GREEN BAY — There is some debate among historians whether Vince Lombardi considered Forrest Gregg or Paul Hornung to be the best player he ever coached.
But there is no doubt about this: Gregg, the Green Bay Packers legendary offensive lineman and Pro Football Hall of Famer who died Friday at age 85, was one of the greatest and most iconic players in the team’s storied history.
Even though his four-year tenure as the team’s head coach in the 1980s was a disappointment — and marked by troublesome on- and off-the-field behavior by his players — Gregg’s place in Packers history is unquestioned: No offensive lineman ever did it better in green and gold.
“He was a legendary player for the team, one of the greatest in our history. The ultimate team player, he raised the level of play of those around him,” team president/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement Friday. “He also had a great connection with the organization over the years. We enjoyed welcoming him back to Lambeau Field and seeing fans appreciate him around the state.”
New Packers coach Matt LaFleur posted a picture to his Twitter account after hearing the news of Gregg’s death, calling Gregg “a true Packers legend” and writing that the photo of the mud-caked Gregg “has been hanging in my home office for the last 10 years and serves as a great reminder of what a tough competitor Forrest was.”
I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of a true Packers legend, Forrest Gregg. This picture has been hanging in my home office for the last 10 years and serves as a great reminder of what a tough competitor Forrest was. #Packers #GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/4TRXhvjcNX— Matt LaFleur (@CoachMLaFleur) April 12, 2019
Gregg, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years ago, entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 along with his quarterback and draft classmate Bart Starr on his first ballot. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls during his career and in 1994 was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
“The game lost a giant today," Pro Football Hall of Fame president/CEO David Baker said. "Forrest Gregg exemplified greatness during a legendary career that earned him a bronzed bust in Canton. He was the type of player who led by example and, in doing so, raised the level of play of all those around him. Forrest symbolized many great traits and virtues that can be learned from this game to inspire people from all walks of life.
"Our heartfelt condolences go to Forrest’s wife Barb and the entire Gregg family. We hope that they find comfort in knowing that his great legacy will live forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
A second-round pick from Southern Methodist in 1956, Gregg played 11 games as a rookie and started at right guard. He was then called into the U.S. Army and missed all of the 1957 season before returning to the team in 1958. When Lombardi arrived in 1959, Gregg took over at right tackle, although he also played guard when injuries struck fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer.
“He was so talented, he could play two or three positions,” Starr once said. “You probably could have put him at center and he would have adapted to that. He was special.”
In his 1963 book “Run to Daylight,” Lombardi wrote that the 6-foot-4, 249-pound Gregg was “a real football player,” one Lombardi’s wife, Marie, called “a picture ballplayer.”
“When you combine all this in an offensive tackle with his ability and willingness to play guard, you’ve got quite a man,” Lombardi wrote.
Gregg won five titles playing for Lombardi, then played one final season for the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, when they won Super Bowl VI under Tom Landry.
"I'm a fortunate man," Gregg once said. "I've played for two of the best men who ever coached, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. They are very special people."
As a coach, Gregg never achieved the same success. After coaching the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, Gregg returned to Green Bay in 1984, replacing Starr as the team’s head coach.
Intent on instilling toughness and having led the 1981 Bengals to Super Bowl XVI, which they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, Gregg jettisoned a number of popular older players but never got the Packers over .500 during his four seasons, compiling a record of 25-37-1 before resigning to become SMU’s coach.
During his time as head coach, the Packers’ off-the-field reputation was besmirched by a pair of high-profile sexual assault cases involving future Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton and defensive back Mossy Cade.
On the field, Gregg was obsessed with beating the archrival Chicago Bears and head coach Mike Ditka, nearly coming to blows with him during an 1984 preseason game at Milwaukee County Stadium.
In 1985, during a Packers-Bears game at Lambeau Field, defensive back Kenny Stills took a cheap shot on Bears fullback Matt Suhey as Suhey was making his way back to the huddle.
Gregg refused to condemn Stills’ hit, and the next year, in a game in Chicago, Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin infamously body-slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, ending the Super Bowl-winning quarterback’s season and likely costing the Bears a shot at a second straight title.
"All the things that had happened had a collective effect on my mind, my attitude," Gregg wrote in his autobiography, “Winning in the Trenches: A Lifetime of Football,” published in 2010. “It was constant. Suspensions, arrests, trials, strikes . . . we made the headlines an awful lot but not for the right reasons."
After the 1987 season, Gregg left the Packers to take over at his alma mater, which was reinstating football after the NCAA had given the Mustangs the death penalty. But he came back to Green Bay frequently for alumni events, and remained one of the team’s most respected and admired legends.
“It’s the luck of the draw when a player is drafted into the NFL out of college,” Gregg wrote in the introduction to his book. “What would have happened to me if I had signed with the Canadian Football League? Or what if I were drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, which is where I hoped to go? My career would have been far different. I was fortunate that the Green Bay Packers selected me.
“Indeed, my life has been blessed. … It was a long, eventful road that carried me from East Texas to Canton, Ohio. I have never been one to live in the past. You can only sit around for so long saying, ‘remember when.’
“I have trouble talking poorly about a player because, in a lot of cases, all he has is his good name. I don’t want to smear someone’s good name. They might say some bad things about me, but I really don’t care. They can’t diminish what I’ve accomplished in my life. For a lot of guys, when their career is over, all they have left is their name and their memories.
“And in the end I guess that’s all any of us has.”