Lou Filippi had seen enough. Even at the age of 40, the backfield coach for the Little Falls (MN) Flyers retained an imposing build. In the early 1940s, Filippi had been named a “Little All-American” as a halfback for the Saint Cloud (MN) State Teachers' College (3). Although he was a little less solid in the fall of 1960 than when he starred for the Huskies and tipped the scales at 187 lbs, Filippi still liked to lead his players by example (25). This day, he was agitated by the Flyers' shoddy tackling and decided a personal demonstration was needed to show the boys how it should be performed. Filippi strode to the defensive side of the ball and donned only a helmet. He instructed a junior fullback who had recently transferred from Wisconsin to charge at him, and Filippi would show the listless players what a proper tackle should look like. Only, the demonstration played out quite differently. The 6′3″, 210 lb weight-trained fullback, Gale Gillingham, ran right through the coach, marking the last time Filippi personally attempted to demonstrate tackling technique (139).
Filippi certainly would not be the last man to be on the wrong side of Gillingham's bruising running. Before he transitioned to tackle in his junior year at the University of Minnesota, Gillingham sidelined teammates Paul Faust and Chet Anderson during an early season practice with a shoulder dislocation and a concussion, respectively (130). Solid players in their own right, Faust would go on to play for the National Football League's (NFL) Minnesota Vikings, whereas Anderson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Gillingham made it to the NFL himself in 1966, he would continue to overpower players from his spot at guard on the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. All-Pro defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Reid once commented, “I was hit so hard [by Gillingham], I couldn't fall” (88). Similarly, Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro linebacker Bill Bergey said “When you're playing football and you're concentrating and you get hit, it never hurts.” He continued, “When Gillingham hit me, it hurt” (67). The reason it hurt was not only Gillingham's size, carrying up to 290 lbs on his 6′3″ frame during his NFL playing days, but also the fact that Gillingham had been religiously training with weights since his adolescence.
Gale Gillingham was at the forefront of an epochal shift in conditioning for sport performance. When he began high school sports in the fall of 1958, many coaches believed that weight training would hurt athletic performance. Such training, it was widely believed, would result in the mythical “muscle-bound” condition in which the athlete lost his speed, agility, and flexibility. Although the fear of athletes becoming muscle bound was pervasive, it was not universal. Some teams had begun to train with weights and many even experienced smashing success because of that training. There were even some individuals who functioned as nascent “strength coaches,” overseeing out-of-season training for athletes. Old myths die hard, however, and many coaches of the era still advised their athletes to avoid barbells, including the legendary Vince Lombardi (110). Today, high school athletes, both male and female, are regularly required to lift weights, and the long-term training has yielded impressive results on the field. Gale Gillingham was one of the few athletes of his era who engaged in serious year-round weight training starting in adolescence and continuing throughout his football career and beyond. The strength and power that resulted from his dedicated lifting helped make Gillingham a first-round draft pick, 6-time NFL All-Pro, and NFL Lineman of the Year (77).
Despite his success, many feel that Gillingham did not receive the recognition that he deserved (74,103). This article seeks to correct that oversight. At the end of Gillingham's career, weight training for sport had become much more common than it had been when he first picked up a barbell. By the time of his retirement, colleges, including the universities of Nebraska, Texas, and South Carolina, had hired strength coaches, as had professional football teams such as the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs (22,53,56,70,91). The perception of weight training changed, from a modality that would make an athlete muscle bound, to one that resulted in a stronger and faster athlete, thanks to the efforts of numerous individuals. Those individuals range from barbell magnates to physicians and physical educators (109,121). Most crucial in changing the perception of strength training, however, were athletes themselves. As athletes took up training despite their coaches' admonitions against it, they, as well as their coaches, fans, and the press, were able to see the utility of strength training. One of those pioneering athletes was Gale Gillingham.
Gale Gillingham was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 3, 1944. He was the third child of Verlin Ray Gillingham (1919–1991) and the first with wife Shirley M. Gillingham (Lancaster) (1917–1995) (18,82). At the time, the couple lived on a dairy farm near Stoughton (WI), just outside of Madison. In addition to farming, Verlin, a veteran of the Army during World War II, drove buses, taxis, and cattle trucks and worked as an auctioneer. Verlin had grown up on a farm himself in the southwestern Wisconsin before moving to Madison in the late 1930s. During high school, Verlin was an accomplished football player. As a tackle on the Richland Center team, Verlin was singled out as one of the 2 most outstanding players on his squad and lauded for his “consistent and dependable” play at the position (12). It was even speculated that he had “Big Ten stuff” (12). In addition to his talent, Verlin probably had the size, standing 6 foot, 1 inch and weighing nearly 190 lbs in high school, as well as the pugnaciousness, from his time as a boxer (102). Nicknamed “Champ,” Verlin continued to participate in both football and boxing as a semiprofessional in the early 1940s (45).
Due to Verlin's employment driving cattle trucks and auctioneering, he was often away from home, which left much of the heavy lifting of running a dairy farm to Shirley, along with Gale and his younger brother Gary (1946–). Fortunately, at 5′10″, the wiry Shirley was well equipped to handle the arduous work. A force in her own right, Gale recalled being impressed by his mother's physical strength and remembered arm wrestling with her when he was a boy. Gale observed that once he was strong enough to beat his mother, he was able to pin Verlin only a few days later (38,39). Some of Shirley's strength was, no doubt, developed through the daily labor required to run the dairy farm. All the cows had to be milked by hand twice daily, with the milk then transferred into a 10-gallon can, which then had to be carried and lifted into a chilling tank to await the arrival of the milk truck. In addition to the actual milking, running the small farm required a host of support tasks, including shoveling manure, building and fixing fences, planting and harvesting, weeding, and mowing and baling hay (37). Although the boys were young, they helped their mother where they could, waking up hours before school to help with the milking and related tasks before catching the school bus.
