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Jack Lambert: a linebacker who uses brains as well as muscle

Playing linebacker in the National Football League has sometimes been likened to walking through a lion's cage with a pork chop in each hand. But Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose fingers resemble vise grips, has been doing it for almost nine years without flinching.

Lambert plays pro football the way Joie Chitwood jumps stock cars over a line of junked buses - throttle wide open; body contact expected; eyes big as saucers. While Jack's thoughts are primarily directed at getting both arms around the ball carrier, he'll settle for an arm or a leg if that's all that happens to be sticking out.

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Since he became a second-round draft pick with Pittsburgh in 1974, Lambert has led the Steelers in tackles for eight consecutive years. He was also fourth on the club, going into this season, in interceptions with 25, and some scouts say he has better lateral agility and balance than most defensive backs. Jack seldom gets completely blocked out of any play, and he seems to think right along with the opposing quarterback in third down situations.

In what is regarded in the NFL as a high risk position, Jack has missed only 5 of 138 Steeler games, not counting this year. The fact that he carries a rock-hard 220 pounds on a 6 ft. 4 in. frame probably has something to do with it - and of course it also helps that he is one of those people who always seems to be in shape.

Yet those who mistakenly assume that Lambert belongs in the north wing of some medieval castle have obviously not shared pheasant under glass with Jack or played against him at Taso, a Korean version of the Japanese samurai game Go.

When he was a management major at Kent State Jack was never embarrassed to be caught with a pile of books under his arm, and he continues to read Updike and Heller.

Lambert's four-bedroom bachelor's home in a fashionable section of Pittsburgh is the kind that might get photographed by Architectural Digest. You can run your finger over the top of his mantelpiece and not find any dust.

It is generally agreed that in order to play linebacker in the NFL you must have five things - strength, speed, quickness, durability and the smarts. Lambert not only qualifies on all five, but has added a sixth - anticipation.

Anyone who has watched Jack work for the past nine years can't help but be amazed at how often he reads the opposing quarterback's calls correctly. That includes doing a lot of things instinctively - or maybe it's because he spends several hours a week looking at game films of his opponents.

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The last time I caught Lambert talking, if I remember correctly, was at a Super Bowl press conference before maybe 200 reporters.

I can't remember Jack making it a memorable occasion for words, but I do remember him saying how important it is not to make mistakes against good teams - that even one such mistake at the wrong time can cost you a touchdown. I think he also said something about player consistency being more important than any game plan that ever came off a drawing board.

Later I discovered that part of Lambert's on-field assignment was to call the signals that could put the Steelers instantly into any one of 30 defensive combinations. And pro coaches don't hand out responsibilities like that to anyone they wouldn't trust with plans for the Normandy Invasion.

Having never been inside Pittsburgh's clubhouse during those private times when players often joke or dream up stunts designed to embarrass each other, I can only repeat what has been said about Lambert's sense of humor.

But if you are planning to play a prank on the Steelers' All-pro linebacker, be prepared to handle one twice as innovative in return.

Jack is so popular in Pittsburgh that he can't go to most public places without being recognized. ''I don't mind when people come up and ask me for an autograph,'' Lambert said, ''because some of those people pay my salary. What I don't like are the ones who won't leave; who won't let you go back and continue the evening with your friends.''

Of course if Jack makes the first contact, that's different. Like the time he walked into a police station on Pittsburgh's North Side and told the officers present that he'd like to learn how to shoot.

To Lambert, firing a gun on the police target range now and not missing is as natural as firing his body at some opposing ball carrier who suddenly discovers to his woe that he should have picked an alternate route.

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