WEATHERWAX WAS SURROUNDED BY NFL HALL OF FAME TALENT

The names would roll off the lips of any Green Bay Packers’ fan.

Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood, Willie Davis, Forrest Gregg and, of course, Vince Lombardi.

Jim Weatherwax, an 11th-round pick (No. 150 overall) in the 1965 NFL draft that produced the likes of Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, was teammates with all of them.

The Redlands High graduate, who played for Terriers’ venerable coach Frank Serrao in 1959 – one of Redlands’ best teams – played 34 games with the Pack from 1966-69.

Add another Hall of Famer from that era.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, 2018, Packers’ blocking great Jerry Kramer – author of Instant Replay – was granted that long-awaited spot in Canton after years of pondering by pro football historians on whether or not the onetime right guard deserved the honor.

Jerry Kramer
Green Bay Packers’ right guard Jerry Kramer, a teammate of Redlands product Jim Weatherwax, may well be the final player from that era that made it to the NFL Hall of Fame. (Photo credit by NFL Hall of Fame.)

Instant Replay was, in fact, a book centered around the famous block thrown by Kramer, Green Bay’s right guard, that cleared a path for Starr’s QB sneak in the Packers’ 21-17 Ice Bowl win over Dallas.

That triumph led Green Bay into the second Super Bowl against Oakland.

Imagine, playing for a Hall of Famer – Lombardi – backing up Hall of Famers like Jordan and Davis on Green Bay’s defensive line, while practicing against Hall of Fame linemen like Gregg and Kramer.

Henry Jordan
Henry Jordan (Photo courtesy of NFL Hall of Fame.)

That’s 10 Hall of Famer players on one team, plus the coach.

In the Redlands Daily Facts offices years later, Weatherwax reflected those glorious times. “I was lucky. I can’t even begin to describe it. Those were great times. Every man that played on that team was great.

“To play for the greatest coach of all time,” he said, pausing, searching for words that, perhaps, had never been used before, “was like nothing you could ever imagine. Like I said, I was lucky.”

Two of Weatherwax’s 34 career NFL games were the first two championship games – 35-10 over Kansas City in 1967, plus a 33-14 win over the Oakland Raiders in 1968.

Weatherwax started three games in 1967, even coming up with his only career fumble recovery that season. It the playoffs, Weatherwax got his share of snaps in wins over the Rams, Cowboys and, ultimately, the Raiders.

He was 23-years-old during his 1966 rookie season, well-schooled by the time that 1968 championship game against Oakland took place in Miami. The Packers’ era was slowly crumbling. Starr & Co. were aging rapidly. Whispers were rampant that Lombardi, too, was contemplating retirement.

All of which fed into the energy for Super Bowl II.

It was Kramer, said Weatherwax, who told the team in pre-game moments, “Let’s win it for the old man.”

Jim Weatherwax - Cal State L.A.
Redlands’ Jim Weatherwax, pictured during his Cal State Los Angeles days, was an eventual teammate to 10 Hall of Fame players for the Green Bay Packers, coached by Hall of Famer Vince Lombardi. Footnote: Weatherwax wore jersey No. 73 for the Packers. (Photo courtesy of Cal State Los Angeles.)

Such a statement might have been Hall of Fame-worthy.

Weatherwax seemed to bask in the glow of such prominent times. “The knee injuries that drove me out of the game (by 1969), well, kind of make it worth it. I wouldn’t trade those moments – not the games, not the guys and not the coach.”

 

Part 2 – SUPER BOWL FROM TAMPA

Twenty-four years after Redlands’ Jim Weatherwax appeared in the first-ever championship game between the National Football League and old American Football League, one of the most coincidental connections in Redlands/Super Bowl history took place.

A pair of ex-Terriers showed up in the NFL’s biggest game.

Brian Billick, whose Redlands High School days were beckoning when the first Super Bowl kicked off in nearby Los Angeles, had a future in the NFL’s big game.

At Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the Baltimore Ravens – formerly the Cleveland Browns – stopped the New York Giants, 34-7, to win Super Bowl XXXV. The date: Jan. 28, 2001.

All those football eyes from Redlands were squarely on the Ravens. By-lines appeared under my name about Billick’s early years in Redlands – his friends, starting football as a ninth grader at Cope Middle School, plus some of his Terrier playing days which included subbing for injured QB Tim Tharaldson in 1971.

