The career of one of the NFL’s greatest defenders was triggered by a remarkably brief Vince Lombardi speech in the steamy visitor’s locker room in Tiger Stadium in 1961. It was Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, and an injury at cornerback had the Green Bay coach preoccupied, but only momentarily.
“We are in an emergency situation,” Lombardi announced calmly to the team. “We are going to put our best athlete at cornerback for the second half. So Herb Adderley … do the best you can.”
A rookie running back, Adderley had never covered a wide receiver, and he now describes himself as the most surprised player in the room. Because he had played at Michigan State, 50 friends and family members were in the crowd with tickets Adderley had purchased, to witness Lombardi’s impromptu experiment.
Unnerved as he trotted out onto the field but brimming with speed and instincts, Adderley’s lone accomplishment against the Lions that afternoon was intercepting a pass in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Is that really where it all started? There was actually no mention of his defensive future again. Adderley returned to the backfield, buried on the depth chart behind Paul Hornung, Tom Moore and Elijah Pitts. Despite being drafted 12th overall, the team’s best athlete had zero rushing yards as a rookie, but Adderley averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return.
“We had an abundance of running backs, and they were the main men,” he said. “I just went back to playing special teams. I didn’t practice at cornerback again.”
Fast forward to the NFL Championship at the end of the year, with the Packers trouncing the Giants, 37-0, and with less than two minutes remaining to be played. Though quarterback Y.A. Tittle was expected to run out the clock and escape the frigid weather, Lombardi ordered Adderley off the bench and into the game on defense.
“For some reason, Tittle decided to throw a pass on the first play and I intercepted it,” Adderley said. “We won the championship and I went home. Lombardi called me and said we think you can play left cornerback. Work on your backpedal because the job is yours.”
Adderley embraced the switch and rewarded Lombardi’s faith. In 1962, his first season at cornerback and for what he deems the finest team he ever played on, Adderley earned All-Pro honors with seven interceptions, returning one for a 50-yard touchdown, and added a 103-yard TD on a kick return. The Packers repeated as NFL champions at 14-1.
“Lombardi had a way of recognizing the right position for a player, where that individual could make a difference,” he said. “It prolonged my career, and since I had played running back, I could put together the patterns and formations in my head.”
That season kicked off a remarkable career: five-time All-Pro selection, six-time Pro Bowler, and voted a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1960s. Adderley is the only player to appear in four of the first six Super Bowls after being traded to Dallas in ’70, and he was a member of six world championship teams. He and former teammates Forrest Gregg and Fuzzy Thurston are the only players in league history who have more rings than fingers on one hand.
There are too many other milestones to follow for the cornerback, who was ranked No. 64 by NFL Network in 2010 in a list of the greatest players in league history. He returned seven interceptions for TDs, an NFL record when he retired. In ’80 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with his name mounted permanently in gold on the green façade at Lambeau Field. He was the second cornerback to make it to Canton, behind only Dick “Night Train” Lane.
“I did the best I could do once he moved me to cornerback, and the best I could do was be voted to the Hall of Fame,” he said with a laugh. “Lombardi recognized talent. There were so many big games that I was involved with, so many big plays … the kickoff returns, last-minute interceptions, blocked kicks. There are so many great memories.”
Adderley said the best year of his career was ’65, when he picked off six passes and returned three for touchdowns. Few QBs challenged him, and no player he covered caught a TD. The Packers went 10-3-1 and won the NFL Championship with a 23-12 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
“Can you imagine that? He didn’t give up a touchdown all year,” said linebacker Dave Robinson, Adderley’s teammate from ’63-69. “They talk about cornerbacks today needing to have a short memory about bad plays, but Herb didn’t forget anything. He took everything personal. One time in Baltimore, Don Shula yelled at him from the sideline after a tackle and Herb told Shula to put on a uniform and he’d hit him the same way.”
In Super Bowl II, Adderley became the first defensive player in Super Bowl history to score a touchdown, picking off Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica and racing 60 yards for the score.
“Lamonica told me after the game the coaches told him not to throw to his right side,” Robinson said. “They told him do not throw at Adderley. Finally in the fourth quarter he did, and he paid the price. Coaches in the league didn’t want to throw Herb’s way.”
That 33-14 victory over the Raiders was Lombardi’s last game with the Packers, and after the TD, Adderley trotted over to share a few words with the head coach. The ball is an old pigskin Spalding, and he still has it.
“I brought it over to Lombardi and I said, ‘I got an interception for you in the first game you put me at cornerback, and I got one for you in the last game you are going to be with us,’” Adderley said. “It wasn’t a secret to us that he was leaving, that’s why we wanted to win. We were ready to play on Thursday.”
The foundation of those championship defenses was the left side, which featured Willie Davis at end, Robinson at outside linebacker and Adderley at cornerback. Davis joins Adderley in the Hall of Fame, and all three are on the NFL’s All-Decade team.
Adderley is putting the finishing touches on a book with Davis and Robinson, written with Royce Boyle, entitled “Lombardi’s Left Side.” The target date for publication is Sept. 9, and it will be offered by Ascend Books.
“We shut down the left side of the defense for nine years,” Adderley said. “There are a lot of good memories in there from all three of us. Lombardi did a lot for Green Bay and the NFL. I was the first black man the Packers drafted in the first round. The man recognized talent, not color.”
Despite being named All-Pro in ’69, Adderley was traded to Dallas right before the next season as part of a youth movement by Coach Phil Bengtson. Robinson remembers nearly crying when Adderley departed. The cornerback played in Super Bowl V with the Cowboys and won another title in Super Bowl VI. Adderley teamed with future Hall of Famer Mel Renfro to form one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL.
“I knew they were the best team in the league because we had beaten them in two close games to go to the Super Bowl when I was with the Packers,” Adderley said. “I hated to go. I was shocked by it.”
He has since said that because of his pride in playing for the Packers, he is the only player from the ’71 Cowboys not to wear his Super Bowl ring.
After his career, he went back to his hometown of Philadelphia and did some broadcasting work before in ’83, starting a 20-year business as a television cable contractor. It was great timing. At one point he and his partners had 300 trucks working all over the country. Now he helps his daughter, Dr. Toni Adderley, a dentist in the Washington D.C. area, raise funds for the Metro Warriors Youth Organization. Among other programs, the organization aims to put defibrillators in every school and teaches CPR.
Adderley has a loft in his home with a treasure trove of memorabilia. He said the one thing missing from his collection is his greatest memory as an NFL player, and it’s really before everything got started.
“Being drafted by the Packers means the most to me,” he said. “I was in San Francisco, playing in the East-West Shrine Game. They brought me a telegram and I had never gotten one in my life. It said, ‘Dear Herbert, Let me be the first to congratulate you on being selected in the first round by the Green Bay Packers. Welcome to the team. Yours truly, Vince Lombardi, Head Coach and General Manager.’
“I wish I had that telegram.”
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