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Frank Lambert, Steelers Punter, 1965-1966

February 29, 2012
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Frank Lambert:

First, can you let readers know about your career as a history professor – how did you get started and what appeals to you most about it? 

As a young boy I was an avid reader, with a special interest in history and biography. In 1985, with much encouragement from my wife Beth, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American History at Northwestern University.  I was forty-three years old and not at all sure that a university with be interested in someone as old as I would be when I graduated. 

But, in 1991, I landed a great position at Purdue University as professor of Colonial and Revolutionary American History.  I have been there now for twenty-one years, and what a great life it has been.  I spend my time reading, thinking, teaching, and writing, and I get to do all of that on a beautiful campus with bright young people. 

For me it is a dream job.

You’ve also written a number of books on American history. Can you give us a quick synopsis on what you’ve written on and what fascinated you most about these topics?

I have written seven books on such subjects as religion, politics, religion and politics, war and diplomacy, and civil rights.  What is most intriguing to me about historical investigation is the close encounter with men and women living in a world far removed from our own and yet struggling with many of the same concerns we face. 

 The following list provides some idea of the topics:

 The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights vs. States’ Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 

 Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University  Press, 2008)  

 The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World (New York: Hill & Wang, 2005).

 James Habersham: Loyalty, Politics, and Commerce in Colonial Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005)

 The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

 Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

 “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic  Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)

What coaching and playing influences  from your days in the NFL have you found yourself falling back on both as a professor and writer?

Research and writing require industry, concentration, perseverance, focus, discipline, and commitment—qualities that were essential in my NFL job.  As a punter, I often faced challenges, such as kicking out of the endzone or punting against a stiff wind.  But sound preparation paid off. 

In college (Ole Miss) and with the Steelers, I had solid coaching on the fundamentals of punting, and of course I practiced those fundamentals thousands of times. Practicing increased competency and competency increased confidence, and in a game good punts came from being confident and focusing on the fundamentals. 

I have found the same to be true with research and writing. I subscribe to the notion that one learns to write by writing and that the more one writes the better he or she gets at the craft.  Moreover, I have been helped by many wonderful colleagues and editors.  There is one major difference between punting and writing. 

Writing a book is a process that stretches over years and, for the most part, the writer works alone at a desk or in a library.  By contrast, the time for getting off a punt is measured in seconds and the punter is in full view of fans in the stadium and viewers watching on television.  

You joined the Steelers in 1965. How did you end up in Pittsburgh and was there much competition at the punter position then? If so, what separated you from the competition?

 I was drafted by the New York Giants, who, in a later round, drafted Ernie Koy of Texas.  Ernie was a fine punter and a big tough running back.  So he offered the Giants more than I did, and before the regular season began, I was traded to the Steelers who had also signed a rookie punter. 

However, he had struggled a bit during the preseason.  I really had no competition for the job and was fortunate to get off to a good start and have a successful rookie season.  I suppose my competitive edge was the ability to punt with good “hang time,” that is the time the ball stays in the air, thus allowing the coverage to get downfield and make the tackle.

 Who helped you both on and off the field to adjust to the NFL as a rookie, and how?

I had the good fortune of playing for two great owners, Wellington Mara of the Giants and Art Rooney of the Steelers. 

One anecdote illustrates my regard for Wellington Mara.  When I was traded, he came by and saw me.  He told me that he knew that there would be a lot of expenses in the transition to the Steelers.  He was right.  My wife and I were enrolled at Rutgers; she was finishing her BA and I was starting an MBA.  We had already paid tuition and bought books.  In addition we had a lease on an apartment in Nutley, NJ and had recently furnished it. 

Mr. Mara said that, after I got to Pittsburgh and was sure that we had incurred all the expenses we could expect, to send him a note with a  total of our expenditures.  He required no itemized list.  He did not have to do that. 

As for Art Rooney, I join the many former players who remember him as a player’s owner.  He was at most practices.  He always had time to chat with players.  His signature hat, topcoat, and cigar are part of an enduring and fond image I have of him. 

Before my second season, I pulled a muscle and missed the first three preseason games.  I could not punt in practice and was really antsy.  I guess he sensed that and one day took me aside and told me that I was the team’s punter and I should worry about nothing but healing. 

You played for coaches Mike Nixon and Bill Austin. How were both coaches to play for – what were they like and why did the teams struggle under them, do you think?

We did struggle as a team in 1965 and 1966.  On offense, we had some aging players like John Henry Johnson, Ed Brown, and Art Hunter, and we had some injuries to key players, like John Henry and Myron Pottios. 

Our strong suit was a tough defense.  But, in those years, the Steelers did not yet have a winning culture.  I remember that in 1965 we lost several games in the last two-to-three minutes. It got to the point that we wondered if we could hold onto a lead.  

I remember visiting with Mr. Rooney in the 1970s and he told me how he wished that I could have played for Chuck Noll.  He said that Noll had built an outstanding team primarily through the draft and that he had instilled a winning expectation. Those guys expected to win every game.  

Post-60’s Steeler players speak of the mentoring culture that existed on their teams, even with those competing at the same position, while many of your peers felt that culture did not exist then. Why do you think the cultures were so different and was that an issue addresses by your coaches?

I think that a team’s culture is set at the top, that is, with the coach.  Mike Nixon took over from Buddy Parker as head coach in 1965.  Mike was a nice guy, but he failed to create a sense among the players that with hard work we could win.  Then, when we got off to a slow start, losing game after game, he had little chance of changing things. 

