In Green Bay, Pride Still Matters
Vince Lombardi looms over the Green Bay Packers and the NFL like perhaps no other figure in league history. But what should we make of the man and the legacy he left on the game? Was his a complicated story, or was he truly the football Saint he is made out to be, long after his death?
In search of a greater understanding of Lombardi, I read the definitive biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, an incredibly well-researched book written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss. I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned about the man, as well as some of the more interesting anecdotes that will shed some light on this mythical figure and, I hope, instill a bit more pride among modern Packers fans in what was unquestionably the greatest stretch of football by any team in NFL history until the Brady-Belichick Patriots came along.
Let’s start at the beginning, in New York City Circa 1913…
- Vince Lombardi was born in Brooklyn to Harry Lombardi, a butcher who was heavily tattooed (W-O-R-K and P-L-A-Y adorned his knuckles), a true rarity for the time, and Mattie Izzo. He had what seemed like an idyllic childhood, centered around family, Catholicism, and sports. His maternal grandparents owned a bona fide farm in Brooklyn, complete with numerous barnyard animals and a vineyard, that would be the center of his family life.
- Despite his father’s non-traditional nature, Lombardi himself was, for lack of a better word, a square. He was well-liked due to his gregarious personality, but he seemed to be very much the type of kid who would volunteer to be hall monitor.
- Despite limited athleticism and his 5’8 stature, Lombardi was a natural at football. The classic ‘coach-on-the-field’ type, he went on to achieve fame while part of the fabled Fordham University Offensive Line known as the Seven Blocks of Granite (Fordham was then a national power in football before some misguided priests de-emphasized athletics at the school in the 1940s, deciding that collegiate sports were too money driven and were getting in the way of the school’s academic mission).
- Though clearly the least talented of the starting Line at Fordham, Lombardi made up for it with his tenacious play and competitiveness, and was a vital cog on a team that fell one win shy of a Rose Bowl berth. Lombardi never forgave some of his teammates for playing in semi-pro side games just days before, leaving them unready to play in the game that cost Fordham the Rose Bowl.
- Lombardi drifted after college, briefly playing semi-pro football and dropping out of law school after one semester (he was often erroneously given credit for graduating at the top of his class in his later years, a myth he did little to debunk), before eventually landing as basketball coach at a New Jersey catholic high school. Although knowing little about basketball and being a poor player himself, Lombardi immersed himself in the sport and eventually won a district title before moving on to become the school’s football coach.
- Believing that his coaching rise was stunted by prejudice towards his Italian heritage, Lombardi was ever-aware of prejudice in any form. He was a firm believer in giving black athletes the chance to play with the Packers before much of the rest of the league was on board. Although firmly old-fashioned in most of his beliefs, Lombardi was also a staunch advocate for homosexuals, going so far as to tell his teams that anyone who was found to make fun of gay players on his teams would be immediately fired. Lombardi having a gay brother no doubt helped create this sensitivity.
- Lombardi slowly moved up the coaching ranks, with stops as top assistant at Army, then the nation’s dominant power under coach Red Blaik, and the New York Giants as Offensive Coordinator. Tom Landry, a future rival as Cowboys coach, was the Giants’ Defensive Coordinator at the time.
- When Lombardi came to Green Bay, he was given a tremendous amount of control over a floundering franchise, being named Head Coach and General Manager. In those days, the GM ran the business side of the team as well, and Lombardi oversaw marketing, ticket sales, and facilities improvements. He truly was the King of the Green Bay Packers.
- Lombardi’s success in Green Bay was immediate, turning a 1-10-1 team into a 7-5 team in his first year. By his second year, the team was playing in the NFL Title Game (losing to the Eagles in Philadelphia as a last-second drive by then unproven Bart Starr fell just yards short), and by his fourth year, he was a 2-time champion and the unquestioned dominant coach in the league.
- Lombardi’s stature among sports figures in the 1960s was one of the major revelations of the book. By the time he won his first title, Lombardi was the most famous figure in the NFL, establishing a broad appeal that was appreciated by all walks of life, from youth to the business community to political and military circles. Lombardi was a household name in the 1960s, a rarity for sports figures, especially professional coaches.
