The Legacy of Jack Lambert

Everyone has had some hero, or at minimum an influencer, in their life at some point. For a lot of entrepreneurs and technologists of my generation, that inspiration has been Paul Graham. The follow-up question I ask, like reading source papers referenced in an author’s bibliography, is: who was my inspiration’s inspiration?

Graham documented his heroes in an essay in 2008. This was right around the time I first started getting interested in the NFL, primarily due to a ten hour video series NFL Films created documenting the Top 100 Football Players of All Time.

It’s interesting to me that, like many men, one of Graham’s earliest heroes was an athlete.

Jack Lambert, ranked 29th on the NFL Films list of the greatest players in football history, was the middle linebacker behind the 1970s “Steel Curtain” defensive line that won four Super Bowls in six years.

The impact that those 70s Steelers had on America is slowly receding from culture, which tends to happen over time. However, the spirit of players like Lambert influenced Paul Graham who in turn influenced the modern world in ways that are hard to overstate.

Graham wrote of Lambert:

“I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Unless you were there it’s hard to imagine how that town felt about the Steelers. Locally, all the news was bad. The steel industry was dying. But the Steelers were the best team in football—and moreover, in a way that seemed to reflect the personality of the city. They didn’t do anything fancy. They just got the job done.

Other players were more famous: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann. But they played offense, and you always get more attention for that. It seemed to me as a twelve year old football expert that the best of them all was Jack Lambert. And what made him so good was that he was utterly relentless. He didn’t just care about playing well; he cared almost too much. He seemed to regard it as a personal insult when someone from the other team had possession of the ball on his side of the line of scrimmage.

The suburbs of Pittsburgh in the 1970s were a pretty dull place. School was boring. All the adults around were bored with their jobs working for big companies. Everything that came to us through the mass media was (a) blandly uniform and (b) produced elsewhere. Jack Lambert was the exception. He was like nothing else I’d seen.”

Fast forward a decade later. Readers of my book reviews will notice I’ve been on a Chuck Klosterman kick, reading through his collected works. Klosterman also happened to be the narrator for Lambert’s entry into the NFL’s Top 100 of All Time list.

I paired Graham’s and Klosterman’s thoughts on Lambert together because I find it exciting and a bit amazing when two people I consider great in their separate fields both took inspiration from a seemingly unrelated third forebearer.

Below is Chuck Klosterman’s commemoration of Lambert for the NFL Network:

“Over time now there’s kind of become this understanding that small running backs have an advantage because a lot of times linebackers can’t see into the backfield. His height at middle linebacker may have been a positive in the reverse. He may have had a better view of what the offense was doing and that might explain why he seemed to be one step ahead of things. He just seemed to make every tackle.

If the best player in the middle of the field is making all of the plays on the best team, maybe this is the best defender in the league?

On a “Team of the Decade”, I don’t know even who is number two for the idea of being the middle linebacker on that roster.

He was an extremely intellectual linebacker, which I don’t think was the association with him at the time probably because he was toothless, and probably because he looked kind of like a madman. His greatest strength was his mind, so he’s like John Rambo I guess.

He was certainly the most intimidating player on a pretty intimidating team.

It’s possible that Jack Hamm was a greater outside linebacker than Jack Lambert was as a middle linebacker. But I don’t imagine opponents fearing Jack Hamm the way they would fear Lambert. Pretty much every play, the quarterback was staring directly at Lambert, who had not only this very scary appearance, but this incredibly active appearance.

Pittsburgh likes to sort of perceive itself as having a certain kind of toughness, having a certain kind of team. Lambert really represents that, and there’s never going to be a guy that replaces that in Pittsburgh. He will always be perceived as the greatest personification of what Steeler football is supposed to be like. That’s what Lambert represents: the Steelers at their highest point.”

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