I’ve been thinking and talking an awful lot about Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, these days.
It’s only natural. After all, James Harrison, in many ways, Lambert’s modern-day equivalent, has been in the news for a recent podcast he did with former teammate Willie Colon in-which he was his usual defiant self as he recalled playing-day stories of, among other things, being defiant.
And with that in mind, maybe it was fate that I watched an NFL Network/NFL Films production on Saturday about the top 10 football curses (as of 2013, anyway).
It was no surprise that the famous (or infamous) Sports Illustrated cover jinx was one of the curses. But what was a surprise was a quick flash of Lambert’s famous “Man of Steel” cover appearing on the screen as this particular curse was being discussed by players, celebrities and scribes.
“Was Lambert’s turf toe injury he suffered in 1984—the one that would lead to his retirement following the season—the result of the SI cover curse?” I asked myself as I quickly grabbed my smartphone to Google for answers.
First of all, I never realized the SI story of Lambert that included the iconic cover—you know, the one where he’s dressed in black and gold and staring right at you with that toothless scowl as if he’s trying to figure out a way to steal your very soul?—was published in 1984. Thanks to the black face mask, I knew it wasn’t early in Lambert’s career (the Steelers face masks were gray back in the mid-’70s), but I assumed it was the late-’70s, a time when the Steelers were still at the height of their dynastic powers.
I guess I never bothered to look at the cover very closely. If I had, I may have seen the actual date: July 30, 1984. That was three weeks after Lambert’s 32nd birthday, and just a few months after he played in his ninth-straight Pro Bowl. He was also voted a First-team All-Pro for the sixth time in his career following the 1983 season—unbeknownst to him, his last full year as a player.
Of course, I already knew how Lambert’s career ended. I knew that he barely played in ‘84 thanks to that aforementioned turf toe injury—he appeared in only eight games and started just three. I knew this injury forced him to retire after the season.
I just didn’t know this all came about due to the SI cover jinx.
Now that I know this, it all makes perfect sense.
After all, of all the Steelers players from the 1970s, Lambert was perhaps the most mythical. The toughest of them all. The guy who slammed Cliff Harris to the ground in Super Bowl X. The man who went up to receiver Lynn Swann and said to the 1974 first-round pick, “Hey, Swann, I should have been picked in the first round, and you should have been picked in the second (instead of the other way around).”
Lambert first started wreaking havoc on a professional level 46 years ago. Greg Lloyd, the man who would be the first to carry Lambert’s baton as the Steelers enforcer linebacker in the ‘80s and ‘90s—a player Jerry Glanville once called "the meanest guy in football”—was only nine.
As for Harrison, he wasn’t even born yet.
Lambert created the template for mean, ferocious, defiant, rebellious Steelers linebackers.
What’s he like today? It would seem he’s still pretty defiant. He’s certainly mysterious. His former teammates don’t know him that well: “You won’t find him. The guy’s a recluse. Why, I haven’t talked to him in I don’t know how long,” said Jack Ham in a Los Angeles Times article about Lambert from January of 1996.
As for his neighbors in Worthington, Pa. (Lambert’s residence at the time of the story—perhaps now, who knows?), they were well-aware of his intimidating ways: “No, he’s liable to walk in here at any time,” said Kristin Shaul, working the counter at Long’s (Market). “And if he does, don’t get shook. He’s an intimidator. If he thinks he can intimidate you, he will. He likes to take his teeth out and see how people react.”
The general sentiment gleaned from his neighbors who were interviewed in that LA Times story was that, while Lambert was generally a nice guy, he didn’t talk about football and nobody knew him all that well.
Intimidating. Mysterious. Defiant (according to the book, “Their Life’s Work,” he refused to put on a jacket handed out at a 1999 team reunion because it looked like something the Pirates would wear).
Nobody could tell Lambert what to do during his playing days. And it appears nobody has been able to tell him what to do after football.
No mere mortal has ever been able to get in Lambert’s way.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the only thing that actually could take Jack Lambert down was a mystical curse.