Forrest Gregg's legacy? One of the best offensive linemen ever

Forrest Gregg wasn't just another really good football player, or just a former Pro Bowler or All-Pro. Forrest Gregg was a Hall of Famer among Hall of Famers. He was a champion, over and over again.

Gregg, who passed away Friday at age 85, was an all-timer in every sense.

If being an offensive lineman is synonymous with playing catcher in baseball -- the gritty, less-sexy positions of the two sports -- then Gregg's equal was Johnny Bench. But Gregg was still much less celebrated than the former Cincinnati Reds great because of his chosen sport. With NFL careers shorter, and player movement in pro football on the upswing in the salary cap era, it has become far too easy to lose track of the bygone NFL eras' premier players -- unless, of course, they were quarterbacks, running backs or receivers. Sometimes sack artists like Deacon Jones receive their acclaim, as well. But what of the rare player who was able to stonewall one of the league's greatest sack masters at the point?

That was Gregg, and the Deacon would be the first person to tell you. "He's not like some tackles, when I hit and go upside that head with them hands and then I'm done with him. (That tackle) ain't going to be much of a problem that day," Deacon told NFL Films in 2010 when Gregg was named the No. 54 NFL player of all time. "But not him. Forrest Gregg, you have to fight 60 minutes. It ain't gonna get no better than that. Ain't gonna get no tougher than that."

Gregg was Green Bay's right tackle from 1956 to 1970 before finishing out his illustrious career with one season in Dallas. He excelled in an era when there was a premium on that position. Teams ran the football more than they passed, and when they did, they often ventured right. No squad pounded defenses on the ground more than Vince Lombardi's teams, and no player on those Packers was better than Gregg. This is not to say that Green Bay legend Bart Starr didn't throw the ball -- but when he did, he was successful enough, protected enough, to not have to keep chucking it. Put another way: Try finding film of Starr getting sacked off the right edge. You won't be successful.

Gregg run-blocked in dominant, technical fashion. Despite not being the strongest Green Bay player and operating under rules that hamstrung offensive linemen in pass protection, he didn't let Starr get touched. The seven-time first-team All-Pro (seven times!) did everything the right way, including filling in at both right and left guard when injuries took their toll on the Green Bay line. It was because of this that Gregg, who retired with a streak of 188 straight starts intact (an NFL record at the time), was considered the consummate team guy, and with hardly any fanfare. In fact, the most publicity Gregg ever received, other than owning season tickets for the All-Pro team, was when Lombardi lauded him in his book, "Run to Daylight," by calling him "the finest player I ever coached."

Think about that for a moment. When Bill Belichick praises a player today, the whole football world bends an ear. Videos are created and shared. The player's anointed. It holds true for Rob Gronkowski, Ed Reed or whoever else Belichick chooses to spotlight.

If Belichick is considered a living legend on the basis of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy six times, and the man for whom that piece of hardware is named says Gregg was the "finest player" he ever coached -- what does that say about Gregg? Also worth noting is that both Gronkowski and Reed have been discussed ad nauseum as arguably the premier players to ever man their positions. For Gregg, that science was in long ago, when he was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team 20 years after his retirement. So, essentially, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, first-team All-Decade and first-team All-Ever.

Still, individual accolades don't come close to defining Gregg's run in football. At the time of his retirement after the 1971 season, in which he earned a ring with the Cowboys, he was one of only three men to have won six titles as a player. Fuzzy Thurston, Gregg's longtime Packers teammate, and Herb Adderley, who played with Gregg in Green Bay and Dallas, were the others. In February, Tom Brady joined Gregg, Adderley and Thurston with his sixth championship.

Gregg also served as head coach of three different NFL teams, turning the Browns around in 1976 before turning the Bengals into AFC champs in 1981. He even returned to Green Bay as head coach in 1984, though he couldn't will the Packers over the 8-8 hump.

If accolades don't define Gregg, his long service record does. He returned to his alma mater, SMU, to revive Mustang football from the NCAA's death penalty in 1989. With few scholarship players, Gregg was forced to transition wideouts to his old stomping grounds on the offensive line. But he breathed life into a program that hadn't fielded a team since 1986.

What's interesting about that aspect of Gregg's football life is that he almost prematurely gave up his playing career for another in coaching -- nearly derailing his eventual Hall of Fame induction in the process -- by taking an assistant job at the University of Tennessee in 1964. He was only 30 at the time, coming off his eighth NFL season. While the Packers had won back-to-back championships in '61 and '62, they endured a disappointing '63 campaign when star halfback Paul Hornung was suspended for gambling and the rival Bears took home the NFL title. It was at that point that Gregg almost called it a day.

In her speech presenting Gregg at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1977, Marie Lombardi, Vince's widow, recalled that stressful time, explaining how Vince learned Gregg was interested in returning while the couple was vacationing in Puerto Rico: "One night in our room, the phone rang. It was one of the assistant coaches who said, 'Vince, Forrest Gregg wants to come back and play. Do you want him?' ... Vince yelled so loud through the phone the room shook, the building shook and even the ground shook. He wanted Forrest back so bad."

By the time the Cowboys signed Gregg for one last dance in 1971, Gregg certainly could've been named a player-coach. Tom Landry loved having veterans around, as evidenced by the presence of long-time league standouts such as Adderley, Lance Alworth and Mike Ditka already on that team, a group that beat the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. Like Gregg, Adderley was inducted in Canton later that decade. Alworth, too. At the time he retired, Ditka would be considered arguably the top player to ever play his position -- an all-timer, just like Gregg.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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