book notes: When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
In the days leading up to the 2021-2022 Green Bay Packers season, I read a biography of Vince Lombardi that I found in (of all places) a book store in lovely Bastrop, Texas (the Painted Porch, which has an amazing book-art-sculpture around their fireplace). When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss is the perfect prep for this season – a season not only following the obvious (and on-going) pandemic disruption but also the unusual chaos that was the Packers’ off-season.
Though most of the events here-in occurred before I was born or while I was too young to comprehend (I was eight years old when Vince Lombardi died in 1970), they go through the team that had Bart Starr as their quarterback. And reading a Bart Starr biography (from the Scholastic book club, no less) is what started my Packers fandom.
This is more than just a Packers fanboy tome. Mr. Maraniss deftly intertwines history, culture, popular figures (General Douglas MacArthur, Frank Sinatra and several Presidents make cameos) and myth-busting. This is not a portrait of Lombardi as a saint, but shows the man with all of his faults and qualities.
There are 28 chapters in this book. Three chapters on when Lombardi was an assistant at West Point. Two chapters describe being an assistant with the New York Giants. Sixteen chapters, the meat of the book, go through Lombardi’s time as coach of the Green Bay Packers. As a life-long Packers fan, though mighty tempted to jump to this section, all of the other chapters are an excellent build-up.The book concludes with chapters on the brief Vince Lombardi era with the Redskins, and his untimely passing.
To help jog my memory in a few weeks, months, years – below is a quote (or two) from each chapter of this magnificent book about the Man, the Myth, the Legend – Vince Lombardi. It’s been a great book to add to my Packers collection – along with a few others I’ve scattered throughout these notes.
David Maraniss has several other books about sports figures and history – Roberto Clemente, the 1960 Olympics, the end of the Vietnam war and other. You can find more about him and his books at his web site.
Chapter 1 – Tatoos
Vince Thomas Lombardi is born in Brooklyn June 11, 1913. In addition to family history and growing up in lower Manhattan, this first chapter goes through Lombardi’s high school days.
Contact and pain were not things from which the Lombardi family seemed to shy away. In later years Vince explained his own occasionally violent outbursts by portraying his father as a harsh disciplinarian who would “hit you as soon as talk to you.” There was some truth to this if it described Harry’s relationship with his eldest son, decidedly not with the younger Lombardi children. Harry showed a gruff exterior and talked tough about pain. “No one’s ever hurt,” he proclaimed when Vince came home from football practice with a bruised rib. “Hurt is in your mind!” When he had been drinking too much wine or his preferred scotch, Harry could alternate between verbal hectoring and didactic posturing: he sometimes lectured Vince and the others on his triangle of success – sense of duty, respect for authority and strong mental discipline. But behind his bluster and philosophical musings hid a soft touch who wanted to have a good time and knew that rules could be broken.Page 21
Chapter 2 – Fordham Road
At college at Fordham, Lombardi plays football as one of the Seven Blocks of Granite for a coach who was one of the Four Horsemen at Notre Dame…and new Curly Lambeau in Green Bay. And he meets his future wife, Marie.
As someone with a pinky finger on my right hand that is deformed from years of rugby and basketball, I particularly appreciate this paragraph about Jim Crowley.
That move of positions from fullback to guard in one sense marked the starting point of the mythology of Vince Lombardi. But the context of the Lombardi myth goes back another generation, to an earlier story involving his coach Jim Crowley. There is a remarkable circle of coincidence in Lombardi’s life that began, long before he had ever heard of the place, in the small northeastern Wisconsin city of Green Bay. That is where Crowley launched his own football career. He was the backfield star of the 1920 Green Bay East High team that won the state championship when he threw four touchdown passes in the decisive game against Green Bay West, the precision of his spirals aided by a deformed pinky finger on his right hand, which he said helped him better steer the ball. His first high school coach was Earl “Curly” Lambeau, a local athlete who had dropped out of Notre Dame and was also starting up a new professional team back home called the Green Bay Packers.Page 34
Lombardi’s experience with women had been extremely limited.He played spin the bottle as an adolescent with his cousins over at Grandma Izzo’s, but during his years at Cathedral Prep, as he trained for the priesthood, even that innocent game would be considered sinful, material for his confessions. During his year at St. Francis Prep, he was allowed to date, but the girl he asked to the spring prom was his cousin Dorothy Izzo. Finally, at Fordham, largely because of the gregarious attitude of Jim Lawlor, his big, glad-handing roommate, Vinnie entered a new world of romance. Lawlor had a first cousin at Fordham named Arthur Planitz, whose two sisters, Marie and Marge, were then living with their mother in the Bronx in a first-floor apartment at 2564 Creston Avenue, a third of a mile up Fordham Road from campus. Marie has studied nursing at Roosevelt Hospital, but dropped out after getting sick. German Catholic on her father’s side and Irish Catholic on her mother’s (a Sheridan), she was tall, blonde and blue-eyed, with a figure, recalled several Fordham men, that elicited from them a familiar, ungrammatical locker room exclamation: “What a built!”Page 40
Chapter 3 – We Do, or Die
The 1936 season at Fordham, where the Seven Blocks of Granite (or at least one of the versions) was born – with Lombardi at guard.