Even as a boy at the one-room Pleasant Hills School, Gale's tremendous strength and athleticism was evident. He regularly bested boys who were much older in a variety of playground sports and games. A favorite among the boys at the school was a game called “tackle cattle” in which boys would try to make it from one side of the playground to the other without being taken to the ground. Once tackled, a boy joined the others in the middle and tried to keep the remaining boys from traversing the pitch. There was an unspoken agreement among the boys that they would wait to attempt to bring Gale down until everyone else was in the middle. Even with most of his classmates trying to wrestle him to the ground, Gale still regularly managed to power his way to the other side (37). Although naturally gifted physically, Gale credited his upbringing on the farm with instilling in him a respect and desire for strength, commenting that because of the work he “always had this idea that stronger is better” (103).
In 1957, when Gale was 13, Verlin took a job of selling real estate for the United Farm Agency (94). The position required relocation to Tomah, Wisconsin, where Gale began his interscholastic football career. By his sophomore year, he was the starting fullback on the football team, the starting center on the basketball squad, and a promising shot-putter in track (112). After Gale's sophomore year, Verlin accepted a promotion to be a district sales manager for the United Farm, based out of Little Falls, Minnesota, and the family packed up and moved in the summer of 1960. The day before the start of football practice that fall, Verlin placed a call to Head Coach Ron Kavadas, to inquire whether Gale could go out for the Little Falls team. Upon learning that Gale had started as a sophomore at Tomah, Kavadas assured Verlin that he would be happy to have the young man come out. When Gale reported to practice the following day, Kavadas was thrilled at the prospect of what he would describe as “a 6-foot-3 bundle of muscle” joining his squad (66).
In his junior season for the Flyers, Gale started at fullback and defensive tackle. Kavadas took advantage of Gale's punishing rushing style to soften up the middle of opposing defenses, which allowed several smaller halfbacks room to run on sweeps to the sideline (26,29). In addition to his tremendous strength, many teammates and opposing defenders alike were surprised at Gale's sheer speed. Teammate Jack Zehren commented that Gale might have been the fastest player on the team and remembered one run in which Gale broke through the middle for 95 yards, outpacing all the opposing defenders on his way to the end zone (139). During his first season in Little Falls, Gale also introduced several of his teammates, including guard Byron Price, end Bob Lundell, and halfback Zehren, to weight training (139).
Before their arrival in Little Falls, Verlin had purchased a set of weights for the boys, which was kept in the basement of their home. The source of Verlin's inspiration to purchase the weights in order to make the boys better athletes is unknown. The weight set was manufactured by Joe Weider, so it is possible that Verlin had at least been exposed to some of Weider's muscle magazines by that time. Indeed, Weider's magazines had periodically made connections between the strength developed through weight training and improved athletic performance (133–135). It is also possible that Verlin was introduced to barbell training during his time in the South Pacific between 1943 and 1945 (44). The most widely read muscle magazine of the era was Strength & Health magazine, published by Bob Hoffman, who also owned the York Barbell Company. During World War II, Strength & Health documented the use of barbells in all branches of the service in a series of articles titled, “Barbell Men in the Service.” Among readers who wrote the magazine to describe their training exploits were men stationed in the Pacific, so it is possible that Verlin was exposed to barbell training during this time (117). Of course, his own experience as a boxer and football player made Verlin acutely aware of the importance of strength for both endeavors. Regardless of Verlin's inspiration to purchase the barbell set, Gale and several members of the Flyers football team trained with it regularly by 1960. Alongside Gale, the players performed variants on the Olympic lifts, as well as squats, bench presses, and curls (139).
Kavadas would later comment that he had been impressed how hard Gale worked to physically prepare himself for the season (128). In the fall of 1961, the results showed. In a pre-season article, local sportswriter Jim Wallace noted that the Flyers had “replaced speed with bulk,” with Gale tipping the scales at 210 lbs and his backfield running mate, Zehren, weighing in at 180 (124). The duo ran roughshod over opponents, largely because the Flyers' offense effectively began and ended with the 2 backs, as one or the other handled the ball between 80 and 95% of the time (27). In a game against conference rival Crosby-Ironton, for example, Little Falls ran 40 offensive plays with either Gillingham or Zehren carrying for 37 of them. For his part in that game, Gale amassed 124 yards in the first quarter alone, so one could hardly blame coach Kavadas for relying so heavily on the ground attack (40). Throughout the season, local reporters commented on the size and speed of the senior pair, referring to them as “backfield huskies” and asserting that they “carried too much power” for opposing teams (27,28). Despite the duo's efforts, the Flyers ended the season with a disappointing 5-win and 3-loss record, although Gillingham finished as the fourth leading scorer in the conference and Zehren the third (10). In addition to his 11 touchdowns, Gale amassed 1,076 yards on 181 carries, an average of 5.9 yards per carry, and set the Little Falls record for the most yards gained in an 8-game season (125). When the All-Conference team was named for that season, Gale was joined by 3 teammates: Zehren, Price, and Lundell, all of whom weight-trained in the basement of the Gillingham home (123).
Beyond the gridiron, Gale was a star on the Flyers' basketball and track teams. A contributor in a playoff basketball team at center as a junior, he earned All-Conference honors as a senior (30,140) (Figure 1). In track and field, Gillingham's exceptional strength made him a standout in both the shot put and discus; he set the school record in the former with a toss of 51-feet, 1-inch throw and won the state championship in the latter with a 152-foot, 4.5-inch throw. On the track, Gale regularly won or medaled in events including the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard dashes and relays. The athleticism that made Gale an All-Conference athlete in 3 sports and record holder in 2 did not go unnoticed by the region's biggest collegiate athletic programs. During the spring of his senior year, Gillingham was recruited by the Wisconsin Badgers to play end, while the Minnesota Gophers were interested in his ability to improve their ground game as a fullback (126).
Despite the interest from the Badgers, Verlin favored the Gophers, who had won the 1960 national championship and were coming off of a Rose Bowl victory to cap the 1961 season (137). Seeking to ensure that his son made good on his own “Big Ten stuff,” Verlin wrote to Minnesota coach Murray Warmath at the beginning of the 1961 season (46). In the letter, Verlin assured Warmath that Gale was “very fast and very powerful” and asserted that he would best be used as a tackle. Warmath wrote back a few days later to confirm with Verlin that a Gopher assistant would be out to scout Gale (131) (Figure 1).
