Green Bay Packers: Remembering Fuzzy Thurston

Bob FoxContributor IDecember 15, 2014

Fuzzy Thurston leads Jim Taylor in Super Bowl I.
Fuzzy Thurston leads Jim Taylor in Super Bowl I.Jack Robbins

The Green Bay Packers lost one of their all-time great players on Sunday when Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston passed away due to liver cancer. Thurston was 80 years old.

Thurston was a great ambassador for the Packers, and he would always greet anyone from Packer Nation with a bright smile whenever and wherever that occasion took place.

Thurston was also a Wisconsin native, as he grew up in Altoona in the western part of the state. The high school in town didn't have a football team, so he played basketball instead. Fuzzy was good enough to get a basketball scholarship to Valparaiso (Indiana).

In his junior year at Valpo, he decided to play on the football team. It was an excellent choice. Thurston became a two-time All-American in 1954 and 1955 as an offensive lineman.

Fuzzy was drafted in 1956 by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was cut by the team on its final cut and then went into the Army.

Thurston ended up with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and was a backup offensive guard on their 1958 NFL title team.

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In 1959, the Packers hired Vince Lombardi to be their head coach and general manager. One of the first moves Lombardi made was to trade linebacker Marv Matuszak to the Colts for Thurston.

The Packers already had a guard by the name of Jerry Kramer, who had been drafted in 1958. Thurston became the starting left guard while Kramer was the starting right guard.

The duo of Thurston and Kramer started in Lombardi's inaugural season. And what a duo it was over time.

Over the next nine years, the Packers under Lombardi would win five NFL titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls.

A big reason why was the new and improved running game.

In 1958, the Packers finished 1-10-1 and were 10th in the NFL in rushing.

In 1959, the Packers improved to third in the NFL in rushing. In 1960, the Packers were second in the league.

Then in both 1961 and 1962, the Packers finished first in the NFL in toting the rock and also won their first two NFL championships under Lombardi.

Thurston loved to tell anyone who would listen, "There are two good reasons the Packers are world champions. Jerry Kramer is one of them, and you're looking at the other one."

The signature play of the Packers was the power sweep.

Earlier this summer, Kramer told me about the infancy of that play with the Packers.

"[Paul] Hornung was the reason I believe Coach Lombardi came to Green Bay," Kramer said. "Bart [Starr] was an unknown then. There were three or four guys trying to become the quarterback then, and we didn't know who the hell the quarterback was going to be.

"But we did know who Mr. Hornung was. And Coach Lombardi said many times, 'That the power sweep was the number one play in our offense. We will make it go. We must make it go. And Hornung is going to be my [Frank] Gifford.'"

Hornung ran the play exceptionally well. So did fullback Jim Taylor. All of this happened behind the pulling blocks of Thurston and Kramer leading them down the field.

In 1961, Hornung was the NFL MVP. In 1962, Taylor was the NFL MVP.

But Thurston and Kramer were being honored, too. Kramer was named first-team All-Pro in 1960 by The Associated Press. Thurston received that same honor in 1961 plus was named first-team All-Pro by UPI (United Press International) and NEA (Newspaper Enterprise Association).

Kramer was named first-team All-Pro by AP, UPI and NEA in 1962 while Thurston was named first-team All-Pro by UPI and was also named second-team by AP that season.

I had a chance to talk with Kramer recently, and he told me about why he and Thurston worked so well together.

"Fuzzy was very smart," Kramer said. "The guards are always pulling in Lombardi's offense. A lot of trapping, a lot of sweeps and a lot of pull plays.

"Fuzzy never pulled the wrong way. Not even once. And I never pulled the wrong way. The two of us together always knew what the hell we were doing. We did that as good as we possibly could.

"I had a faith and a trust that Fuzzy would do the right thing. He was just very consistent. I don't remember a mistake Fuzzy ever made."

Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston
Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy ThurstonJack Robbins

The Packers would win three more championships under Lombardi from 1965-1967. They became—and still are—the only team in NFL modern history to win three straight NFL titles. Their last two NFL championships under Lombardi included wins in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

Thurston was awarded some All-Pro honors during that time but never again was named first-team. Inexplicably, Fuzzy was never named to the Pro Bowl even when he was all-everything in 1961.

