The “man behind the curtain” is a phrase that invokes memories of The Wizard of Oz, a scene where the trusty watchdog named Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the man behind this frightening persona.
In 1974, the Pittsburgh Steelers discovered their own man behind the curtain—a second-round draft pick from Kent State named Jack Lambert—who would punish ball carriers who made it past the infamous defensive line called the “Steel Curtain” for more than a decade.
Lambert’s menacing appearance was no accident. He had lost his two front teeth playing basketball in high school but elected to leave his removeable dentures on the sideline during games. It was another facet of his skill set that was more tact than show, something a wide-eyed rookie named John Elway will never forget.
Elway entered the league as a decorated two-sport star from Stanford who had coasted to becoming the 1st overall pick of the 1983 NFL Draft. He requested a trade after being drafted by the Baltimore Colts, a move that proved to be fruitful for his career path but also put him on an early collision course with Lambert—his first NFL start.
His famous quote about Lambert in reference to his disastrous inaugural pro game embodies Lambert and his dedicated efforts to impose fear in opponents. “He had no teeth, and was slobbering all over himself,” Elway said. “I’m thinking, ‘You can have your money back. Just let me get out of here. Let me go be an accountant.”
Elway’s stat line? 1-for-8 for 14 yards and an interception. Whether it was the Lambert effect or not, Elway also lined up under the wrong lineman during the game, before eventually giving way to backup Steve DeBerg.
Lambert would go on to intimidate countless other quarterbacks and likely inspired many to at least consider a career change like Elway. The four-time Super Bowl winner was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1990, after an 11-year career with Pittsburgh that never saw him change his colors. In front of the podium in Canton, Ohio, Lambert said, “If I could start my life all over again, I would be a professional football player, and you damn well better believe I’d be a Pittsburgh Steeler.”
Here is a look back at four classic Lambert cards that symbolize his trademark toughness and impact on a Steelers organization that won four championships in a six-year span from 1975-1980.
1976 Topps Rookie Card
Linebackers from Kent State tend to work out well for the Steelers. Lambert and James Harrison both were selected from the relatively small college football program that has become Pittsburgh’s version of “Linebacker U.” Lambert was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in ’76, which was actually his third year in the league and came out after Pittsburgh’s second Super Bowl title.
Considered small for his position during that era, Lambert overcame a perceived lack of bulk by making athletic plays all over the field—helping him snatch 28 career interceptions. His 1977 Topps card points to this, saying “although light for his position, the lack of weight is beneficial to him in his tremendous range on the field.”
If you’re looking for an affordable Lambert card that showcases his hallmark neck roll and the toothless grin that struck fear into so many opponents—look no further than his 1982 Topps card. You can buy an ungraded copy for a few dollars and high-grade examples can be as little as $20-30.
Achilles had a faulty heel, Lambert had a bad toe. It was an injury that Lambert tried to play though and likely aggravated, but that was par for the course for a man who was named the “Toughest Football Player of All-Time” in 2004 by the Fox Sports Net series “The Sports List.”
Steelers owner Art Rooney Jr. has been quoted saying he believed Lambert could have played another 4-5 years or more of football had it not been for the toe injury worsening. Lambert’s 1985 Topps is his last and even mint graded examples are within the realm of most budgets despite coming from one of the hobby’s most condition-sensitive older football sets.
You can check out all of Jack Lambert’s football cards, from his playing days and those of a more recent vintage here.