The scout who ventured up to Little Falls was sufficiently impressed with Gale's performance that he was offered a full scholarship and joined the Gophers in the fall of 1962. At the time, freshmen were ineligible to compete on the varsity squad, but Gale excelled as a member of the freshman team, averaging 4 yards per carry (127). In spring drills in 1963, local sportswriters raved about his performance in intrasquad exercises, with one dubbing him “the big boy from Little Falls” and another commenting that it had “been a while since Minnesota has had a fullback with the evident power potential of big Gale Gillingham” (31,55,108). Despite his high ceiling, Gillingham abruptly quit the team a few days into fall camp in 1963. It was reported that Gillingham told Warmath that he did not like football, never had, and only played to please his father (42,128). The sporting press puzzled over the hasty decision, commenting that the NFL's recently added Minnesota Vikings were keeping an eye on his progress and quoting Gopher staffers who believed that Gillingham would have been the best fullback to don maroon and gold in decades (128,129).
Despite the statements about not enjoying football, the reason Gale actually left the team was to work on a farm owned by his father. Verlin had promised the farm to Gale as an inheritance when his playing days were complete but had changed his mind and decided to sell the property (107,119). Gale, whose primary aspiration was to become a farmer himself, determined he could change his father's mind if Gale was able to prove that he could run the farm. Over the course of the rest of 1963 and in 1964, Gale did just that and Verlin agreed to retain the property. The matter settled, and Gale wrote to Murray Warmath to apologize for his abrupt departure and to ask for permission to rejoin the team, which Warmath granted. Before returning to the Minneapolis, Gale married Jeanne Hoglund, a former high school classmate (63).
Upon returning to the Minnesota squad, Gale was slated as the number 5 fullback on the depth chart, a position that would be short-lived. Within a week, his brutal ball carrying had injured 2 of the team's best defenders and moved Gale up the depth chart (130). Sportswriters went so far as to compare him with a Gopher legend, with one reporting, “Gillingham has been laying mates low in scrimmage, much as Bronko Nagurski used to do” (50). Given that Nagurski had joined the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class the year earlier, and would later have his jersey number retired by the Gophers, it was high praise indeed. At 235 lbs, 15 more than the previous fall, Warmath described Gillingham as “all muscle” (72). Only 4 players on the team that fall weighed more than Gillingham, and all 4 played tackle (1). With his combination of size, strength, and speed, and the team weak on the offensive line, Warmath decided Gale would be better suited to help the team as a tackle than a fullback, switching his position early in the 1964 season (41,49) (Figure 2).
Gillingham's high school coach, Kavadas, praised the decision. While pointing out that Gale was “one of the most ferocious ball carriers you'll ever want to see,” Kavadas noted that Gale had played both offensive and defensive tackle in high school. Calling tackle his “natural” position, Kavadas spoke highly of Gale's willingness to sacrifice his personal interests to help the team win (66). By the third game of the season, Gillingham was starting at offensive tackle (19). Although primarily thought of as an offensive player, he was also frequently called upon to shore up the Gopher defensive line, until an ankle injury caused him to miss the final 2 games of the season (2,93). Headed into the 1965 season, the football media guide highlighted his “fine combination of size, power, speed, and agility” and speculated that Gale would be a candidate for post-season honors (32). Although the team would set a handful of offensive records that year, the Gophers finished a disappointing 5-4-1 (79). For his part, Gale again played both ways and was named “All-Big Ten” as an offensive tackle by the Associated Press (76,81). The writers of the Associated Press were not the only ones who took notice of Gillingham's outstanding play, however, as coaches from both the NFL and American Football League (AFL) also speculated about his potential (Figure 3).
On November 27, 1965, NFL officials held that year's draft at the Summit Hotel in New York City. On the same day, owners of the rival AFL held their own draft of college players. Founded in 1959 by Texas oil men Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, the AFL had begun to pose an increasingly significant problem for the more established league (59). The popularity of professional football increased dramatically during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Cold War concerns about “soft” living fostered increased interest in a game in which violence was such an integral component, and militaristic terms, such as “bombs” and “blitzes,” were featured (80). Along with the appeal of vicarious violence, appreciated by many office-bound men in the expanding managerial class, the development of television facilitated the game's rise to prominence. In the mid-1950s, approximately 2/3 of American households had a television; by 1960, the number had increased to 90%, and professional football became one of the things people most wanted to watch (80). The 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants attracted between 30 and 40 million viewers, approximately one-fifth of the US population (21,84). The advent of color television in the early 1960s made watching games on TV even closer to being in the stadium (132). With an interested audience, the NFL was able to sign their first national TV contract in 1962, selling their rights for $4.65 million. By 1964, the value of securing those rights for 2 seasons had jumped to $14.1 million and increased to $18.1 million by 1966. For their part, the AFL sold their rights to the American Broadcasting Company for $8.5 million over 5 years, beginning in 1960. In 1964, the National Broadcasting Company paid $36 million to televise AFL games for 5 years, beginning in 1965 (59,84) (Figure 3).
Although 17 million people watched professional football on an average Sunday on television in the mid-1960s, in-person attendance also increased, leading to higher revenues from ticket sales and concessions. Average attendance at AFL stadiums nearly doubled from 16,500 to 31,800 between 1960 and 1965, whereas the NFL increased from 40,100 to 47,300 over the same span (84,132). In the fall of 1965, professional football officially eclipsed Major League Baseball as the most popular sport in America (84). Long derided as a game occupied by nothing more than professional gladiators, professional football had also surpassed the popularity of the collegiate game. Since its inception, fans of college football promoted the game as one that turned boys into men and instilled a respect for hard work and developed toughness and resilience. It was argued that collegiate athletes played with more enthusiasm, whereas professionals played only for a paycheck (84,132). Regardless of players' motivation to take the field, many Americans agreed that the professional game was the more exciting version. Professionals were larger, stronger, and faster than their younger counterparts, leading to more spectacular plays and violent collisions on the field. Vince Lombardi argued that professionals could fully dedicate themselves to success on the field, without having to worry about distractions like coursework (132). National Football League owners had recognized as early as the 1930s that they were in entertainment business and shed all pretensions of being interested in any goal other than winning. To that end, owners tailored the game to promote scoring and allowed more frequent substitutions, which enabled the players to specialize at one position and developed a more complex and faster game (21).