- Although remembered mostly for his leadership and motivational qualities, Lombardi’s knowledge of football was unparalleled. He thought of little else (he cut short his honeymoon to get back to his high school football practices), and was said to be able to visualize how any action by one player on the field would lead to reactions from the other 21. Although his most famous play is the Sweep, Lombardi saw early on the growing importance of the passing game, and the Packers boasted one of the league’s better passing attacks throughout his tenure.
- By 1967, Lombardi’s last season as Green Bay coach, the team was rapidly aging and not nearly as talented as previous champions. That Lombardi lead this team through the Ice Bowl and on to the Super Bowl II championship (winning his 3rd consecutive title and 5th overall) was perhaps his greatest feat as coach.
- A staunch defender of the old-guard NFL, Lombardi nonetheless was one of the few who predicted that the AFL’s upstart New York Jets would beat the 18-point favorite Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
- Lombardi had a reputation as a consummate family man, but his personal relationships were complicated to say the least, especially with his wife and son. Lombardi’s wife Marie was as devoted as could be, wanting nothing other than to be Mrs. Vince Lombardi, but they fought bitterly and Marie struggled with alcoholism. “Shut up, Marie!” was sure to be heard any time they socialized.
- Vincent Jr. played football at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, MN, but never felt he had his father’s full attention, perhaps, he feared, because he was not a big-time player like his dad had been or like his other sons, the players he coached, were.
- Lombardi had a forgettable year after stepping down as coach following Super Bowl II, staying on as General Manager in Green Bay. Not being on the field left a huge hole in his life, however, and he soon looked for a coaching opportunity elsewhere. Lombardi’s contract in Green Bay held that he could not leave for a lateral position, so he was only able to sign with the Redskins after negotiating a 12.5% equity stake in the team as part of his compensation. An unknown but perhaps the dominant factor in Lombardi leaving for Washington was his desire to return his wife to her east coast roots, as her malaise and alcoholism worsened when she could no longer define herself as the coach’s wife during her last year in Green Bay.
- Lombardi did not leave Green Bay on the best of terms. Many accused him of being greedy and power hungry. The ill feelings would quickly be washed away, however.
- Welcomed as a hero in Washington D.C., Lombardi began a quick turnaround in his first year, finishing at 7-5-2 after the Redskins had endured 14 straight losing seasons.
- Lombardi was not a healthy man, maintaining a 3 cartons per week (!) smoking habit until, one day, he decided to quit cold turkey. Although quitting did not improve his temperamental nature, he never smoked another cigarette.
- Lombardi became sick shortly after arriving in D.C., suffering from digestive tract problems that eventually revealed themselves as an incredibly aggressive strain of cancer which claimed his life before his second season could begin.
- In a fascinating bit of ‘what-if’ history, Lombardi was courted by both Republicans (Richard Nixon) and Democrats (Robert Kennedy) to run as a Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1968 election. Nixon was more serious about Lombardi as running mate, but this idea faded once his researchers discovered that Lombardi, who had established a friendship with JFK, was a lifelong democrat. Lombardi was too old-fashioned for the new progressive wave of the Democratic party lead by Robert Kennedy, so the courtships did not get far.
- Lombardi became one of the most successful paid speakers in the country in his later life, earning hefty speaking fees and publishing books as well as an incredibly successful video on leadership.
One of the lasting lessons from reading Lombardi’s biography is that the NFL was not this old-timey, mom-and-pop organization that many assume it was.
The country was football-obsessed in the 1960s, as baseball stagnated in terms of popularity and the NBA was still in its nascent stages. The NFL celebrated it’s 50th anniversary during Lombardi’s tenure, and was a well-established power in the world of sports long before he became head coach. Tens of millions of TV viewers watched the biggest games, and the Packers were the biggest story in team sports in the 1960s.
The Packer’s championship teams should be a huge source of pride for any true Packers fan, as reading what the league was like at the time gives me an appreciation for their legitimacy. These were great teams that came out on top of a very competitive, healthy league, and a lot of the players, especially on the defense (MLB Ray Nitschke, OLB Dave Robinson, CB Herb Adderly) would look pretty good playing today.
Maybe these championship teams should not engender the same level of emotion as the 1996 or 2010 teams do among fans who would not be born until years after Lombardi died, but part of being a Packers fan is embracing the rich history the team has crafted.
The Packers have more tradition and have achieved more success than any other franchise in NFL history, and for me, embracing this history with pride still matters.