From his playing days at Fordham, Lombardi learned lessons that he carried with him into a life of football. His inner steel, he said later, was forged in those bloody college games, especially the scoreless ties with Pitt. “I can’t put my finger on just what I learned playing…in those scoreless games, but it was something. A certain toughness.” While he discarded the sarcasm of Sleepy Jim Crowley and the dourness of Frank Leahy, he came to understand from those coaches the importance of precision blocking, fierce tackling and the larger “truths of the game: conditioning, spartanism, defense and violence as distinct from brutality.” He also discovered what he called football’s fourth dimension. “The first three dimensions are material, coaching and schedule. The fourth is selfless teamwork and collective pride which accumulate until they have made positive thinking and victory habitual.” But the importance of Fordham in Lombardi’s life was far greater than learning what it took to play a game. From the Jesuits he acquired a larger perspective: duty, obedience, responsibility and the exercise of free will were the basis of a philosophy that shaped the way he looked at himself and his world.Page 63
Chapter 4 – Saints
After a couple of years of attempting other paths (including law school) Lombardi becomes assistant coach (1939 – 1941) then head football coach (1942 – 1946) at St. Cecilia’s high school.
Lombardi ended up staying at Saints for eight years. It was there, in the insular world of North Jersey schoolboy competition, that he developed many of the pedagogical skills that later allowed him to stand apart from the coaching multitudes. Year by year, as his reputation grew beyond Englewood, it became clearer to him that coaching was his life’s calling. Football coach was not what Harry and Matty had expected of their son, nor what his old classmates had predicted. In some ways it was a job below his own self-image. All of which worked in his favor. During his years in Englewood, Lombardi was driven by a contradiction, consumed by a sport and somewhat embarrassed that it was considered merely a games. This had two consequences: it intensified his will to win, made it overpowering in him, while simultaneously pushing him to infuse football with something more serious, to find deeper meaning in the WORK and PLAY juxtaposition tattooed above his father’s knuckles. In that mission he had much the same visionary motivation that philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, in a luminous phrase, ascribed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and other Catholic mystics – the perception of “an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.”Page 69
Lombardi and Marie get married, and Vince’s obsession with football becomes apparent.
The couple ventured to Maine for their honeymoon. Marie later confided that she was a virgin bride and that her first night in the conjugal bed was a difficult experience for her, as was the entire adjustment to life with her new husband. He seemed preoccupied with football even on their honeymoon, and cut it short to get back to Englewood before the first Saints practice. “I wasn’t married to him one week,” she related later, “when I said to myself, Marie Planitz, you’ve made the greatest mistake of your life.” His temper, his obsession with sports, his compulsion to tell other people what to do, the tension between his dominant public persona and his innate shyness and private anxiety – all were apparent to her from the start. But, she had married Vince because he seemed solid, religious and faithful, unlike her father. She believed, as he did, in the sacredness and lifelong commitment of marriage. She told herself that she would have to adjust.Page 74
Chapter 5 – Lost in the Bronx
Lombardi is back at Fordham University, coaching the freshman squad, and later is considered for the head coaching job (1947 – 1948).
