Lambert, John Harold ("Jack")

views updated

LAMBERT, John Harold ("Jack")

(b. 8 July 1952 in Mantua, Ohio), outstanding linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their reign as perennial National Football League champions during the 1970s.

Born in Mantua, Ohio, Lambert attended Crestwood High School in that city, where he was a star quarterback on the football team. He also excelled in basketball and baseball. When Lambert, at six feet, four inches tall and 220 pounds, matriculated at Kent State University in 1970, he was made a defensive end. The next year he switched to middle line-backer. In his third year he was named Player of the Year by the Mid-America Conference, a rare honor for a defensive star. He repeated as an All-Conference player in his final season, when he was tri-captain of the squad. Lambert was also voted Most Valuable Player in the Tangerine Bowl in 1972. He graduated from Kent State in 1974.

Picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 1974 National Football League (NFL) draft, Lambert performed outstandingly at the team's training camp that summer, drawing attention on a team that was loaded with experienced linebackers. When he reported to training camp, defensive line coach George Perles reportedly said, "We've got a rookie who's so mean he doesn't even like himself."

Because a number of veterans, including middle line-backer Henry Davis, reported to camp late, Lambert got extra work. In August, Davis suffered a concussion, and a later neck injury put him out for the season, opening the middle linebacker position to Lambert. Facing Pittsburgh's two outstanding veteran linebackers, Jack Ham and Andy Russell, many of the Steelers' opponents hoped to find a weakness with a rookie in the center; this forced Lambert to develop quickly.

Lambert played in all fourteen games of his first season for a Pittsburgh team that was built around defense. In his first playoff game the Steelers broke the game open in the second quarter. The defense gave up only two touchdowns in beating the Buffalo Bills, 32–14. In the conference title game the defense improved by holding the Oakland Raiders to a single touchdown in the Steelers' 24–13 victory. The team continued to show its talent in a defensive struggle against the Minnesota Vikings, whom they downed, 16–6, in Super Bowl IX. Lambert was the only rookie on that Steelers squad. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In his second season, 1975–1976, Lambert continued to improve. Recognition came when he was voted to the Pro Bowl (the first of his nine straight selections, a record for linebackers). In the playoffs that year Pittsburgh hosted the Raiders on their ice-covered home field. Both defenses stood out as the Steelers gave up a single touchdown in a winning 16–10 effort.

The American Conference championship game that season may be the best Lambert ever played. He recovered three fumbles (a record for a linebacker) as the defensive-minded Steelers gave up just one touchdown in downing Baltimore, 28–10.

In Super Bowl X, Lambert rose to the heights as an inspirational leader. The Steelers trailed the Dallas Cowboys in the final quarter when Steelers' kicker Roy Gerela, who had cracked some ribs making a tackle on the opening kickoff, pulled a field goal wide for the second time. Dallas safety Cliff Harris taunted Gerela and hit him on the side of the helmet. Lambert, irritated, knocked Harris to the ground, and the aroused Steelers went on to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull off a 21–17 victory for their second consecutive league championship.

The next season, after beating the Baltimore Colts 40–14 with a record-setting offensive performance, in 1976 the Steelers fell to their archrival, the Raiders, in the conference title game, 24–7. However, Lambert himself had such an outstanding season that he was named Defensive Player of the Year by the league. The year 1977 was a down year for both Lambert and the Steelers. Lambert missed three games, the first of his career, with a knee injury; Pittsburgh dropped its first playoff game to the Denver Broncos, 34–21.

The team rebounded in 1978 as they recovered their defensive form. In the playoffs they held Denver to a single touchdown (winning 33–6) and gave the Houston Oilers only a field goal and a safety (the final score was 34–5). In Super Bowl XIII they edged out Dallas, 35–31. In 1979 Lambert again earned honors as the league's outstanding defensive player. The Steelers stormed past the Miami Dolphins, 34–14, and Houston, 27–13. In Super Bowl XIV, Pittsburgh was clinging to a slim 24–19 lead in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams. As Los Angeles drove deep into Steelers' territory, Lambert intercepted a pass at the Steelers' fourteen-yard line. Pittsburgh went on to win their fourth Super Bowl, 31–19.

Because of the manner in which statistics were kept in the 1970s, it is difficult to compare offensive linemen and defensive players in general with players of later eras. Outstanding individual plays such as tackles, sacks, knockdowns, hurries, and passes batted down or deflected were all statistics of the future. However, Lambert's impact is evident by his nine-time selection to the Pro Bowl and his selection by the league as outstanding defensive player in both 1976 and 1979. In 1981 the Steelers chose him as their Most Valuable Player.

In 1984 Lambert injured a toe, then tried to return to action too quickly, which aggravated the injury. The problem was compounded by playing on the artificial surface of Pittsburgh's home field in Three Rivers Stadium. Lambert missed half of the regular season games that year and retired at the end of the season.

Lambert played his entire eleven seasons (including that shortened by the player strike in 1982) with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He earned the right to wear the victors' ring from four Super Bowls. In all, he played in 146 regular-season games. In that time he intercepted twenty-eight passes, returning them for over 240 yards. In each of two seasons, 1979 and 1981, he had six interceptions for the year.

Lambert, who has not married, always loved the outdoors. Following his retirement he moved to an eighty-five-acre farm in rural Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, to enjoy hunting and fishing.

Perhaps because of Perles's remark in his rookie season, Lambert gained a reputation as a player with an overly aggressive nature and a chip on his shoulder. The media played this up at every opportunity. When the league instituted new rules to protect quarterbacks, Lambert was quoted as saying that "they should wear skirts." Yet both teammates and opponents were aware that he was not a cheap-shot artist, and he was quick to speak out against those who played outside the rules of sportsmanship.

The archives of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, have plenty of information about Lambert. Other useful sources include David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sport: Football (1987), and Bob Carroll et al., Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1997). Also see R. F. Jones, "Living Legend Called Mean Smilin' Jack," Sports Illustrated (12 July 1976).

Art Barbeau

About this article

Lambert, John Harold ("Jack")

Updated About content Print Article