Adding steel to Pittsburgh’s defense

Hall of Famers Published on : 9/21/2009

By Pete Fierle

Life sometimes takes some ironic twists and turns. The story of one of the toughest players ever to compete in the National Football League is proof of that.

Had the Pittsburgh Steelers waited even five more seconds during the second round of the 1974 NFL Draft, there’s a good chance its vaunted “Steel Curtain Defense” would have lacked its trademarked meanness. That’s because the team’s brain trust was undecided on how to use its second round pick that year. Fortunately, with the seconds ticking away on the allotted time for the selection, the team agreed to draft Kent State linebacker Jack Lambert.

{GALLERY}Ironically Lambert grew up as a fan of the rival Cleveland Browns and spent many hours as a youngster at the team’s summer training camp at nearby Hiram College. John Harold Lambert was born on July 8, 1952 in Mantua, Ohio. He developed a strong work ethic, that later defined his pro football career, in part by working on his grandfather’s farm during his childhood. It also helped him develop into a strong and conditioned athlete that propelled him to success in three sports at Crestwood High School.

Jack lettered in baseball and basketball as well as played quarterback for his high school squad. At his own admission, the team really focused on the running game as he once described, “I was mainly a hand-offer.”

He also saw action on the defensive side of the ball where he gained notice. Despite his athletic prowess the only Big Ten college that expressed any interest in him was Wisconsin.

Lambert decided to stay close to home and enrolled at Kent State. Inserted as the club’s middle linebacker, he also played defensive end as a sophomore. Lambert earned All-Conference honors as a junior and senior with the Golden Flashes. He was named the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and capped the season by earning Most Valuable Player honors in the ’72 Tangerine Bowl.

It didn’t take long for the Steelers to learn that they had made a terrific decision in taking Lambert with that draft pick. The only skepticism the personnel department had was whether or not Jack was big enough to play middle linebacker in the NFL. Any doubt soon subsided when a circumstance allowed Lambert the opportunity to prove himself.

Early in the preseason, the incumbent linebacker Henry Davis went down with a season-ending injury against the Philadelphia Eagles. Lambert was inserted in his place.

“I always wonder why I got so many breaks. A lot of people get breaks and never take advantage of them. I just wanted a chance and I got it,” said Lambert.

He took full advantage of the chance granted to him. His rookie campaign was filled with spectacular moments that earned him Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Among the highlights included stellar performances in back-to-back wins over Kansas City and Cleveland in Weeks 5 and 6. He recorded a pair of interceptions against the Chiefs and then amassed a season-high 14 tackles and caused a fumble that set up the Steelers first TD in a 20-16 win over his boyhood team, the Browns.

“I have a lot to learn and I intend to, but my goals are still the same. Just because I’ve made the pros, there’s not much sense in sitting back and just existing. I want to be one of the best.” – Lambert during his rookie season
He continued to his high level of play in that year’s post-season marked by a tremendous open field tackle of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch in the AFC championship game. The stop prevented the Raiders from tying the game.

As great as that first season was, it was his second year that he truly embedded himself as the leader on defense. With defensive tackle Joe Greene sidelined for part of the season, Lambert quickly stepped in as the unit’s leader. Like his rookie campaign, Lambert continued to make big plays in big games. He had a record three fumble recoveries against the Raiders in the 1975 AFC Championship Game.The Steelers won the game, 16-10, en route to its second straight Super Bowl championship.

From 1975 through 1983, Lambert was named All-Pro each season except for 1977 when a contract dispute and an injury limited his playing time. He was twice named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year (1976 and 1979). He also played in nine straight Pro Bowls.

Although his play was always consistent Lambert saved some of his steadiest performances for when Pittsburgh was on its grandest stage – the Super Bowl. As a rookie he had four tackles, two assists, and two passes defensed in the Steelers’ win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX. A year later he chipped in with seven tackles and seven assists in the 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Lambert made six tackles and six assists in the Steelers win over Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. He followed that up with his finest showing in a Super Bowl the next season. Lambert made 10 tackles, added four assists and had a key interception against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. His pick for 16 yards came in the fourth quarter while Pittsburgh held a narrow 24-19 lead against the Rams.

Jack (right) participated in the NFL’s USO Tour with trips to Europe in 1976 and to the Far East in 1977.
That interception was indicative of how different Lambert was compared to other greats who played his position.

“Of all the middle linebackers – Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Dick Butkus – what set Jack apart was his ability to defend against the pass,” observed fellow Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham.

Because of his great range of mobility that was atypical for a middle linebacker, Lambert managed to intercept 28 passes during his career. But it was his trademarked toughness and tenacity that he brought to the game that clearly defined his legacy to the game. This makes it all the more strange about how his 11-year career came to an end.

Despite his hard-hitting and tough approach to the game, he had only missed six games due to injury before 1984. Then, it was an injury to his toe that ultimately ended his career. He suffered a severely dislocated toe in the ‘84 season opener against the Chiefs. Unable to regain his same effectiveness without excruciating pain, Lambert played just eight games that year. He announced his retirement before the start of the next season.

There was nothing paradoxical about what happened to Lambert five years later. In 1990, in his first year of eligibility, he earned his sport’s highest honor with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Jack Lambert demanded total effort from everybody in the organization. He took us to greatness. He was the symbol of our success in the 1970s,” once shared Steelers owner Art Rooney.

Jack would have it no other way.

“If I could start my life all over again, I would be a professional football player” Lambert reflected during his 1990 enshrinement speech from the front steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “And, you damn well better believe I’d be a Pittsburgh Steeler!”

Pete Fierle is the Manager-Digital Media/Communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame’s staff in 1988. | Read his blog, "For Pete's Sake."