THE BALLET. Lombardi’s favorite, he could work on it all day. He stood there with the center and his three quarterbacks and a posse of running backs and got out his stopwatch to time the play from snap to handoff. It was all in speed and dexterity, he said. The center had to anticipate the spin to the handoff position in time for the chapter running back. Faster. One fluid movement. The jump spin was ballet, he said.page 92
Chapter 6 – Fields of Friendly Strife
Lombardi takes a job as offensive line coach working for Red Blaik at West Point (1949 – 1953).
At one point Lombardi found himself in a heated debate with Blaik and the other assistants over the proper way to deliver the center’s snap to the quarterback. Blaik had always taught the half-turn of the ball, presenting it to the quarterback sideways. Lombardi preferred the quarter-turn, with the ball reaching the quarterback at a slight angle. It was quicker, he said, and make it easier for the quarterback to hand off or pass. Blaik disagreed, so they got out a ball and practiced both methods there in the conference room outside of Blaik’s office. The quarter-turn proved faster by a fraction of a second.page 100
Chapter 7 – Blaik’s Boys
The cheating scandal at West Point in 1951, and its impact on sports, Lombardi and those around him.
What happened at West Point, both what it signified and how it should have been resolved, raised complicated points of contention at the time that remain debatable even now. They raise larger questions that address the code mythology of football and of the man who went on to become its patron saint, Vince Lombardi. What is the value of competitive team sports? Where is the line drawn between a single-minded desire to excel and a debilitating obsession to win? Are football teams essential to the well-being of institutions and communities? Do athletes deserve special consideration because of this? In a realm where the ultimate measurement is wins versus losses, do ends justify means? The contradictory ideals of unity and independence, conformity and rebellion, run deep in the American psyche, and along that divide football is the sport most clearly aligned with unity and conformity, for better or worse. When asserting that football builds character, coaches invariably speak of teamwork, discipline, perseverance and loyalty. But even granting football those qualities, are the inherently positive? Or, as the Army honor code scandal suggests, can they also lead to group thinking, peer pressure, blind obedience and an emphasis on team solidarity over individual integrity? Those were the questions raised in 1951, and in one way or another they would follow Lombardi and define him for the rest of his life.Page 133-134
Chapter 8 – No Substitute for Victory
Lombardi’s last few years at West Point, dealing with the aftermath of the expulsion of much of the football team.
In truth the lessons flowed both ways, from Blaik to Lombardi and back again. In the profession of coaching, there are two essential challenges. One is to build a winning team from scratch, the other is to sustain excellence after a club has reached the top. They are distinct tasks, perhaps equally difficult, but usually requiring different intellectual and psychological skills. Even the best coaches are inherently more proficient at one that the other. Lombardi was by nature a builder and molder who during hist first two seasons at West Point learned crucial lessons from the methodical Blaik on how to be a sustainer. In the aftermath of the honors scandal, the relationship changed, and Blaik became more reliant on his impassioned assistant to burn the white heat back into Army football.page 136
Chapter 9 – Cult of the New
Lombardi begins NFL career with assistant coaching job with New York Giants in 1954. Tom Landry coaches the defense. Lombardi is with the Giants until 1958. He wanted the head coach position.
The pros, for their part, were more surprised than pleased in their initial impressions of Lombardi. They considered him a college chump. Fro all his film study, he would not shed his Army playbook. He came in excited about delay plays in which the quarterback sprinted out and came to an abrupt stop, waiting patiently for his receivers to get clear downfield. Maybe that worked at West Point, but the Giants knew it was unsuited for the pros, where the quarterback would never get enough time.
