It is Super Bowl week, and while my Green Bay Packers fell short this year, I’m still interested in the game of football. And the long shadow of one of Green Bay’s most successful coaches looms large, that of Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (Amazon) is an in-depth look at the man, the myth & the legend
“More than any other sports figure, Vince Lombardi transformed football into a metaphor of the American experience. The son of an Italian immigrant butcher, Lombardi toiled for twenty frustrating years as a high school coach and then as an assistant at Fordham, West Point, and the New York Giants before his big break came at age forty-six with the chance to coach a struggling team in snowbound Wisconsin. His leadership of the Green Bay Packers to five world championships in nine seasons is the most storied period in NFL history. Lombardi became a living legend, a symbol to many of leadership, discipline, perseverance, and teamwork, and to others of an obsession with winning.”
When I was in sixth grade we had to write a paper. I can’t remember what the requirements were, but the paper was assigned around Thanksgiving, and I think the Packers played the Lions in that holiday game for the first time since Lombardi had been coach. So maybe that was on my mind when I picked Lombardi, which pleased my father to no end. I think I still have the paper and rough draft downstairs somewhere in my school papers. I can’t remember how I did on the paper, but I did remember that the Green Bay Packers used to play on Thanksgiving Day every year until Lombardi came along. (Now it’s Detroit and Dallas that play against different opponents every year)
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (Amazon) was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. The book was so well-received that it became the basis of a Broadway play. This book is the definitive biography of the sports legend.
Lombardi’s path to greatness started at Fordham University, where he was one of the Seven Blocks of Granite, the famed offensive line in the late 1930’s. Football became Lombardi’s focus; he originally made the Dean’s list his freshman year, then got C’s the rest of his collegiate year. He did, however, get an A in Ethics.
Lombardi made his way slowly up the football chain in coaching, coaching as well as teaching at a Catholic school, a stint at West Point, then as the offensive coordinator for the New York Football Giants. He worked alongside future Cowboys Coach Tom Landry, who was defensive coordinator. Several years passed, the Giants were considered one of the best in the league, and Lombardi wondered why he wasn’t getting picked to be a head coach. Could it be because he was an Italian American? He’d faced that prejudice before in his life.
Before Lombardi was tapped as Green Bay’s head coach, our sleepy little city was often the butt of jokes. Players who weren’t doing well on their team were threatened to be sent to the salt mines of Siberia, or Green Bay, because there wasn’t much difference. Sure, Green Bay had been a powerhouse in the 1930’s and 40’s under founder and head coach Curly Lambeau, who won 6 championships over the years. But Lambeau was eventually fired, and the 1950’s found the Packers at the bottom of the standings almost every year. There was even talk of bringing back Curly Lambeau. Green Bay was susceptible from calls from the past, especially from Lambeau. It was an inward-looking town whose culture was rooted in the traditions of church, family, the neighborhood tavern, and the Green Bay Packers (It’s not that much different today).
So the Packers hired Lombardi and the rest is history. It began with his approach. If a team meeting was scheduled for 9am, that meant you got there at 8:50. (Indeed, in honor of Lombardi, the analog clock outside Lambeau Field is set to “Lombardi Time”). It was a lesson he learned from West Point.
I found the demographic information of Green Bay interesting. According to the 1960 census, blacks made up .01% of Green Bay’s population. That, of course, has changed dramatically over the years, with not only black but Latino, Native American and Hmong population growing. (There are still plenty of old-timers who think Green Bay isn’t that diverse). The city was 75% Catholic in 1960, which fit in fine for Lombardi, who was so devout he went to mass every morning. The parochial schools had as many students as the public schools. There was a choice of sixteen Catholic churches and 94 masses every weekend. Most masses were arranged to not conflict with kickoff time for the Packers.
Lombardi fit right in to the community, and rebuilt the football team. His teams won 5 championships in 7 years, including the first two Super Bowls. His players included future Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, whom Lombardi considered to be like another son, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Forrest Gregg, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, and more. Lombardi’s Packers defined a decade of football and how the game would be played from then on.
As I’ve found with many biographies of great men and women who exceed expectations in their professional field, their personal life was vastly different. Lombardi was kind of a jerk of a father, at least to his son Vince, and to a lesser degree, his daughter Susan. He wasn’t a great husband, either. He was difficult to live with. The same intensity that he brought to coaching came home with him and he was authoritarian in manner.
Lombardi left Green Bay after Super Bowl II, coached the Washington Redskins for a year, and died of cancer in 1970. He brought the NFL into the modern era with excellence and a playbook on how to coach and make his players perform at their best. His legacy lives on.
This was my 10th audiobook I listened to this year as part of my Audiobook Challenge.
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