The NFL has seen its fair share of intimidating athletes in the past century.
These are the players who have “the look.”
The look is something that makes opponents shudder while simultaneously trying to act tough.
Those same tough guys turn to Jell-o when met with the steely glare of bloodlust and menace.
When quarterbacks and other offensive skill position players looked across the line of scrimmage at Jack Lambert, the look is what they saw.
@Holdzkom Jack Lambert. No teeth, mussed hair and a nasty disposition. The definition of a linebacker pic.twitter.com/eDzthKXIKB
— Darth Taffeta (@DarthTaffeta) January 2, 2015
Lambert was just plain nasty.
He had a snarl and a glint in his eye that penetrated one’s soul.
Then there were the teeth, or lack thereof.
Lambert played without four of his front teeth, making him look like a modern day Dracula.
Just like Dracula, Lambert dressed in black and was happy to sink his teeth into the ball carrier.
It wasn’t just that he was intimidating, Lambert was fast, smart and hit like a hammer.
During his 11 year NFL career, he would win four Super Bowls.
Upon his retirement, Lambert was called the greatest linebacker of his era.
This is the story of Jack Lambert.
Growing up in Ohio and Losing His Teeth
John Harold (“Jack”) Lambert was born on July 8, 1952 in Mantua, Ohio.
Almost from birth, Lambert was an athlete blessed with quickness, agility and a love of competition.
When he was a student at Crestwood High School in Mantua, he played quarterback and cornerback for the football team.
Lambert also played on the Red Devils basketball team.
Mantua OH's Jack Lambert won 4 Super Bowls with @Steelers, & is now in the @ProFootballHOF.https://t.co/wJUhIRYBNC pic.twitter.com/MirPrLOYrc
— clevelanddotcom (@clevelanddotcom) September 13, 2016
Interestingly, it was on the court where Lambert received one of the hardest hits of his life.
During a practice, teammate Steve Poling accidentally collided with Lambert.
Poling’s head thudded against Lambert’s teeth, knocking out the front four.
Thereafter, Lambert’s parents had a set of false teeth made for their son, although keeping those false teeth in his mouth was a job itself.
“Jack was very sensitive about it at first,” said his mother, Joyce Brehm in 1984. “Once, when he was swimming in an old gravel pit after school, he lost his bridge, and he stayed out of school until the dentist made him a new one.”
Lambert didn’t let a little thing like the loss of his teeth get in the way of playing sports.
As he got older, Lambert would work on his grandfather’s farm and gained functional strength by doing so.
“Farm-boy strength,” as his mother would call it.
By the time he was a junior at Crestwood, Lambert had grown just past 6’3 and weighed 170 pounds.
He could deliver a blow on the gridiron, but he was a little more savvy on the hardwood.
“He averaged 17.9 points and 13 rebounds in basketball,” said Bill Cox, Lambert’s high school basketball coach. “People say, ‘Wow, Jack Lambert on a basketball court, he must have sent bodies flying,’ but he wasn’t like that. He was smart, technically very sound. He always knew what had to be done. You’d never see Jack lose his temper out there. When he got mad he got real quiet. When he didn’t like a call he’d hold the ball maybe an extra second or two before he threw it back to the ref, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d throw a basketball up to the ceiling.”
On the football field, Lambert played with fearlessness and fortitude.
As a quarterback, Lambert mostly handed off the pigskin.
On the defensive side of the ball, he was something else entirely.
“He was my fourth-fastest of four starting defensive backs,” said Gerry Myers, Lambert’s high school football coach. “He didn’t get his speed till he got to college, but no one ever completed anything deep over him. His first step was always correct. He always knew the angles. And God, would he hit ’em. First they stopped throwing curls in front of him, then they just stopped throwing to the split end in general. He was intense, dedicated. He used to say, ‘I don’t know where I’m gonna play someday and I don’t care, but I will play.’ He’d play in pain, too.”
By the time he was a senior, Lambert’s reputation as a light’s out hitter had grown throughout the conference.
“After a while teams would stop running curl patterns in front of him,” Myers said. “I can close my eyes now and see him hitting the split end from Streetsboro. Knocked his helmet and one shoe off.”
Once he graduated from high school, the next step was finding a college program that would take a chance on Lambert.
Lambert’s football coach, Myers, was a graduate of the University of Miami in Ohio.
He tried to get the coaches at his alma mater to bring Lambert aboard.
However, the coaches at Miami were scared off by Lambert’s lack of size.
