Devine inexplicably switched Gillingham to defensive tackle where he not only was out of position but suffered a season-ending knee injury two games in. He would switch back the following and, even though the Packers were mediocre, be named to the 1973-74 All-Pro teams.
Yes, he was that good.
“I believe Gillingham is the best lineman in Packers’ history,” former Hall-of-Fame selector and long-time Packers' beat reporter Cliff Christl told me this week, “and I believe most players who played with him agree. He was John Hannah before John Hannah.”
A former fullback, Gillingham was strong and fast and didn’t move opposing linemen as much as he pulverized them -- with Christl recalling Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Henry Jordan telling him that opposing Gillingham was like “kissing the front end of a train.”
Running back John Brockington called him “a beast,” while Ken Bowman – who played center with the Packers from 1964-73 – said he was the best guard he played with. Considering that Bowman played next to Kramer, Thurston and Hall-of-Famer Forrest Gregg (who mostly lined up at right tackle), that’s the highest of praise.
“He was, quite simply, the best offensive lineman I’ve ever seen … bar none,” said former Packers’ center Larry McCarren, who later became a Green Bay sportscaster.
So why isn’t he in Canton? No, let’s put that another way: Why hasn’t he even gotten a sniff? I wish I had an answer.
Maybe it’s because the Hall typically is slow to move on interior linemen. The board just named Kevin Mawae to the Hall’s Class of 2019, and he’s only the second center inducted in the past 21 years. Then there’s guard Alan Faneca, an all-decade choice named to nine Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams and a guy who missed only one game in his career. He’s still waiting on Canton, going oh-for-five years.
But then … he’s a guard. The Hall elected just two the past nine years.
It has to be more than that, and maybe, just maybe, it’s Packers’ fatigue. Green Bay already has three offensive linemen in Canton from the Lombardi teams. Selectors may have drawn the line there and said enough’s enough. In fact, they really drew the line at two. Kramer wasn’t elected until last year. So it might just be that they figure 12 players from one era is more than sufficient and that it’s time to move on.
Of course, it might’ve had something to do with Gillingham himself, too. Unlike some Hall-of-Fame candidates, he didn’t bang the drum for himself. He played the game. He dominated. And he went home. Period. End of story.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” McCarren said, “but he would never play the political media game to get in. It was not in that man’s DNA.”
Well, too bad. Because Gale Gillingham should be considered for Canton. I don’t care that only two of his last eight years in Green Bay were winning seasons. What matters is what he did while he was there. And what he did was excel, playing well enough to be considered the best at his position. And isn’t that what the Hall is all about … excellence?
Gale Gillingham is gone, dying unexpectedly in 2011. But he shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s time we heard why he isn’t in Canton.