On September 2, 1979, Eddie Lee Ivery entered Soldier Field to compete against the Chicago Bears in his first game as a professional football player. The playing field was topped with an early type of artificial turf that most players didn’t like, although place kickers did. Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud, who played most of his career for the Kansas City Chiefs (He scored their first six points in their victorious 1970 Super Bowl), then played for the Packers 1980-83, loved the surface. It never got muddy and provided sure footing. “For a kicker it was easier,” he said, “because many natural grass fields late in the season were muddy and slippery with little grass left, and I would wear mud cleats on my left (non-kicking) foot. But artificial turf fields looked like a beautiful golf course fairway.”
That turf helped Stenerud when he planted that left foot because the turf gripped football shoe cleats tighter than natural grass. In the lingo of the science of synthetic surfaces, as described in a National Institutes of Health report, synthetic turf lacks the ability to “divot,” the “complete shearing or removal of the turf/root system from the remainder of the root zone.” That “cleat-release mechanism” of natural turf is better for a football player’s leg joints because the foot is “released” from the grass in tandem with the movement of the player’s leg and is thus less likely to cause a “potentially injurious overload situation,” as when a player streaking down field plants a foot and quickly changes direction—the exact move that made Ivery able to buy him and his wife Mercedes Benzes. Synthetic surfaces “have the capacity to generate greater shear force and torque on the foot and hence throughout the lower extremity.” So there is solid belief (though not conclusive evidence for any particular injury) that football players were more likely to be injured on the fake stuff—even if there was no contact with another player. The NIH report concluded, “Studies that focus on lower extremity injuries caused by a twisting or shearing mechanism typically show greater rates of injury on synthetic versus natural turf.”
(Plus, synthetic turf in 1979 had a layer of asphalt beneath it, and the surface was more like carpet, and less imitative of swaying blades of grass as with later synthetic turf, which made skin abrasions more likely—if a player hit the ground and skidded. Ouch. And surface temperatures on early synthetic turf could be as much as 80° hotter than on grass. Whew.)
Packers center Larry McCarren said, “Those early turf fields were brutal. The traction was too good, and Soldier Field was never known for having the best turf.”
Onto that field Ivery trotted for his first professional game. It was great football weather: cool and sunny. Packers and Bears veteran players sensed their long rivalry in their guts, each combatant eager to savor a satisfying victory. Thousands of rabid Bears fans shouted and chanted for an opening day win. “You couldn’t ask for a better day,” Ivery said.
The Bears offense was led by future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton. Throughout Ivery’s career, when his team’s defense was on the field, he usually rested or conferred with players and coaches. But when opposing a team with a great running back, Ivery became almost an excited fan watching an idol, toes to the sidelines, observing intently and admiringly. “I wanted to learn from them,” he says. “Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton. I didn’t sit. Dorsett was smooth and quick. Campbell—I just hoped our defense could contain him. I was amazed. They were exciting. I would think, ‘Wow.’” When the Bears had the ball, Ivery, for the first time in his life, got to watch Payton from the sidelines where he could see up close the moves, speed, and strength of one of the very best.
Dick Stockton and Johnny Morris, the television broadcast announcers, noted the Packers’ Bart Starr had not defeated the Bears in Chicago as head coach. Starr, who had led the Packers to so much glory as a quarterback on the field, had so far had mediocre results and no playoff appearances in his 4 years as head coach. The Packers believed Ivery was a key to returning Green Bay to the pinnacle of the NFL. Anticipating Ivery’s debut, the announcers said Green Bay’s first-round draft pick was “the one to watch.” They said it was a “courtesy” that returning fullback Barty Smith started the game and that they would see a lot of Ivery. Clearly, they had been briefed on the Packers’ effusive enthusiasm for their hotshot rookie.
When the 1979 NFL draft had taken place, Packers Director of Player Personnel Lee Corrick was thrilled that Ivery, who played tailback at Georgia Tech, was still available at #15. He had seen Ivery on film and in person and observed, “When you think you have him down, he can explode out of there.” He vividly recalled a University of Miami game in which Ivery made an acrobatic over-the-head pass reception and gained over 100 rushing yards, more by breaking tackles than outrunning defenders. “He breaks tackles like a fullback,” Corrick gushed. “I thought he was a heck of a steal. I didn’t think he would fall that far. He had great balance, elusiveness, strength. He was a heck of a receiver. He could block. Eddie Lee fit all the criteria for what you’d want in that position, and they don’t come along that often. And he was a class kid from a class university.”
Packers historian Lee Remmel said, “I told Eddie Lee he was the finest Green Bay running back we had ever drafted.”