They also thought he was too slow to play in the secondary.
Lambert was frustrated by the lack of love.
So was Myers.
“But I’ll tell you the truth, I was worried,” said Myers. I mean if you can’t even get a guy into your own school, geez. Wisconsin toyed around for a while. So did a few MAC schools, but no one would give him a full scholarship.”
With Myers striking out in finding a college for Lambert, Cox stepped in and contacted the coaches at Kent State.
“I knew their coach, Dave Puddington,” Cox said. “He’d been losing a lot of Ohio kids to other places. He asked, ‘What kind of a kid is Lambert?’ I told him, ‘Look, you keep complaining about losing solid kids. If you’re gonna gamble, this kid is the one to gamble on. He’s only 17 and he’s been playing against older kids. He hasn’t really started to mature.”
Puddington wasn’t really convinced, but he finally agreed to offer Lambert a scholarship.
Lambert Finds His Place and the Golden Flashes go to a Bowl
Lambert arrived at Kent State in 1970 as a quarterback.
He didn’t play that season because freshmen were not allowed to play at the time.
In 1971, Lambert was moved to defensive end, and played fairly well as Kent State finished 3-8.
Jack Lambert, Kent State pic.twitter.com/ijdZR1vHGp
— Starless Steelers (@1947Steelers) April 15, 2020
The following year, coach Don James (who had replaced Puddington and would later coach the University of Washington to a national title) moved Lambert once more to linebacker.
A blessed union between player and position was born.
Lambert had found his calling on the football field and would never be moved again.
He also made a promise to James about his commitment to the program.
“He was ideal,” James said. “He came into my office one day and said, ‘I know you’re concerned about our academic eligibility and going to class, but in my case don’t worry. Football is too important for me to mess that up.’ “What a great competitor.”
As a linebacker, Lambert was a natural.
In 1972, he would lead the MAC Conference with 233 tackles and was named First-Team All-MAC at the end of the year.
He was also named as the MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Just as Lambert was finding his groove, the Golden Flashes were finally making some noise.
After a rough start to the season, the team ended the year 6-5.
They finished first in the conference and played Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl.
Lambert was the MVP of the game.
1972 Kent State Football team – Nick Saban (12) Jack Lambert (99) Gary Pinkel (89) pic.twitter.com/OktlqmEcSO
— SPORTS – DID YOU KNOW?! (@DIDYOUKNOWALMA) February 27, 2019
Although Kent State lost the contest, it was still an exciting time for the team and the university.
Only two years earlier, the school made national headlines when members of the National Guard opened fire on student protesters who had been protesting the Vietnam War.
Four Kent State students were killed that day and nine more were wounded.
The shooting hung a dark cloud on the school that lasted for a number of years.
With the Golden Flashes appearance in a bowl game after an 18-year absence, the student body had something to feel good about.
“All that stuff that happened at Kent State united the students,” said current Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a member of the ’72 title team and a student at the time of the shootings. “They were looking for something to identify with. There was probably more interest in the football program at that time than ever before.”
“I think everybody felt like something really good had to happen at Kent State,” James said in 2011. “The school needed positive publicity, and the community wrapped its arms around the sport.”
In 1973, the Golden Flashes had their best record in program history at 9-2 but failed to qualify for a bowl.
That didn’t matter to Lambert, who was the top dog as a captain and was named First-Team All-MAC for the second consecutive year.
As he closed out his college career, Lambert played in the 1974 North-South game and the 1974 American Bowl, both in Florida.
Before being drafted by Pittsburgh in the ‘74 draft the scouting report on Jack Lambert, a marginal talent from Kent State, said that “while he didn’t have ideal size for linebacker, he had a ‘lust for contact”. pic.twitter.com/hHhupLnpb9
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) August 2, 2020
James was coaching at one of the games when he warned his fellow coaches that practice would have to be in helmet and pads.
Despite the fact that it should have been a fun game, Lambert never took a day (or a play) off.
“…we have a guy who won’t let anybody go through his area,” James warned the coaches.
Lambert finished his Kent State career with 593 tackles, the second-most in team history. His jersey number 99 was retired by the school.
He also left with undying respect from James.
“I came to Kent with a background of putting your game face on Thursday, not Friday,” James says. “His (Lambert) game face was on every day.”
1974 NFL Draft
The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise began in 1933. In 1947, the team finally made their first postseason appearance.
After that season, it would be nearly a quarter-century before they qualified for their second postseason.
