The great Henry Jordan

We had a Packer Hall of Fame in England during the 1990s with Ray Nitschke as our President and following Ray’s death Willie Davis took over the mantle.  I tried to contact as many former Packers as possible, especially from the early days, and players from other teams also figured prominently in my letter writing as I asked them about their opponents in Green Bay.

Henry Jordan retired at age 35 in February 1970, after an injury-filled 1969 season. He relocated south to Milwaukee to create and oversee Summerfest. In 1974, Jordan was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.  Seven years later, Henry died at the age of 42 of a heart attack after jogging on February 21, 1977.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.  He was survived by his wife Olive, and three children: Henry Jr., Theresa, and Suzanne.  He was represented in the coin toss ceremony at Super Bowl XXIX by former teammate Ray Nitschke, who was also named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team.  Ray Nitschke was a great admirer of Henry and spoke very, very highly of him.

I spoke to Henry’s widow, Olive, on the phone in Texas and she was delighted to talk about Henry and their days in Green Bay.  She said she would be happy to answer my questions on tape as she wasn’t very good at writing letters.  The following is a transcription of that tape from Olive in reply to my questions.

1. Where was Henry born and what did his father do for a living?

He was born in Emporia, Virginia on the 26th of January 1935.  Henry’s father was a tenant farmer.

2. Where did you first meet?

We met at the University of Virginia where Henry was a student.  Two of his best friends who also knew me brought us together.  We met up at a soda parlour in Charlottesville, Virginia.

3. What did his parents think about him playing football?

His father loved him playing but his mother didn’t watch his games when he was in High School because she knew when he lost he took it badly.  She never went to a football game and when he was a professional she went to the bedroom and waited for the game to be over because she was so afraid he would get hurt or they would lose and she would feel badly for him.

4. What sort of personality did he have?

He was a loving, giving, fun type of guy.  Everybody liked and respected him and he had no enemies.  He had an IQ of 170 and the great gift of communication.

5. How do you compare Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi?

I don’t believe you can do it, it would be like comparing apples and oranges.  Coach Lombardi’s training camps, believe it or not, were more relaxed than Paul Brown’s.  Paul was very aloof, unlike Vince who got right down there on the field and got to know his players - Paul only got close to one or two.

6. What was his first reaction on being traded to the Packers?

In 1959 players who didn’t perform to a certain standard were threatened with the Siberia of the National Football League, Green Bay.  We had only been in Cleveland a few days when the press reported that Henry had been traded to the Packers.  So Henry went into work to find out what was going on and was told that the stories were true.  We had a young baby but within a few hours we had bought a roof rack for the car and had loaded everything on including the ironing board and set off for Green Bay.  It was so windy on the journey that the rack and everything else ended up in a ditch more than once.  It was 70 degrees when we left Cleveland and 35 degrees when we arrived in Wisconsin at about 3 in the morning.  The next day Henry went to practice and I packed everything up because I knew we would be going home.  When Henry came in from practice though he was so happy and excited, he said, “I’ve found a home”.  I heard all this with a sinking feeling because it was such a cold place but through the years it became so warm because of the people.

7. What was his relationship with Vince like?

I’m not sure but Henry was so happy.  Family was very important to Vince and he was a very compassionate man.  Henry had a lot of friends like Max (McGee) and Paul (Hornung) and they went out and did the town and Vince could never understand how Henry (the quiet one) mixed with the “party” boys.  Henry though was basically a stay at home guy and loved playing with the kids, especially on Mondays.

8. Who did Henry room with?

His roommate in Cleveland was Bob Gain and in Green Bay the first year I think it was Forrest Gregg, then John Symank and finally he and Bart Starr roomed together most of the time.  He was always playing jokes on Bart - they were on the road once for a game and Henry wanted a hamburger and milkshake so he called the maître de and ordered them but at the same time he said Mr Starr would like a burger and French fries and a chocolate malt.  Bart was pretty surprised to get all that stuff delivered to his room but he and Henry were real good friends and he was always getting practical jokes played on him.

9. Who were his closest friends?

We were only in Cleveland a short time but Bob and Kitty Gain, Don Paul, Jim Shofner and Vince Costello were the closest.  In Green Bay we were very much a family and even after Henry’s death nearly all the players have kept in touch with me.  I can always count on the players from Lombardi’s team, there was truly love between those men on that team.

10. Did he get nervous before a game?

He liked to be quiet before a game and he would get ready and lay down in the locker room.  But Henry had a mind that never stopped working.  He had a photographic memory and could review the game tapes in his head.

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11. Which of his opponents did he admire the most?

He thought John Unitas was a fantastic quarterback and Henry couldn’t believe how he could look to his right and throw to his left.  Going against Jim Brown was like tackling a block of granite, people fell off him like flies.  Henry really admired Jim Parker who was one of the all-time greats.  Once after a game in Green Bay we were walking to the car when a bus went by and a man tipped his hat to us.  I asked Henry who it was and Henry replied, “Jim Parker”.  It really made Henry feel good that Jim Parker was man enough to congratulate him on having a great game.