Veteran Packers players knew when they saw him practice that he was what the team desperately needed. When McCarren, who played center 12 years for the Packers and made 2 Pro Bowls, saw Ivery play, he thought, “That is what a big-time running back is like. The speed with which he hit the hole, his instincts to find a hole. If I’m thinking my block wasn’t good enough, hoping the back could get through the line, Eddie Lee, well, he would get through, and he’s 10 yards down field. It was a different level of excellence. I felt, this kid is special. I had the experience to know, and I thought this guy has the rare mystical ‘it,’ the rare mystical it, who could be a difference maker, and there’s not a lot of them.”
Veteran quarterback Lynn Dickey, who had known nothing about Ivery before he arrived in Green Bay, said he was just another rookie to him— until he saw him in action. He was astounded. He said to teammates, “That kid is unbelievable. He’s quick and fast, has great hands. He’s picking up the offense fast. This guy is going to be something. He’s everything you want. You just don’t see guys like that come along.” He thought, “This guy is going to set records we can’t even believe.”
Backup quarterback David Whitehurst said, “He just glided. He was so smooth. He made cuts, would give the old lift-leg fake, so smooth. He didn’t have a quick cut like Barry Sanders, but would glide through the line. He made catching the ball look like he had a baseball glove on and the ball became a part of his hand. He could catch the ball not even looking at it. He’d see it coming, take his eye off it, and catch the ball cleanly every time. He was fantastic one on one. If there was an option route, one on one he’d win every time. He glided through the route, then suddenly he was wide open. His vision was unbelievable.”
In preseason games, Ivery had led the Packers in rushing yards and running-back receiving yards. He impressed with his ability both to power through the middle and speed around the end. In his first weekly predictions of the 1979 season CBS sports commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder picked Green Bay to win the Bears game and mentioned the running game had much improved with the addition of Ivery. Several football commentators said he would be in contention for Rookie of the Year.
When Ivery entered the game in Green Bay’s third offensive possession, the announcers mentioned it like they were introducing a new star. “We knew it was a matter of time” before Ivery became a regular running back, Stockton said, and added that he broke all Georgia Tech’s rushing records and is a “quick, hard runner who can go to the outside.” On his first carry he gained 7 yards, but the play was nullified by a penalty. The next play he was hit after gaining 4 yards, then spun from the tackler’s grasp to gain two more—a classic Ivery move. Stockton noted, “It takes a whole bunch of blue shirts to bring him down.”
On the next Packers possession, Eddie Lee’s block helped Terdell Middleton gain 7 yards. On 2nd down and 4, Ivery powered through tacklers for 6 yards for a first down. Stockton commented, “So far, I like what I see of that fella. He seems to be tough to bring down.” Morris added, “Anyone who can gain 356 yards can run the football. He has good hands, is a good blocker. He’s not real big for a power back, but he plays like he’s bigger.”
On 3rd down and 27, the Packers’ at their own 15-yard line, after a penalty followed by a quarterback sack, on what is usually a pass play, the quarterback handed the ball to Ivery. He was hit at the line of scrimmage, spun to his left (how many times had Georgia Tech fans seen that?) and broke free using his power and speed. At the 25, he faced a defensive back—and he saw a Green Bay blocker behind that defender and no other defender close enough to stop him. The thought flashed in his head: In my first game as a professional football player I’m going to get past him—one tackler, especially a defensive back, rarely brought him down—score an 85-yard touchdown on Walter Payton’s home field, and gain over 100 yards before halftime. This was going to be a spectacular introduction of one Eddie Lee Ivery to the NFL. All he had to do was get past one small defensive back—which he did routinely—follow his blocker, and he’s gone.
He faked left then ran right. This move was what had made him a star in high school and college, what the Packers envisioned would propel him to stardom—and the team pulled along with him—starting with his very first game against the team with one of the NFL’s greatest running backs. He could change his direction, lose very little speed, then quickly re-accelerate. As he had done many times before, he would leave a defender behind and race downfield. His cut was normally so swift and deceptive that would-be tacklers often missed him once they had committed to a direction as they neared him, or he would hit them at an angle that prevented them from grasping him effectively, bounce or spin free, and away he would go.