Coach Chuck Noll took over the team in 1969 and, after a few lean years, finally formed a solid club.
In 1972, the Steelers lost in the AFC title game against the Dolphins.
The following year, they lost to the Raiders in the Divisional round.
Despite those two misses, most NFL personnel knew Pittsburgh was a team on the rise.
As the 1974 NFL Draft approached, numerous teams had scouted Lambert, but thought he was too small to play linebacker in the pros.
Lambert, however, had been scouted personally by the Rooney family and they liked his raw ability.
“I was stunned. He had those skinny legs and was about 190 lbs, 6-4, and not a super-speed guy. I watched him in practice and I said, ‘This kid is growing on me.’ I put a real good grade on him. I went out on a limb.”
-Tim Rooney in seeing Kent State LB Jack Lambert pic.twitter.com/GfbTJ6ZBEy
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) April 26, 2019
With the 46th overall pick in the second round of the draft, the Steelers selected Lambert.
When he arrived at training camp, Lambert saw a crowded linebacker room.
Already on the roster were Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Henry Davis.
During camp, Lambert was a back-up to Ham and got some playing time during the preseason.
In the penultimate game of the exhibition contests, Davis went down with a neck injury.
Lambert took his spot and never relinquished it.
Super Bowls in ‘74 and ‘75
Lambert’s arrival couldn’t have been more perfect.
The organization was coming together and the front office had made a number of shrewd moves.
Lambert was just a piece of the puzzle but a very effective piece.
The Steelers had players on offense with names like Bradshaw, Harris, Bleier, Stallworth, Swann and Webster.
Besides Lambert and his mates, the defense boasted “Mean” Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell.
In 1974, the team went 10-3-1, rolled over the Bills and Raiders in the first two postseason games and faced Minnesota in Super Bowl IX.
Even with the Purple People Eaters defense, Pittsburgh man-handled the Vikings, coming away with a 16-6 victory.
Lambert won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award on the strength of two interceptions and two sacks.
(The NFL did not keep track of tackles then).
A young Jack Lambert, no he still doesn't have his front teeth. #Steelers #HBD pic.twitter.com/bafBsLANy3
— Tomlin Reactions 🆃 (@TomlinReactions) July 8, 2016
The following season was even better.
Pittsburgh only lost two games in the regular season, beat the Colts and Raiders in the first two rounds of the playoffs and won Super Bowl X against Dallas.
During the game, Steelers kicker Roy Gerela missed a short field goal.
Cowboys safety Cliff Harris jogged over and poked fun at Gerela for missing.
Without warning, Lambert came from nowhere and threw Harris to the ground.
My only hope is that Jack Lambert stands right beside Cliff Harris during his HOF speech to remind him of his stupidest idea. pic.twitter.com/9OrEkTNY5e
— Ian Hunter (@Ian_J_Hunter) January 15, 2020
As Harris complained, an official came over and broke up the two.
Noll commented about the incident after the game.
“Jack Lambert,” he said, “is a defender of what is right.”
After the season, Lambert was voted to the first of nine consecutive Pro Bowls and was named a Second-team All-Pro.
By then, the Pittsburgh defense was becoming legendary.
Their fierce reputation and solid play led to the unit moniker “The Steel Curtain.”
Opposing teams had to bring their ‘A’ game, and most times, that didn’t even help.
“We just shut people down, completely dominated them,” Lambert says. “Teams would just give up running the ball against us.”
Lambert further elaborated about the defense’s reputation as heavy hitters.
“I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest…if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”
Two More Super Bowls
In 1976, Lambert picked off another two passes and collected an unheard of eight fumble recoveries, which led the NFL.
One of the many aspects that pro personnel missed when first scouting Lambert were his coverage skills.
It was obvious he was a tackling machine, but he could also stick with opposing tight ends and backs who ran pass patterns.
With this dual-threat ability, defensive coordinator Bud Carson could put Lambert anywhere.
“Bud had him covering the tight end all over the field,” said Russell. “He’d assign him the first back out of the backfield. Normally the middle linebacker covered the second back… but the first back, my God, it was thought to be an impossible assignment for a middle linebacker.”
The ‘76 season did not start well, however.
After a 1-4 record in the first five games, Lambert called a players-only meeting.
During the closed doors session, Lambert challenged his comrades.
In no uncertain terms, he told his teammates that, “the only way we are going to the playoffs to defend our title is to win them all from here out.”
Remarkably, that’s exactly what they did.
With Lambert setting the tone, the Steelers defense allowed only two touchdowns and a total of 28 points, including five shutouts in their remaining games.
