St. Paul man had a backstage pass to Lombardi's famous Packers

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2011 - 7:03 AM
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Gene Harrington these days is a freelance radio reporter. He worked the phone on Wednesday night at Target Center.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Gene Harrington doesn't feel connected to today's Green Bay Packers, and regrets he has no mementos -- no rings, not even a gold watch -- to commemorate his time with Vince Lombardi.

Truth is, the Packers should be trying to figure out what they can do for Harrington. The Packers, an organization steeped in lore, have forgotten one of the great hidden stories in the NFL.

As they prepared for the Super Bowl, Harrington, 82, a local freelance radio reporter known for his kindly manner, spent some time reliving a remarkable life, one that brought him into contact with Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali and most notably Lombardi, the man who made Harrington the first conditioning coach in the NFL, and perhaps in professional sports.

"Lombardi coined that phrase -- 'conditioning coach' -- right there on the spot, when he hired me," Harrington said.

Harrington, a St. Paul native and Cretin High alum, is our Forrest Gump, only instead of running across the country, he made athletes across the country run.

He began his career as a DJ. His first job was in Greenville, Miss., where he broadcast re-creations of games played by the Greenville Buckshots, the local Class D baseball team. Harrington would strike a pencil against a matchbox to simulate the sound of bat on ball, and invent dust storms and lengthy arguments with umpires when the Western Union updates moved too slowly.

One day, a tall, thin young man came into the studios and asked him to play a record. "Three months later," Harrington said, "he was Elvis Presley."

Two stops later, Harrington worked in TV and radio in San Jose, where he met running coach Dean Miller. As a guest on Harrington's radio show, Miller began touting the "Exer-Genie," an exercise device incorporating cables, ropes and posts to create strengthening exercises that also stretched muscles.

"We were overwhelmed with calls and letters," Harrington said.

Harrington became a 10 percent owner of the "Exer-Genie" brand -- which would eventually accompany astronauts into space -- and was given the Upper Midwest as his sales area. He drove to Bemidji, where the Vikings were training, and asked coach Norm Van Brocklin for a chance to show his wares.

"That was a disaster," Harrington said. "They were just coming off the field after a long, hot practice. All they wanted was a cold shower. Van Brocklin introduced me, and I asked for a player so I could demonstrate, and he pointed to Fred Cox, the kicker.

"Well, Fred had a bad back, and I set up a running station, and Fred takes off, and someone stepped on one of the cables. Fred starts running and it was like he hit a wall and fell flat on his back. I said, 'Thank you, Coach,' picked up my things and left."

His next stop was Green Bay. Harrington gave Lombardi and his staff the sales pitch, and they offered All-Pro fullback Jim Taylor, a fitness fanatic, as a guinea pig. "In two minutes, I had the sweat pouring off Jimmy's face, and you can see that he's sold on it," Harrington said.

Lombardi hired him. "Here's where I got lucky," Harrington said. "These guys hated the first week of training camp, because they'd get so sore. I could run the whole team through all the stations in about 20 minutes, and they came out the next day and they felt great.

"I told Lombardi, 'Thank you very much, now I'm going to Chicago and Minnesota ...' Lombardi says, 'Wait, now, we've got an exclusive on this for the first year. You're going to be our conditioning coach."

Harrington eventually sold the Exer-Genie to 10 NFL teams and a bunch more in baseball and in the college ranks. He even traveled to Winnipeg to sell the device to Blue Bombers coach Bud Grant.

Harrington was pleased when he received a letter from Winnipeg. But inside was a note from Grant asking, "What is this about?" Included was a newspaper article saying that according to a Chicago University professor, the Exer- Genie caused rectal cancer.

Harrington called the University of Chicago, asking for the professor. "They said, 'There's no one here by that name,'" Harrington said. "Then it clicked in. I called Bud, and when he picked up the phone, I could hear the laughter in the background. He got me good."

Harrington was on the Packers sideline during Super Bowl I. He had been drinking with Paul Hornung and Max McGee the night before; Hornung was out because of an injury and McGee rarely played.

When star receiver Boyd Dowler got hurt early in the game, Lombardi turned and screamed, "McGee!"

"We were sitting way down on the bench, away from everyone else," Harrington said. "I couldn't believe how much those guys could drink. I had to punch Max in the back to get him moving. Then he catches seven passes, and should have been the MVP."

Harrington would seem to be in line for some kind of honor or remembrance from the Packers. "That's my one regret, that I didn't get a ring, or even a tie pin," Harrington said.

Or a gold-plated "Exer- Genie," for the NFL's first conditioning coach.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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