But as he cut back to his right, planting his left foot, he stumbled and fell, hitting a defender on his way to the ground. On Soldier Fields’ artificial turf, there was no divot, no tearing away of grass to release his cleated shoe. Because his left knee buckled, he had no power or speed to push past the defender, as he had intended. The pain in his knee was so great—the worst pain he had ever felt— he screamed and let the ball go as he fell, grasping his knee. “Damn the ball,” he thought. In the frenzy around him, the Bears recovered the fumble, and Ivery lay face down, barely moving except for tapping his right foot nervously on the cursed artificial turf. Ivery writhed and sobbed. The tears, he says, were from the pain, not the sadness of possibly being unable to play.
Green Bay Press Gazette reporter Don Langenkamp had a direct view of Ivery, and he cringed as he saw the injury take place: “I, very clearly, could see that knee coming apart. It was horrible. It’s so tragic because he had greatness. From then on, watching him, you winced, worried it would come apart again. If you saw it, it never leaves your mind.”
In the stands was Ivery’s cousin Jerry Ivery, who attended with his uncle Austin Ivery, who lived in Chicago and worked as an Army recruiter. Jerry’s heart sank. Jerry, who grew up next door to Eddie Lee, was so familiar with Eddie Lee’s body movements and style that he knew immediately something was wrong. “He went down and grabbed his knee,” he says. “He didn’t fumble much, and when I saw how he fell and how far the ball went, I said, ‘That’s it.'” Somber, Jerry watched and waited.
Years later, when asked who were some of the hardest hitters he faced, Ivery said, “The entire Bears defense. That was the only time I was leery of getting the ball.” But on the play when his knee buckled, no one on that great defense had yet touched him.
Analyst Morris said, “I think he may have pulled a hamstring, or may have a muscle cramp.”
If only it were so.
Ivery had gained 24 yards on 3 carries (8 per). After a commercial break, the broadcast showed him lying on his back, still on the field, both knees bent. Two trainers helped him to his feet and to the sidelines as he limped. A teammate slapped his butt. Stockton said he hoped it’s not serious because the Packers “have a good young ballplayer who was going to help them this year.” Morris added that the Packers were counting on Ivery to “take some of the heat off Middleton who was hurt at the end of last season. So this is a tough break for Green Bay.”
Later in the second quarter the broadcast showed Starr on the sidelines, and behind him Ivery reclined on the bench, grimacing. An ice pack eased the pain somewhat. The announcers said without Ivery, the Packers have no long-gain threat in the backfield. During a play in which Payton ran with the ball, Stockton announced Ivery had a “twisted left knee” and wouldn’t return to the game. Ivery repeatedly picked up the ice pack and looked. Once, he thought it looked fine and tried to walk, but the pain sat him back down. He began to think, “This might be bad.” The team doctor told him it might be a sprained ligament, and he wondered, “What the hell is that?” and thought he might miss a couple of games.
Walter Payton was terrific: agile, strong, fast, blocked powerfully. His fakes on defenders were quicker than Ivery’s. His style was more to come to a stop and make a very fast cut, rather than change direction in one fluid motion like Ivery. After one Payton block, Morris said, “Look at that block by a scatback runner.” Payton was strong for a scatback. He finished the game with 125 yards rushing and 49 pass receiving. The Bears won 6-3. No touchdowns were scored.
The next day an MRI on Ivery’s knee revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage damage. He would have surgery and miss the rest of his rookie season, after playing less than 2 quarters. Ivery attended the film session on the game, and when they showed the play, Starr said, “Damn, Eddie Lee, you have to hold onto the ball.” They laughed a little, but Ivery could tell Starr was dead serious. “That’s the first time I really understood that professional football is about winning and supply and demand,” he said. “The attitude wasn’t, ‘Poor Eddie Lee got hurt,’ but: ‘We need to win.’ If you fall, hold onto the ball, and then we’ll look at the knee. We were on a drive and could have scored.
“I was on my way to a 100-yard day,” he recalls. (Ivery often recalls specific plays from college and pro in detail.) “We ran a slant, and I was the fullback in the split formation. I ran off tackle to the left. I was supposed to look at the outside leg of the tackle and pick a hole. Our tackle made his block, and the guard picked off the linebacker. All I had to stop me was a little defensive back. I saw him coming and knew what I would do: cut against the grain.
“Now I wish I had just run over him.”
“That was a terrible blow to us,” Starr said. “He gave us speed and quickness at that position that no one else had.” Packers CEO Bob Harlan, remembering past draft fiascos, wondered, “Are we unlucky yet again?” Everyone knew of players who never recovered from that injury. Packers historian Remmel said, “That was hard to swallow. There were very few Eddie Lee Iverys in the NFL.”
While Ivery had been lying on the turf in pain, Payton trotted over from the Bears sideline and said, “God bless you. You’re a hell of a running back.”
The great Walter Payton had been watching him, too.