12. Did he realise at the time what a great team he was playing on?

Henry never realised how good he was.  They knew they were winning a lot of games and the wives also benefitted because Vince was a very generous man and gave us presents like a colour television, a stereo, a ring and a necklace.  They didn’t realise they would be immortalised but they knew they were a pretty good ball club.

13. Where did you live in Green Bay?

We lived on Careful Drive and people like Jerry Kramer, Dave Hanner, Bob Skoronski and John Symank all lived nearby.

14. Could you live a normal life with all the fans around?

Henry never got over people wanting his signature on a piece of paper for playing football.  There was no encroachment by the fans - this is something of a modern day problem.  We didn’t resent the interest by the fans but we were always cautious, Henry was always very gracious to people.  Sometimes we were invited to somebody’s home and it turned out that we were the entertainment for the evening, but we just got on with it.

15.  Did Henry’s status have any effect on the kids at School?

Yes it certainly did.  The teachers would be asking the kids who were 6 or 7 years of age why the Packers had lost a game when they should have gone and asked Vince or Henry.  We tried to explain to the kids that football was only a job like driving a truck or teaching.

16. Henry was almost 250 lbs and yet very quick, how was that?

He was very light on his feet, a great dancer but he didn’t like exercise machines so he did push-ups, sit-ups and plenty of running.  He was also a wrestler and learnt to use a man’s weight against him.

17. How did you relax after a game, especially a defeat?

None of the players wanted to face Vince on Tuesday morning after a defeat but if Henry played well in a defeat he handled it a little better.  Between 10 and 15 of us would go out after a game to a restaurant and we would move around to different ones so the fans wouldn’t get too intrusive.  Like someone having a little too much to drink and coming up and disturbing your meal.  We would have a meal and enjoy a dance.

18. What did Henry do in the off season?

He sold cars, windows and insurance and also did a lot of speaking at banquets.

19. Describe the man, not just the football player?

He was a hard-working, driven, loving family man who came from a poor family.  He remembered walking past a grocery store with his mother and she didn’t have a penny to buy him bubble-gum.  When he was involved with Summerfest he made a point of getting to know the bus drivers, policemen, cleaners, parking attendants and even when he had a cup of coffee he would go into the kitchen and thank the people who had prepared the food.  He always realised that things didn’t appear by magic but only by someone’s efforts.  Henry always wanted people at the bottom of the pile to know that their work was appreciated.

20. How did he take Coach Lombardi’s death?

Coach couldn’t die, he was bigger than life itself.  Once during practice the rain was coming down and Vince shouted “stop raining”.  There was a big clap of thunder and the rain stopped.  Everyone was sure that Vince had a direct line to God.  Henry used to joke that he became a Catholic after that.  Coach was healthy and strong and never afraid of a confrontation with anyone.  Once when they were hitting the practice sled he was screaming, “hit it, hit it” and they hit it so hard that it tipped over and nearly trapped Vince underneath but he wasn’t mad, he was pleased and said, “That’s how to hit”.  His death was horrible and traumatic and the boys flew to the funeral and it was hard on everyone.

21. What would his reaction have been to being inducted into our HOF?

He would be dumbfounded, he wouldn’t think anyone would even know his name.  He would be pleased beyond belief that people across the water would remember a poor little farm boy from Virginia.  He would be very humbled, very pleased and very happy as I am.

22. What drove him to be a great player?

Pride and wanting to be the best.

23. Was he always set on being a football player or did he have other dreams?

He figured he would play football for a few years and make a little money and then move on.  He played football in High School because people teased him and his coach called him “Alice” because his dad wouldn’t let him play football.  He loved the game but he loved business, he loved the challenge of business.  If he had lived he might have gone into politics or religion or anything.  He was a very complicated man.

24. Can you tell me about Jack Vainisi?

We weren’t there long before Jack died but he was a well-liked, respected man.  He was a players’ person who worked very hard and was a good family man.

25. What do you remember about the Lombardi years?

A cocoon of comfort, fun, friendship, babies and sickness, Pat and Boyd Dowler losing a baby and being devastated.  We were a family.  When one of the wives was having a baby we all looked after her, because the husband would be away playing football - you didn’t miss football in those days.  When my mother died Henry couldn’t make the funeral though Vince rang and checked that everything with the family was okay.  We used to have big Thanksgiving Day Dinners in a hotel compliments of Coach Lombardi.
It was just a wonderful time.

Henry Jordan & Willie Davis 1965 in Green Bay

I was very privileged to meet a great quarterback in the shape of Roman Gabriel at Clemson University in December 1995 when the Carolina Panthers played the Indianapolis Colts and I asked him to put into words what sort of player Henry Jordan was and his gracious letter is appended.

I also confirmed with Roman Gabriel that Vince Lombardi did indeed try and trade him to the Packers but Roman’s coach at the LA Rams, George Allen, would not agree.  In another conversation Ray Nitschke told me that Roman was a really athletic quarterback who was possibly the first to use weights in the gymnasium.

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