09_Billick_PreviewPreseason_news
Brian Billick, whose high school play in Redlands was memorable in the early 1970s, eventually rose through the coaching ranks to take on of the most deadly defensive teams to win Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Baltimore Ravens)

Thirty years later, he was coaching the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

One of the Ravens’ receivers was speedster Patrick Johnson, a track & field sprinter who had raced to California championships in both the 100 and 200 less than a decade earlier. He wore Terrier colors. Picking football over track & field, Johnson played collegiately at the University of Oregon before getting picked in the second round by Baltimore in the 1998 NFL draft.

It was Johnson’s third season when Baltimore reached the Super Bowl. Twelve of his 84 career catches came in the Ravens’ 2000 season, two going for touchdowns. Tight end Shannon Sharpe (67 receptions, 810 yards, 5 TDs) was, by far, Baltimore’s top receiver. Running back Jamal Lewis (1,364 yards, 6 TDs) was the Ravens’ most dangerous threat.

Baltimore’s defense, led by linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Rod Woodson, end Rob Burnett and tackle Tony Siragusa helped keyed the Ravens’ drive to an eventual 16-4 record. Playoff wins over Denver, Tennessee and Oakland lifted Baltimore into the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Billick’s high school coach, Paul Womack, traveled back east to see his former player. He showed up at the team’s Owings Mill practice facility. Basically, Womack had free run of the practice facility.

Womack heard Billick telling Johnson – dubbed the “Tasmanian Devil” for his uncontrollable speed – he had to run precise routes. The ex-Terrier coach quoted Billick, saying, “Pat, I can’t play you unless you run the right routes.”

In the Super Bowl, Johnson snagged an eight-yard pass from QB Trent Dilfer. It was good for a first down. There was another moment, though.

“I ran right by (Giants’ free safety Jason) Sehorn,” said Johnson.

Dilfer delivered the pass. Into the end zone. The ex-Terrier receiver dove.

“It hit my fingers,” he said. “It’s okay. It ain’t all about me.”

Patrick Johnson (Photo by Baltimore Gridiron Report)
Patrick Johnson, a Redlands High product, is shown after one of his 84 career NFL receptions, turning upfield to display some of his world class speed. (Photo by Baltimore Gridiron Report)

As for Johnson, I got him on the telephone a couple hours after the Ravens’ big win. He was on the team bus, sitting beside teammates Sam Gash and Robert Bailey. At that moment, Johnson said the Lombardi Trophy was sitting about six feet behind him.

“I just had it in my hands,” Johnson said, “right before you called.”

LOMBARDI, LANDRY, SHULA … BILLICK!

Billick, for his part, later shared time on the telephone with me, sharing some of his innermost thoughts for the benefit of Redlands readers.

“I can’t believe I’ll have my name on that trophy,” said Billick, days after the big event in Tampa, Fla. It was a chance to reflect on guys like Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs and a man he once worked for in San Francisco, Bill Walsh.

Billick named those legendary coaches he’d be sharing Super Bowl glory throughout the years.

In the aftermath of the game. That trophy was held aloft. Billick was holding it. Showing it to players. To fans. An Associated Press photographer snapped a picture. One day later, the Redlands Daily Facts’ single page sports section on Jan. 29, 2001 was virtually all Billick and Lombardi Trophy. Confetti was falling all around him.

Framed around the Billick photo were two stories – one by local writer Richard D. Kontra, the other by-line was mine. As sports editor, I probably should have nixed the stories and enlarged the photo to cover the entire page.

Let the photo stand alone. Let it tell the whole story. As if everyone in Redlands, didn’t know, anyway.

One day after the enlarged photo, the newspaper’s Arts editor, Nelda Stuck, commented on why the photo had to be so large. “It was too big,” she said. “I don’t know why it had to be that big.”

Maybe she was kidding.

I remember asking her, “Nelda, what would you do if someone from Redlands had won an Academy Award?  You’d bury it in the classified section, huh?”

That’s the newspaper business for you. Everyone’s got a different view of the world.

A P.S. on Womack: Not only did he coach Billick in the early 1970s, but the former Terrier coach was Frank Serrao’s assistant coach in 1960. On that team was Weatherwax, who also played a huge role on Redlands’ 1959 squad.

It was a team that Serrao once said might have been better than Redlands’ 1961 championship team.

Another P.S., this on Weatherwax: While he had been taken by the Packers in the 1965 draft, the AFL-based San Diego Chargers also selected him in a separate draft. He played in 34 NFL games before a knee injury forced him from the game.

A third P.S. on Johnson: Billick’s arrival as coach in 1999 was one year after the Ravens drafted the speedy Johnson. That would at least put to rest any notion that Billick played some kind of a “Redlands” card at draft time.

One final P.S.: That Jan. 29, 2001 Redlands Daily Facts headline in the Super Bowl photo was simple. To the point.

“Super, Billick.”