The influx of cash from gate receipts and television revenues helped spark a bidding war between the rival professional leagues for collegiate talent. In 1965, the AFL's New York Jets outbid the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals for the services of Joe Namath, offering him a record 3-year, $427,000 contract (84). The same year, the AFL's Houston Oilers and NFL's Green Bay Packers drafted Donny Anderson, a running back from Texas Tech, in the first round. Anderson chose to stay in school during the 1965 season but reportedly signed with the Green Bay Packers for $600,000 immediately after his collegiate career ended (138). In the 1966 draft, the Packers chose another running back, Jim Grabowski from the University of Illinois, who reportedly signed a 3-year $400,000 contract. Between the 2 rookie running backs in 1966, then, the Packers had agreed to contracts worth $1 million, earning the backs a nickname as “The Gold Dust Twins.” Head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, saw “the twins” as replacements for his aging running backs, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor (75). The ball carriers were not the only players on the Packer roster nearing the end of their careers, as the majority of the offensive line was 30 or older headed into the 1966 season. To shore up the line, Lombardi and General Manager Pat Peppler selected Gale Gillingham with the 13th overall pick (90,136). Before the draft, the New York Jets had taken Gillingham out on the town in New York City, and he had heard of some interest from the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, but Gillingham was excited to be selected by the small-market Packers because they were close to home (103,106).
Along with Grabowksi and Anderson, Gillingham was chosen to play as a member of the College All-Star team in an exhibition game against the Packers in early August (4). The All-Star team had taken on the defending NFL champions every year since 1935 as an exhibition game, benefiting Chicago Tribune Charities. Although the collegians had typically not fared well against the more developed professionals, they had upset the Packers in 1963, which continued to eat at Lombardi heading into the 1966 matchup (132). During one of the practices with the All-Stars, Gillingham fractured his hand when it was crushed by a teammate's helmet while Gale held a blocking dummy (103). The injury would prove to be an unexpected windfall. When he learned of the injury, Lombardi demanded Gillingham join the Packers, telling All-Star team organizers, “he's my property, get him up here” (103). By joining the Packers relatively early in pre-season camp, Gillingham had more opportunity to learn the playbook (62). He missed only a few days of practice in Green Bay and posted an impressive performance in an intrasquad scrimmage less than 2 weeks after the injury. When asked if Gillingham would play against the All-Star team the following week, Lombardi responded, “certainly he'll play, he's mine now. Everyone will play” (58).
Jerry Kramer, one of Gillingham's teammates on the offensive line for his first years in Green Bay, joked that Lombardi was a “miracle healer” (68). The coach would march into the training room and shout, “What the hell's wrong with you guys? There's nobody in here hurt,” and all of the lame would be healed (68). Given Gale's quick return to action after his hand injury, it seems that Lombardi may have worked his magic on the rookie tackle. After taking part in Packer practices, Gale was struck by how much higher the intensity was than in the All-Star camp. After seeing both, Gillingham advised his former and future teammates Anderson and Grabowski to feign an injury in warm-ups because “you are going to get massacred” (106). Indeed, the Packers beat the All-Stars decisively, 38-0. In addition to the higher intensity, Gale noted that professional defensive linemen were “a lot more agile,” not as easily driven off of the ball, and required him to continue his blocks for much longer than college defenders (101). At 6′3″, Gale also lacked the height and reach to play tackle professionally and was moved to guard during pre-season camp. Despite the learning curve, he adjusted quickly, impressing Lombardi and teammates throughout camp (13,83,116).
In front of him on the depth chart were seasoned veterans Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston and Jerry Kramer. Thurston joined the NFL in 1956 and had been starting at left guard for the Packers since being traded from the Colts in 1959 (105). Two years younger than Thurston, Kramer had been drafted by Green Bay in 1958 and became the primary starter at right guard in 1959 (14). Headed into the 1966 season, it was anticipated that Gillingham would take over for the older Thurston in relatively short order (8). The opportunity came in early December when Thurston suffered a sprained ankle and Gillingham came off of the bench against the San Francisco 49ers (61). As a starter against the Baltimore Colts, he more than held his own, drawing acclaim from Lombardi that he had performed “a workmanlike job” and was “a great young ball player” (17,20). The game clinched a fifth consecutive western division title for the Packers in 7 years and guaranteed them a spot in the NFL championship game. The Packers would go on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 to win the league crown.
During the spring of 1966, owners from both the NFL and AFL fretted about the rising cost of doing business, as the bidding war for rookies had dramatically escalated the salaries of young players. To ensure financial solvency, the 2 leagues worked out a merger, which had been announced in June of 1966. A combined NFL was to be formed in 1970, but in the interim, league winners would square off at the end of the season in an “NFL-AFL World Championship” game. The game would not come to be known as the “Super Bowl” until 1969 (84). Gale's rookie season with the Packers coincided with their appearance in what came to be known as Super Bowl I. Although Thurston got the start, owing to his veteran status, Gillingham also played as the Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 and became champions of all of professional football (115).
Grass Drills and Laps Around the Goal Posts
Jerry Kramer attributed the Packers' success to their team approach, fostered by Lombardi, in which players were willing to put aside their own interests for those of the team. He also asserted that the Packers worked harder and were better conditioned than any team in the league (68). As one might expect, Lombardi, who would not let players drink water during practice, took a traditional approach to football conditioning (84). In the 1960s, that meant a heavy emphasis on cardiovascular endurance. Players typically started practice running laps around the goal posts, from one end of the field to the other. This was followed by a combination of calisthenics, agility drills, and “grass drills” (68). Although other teams might have performed a handful of side-straddle hops, the Packers would do 100 and continue to do a higher volume of a variety of similar exercises (54). Then, the players would begin “grass drills,” more colloquially known as “up-downs,” with Lombardi standing in front of the group. He would initiate the drill with his whistle, and players would begin to run in place with exaggerated knee lift. Then, he would shout “down” that served as an instruction for players to hurl themselves to the ground. While still splayed prone on the grass, Lombardi would command “up!” and the players would pull themselves to their feet and continue running in place. “When Vince is in a good mood,” Kramer said, “he gives us only 3 or 5 minutes of them.” When Lombardi was not in a good mood, “he'll keep going until someone is on the ground and can't get up, till everyone's on the brink of exhaustion” (68). Center Ken Bowman recalled doing as many as 78 consecutive repetitions (54).