Bill Austin had been an assistant under Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and was highly regarded.  However, in my opinion, Bill tried to emulate Lombardi rather than finding his own style, and he never really gained the confidence of the players.  I saw contrasting styles of winning coaches in the NFL.  Lombardi was the tough, hard-nosed coach, and Blanton Collier was a relatively low-key fellow.  Both were winners and both were excellent coaches.

Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams you played for and what made them so? Any examples/funny experiences?

John Henry Johnson was the most colorful character.  Not only was he a future Hall of Famer, he was a larger-than-life personality.  He talked fast and laughed a lot.  He excelled at the give-and-take that makes life in locker rooms so memorable. 

When I first joined the Steelers, Buddy Parker was the coach.  I remember walking into the first team meeting and being taken aback by the lack of banter prior to the meeting.  In New York, the Giants were a lively bunch and people like Roosevelt Brown initiated all sorts of horseplay until Coach Allie Sherman called the meeting to order.  But, here there was silence. 

The players talked little and only in subdued tones. The assistant coaches sat on one side with their arms folded.  And Buddy Parker sat at the front glaring out at the team.  And then John Henry arrived.  He entered talking a blue streak laced with colorful language.  He paid no attention to the dirge-like setting and bounded in full of himself.  Instantly the place was transformed with laughter, catcalls, etc.  Even Buddy laughed.  John Henry missed much of the season because of a knee injury.  We missed him as much for his off-the-field presence as for his on-the-field performance. 

What were practices like – especially for you as a punter? What were your responsiblities as a punter in practice, and at your size (6’3″), were you a two-way player?

No, I only punted.  In college I had only punted as well.  I punted for thirty or so minutes at the beginning of every practice, working on various types of punts, such as short punts angled for the sidelines, long low punts that would cut into the wind, and high soaring punts that would sail with the wind. 

Punters, like baseball batters, sometimes get into slumps and need to work on fundamentals.  On Fridays, we worked on the kicking game as a team, that is, we lined up as a unit and punted the ball as we would in the game.  Through study of film, we could pick up various tendencies such as when the opponent usually tried to block a punt and when they tried to return it. 

In addition to punting, sometimes in practice I would give receivers a rest and step in and run a pass pattern.  I am sure I also gave the defensive backs a rest as well with my less-than-dazzling speed.

What are some of the biggest misperceptions you think fans have about the NFL of the  60’s – especially with those Steelers teams you played for?

The mid-1960s represented a turning point for the NFL.  Pete Rozelle negotiated a huge television contract with CBS that did two things: one, it helped make professional football the entertainment and media event that it has become, and two, it brought an infusion of funds into the league and to the teams.  Joe Namath signed a $400,000 contract in 1965, dwarfing previous player contracts. 

And, Rozelle, along with owners like Sonny Werblin of the Jets, understood that, while professional football was about play on the field, it was about public perceptions of every aspect of the game.  Rozelle came to each team’s training camp and gave a pre-season talk about the importance of perception, including that of avoiding any negative publicity.  He would give us a list of establishments in NFL cities controlled or patronized by organized crime, and he instructed us to stay away from them, even if they were well-known restaurants. 

1966 was your last season in Pittsburgh. Why was that and how difficult was it for you to leave the team?

When I signed with the Giants, I signed a two-year, no-cut contract.  At the end of the two years with the Steelers, I wanted to do other things.  I would not take anything for my two years with the Steelers and in the NFL.  I cherish the experiences I had to play with and compete against the best players in the land.  At the same time, I was fortunate in that I had opportunities waiting outside football. 

It was not a particularly difficult decision to leave although I missed my teammates, and occasionally on Sunday afternoons I found myself wondering which way the wind was blowing in the stadium.

 In each of the past six years or so, our two sons Talley and Will and I have enjoyed a Steeler home game in what we call our “Pittsburgh Weekend.”  On the last two trips, our grandson, Reid, now 10 years old, has accompanied us.  I cherish those times.

Every time I return to Pittsburgh, I am reminded of how fortunate I am in having had the opportunity to play for the Steelers and for Art Rooney. I go by his statue and rub his hand, sometimes with a misty eye.

What are your best memories of your time in Pittsburgh and what makes them so?

I will give you my most poignant memory.  1965 was a year of great racial tension in the United States.  Coming from Mississippi, a state characterized at the time by race segregation and white supremacy, I had a great deal of apprehension.  My apprehension focused on meeting Marv Woodson, a defensive back for the Steelers and a resident of my hometown, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. 

We did not know each other.  I attended the all-white high school, he the all-black school.  I received all kinds of local attention, he none.  I attended the University of Mississippi, which at the time denied admission to African-Americans.  He went to Indiana University where he was an All-America performer.  So I could only imagine the resentment he must have felt toward me.  But, before I could seek him out, he found me, extended his hand, and said, “It is great to have someone here from my hometown.”  That remains the classiest act I have witnessed. 

My fondest on-the-field memory was defeating the Cowboys.  Even then it was great to take it to Dallas.

Any last thoughts for readers?

One reflection.  In recalling my days in the NFL and with the Steelers of the 1960s, I am reminded of the dynamic nature of professional football.  It has evolved and continues to evolve.  Stadiums change (we played in Pitt Stadium); equipment changes; players change (Ken Kortas was our largest player at 290); salaries change. 

But what does not change, I think, is the camaraderie among players, the nervous excitement that comes with the opening kickoff, the immense satisfaction in a winning performance, and the depthless disappointment in losing.

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