Lombardi taught rule blocking, another technique used at West Point. Instead of blocking a specific defensive player, each lineman blocked a zone, and if there was no one in that zone he fanned back to another area, following specific rules, hence the name. Army and other colleges were ahead of the pros in using rule blocking. It eventually became the norm in the National Football League, but the Giants had difficulty adjusting.Page 156
Chapter 10 – The Pride of Giants
Run to daylight and the Packers Sweep
Run to daylight – later the phrase would become the trademark of Lombardi’s offense in Green Bay, but it was conceived in 1956 in the practice field in Vermont. And so was the seminal play of his pro offense, the power sweep. Before it became famous as the Packer sweep, Lombardi first saw the play while watching films of Los Angeles in 1955. He analyzed the movements of every offensive player, stuffed his research into his playbook satchel and showed it to the Giants that August. From the first time he taught it, Lombardi was in his element. This play defined him. It was at once old and new. It was seemingly simple and yet offered infinite complexity, demanding swift decisions by all eleven offensive players. It wasn’t size that mattered …. Nor was it speed alone … The sweep required precision, teamwork and brains. Lombardi loved it. Once, at a football seminar, he talked about it non-stop for eight hours.Page 168
Chapter 11 – The Foreigner
Lombardi gets the head coaching job in Green Bay, 1959
The coming of Vince Lombardi to Green Bay completed a cycle of football mythology. Green Bay, where Curly Lambeau, founder of the Packers, taught football to Sleepy Jim Crowley, who became one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, made famous by Grantland Rice, and went to New York to coach at Fordham, where he mentored the Seven Blocks of Granite, among them Vince Lombardi, who ventured out to Green Bay to reclaim the glory that began with Curly Lambeau.Page 202
Chapter 12 – Packer Sweep
Lombardi’s first training camp with the Packers and first regular season game as a professional head football coach. September 27, 1959: Packers beat da Bears 9 to 6.
It might sound unimaginative, but there was in this a touch of Lombardi’s genius. Even in his repetitive drills he had a way of making the mundane seem important, the football variation of a masterly novelist who could take the muddle of everyday life and bring clarity and sense to it, and allow readers to see, for the first time what was in front of their eyes all along. Bart Starr was on the edge of his seat, listening – getting it for the first time. All “the crap” was gone; this was “right to the bone,” simple, yet “so refreshing and exciting,” Starr thought. Everything was accounted for, labeled, identified, put in order, fundamental and sound. You could tell that the coach believed in what he was doing. His tone of voice, his posture, his manner, it all made you believe. It all made sense. Starr knew after the first twenty minutes that Lombardi was giving them a new world, and from then on he felt an insatiable hunger for more. When the players took their first break late that morning, Starr ran downstairs, found a pay phone and called his wife, Cherry, in Birmingham. “I think we’re going to win,” he blurted into the phone.Page 213
Chapter 13 – Trinity
Maybe because of the title of this chapter, there are three sections I want to remember.
The Packers finished the 1959 season with a record of 7 and 5, “…the first Green Bay team in a dozen years to have more wins than losses.”
It was during the San Francisco game that Starr had a quarterback’s epiphany. He was poised at the line of scrimmage, bent over center waiting for the snap, and as he looked across the line he read the defense in a nanosecond and change the play accordingly. What had once seemed rushed and confusing now seemed clear and obvious, as thought it were all happening in slow motion. One quick look and everything that Lombardi had taught him snapped into order: read and react, freedom within discipline. It was also during the 49ers game that Starr began to asset himself with his teammates, at one point insisting that the garrulous Max McGee “hush up!” in the huddle. The order had a delayed effect: it seemed to out of character that Jim Ringo called a timeout so the offensive linemen could stop laughing; but from then on, Starr commanded his team’s respect.page 230
Lombardi’s stance on race.
“I’d get out of this town if it wasn’t for Vince,” Tunnell told a visiting reporter from New York. “He’s real brass, real arrogant. He’s the kind of guy you have to cuss out once a week when you’re alone. But nobody else can cuss him out to me. In my heart, I know what he is.” Tunnell could offer no more impressive endorsement of this coach, and his black teammates felt the same way. Wood called him “perhaps the fairest person I ever met.” Race was an issue that revealed the integrity of Lombardi’s character. In later years he would try to explain his position on racial matters by saying that he viewed his athletes as neither black nor white, but Packer green. He insisted that there were “no barriersPage 240-241
on his team and all this were “equal, racially and socially.” He was color-blind, he said. And though this was literally true – Lombardi was color-blind – there was more to it than that. It has always been easy for whites to claim color blindness in the United States since white is the dominant color in American society, but the claim often serves as a ruse for not recognizing the particular obstacles faced by non-whites. Lombardi might have seen only one color on the football field, but he was no blind to the discrimination that his black players encountered off the field, and he did everything he could to ease their way in an alien environment.
And on into the 1960 season.