Like most coaches of his era, Lombardi eschewed weight training (34). To avoid becoming “muscle bound,” the Packers generally avoided weights, although Lombardi did recognize that strength training might have some positive effects on football performance, particularly later in his career. A key reason for that recognition was running back Jimmy Taylor, who played with the team from 1958 to 1966. Before being drafted by the Packers, Taylor had starred for the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers. A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Taylor had taken up weight training during his high school career under the tutelage of local health studio owner, Alvin Roy. The way Taylor played, it was hard for any coach to believe that weight training had hurt his performance, so Phil Bengtson, the defensive coordinator for the Packers under Lombardi, traveled to Baton Rouge after the 1959 season to learn more about the program. Although the Packer coaches were impressed with Roy and his program, they were still hesitant to take up barbell training, opting instead to institute a program of isometric exercises. Bars were installed next to the locker rooms, and players were required to press upward on a bar at chest height and pull on another at knee height for rounds of 10 seconds before heading out to practice (6). By 1965, coaches had incorporated a device called the “Exer-Genie,” which consisted of a nylon rope running through a metal cylinder (64). Adjustments could be made on the cylinder to make the rope easier or more difficult to pull. Players initially performed an isometric contraction in various pushing or pulling movements, and then, tension was reduced to allow a resistance through the full range of motion. The team spent 10 minutes doing a variety of resisted running, cycling, and sit-up exercises with the pulleys after a running warm-up. Two years later, in 1967, Lombardi was impressed by a universal multistation weight machine while attending a coaching conference. He ordered one for the Packers, and they began circuit training on the machine 3 times each week before the 1967 season (6,24).
Vince Lombardi retired early in 1968 and was succeeded by Bengtson. Like Lombardi, Bengtson was wary of fully embracing barbell training. When “aerobics” became popular following the publication of Kenneth Cooper's book of the same name, however, Bengtson was quick to adopt distance running as the primary conditioning method for the Packers (6,52). After the 1968 season, the Packers began a year-round running program supervised by Bruno Balke, a renowned exercise physiologist from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. During the early months of 1969, players did runs of 2 miles or more, with some averaging as many as 5, along with middle distances such as 330-yard dashes (7,9,52). As the season approached, the focus shifted to shorter sprints, with players performing workouts that included sets of ten 100-yard sprints, with 60-second rest intervals. During training camp, all players, regardless of position, were required to complete a 2-mile run in under 15 minutes (7). Those who failed to meet the standard had to stay after practice each day and run 1 mile until they were able to pass the 2-mile test.
Not all professional football coaches were as hesitant to endorse barbell training as those of the Packers. Sid Gillman, coach of the AFL's San Diego Chargers, had invited Al Roy to California to set up a weight program for his team in 1963. Gillman did so on the recommendation of one of his former assistants Paul Dietzel, then coach of the LSU Tigers, who had seen what Roy's weight program had done for Jim Taylor and Heisman winner Billy Cannon (91). After a 4-10 season in 1962, the weight-trained 1963 Chargers won the AFL championship with an 11-3 record (11). The initial program was a combination of isometric exercises and traditional barbell movements, including squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and calf raises (53,104). After the season, the Chargers began training 11 months of the year. Roy prescribed a 4- or 6-day split routine with 2–3 days of lower-body exercises and 2–3 days of upper-body exercises in the off-season. The workout also included 20-, 40-, and 220-yard sprints after the barbell exercises and runs of 3–5 miles on nonlifting days (11,104,114). Once the season started, the Chargers decreased their frequency of lifting to twice weekly. In 1968, Roy was hired away from the Pacific coast to work with the Kansas City Chiefs. He brought a program that had evolved by the late 1960s to include variants on the Olympic lifts (71). As in San Diego, the weight program made a marked difference, helping the Chiefs improve from a good team into a great one that would win Super Bowl IV the year after Roy's arrival (56).
In addition to a few pro football teams that were barbell-trained, some individual players had also taken up strength training to improve their game by the early 1960s. One newspaper account in 1957 reported that a “barbell cult is thriving among the top guards in the NFL” (97). The list of barbell men included Duane Putnam of the Los Angeles Rams, Jack Stroud of the New York Giants, and Stan Jones of the Chicago Bears. Jones, who grew up 30 minutes from the home of York Barbell in eastern Pennsylvania, began weight training in high school (78). By the end of his collegiate career, the 6′ 1″, 250 lb tackle was able to bench press nearly 400 lbs and squatted 425 for 5 repetitions as part of his regular workout (78). Chosen as a consensus All-American as a senior, Jones went on to play in the NFL from 1954 to 1966 and has been inducted into both the Professional Football and National Football Foundation College Halls of Fame (118). Jones credited much of his success to his barbell training and advised boys to take up weights in the off-season to improve their game (78,118).
While a few professional football players trained with weights by the time Gillingham entered the NFL, they were in a decided minority. One of Gale's linemates at Minnesota, Randolph Staten, took up barbells after being drafted by the New York Giants in 1965. Staten did so on the recommendation of a Giants scout who pointed out that professional players were of a different caliber than collegians; while Staten might have gotten by without barbells as a college player, it was unlikely he would be able to do the same at the next level (111). Staten's lack of weight training at Minnesota is consistent with Gillingham's experience. Gale recalled being chased from the weight room by Gopher football coaches, concerned that weights would make him too bulky (38). Not easily deterred, however, he snuck into the weight room with the wrestling team so that he would be able to continue his weight training without his coaches' knowledge.