My sources inside the Steelers locker room have confirmed that Jack Lambert did not like quarterbacks. pic.twitter.com/eWpoZ2RUhm
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) March 8, 2020
The season ended with the Steelers at 10-4.
They beat the Colts, then lost to their nemesis, the Raiders, in the AFC Championship game.
Once the season concluded, Lambert was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year as well as the AFC Defensive Player of the Year.
After a somewhat disappointing 9-5 record and first-round loss in 1977, the Steelers were back on top in 1978.
Pittsburgh put the wood to opponents and wrapped up the year 14-2.
After victories over Denver and Houston (combined score 67-15), the Steelers faced Dallas again in Super Bowl XIII.
The result was similar to three years prior. The taut contest ended with a four-point, 35-31 Steelers win.
#58 has a B-Day July 8th. NFL Pro Football HOF Inductee, 9X Pro Bowl selection, 4X Super Bowl Champ, Jack Lambert spent his entire 11 yr career w/The Pittsburgh Steelers. I saw Jack Lambert & The Super Steelers play many X's at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1970's. Happy B-Day man! pic.twitter.com/wyGLVvMetj
— Sean Mcdowell (@dvesean) July 8, 2020
In 1979, Pittsburgh was 12-4 in the regular season and defeated Miami and Houston in the first two rounds.
Before Super Bowl XIV in California, the team was out for some drinks when a couple fans noticed Lambert and called out to him.
“There’s Jack Lambert,” one of them said. “Hey, Jack, do you believe in astrology?”
Lambert did not answer.
“What’s your sign, Jack? You know, astrology.”
“Feces,” he said.
The LA Rams were no match for the Steelers.
Late in the fourth quarter of the game, Lambert intercepted a pass to help preserve their victory.
Pittsburgh had their fourth world title after winning 31-19.
In addition to a career-high six interceptions and 3.5 sacks, Lambert was honored with a second AFC Defensive Player of the Year award after the season.
Without a doubt, Lambert could be a little testy.
He was an old school soul who didn’t suffer fools.
Complaining about his playing style only set him off.
One of his least favorite opponents was Browns quarterback Brian Sipe.
On numerous occasions, Lambert was disciplined for hits he delivered on Sipe.
It was 1979 so, naturally, #Steelers HOFer Jack Lambert was allowed to sack #Browns QB Brian Sipe like this. pic.twitter.com/HhOhzxQHrm
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) October 27, 2021
During a game against Sipe and the Browns, Lambert delivered a vicious blow to Sipe and was ejected by the officials.
After the game, reporters asked Lambert why he was ejected.
Lambert responded that he hit Sipe too hard.
The reporters then pressed if he thought he hit the quarterback too hard.
“I hit him as hard as I could,” said Lambert.
A few years later, Lambert was again ejected for a hard hit on Sipe.
He was asked his opinion of the ejection after the game and Lambert answered truthfully.
“Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I’m going to hit him. And I do. History.”
For Lambert, the ejections and penalties were maddening.
He felt he was playing the game, and his position, the correct way.
“I was seriously thinking about changing my uniform number after that (Cleveland) game,” he said. “I felt that I’d been thrown out because I was No. 58, because I was Jack Lambert.”
The accusations of dirty play and late hits took a toll on the linebacker and he vented his frustrations.
“It’s beginning to get out of hand,” he said at one point. “All that stuff upsets me, because I’m not a dirty football player. I don’t sit in front of my locker thinking of fighting or hurting somebody. All I want to do is to be able to play football hard and aggressively, the way it’s meant to be played. But when someone deliberately clips me or someone comes off the bench and tries to bait me, like they did in Cleveland, well, I’m not going to stand for it. I will be no man’s punching bag.”
Lambert’s teammates loved his passion and commitment to his team.
They weren’t above having a little fun at his expense though.
“Jack likes to hit hard,” Rocky Bleier said at a charity roast in 1980. “He likes to inflict a lot a pain…and that’s just when he’s out on a date.”
As the 1980s dawned, the Steelers were starting to lose steam.
Some of the greats were retiring and the others were getting long-in-the-tooth.
Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 1980 and ‘81.
In 1982, they finished 6-3 during the NFL Players strike-shortened season.
The record was good enough to get them back to the postseason.
However, their season ended when the Chargers eked out a 31-28 in the first round.
The following season, the club went 10-6 but lost to the Raiders in the Divisional round.
