Thursday, June 01, 2017

On This Date — Curly Lambeau Dies

Curly Lambeau, a native of Green Bay who first made a name for himself as a star football player at Green Bay East High School, was the guiding force behind the creation of the Green Bay Packers and their improbable survival in the National Football League. After graduating from East in 1917, Lambeau waited a year before enrolling at the University of Notre Dame, where he started at fullback as a freshman on Knute Rockne’s first team. Shortly after the season ended, Lambeau dropped out of school, fell ill with tonsillitis and eventually returned to Green Bay, where he took a job with the Indian Packing Co.

As fall approached, Lambeau’s only real option for continuing his football pursuits was to join a citywide team, something Green Bay had fielded off and on going back to 1895. Together with George Whitney Calhoun, city editor at the Green Bay Press-Gazette who had managed the 1918 city team, they took a lead role in organizing a new, more formidable one. The first meeting was held Aug. 11, 1919. The second was held Aug. 14, where Lambeau was named captain and Calhoun, manager. Lambeau was 21 years old at the time, and most of his teammates were like him – young, former standouts at either East or West High School.

Following the 1920 season, Acme Packing Co. of Chicago purchased Indian Packing, and Lambeau persuaded John and J. Emmett Clair, who were running the plant in Green Bay, to pursue a franchise in what was then the year-old American Professional Football Association. The Clairs agreed and Acme was awarded a franchise Aug. 27, 1921.

From the beginning, thanks in large part to Lambeau’s prowess as a passer and all-around back, the Packers were competitive on the field even against the league’s best. In 1922, the APFA became the NFL, and the Packers continued to lure better players – some from big-time college programs, some with pro experience – and steadily improved. In 1929, they compiled a 12-0-1 record, still the best in Packers history, and won their first of three straight NFL championships.

The Packers faced a greater struggle off the field trying to survive financially, but Lambeau nurtured the franchise in some of those areas, as well. The three straight titles from 1929-31 were decided by the final standings. Under the NFL’s playoff system, adopted in 1933, Lambeau won three more in 1936, 1939 and 1944. To this day, more than 90 years later, only twice have teams won three straight NFL crowns: Lambeau’s Packers and Vince Lombardi’s 1965-67 Packers.

Even though Green Bay was the NFL’s smallest city from the start, Lambeau endured only one losing season from 1921-47. The Packers finished 5-7-1 in 1933. But the end was a bitter pill for Lambeau to swallow. After the great Don Hutson retired following the 1945 season, the troubles and rancor within the organization grew exponentially. Lambeau stubbornly resisted switching from his Notre Dame Box offense to a variation of the T-formation until 1947. 

He was spending his offseasons in California as pro football was becoming more of a year-round business, something that had become a sore point with the franchise’s board of directors. On top of it all, there was a new league to contend with, the All-America Football Conference. The price of draft picks and veteran players was shooting skyward as the Packers’ finances were dwindling.

In 1948, Green Bay finished with a losing record, 3-9, for only the second time in 28 years. The 1949 season was worse. Lambeau decided to play more of an advisory role and coach from the press box following an opening-day loss to the Chicago Bears, and the Packers dropped to 2-10. They also were forced to play an intrasquad game on Thanksgiving Day to raise enough money to hit the road for their final three games. The discontent grew.

Before the end of the season there was a movement afoot among Lambeau’s enemies on the board to oust him as coach and general manager. He survived a contentious meeting on Nov. 30, 1949, where his future was debated for nearly four hours. But he was losing his power struggle. On Feb. 1, 1950, Lambeau resigned to become coach of the Chicago Cardinals. In less than two seasons with the Cardinals and two others with the Washington Redskins (1952-53), his record was 17-28-1. Lambeau completed his 33-year NFL coaching career with an official overall record of 229-134-22 (.623).

Lambeau was married three times: first to Marguerite Van Kessel from 1919 to 1934, ending in divorce with one son. His second wife, Susan Johnson, was a former Miss California, and they were married from 1935 to 1940. He married Grace Garland in 1945 and was divorced in 1955. At the end of his life, his companion was the Packers’ “Golden Girl” Mary Jane Van Duyse. Lambeau died at age 67 of a heart attack in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, while mowing the lawn at his girlfriend's parents’ residence in June 1965.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member in 1963.

Curly Lambeu died while cutting the grass at this Sturgeon Bay home in 1965.

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