The End of the Lombardi Era
While Gillingham started a few games filling in for Fuzzy Thurston during his rookie year, he became a fixture at guard during his second season. During training camp in 1967, Jerry Kramer commented that “Gilly is twice the ballplayer this year that he was last year,” continuing, “he's taken Fuzzy's job away for good” (68). Over the course of his first year in green and gold, Gillingham had impressed his teammates and coaches with his combination of size, speed, and skill. Kramer described him as “thick-shouldered, powerful, and strong” (68). When the linemen were tested to see how quickly they got off the line when the ball was snapped, Gillingham consistently beat all of the others by 3 yards. His explosiveness led offensive tackle and future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Forrest Gregg, to comment “we might as well stop trying to beat him ‘cause we ain't going to do it” (68). In 50-yard conditioning sprints, Gillingham stretched his margin of victory over the other linemen to 5–10 yards (48). Kramer noted that Gillingham had usurped him as the fastest lineman on the team, although he attributed that speed to Gillingham's youth (68). Lombardi went even farther, observing that Gale was “the fastest man on the team behind (halfbacks) Donny Anderson and Elijah Pitts” (122). Center Ken Bowman asserted that Gillingham could run a 4.7 or 4.8 40-yard dash (103). Although age was certainly a factor in Gillingham's tremendous speed, strength was likely a larger contributor. Another future Hall of Famer, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, commented that the second-year guard was almost as strong as Kramer “and I never thought anybody could be that strong” (17). Similarly, legendary linebacker Ray Nitschke compared Gillingham with Kramer, saying “they're both strong and rangy and when they fold back on me in practice, they'd like to blow me right out of there” (89).
In addition to his tremendous size and athleticism, Gillingham was able to secure the starting spot at left guard due to his eagerness to learn about his craft. He credited his linemates, Thurston, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Ken Bowman, and Kramer, with teaching him more about how to be an offensive lineman than he had learned from any coach. “Those guys could have said, “screw you rookie,”” Gillingham observed. Instead, “they took me under their wing like I'd been there for 10 years” (103). It helped, of course, that Gillingham had a perfectionistic tendency. Domenic Gentile, an athletic trainer for the Packers during Gillingham's tenure, remarked that he was “a high-intensity type player” who “had to be errorless in every practice” (106). Between coaching from teammates, his own willingness to learn, and a desire to be outstanding, Gillingham developed into a standout on the Packer line (Figure 4).
During the 1967 season, the Packers battled their way to a 9-4-1 record amidst speculation that the season would be Lombardi's last. Two days before Christmas, they routed the Los Angeles Rams by 21 points to secure a spot in the NFL championship game against the Dallas Cowboys (5). In what would become known as the “Ice Bowl,” the teams took the field that New Year's Eve day with actual temperatures as low as 17° below zero and wind chills as frigid as 50° below zero (16). During the week leading up to the game, Cowboys' coach Tom Landry remarked that Gillingham had one of the day's toughest assignments, having to block Pro Bowl defensive tackle Bob Lilly (69). At 6′5″ and a listed weight of 260 lbs, Lilly was larger than Gillingham and had the strength and speed to match. The Packers and their fans felt certain that the extreme cold would provide a sort of home field advantage; Kramer commented “we were freezing, and they were dying” (68).
Initially, that instinct proved correct as Green Bay jumped out to a 14-0 lead. After 2 turnovers, however, the Cowboys narrowed the margin to 4 points. In the fourth quarter, Dallas scored a second touchdown to go up 17-14. With just under 5 minutes to go into the game, the Packers started their final drive at their own 32-yard line. With 1:11 remaining, they reached the Dallas 11-yard line. Quarterback Bart Starr called a “54 give,” which was a dive play intended to trick the defense into thinking the Packers were running their famed “Packer sweep” around the tackle. Gillingham had the key role of pulling as if he were going to lead block on the outside play. The goal was to get Lilly out of the play by luring him into following Gillingham; it worked. Running back Chuck Mercein burst through the hole left by Lilly for 8 yards to the Dallas 3. On the next play, Donny Anderson got within 1 yard of the goal line to make it first-and-goal. He was given the ball on the next 2 downs, but, with the field essentially a sheet of ice, the Packers were unable to get enough traction to clear a running lane. Starr called Green Bay's last time out with 16 seconds remaining. With a third straight championship on the line, Starr called a play that the Packers had never run: a quarterback keep. As the clock ticked down to 13 seconds, Starr plunged across the line behind Bowman and Kramer securing the victory, 21-17 (16). Two weeks later, in the much more hospitable climate of Miami in January, Green Bay easily outpaced the Oakland Raiders 33-14 to win Super Bowl II (5).
By 1968, Gale had been joined on the Packers by a few other players who had been exposed to barbell training and wanted to continue their lifting in Green Bay. Center Bob Hyland, whom Kramer described as “muscle-mad,” lifted after practice with Gillingham and linebacker Jim Flanigan (57,68). For his part, Flanigan recalled being surprised at the absence of weight training upon his arrival in Green Bay in 1967 and the fact that many of the seasoned veterans could not lift 200 lbs (34). In 1968, the small group of barbell devotees was joined by a guard who, like Gillingham, had lifted since he was a schoolboy: Bill Lueck. Also, like Gillingham, Lueck grew up on a dairy farm, but it was his interest in training that forged a bond with the older guard (73). Although more players were interested in training, they were still limited by the facilities and the beliefs of the coaching staff.
Although the team had acquired a barbell set at some point, Bengtson forbade the players from using them, threatening to fine players who were caught lifting (73). Like Gillingham, Lueck had been pleasantly surprised what a difference lifting had made to his performance when he first began training in high school. Lueck credited his training with enabling him to be strong and quick for his size and, like Gillingham, had no intention of stopping his training in the NFL. After practice, Gillingham and Lueck began a custom of loitering in the locker room as the other players showered and changed. They chatted with teammates and with Equipment Manager Gerald “Dad” Braisher, who also served as their lookout man. Braisher would let the duo know as soon as all of the coaches had departed for the day, and they could take their workout without fear of fines. Once the all clear was given, Gillingham and Lueck commenced their routine of heavy squats, presses, and rows (73).
