February 1, 2011
‘Curly’s’ sidekick Nate Abrams a forgotten man in Packers’ lore
You know the old saying: Behind every Hall of Fame football coach stands a 5-foot, 4-inch Jewish cattle dealer with good hands, a big heart and a “Yiddishe kop.”
For Earl “Curly” Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, that man was Nate Abrams.
Just a little kosher food for thought while watching Sunday’s Super Bowl XLV between the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Abrams (1897-1941) arguably was as instrumental in founding the Packers as Lambeau, the team’s first coach and eventual namesake of Lambeau Field, home of the “frozen tundra.” Abrams’ funds also kept the team afloat during its early years.
Yet Abrams receives no mention in the official founding story, which credits Lambeau.
These rarely heard arguments derive from the meticulously researched “The History of the Green Bay Packers: The Lambeau Years” by Larry Names (1987, Angel Press of Wisconsin). He writes that Abrams, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in the same neighborhood as Lambeau, son of Belgians, and played football with him.
Lambeau became a star high school athlete and played the 1918 football season at the University of Notre Dame. Abrams had quit school at age 14 to learn cattle buying from his dad, Names writes. By age 15, Abrams was working on his own, and by 21 he was successful enough to sponsor the Green Bay semipro city football team known as the South Side Skidoos. He also played end and was team captain.
The Skidoos were one in a series of Green Bay city teams that began in 1897. Names contends that a famed 1919 meeting at which the Packers supposedly formed, held in the Green Bay Press-Gazette offices, actually was an organizational meeting for the Skidoos. The Skidoos had met at the offices a year earlier.
Names adds that Lambeau didn’t call the 1919 meeting but attended as a potential player. Abrams passed the captaincy to his old friend, a better and more popular athlete. Abrams played on the 1919 and 1920s teams with another Green Bay Jew, Charlie Sauber.
In 1921, the Packers joined the professional league that would become the NFL. Abrams played in one game, scoring a touchdown on an interception. Why he never played for the Packers again isn’t recorded, but it’s likely that the players in the new league were just too big for Abrams, the shortest player in Packers history.
But Abrams remained interested. After reading the cash-strapped Packers’ 1922 newspaper appeal for funds, Abrams handed $3,000 to Lambeau for operating expenses. In exchange, Lambeau handed ownership of the franchise to his friend, but Abrams let Lambeau operate the Packers. The team began its unique ownership system of selling stock to the public in 1923, and by 1925 repaid Abrams, who returned the franchise, writes Names.
Ignored in Packer lore, Abrams makes a cameo appearance in the slick Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field. He poses in the 1919 team picture and can been seen as a little, dark-haired man in life-size photos that cover some of the walls.
Two Jews are honored with plaques at the hall: Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg, who played from 1933 to 1945 and was named to the NFL commemorative 1930s all-star team as a guard; and former general manager Ron Wolf, who led the Packers to an NFL championship in 1996, was sometimes seen at the Cnesses Israel Congregation. Another Jewish player of note, offensive lineman Alan Veingrad, became ba’al teshuvah—one who turns to Orthodox Judaism—and a motivational speaker after playing for the Packers and Dallas Cowboys from 1986 to 1992.
Why is Abrams a seeming afterthought to the Packers? Names claims anti-Semitic attitudes in the 1920s prompted the team to emphasize Lambeau’s role and hide Abrams’. Yet Abrams never showed any bitterness.
“Nate never talked about it that way,” Howard Levitas, Abrams’ cousin and a former Packers board member, told The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle in 1997. “He was interested in the team. He was always friendly with Curly Lambeau.”