Meanwhile, Lambert continued to lead and play his part.
“He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I’m thinking, You can have your money back, just get me out of here…I can’t tell you how badly I wanted out of there.”
John Elway after his first game as a pro and having to face Jack Lambert snarling at him. pic.twitter.com/gT6wvgb5Vm
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) September 18, 2020
He was voted to his ninth Pro Bowl in ‘83 and was also voted First-team All-Pro for the sixth time.
Unfortunately, even good things come to an end and Lambert’s career was about to reach its conclusion.
1984 and Retirement
During Lambert’s 11th season, he had a severe issue with turf toe.
The condition was recurring and limited Lambert to three starts and appearances in only eight games.
Pittsburgh went 9-7 in 1984 and lost in the AFC Championship game to the Dolphins.
By then, Lambert was mostly a spectator on the sidelines.
After Miami ended the Steelers season, Lambert retired.
In his career, Lambert had 1,479 total tackles, 28 interceptions, 23.5 sacks and 17 fumble recoveries.
He was voted to nine Pro Bowls, and was a six-time First-team All-Pro, two-time Second-team All-Pro, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year and four-time Super Bowl champion.
Lambert was also voted to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade team, the 1980s All-Decade team, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time team, the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time team and the Steelers All-Time team.
Jack Lambert is one of the 12 LBs selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
⭐️ 9x Pro Bowler
⭐️ NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
⭐️ 1976 Defensive Player of the Year
⭐️ 4× Super Bowl Champion (IX, X, XIII, XIV) pic.twitter.com/CkHRsV8CAQ
— NFL (@NFL) November 30, 2019
While he was in the NFL, Lambert was wholly devoted to football.
He did not get married until after he retired and the couple have four children.
In 1990, Lambert was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His Hall bio reads, “I knew what I wanted to do, and playing in the National Football League was it. So I really concentrated. I was all football, 24 hours a day.”
During his induction, Lambert was recognized as the greatest linebacker of his era.
Happy Birthday to HOF LB Jack Lambert! Played 11 seasons w/ @steelers. Selected to 9 Pro Bowls. RT to wish Happy Birthday! pic.twitter.com/CvqofYQX15
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) July 8, 2017
Lambert spent time as an analyst on Westwood One radio, but he has mostly stayed out of the limelight.
For a number of years, he has been a volunteer deputy wildlife officer.
He also assists in coaching youth baseball and basketball, primarily with the teams his children play for.
Lambert can be found maintaining the athletic fields for the town of Worthington, Pennsylvania where he currently resides.
He has been named a “most feared tackler” and one of the “toughest players of all time” on a number of NFL Network and Fox Sports ‘All-Time’ lists.
Lambert wS awesome
Responsibly Curious says
’72 thru ’80…….Still the greatest era in Steelers history……over 50% HOFers for starters and many more deserving. God bless the “Chief”!
Ben Donahue says
Definitely a great era for their team. It’s amazing how many All-Pros and Hall of Famers they had at one time. The football personnel staff and scouts must have had the best eye for talent in history.
Wayne Masters says
My only daughter & avid Steelers fan treated me to a 2016 “bucket list” meet & greet photo op with JL! Strong hand shake, friendly & larger than life person. Reminded JL of his body slam of Cliff Harris SuperBowl. Jack with a huge smile said, “Whatever it takes!” . Thank you for sharing JL’s story. The best is yet to come! Cheers!
Ben Donahue says
That must have been awesome! Did he have his fake teeth in? 🙂
I think of Jack Lambert and his Steelers’ teammates as though they’d only just stepped-off the field. Thanks to my maternal grandfather I was well-versed in Steelers and Pirates’ lore from the playpen on up. Bless Jack, all those fellas and those days of yore. Thank you, Grandfather.
Ben Donahue says
Thanks for the comment! Those were some great Steelers teams 🙂
I recall a reporter asking Lambert what he thought should be done to protect Quarterbacks. He replied, Put skirts on them.
Rick Schultz says
I lived my life, with the inspiration Jack and all the Steelers provided ,I became a fan in 1973-74, was just a kid, but I had such admiration for them. Rocky Bleier was underrated, he was very tough, came back from Vietnam with very bad injuries, he got into an argument with Mean Joe Greene, he told him you might kick my ass, but you are going to get bloody.
John M says
Mean Joe Green was once asked about his nickname and stated something to the effect that “I don’t know how I got that nickname, but I can tell you for a fact that Jack Lambert is so mean he hates himself (!)”