Under Bengtson, the Packers finished a disappointing third in their division in each season between 1968 and 1970. Dan Devine took over as head coach in 1971 with a similar result at the end of his rookie season, as the Packers finished fourth in the NFL Central (5). Despite the team's losing record in 3 of 4 seasons, Gillingham continued to be as focused and intense a competitor as he had when he arrived in the league. He was a feared opponent in the “nutcracker” drill, a brutally simple exercise in which offensive and defensive linemen fire into each other from their stance and try to push the other backward or out of the drill. Defensive tackle Henry Jordan commented that hitting Gillingham was “just like kissing the front of a moving train” (86). Linemate Lueck chuckled when he recalled watching defenders count the offensive players in line and then shuffle around to avoid facing Gillingham (73). In one particularly memorable team session during practice, Gillingham was challenged by defensive line coach Dave “Hawg” Hanner. The coach lined up defensive tackle Mike McCoy, a rookie out of Notre Dame whom the Packers had selected with their first pick in the 1970 draft, across from the veteran Gillingham. When Gale asked Hanner if he was sure he wanted to do that, Hanner teasingly asked if Gillingham was afraid. Not only was Gillingham not afraid, but he was also incensed and, on the next snap, slammed into McCoy so hard that he reportedly fractured the tackle's sternum (103).
Gillingham, of course, was no softer on opposing defensive tackles during games. He drew praise from the sporting press for his “brilliant” blocking of Detroit Lions' All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras (96). He shut down the pass rush of future Hall of Fame defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene and handled the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro, Charlie Kruger (99,100). By 1969, teammate Donny Anderson had begun to assert that Gillingham was “the best guard in pro football,” and opposing coaches agreed (60). Sports Illustrated magazine conducted a survey of NFL-assistant coaches, asking them to rank the best player at every position during the 1969 season, and the coaches voted Gillingham the league's top guard (65). Not coincidentally, Gale was named to the first of his 5 Pro Bowls in 1969 and chosen to start. He followed up with consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1970 and 1971 (87). Unfortunately, his streak of 3 consecutive appearances in the NFL's All-Star game would end in 1972 as a result of injury after Dan Devine moved him to defensive tackle. Looking back on the move years later, running back MacArthur Lane fumed that the decision still upset him (103). Devine reasoned that Gillingham could have more impact on the game if he were able to disrupt opposing offenses. Unfortunately, Gillingham had little opportunity to cause disruption because he suffered a devastating injury to his right knee in the second game of the season (98). The torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments would require surgical repair and at least one revision. Although he was lost for the season, Gillingham continued to lift as heavily as he could to prepare himself for 1973.
During his collegiate career, Gale had relocated his training site to a small shed behind the family home. By that point, he was able to deadlift 700 lbs using an assortment of weights sold by Weider, York Barbell, Sears, and various other suppliers (35). To perform squats before 1964, he had a pair of Y-shaped squat stands, affixed to pieces of plywood to improve their stability. Although the stands would have been adequate for many lifters, they were not stable enough for the several hundred pounds Gillingham needed to hold; so, his father-in-law helped him make an improvised power rack out of 4 × 4 wood in the mid-60s (39). Since he often lifted without a spotter, Gale needed the safety bars of the power rack to allow him to lift as much weight as possible with less risk of injury (35). The power rack also inspired him to perform heavy partial lifts, a practice he would increasingly incorporate after his knee injury. In 1971, he upgraded again, commissioning Little Falls Machine Shop to manufacture a metal power rack based on drawings he and his wife Jeanne created (39) (Figure 5).
On the sturdier metal rack, Gillingham performed heavier lifts, including rack presses and partial squats. The partial squats were performed largely out of necessity after the knee injury, as the damaged knee could not withstand the full version of the lift, particularly early in the rehabilitation process. To track his progress, Gillingham kept records using a marker on the boards of the shed. The records are undated, but among them is a progression in the overhead press “from floor” starting at 330 lbs and topping out at 405. Others record a power clean of 375 lbs for 5 sets of 5 repetitions and a 240-lb upright row for 3 repetitions. Partial squats on the rack's fifth notch from the top (about a 9″ movement) range from 1,100 to 1,200 with the note “knee bad” at 1,100, “knee worse” at 1,150, and a ditto mark at 1,200. Gillingham performed partial deadlifts from just above his patella with records on the wall attesting to a lift as high as 1,150 lbs. In the note accompanying the feat, he wrote, “Tore skin off both hands. Will go down.” Near the end of his career, Gillingham's York Olympic barbell was not long enough to accommodate all of the resistance he needed, so he adapted by creating bundles of assorted metal and plastic weights and then tying them to the bar. With this makeshift setup, he was able to lift 1,500 lbs in a partial squat, out of the rack's fourth notch from the top. The corresponding note on the wall reads, “1,500 done. Out of tie on's [sic]”; he had apparently used all of his weights (35) (Figure 6).
Gillingham's dedication to training enabled him to return to action for the 1973 season. By the time he returned to the team, lifting weights was no longer an offense worthy of a fine. In the weight room one afternoon, defensive tackle Bob Brown struggled with 300 lbs on the bench press, which drew a snicker from Gillingham. “Put some weight on there,” he challenged the tackle. Brown furrowed his brow and returned the challenge, “you get under there.” Gillingham obliged, and after playfully tossing the weight up a few times asked Brown, “how many times do you want me to put it up?” (103). Having returned to his preinjury form, Gillingham was again selected for the Pro Bowl in both 1973 and 1974 (87). Unfortunately, despite his individual excellence, the team's performance waned; Devine had one winning season in Green Bay, coming in 1972. The Packers finished 5-7-2 in 1973 and 6-8 in 1974, third in their division both seasons, and Devine was dismissed (5) (Figure 6).
The sporting press still lauded Gillingham as “the real leader of the club and the man looked up to by everyone,” and “probably the equal of any guard in the league” going into the 1975 season (15,92). Still, early in training camp, Gillingham decided it was time to bow out (85). He had lost faith in Devine after the position switch and decided he did not want to play under the new staff of first-year Head Coach Bart Starr (106). Gillingham recalled that he wanted to be traded after the position switch under Devine and made the request to Starr but was denied. Still physically able to play, Gillingham found it difficult watching as Green Bay limped to a 4-10 result in 1975 (36). In January of 1976, Starr called Gillingham and asked him to return (113). When he agreed, Packer backs were elated, with John Brockington commenting, “I love to see that big 68 out there” (120). He was once again elected as a team captain. Despite Gillingham's desire to play, however, his surgically repaired knee was not up to the rigors of a full season of professional football. He played in intense pain for much of the season, had repeated aspirations of the joint to alleviate swelling, and missed parts of games due to the discomfort (23). In 1976, Green Bay finished fourth in their division with a 5-9 record, and Gillingham hung it up for good at season's end. Discussing his retirement, Starr remarked, “I look at the effort and the sacrifices he made, despite his condition, and I can only marvel” (43).