Kramer talked about what a great player Thurston was during that time.

"He was just consistent," said Kramer. "Maybe he wasn't the strongest guy on the block, but he was always in front of his guy. Always engaged with his guy. Always in the right place at the right time.

"He pulled well and blocked well on sweeps. Both he and I loved that. We loved to be out of the pit and out front clearing out defenders."

Thurston started on all of the championship teams under Lombardi except for the 1967 team. Fuzzy hurt his knee in a scrimmage early in training camp and was replaced by a strapping young guard by the name of Gale Gillingham.

Fuzzy was never able to get his starting job back. Even through that difficult time, Thurston was a team-first guy and helped out Gillingham as much as he could, as Kramer explained to me.

"He was Gilly's personal coach," Kramer said. "He sat right beside him for every movie and every film at meetings, and he gave him the benefit of the years of information he had acquired through his experience as a player."

Thurston retired from the Packers after the 1967 season.

In 1975, Thurston was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame along with Lombardi, Kramer, Hornung, Taylor, Don Chandler, Ron Kramer, Willie Davis, Max McGee and Henry Jordan.

Jack Robbins

It was very apropos that the Packers honored Thurston and Kramer as their featured alumni for the game against the Carolina Panthers on October 19. Kramer talked about that experience.

"We were aware of the problem (cancer) some time before that," Kramer admitted. "And we weren't sure if he will be able to attend the Carolina game.

"I told Fuzzy's daughter, Tori, that if I know Fuzz, and this was the last thing he was able to do on earth, he would move heaven and hell to get out in front of the Packer fans and have them give him a cheer one more time and wave goodbye."

Off the field, Thurston owned a number of Left Guard restaurants before they went out of business. He also owned a couple of taverns that I always stopped in whenever I was in the Green Bay area.

The first was Shenanigans, which was right across the road from the Fox River. More recently, it was Fuzzy's #63 Bar & Grill. I always enjoyed going to both places.

If Fuzzy was there, he would be joking and taking pictures with patrons. If he wasn't there, it was still a great time to walk around the place and look at the photos Fuzzy had accumulated.

Thurston had some adversity in his business dealings. As Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted in his story regarding Fuzzy's passing, Thurston owed the government $1.7 million in back taxes. Three years ago, his assets and memorabilia were seized and sold at auction.

Health problems also dogged Thurston through the years. In the early 1980s, Thurston lost his larynx to cancer. Then cancer came back to Fuzzy's door three years ago when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

That led to the liver cancer.

But even with all the tough times in business and in health, Thurston was always smiling and was always feeling good about life. Kramer talked about that part of his personality.

"Fuzzy was always positive," Kramer said. "He was just consistently up. And he insisted that we all have a good time whether you wanted to or not. You were going to have fun. He would take that upon himself whether it was one or 40. Fuzzy would be the spark."

Thurston lost his wife, Susan, in 2012. When Fuzzy's cancer became terminal in January of this year, it was very tough on his friends and family as one might expect.

In D'Amato's article, Fuzzy's daughter, Tori Thurston Burton, talked about that heartwrenching situation.

"The only thing that makes this easier," Burton said, "is knowing my parents will be together again. My mom passed away two years ago, and he missed her so much."

The people who knew Fuzzy well know that he is now the life of the party again in heaven. I'm sure Thurston has looked up his old pal, McGee, and they are cracking jokes like they used to and are sneaking out on the "old man" (Lombardi) again.

I'm sure he is doing a lot of singing, just like he used to when he would lead the team in choruses of "We've got the whole world in his hands" and change the wording around depending on the occasion.

Kramer recalled those days fondly. No. 64 added some final thoughts on his good friend, Fuzzy.

"Fuzzy had a great sense of humor," Kramer recalled. "Always up and always positive. He was like an internal flame that never goes out. That fire, that spirit inside of him was constantly there."

The spirit of Thurston will never go out among his family and friends as well as with those who were fortunate enough to meet him.

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