Life After Football
Although forced to give up professional football, Gillingham never gave up weight training. He had used the bonus money he earned after the Packers won the first Super Bowl to buy a large cattle ranch and 300 head of cattle in Minnesota. Unfortunately, cattle prices dropped sharply in the mid-1970s, the farm became insolvent, and Gillingham was forced to sell. Once out of the cattle business, he followed in his father's footsteps and got involved in real estate, selling everything from farms to residential and lakefront properties (94). Over the course of his playing career, he and Jeanne had 4 children: Karl (1965–), Brad (1966–), Kim (1969–), and Wade (1971–). Weight training had also become a family affair, with all of the boys taking up lifting in one form or another by the time they made it to elementary school. One of the things Wade remembered most vividly about his father was his dedication to his workouts. Even after his retirement, Gale lifted at least 4 times each week (94). When he was in the shed slogging through his training with news radio in the background, he was not to be disturbed (47). Gillingham continued to keep himself in good shape because he was still able to bench more than 500 lbs in the early 1980s. In addition to his upper-body strength, he also retained his explosive power through midlife and was still able to dunk a basketball in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, after a few successful demonstrations of his dunking ability, he tore his patellar tendon landing from one of his jumps (67). As evidence of Wade's assertion that workouts were not to be missed, however, his sons remembered watching him bench press in the shed a few days later with his casted leg propped up on a chair (35).
In 1982, Gillingham was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. With that professional high came a personal low, as he and Jeanne divorced the same year. Still, in an interview with Jerry Kramer conducted as part of a 1984 Packer reunion, Gillingham spoke about the importance of his children and Jeanne's role in their lives. “I have an obligation to the children,” he said, continuing, “I want them to live up to the ability they have” (67). By any measure, it seems that the Gillingham children have done just that. All of them have continued to reside in Minnesota. Kim, the couple's only daughter, is a nurse, whereas the 3 boys have become standouts in the world of strength sports. Karl is a 3-time qualifier for the World's Strongest Man and 2-time participant in the Arnold Strongman Classic contest. Brad is a 6-time World Champion in powerlifting, has been inducted into the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) Hall of Fame, and was also a 2-time participant in the Arnold Strongman Classic. Wade competed in strongman events as well, but is better known for his exceptional grip strength, which earned him an invitation to compete in exhibitions at the Arnold Classic. All of the Gillingham boys credit their father's enthusiasm for training and his coaching with their success in strength sports. Each of them lifted under their father's tutelage by elementary school, and he continued to coach them well into adulthood. Beyond supervising their training, Gale also accompanied them to major events, advising and encouraging them. The success of the boys as strongmen and powerlifters, on top of Gale's reputation as one of the strongest men in the NFL during his playing days, earned the Gillingham's the moniker of “the first family of strength” (33).
As their father and grandfather did before them, the boys have tried to help their children realize their athletic potential with the help of weight training. One of Karl's sons, Alex, competed on the national level in weightlifting, whereas Brad's weight-trained daughters, Emily and Lizzy, have earned scholarships to compete in cross country and track. Although still early in their athletic careers, Wade's daughters have also taken up strength training to improve their performance in volleyball and basketball. In addition to their own children, the Gillinghams have coached many more. Brad volunteers as a strength coach, working with wrestling and volleyball at Southwestern Minnesota State University, and both he and Wade have coached interscholastic sports. All 3 boys have co-owned Jackals Gym in Marshall, Minnesota, since 1995. The gym has been the training home to winners of 39 USA Powerlifting championships and 10 individual qualifiers for the IPF world championships since 1997 (35).
As Gale aged, the boys attempted to convince him to slow down and maybe not lift quite as strenuously (47). The old guard would have none of it. On October 20, 2011, while lifting weights in the shed that had been his training facility for decades, Gale Gillingham died of a heart attack at the age of 67 (82). Over the course of his playing career, he racked up a host of titles: All-Big Ten, 6-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler, and 2-time Super Bowl Champion. He was named the starting guard for the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Packers “All Century” team and the 21st most outstanding player in the history of the Packers' organization by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (51,77,87). Of the players ahead of him on the Sentinel's list, only 3 are linemen and all 3 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (95). The most likely reason for Gillingham's omission from the list of former Packers in Canton is that the teams on which he played after 1967 were largely forgettable. After his second season in Green Bay, the Packers finished with a losing record in 6 of his 8 seasons and never won another playoff game during his career. Even an outstanding player on a largely forgettable squad can easily be overlooked (5,74).
Despite being “unheralded” with respect to the Hall of Fame, Gillingham is, nonetheless, a pioneer in the world of strength (74). Gale was one of the first professional football players to train intensely with barbells year-round and part of a tiny cohort who started that training during adolescence. In that sense, he was at the forefront of what modern strength training for sport has become—progressive training with an eye toward long-term athlete development. Gillingham used the strength he developed to become a standout in an NFL that was just transitioning into its role as the most popular spectator sport in the United States. He was a member of the last draft before the AFL and NFL merged, played in the first 2 Super Bowls, and was in his fifth season when “Monday Night Football” debuted as a cultural phenomenon. Through his unique combination of size, strength, speed, and performance, Gillingham helped disabuse many of the notions that weight training would make for a muscle-bound athlete. Gale shared his knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, weight training with people throughout his life. He taught high school teammates how to train, lifted with fellow Packers despite the threat of fines, and coached his children to a host of titles in several strength sports. That knowledge has been transferred through them to contemporary athletes who, like Gale, have taken up training in their youth to enhance their sport performance. The ripples that Gale Gillingham created reverberate to this day. In helping others to see that strength training improved performance, as Lombardi said of Gillingham early in his career, “he did a workmanlike job.”
The author thanks Drs. William Kraemer and Nicholas Ratamess for proposing this project. Thanks are also due to the Gillingham family, including Gale's brother, Gary, sons Karl, Brad, and Wade, and nephew Brian, who provided interviews and photographs for this project. Jack Zehren and Bill Lueck also took the time to be interviewed and are owed thanks for all of the helpful anecdotes they provided.
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