If the first humans were produced by thunder and Lightning, as the Winnebago Indian tradition held, the same was being said of these Packers. Thunder was Jim Taylor, the bruising fullback, on his way to his first thousand-yard season, and Lightning was Paul Hornung, the left halfback, who had an uncanny knack for finding the end zone and lighting up the scoreboard, on his way to a record-shattering 176 points. Taylor and Hornung were about results, nothing more; other backfields around the league were bigger and faster, but none produced like Thunder and Lightning. It was said of Taylor that he loved contact so much that if no defensive backs were in his way he would go find one. To watch Hornung run a midfield was nothing special – he seemed a step slow and uninspired – but near the goal line he was the best, unstoppable.Pages 246-247
Chapter 14 – Remembering Jack
Jack Vainisi, who had persuaded the Packers board to hire Lombardi, passes away at age 33. And Bart Start starts to assert himself. The Packers make it to the 1960 Championship game, but lose to the Eagles.
While Taylor and Hornung were running toward records at season’s end, Lombardi realized that his Packers would rise only as high as their quarterback would take them.
Did Bart Starr have those characteristics? Lombardi had vacillated on the question for nearly two year. His first impression if Starr, he once acknowledged, was that “he was probably just a little too polite and maybe just a little too self-effacing to the the real bold tough quarterback that a quarterback must be in the National Football League.”Page 255
The intercepted ball was tipped, he pointed out, it was not his fault. Furthermore, Starr said, the coach should change his habit of yelling at players in public and then, if necessary, making up with them in private. “You’re asking me to be the leader of this team, and I’m challenged by that and I want to be the best leader I can be. But I can’t be if you’re chewing my butt out in front of the team you want me to lead,” Starr explained to the coach. “You’ll see late” — when the coaches watched the file of the practice — “that the error was yours: the ball was tipped (by a defender) and intercepted. I can take any ass-chewing you want to deliver. And if you feel I have it coming, hate at it. But please do it in the privacy of your office here where you make your apologies to me. I will be an even better leader for you if you do that.” Lombardi listened quietly. “I hear you,” he said contritely when his quarterback had finished his complaint. The challenge had worked. Lombardi never criticized him in front of the team again, and Starr said later: “From then on we had a relationship that was just unbelievable. I don’t think it had been that bad before, but now it just took off and went to another plane.”Page 257
Chapter 15 – Golden
The 1961 season, Lombardi finally wins the NFL Championship (the game was held two days after I was born!) obliterating the Giants. The legends of Lombardi, Hornung (League MVP in 1961) and Starr grow.
Much of what Schaap saw and heard in Green Bay found expression in his writing, but not all of it. Along with his interview notes, he kept separate mental note of Hornung’s off-hours existence during that first trip, a chronicle of youthful saturnalia. “Each morning Paul would get up about quarter to nine and be at the field by nine o’clock. They would practice until twelve and there would be meetings to three. At three he’d come home, mix a pitcher of martinis and drink martinis until six o’clock with Kramer and the others. Then they’d go out to dinner. Then back on scotch. Every day. I lost count by the time it had reached more than sixty just how many drinks he had in that week leading up tho the Browns game. Also, he never went to bed before four in the morning, he never went to bed alone, and he never repeated himself. Paul by that time had become such a sex symbol that he had lost the power to differentiate. All women looked the same to him. They could be tall, short, fat, beautiful. It was part of his image that he was supposed to get laid every night.” And run and block and pass and catch and kick like hell on Sunday afternoons.Page 278
There were, in a sense, three Lombardi sons, not one.
First Vincent Henry Lombardi, the conflicted son, who looked like the Old Man and talked like the Old Man and blinked his eyes like the Old Man but struggled to live up to his expectations. No flesh and blood son could, perhaps. Vincent was a good kid, smart, bottled up, tense, but his father thought he was soft, too much like his mother, not ready to pay the price, a decent athlete, but he got hurt too easily – a genetic trait? an unwanted reminder of Lombardi’s own injury-prone past? – and he ran awkwardly at fullback, lifted his legs wrong. No way could he compete. It was always complicated with Vince and Vincent.
Then Bryan Bartlett Starr, the dependable one, his opposite in culture and demeanor, yet the one who did everything that Lombardi wanted, who believed in him and sought only to please him. Bart alone among the players seemed actually to want to be with Lombardi. He looked forward to their meetings, yearned to hear him explain football and life, and appreciated – while it was happening – how much the Old Man had shaped him. Lombardi knew he would always be there, clearly and soberly and rationally acting as his surrogate on the field. It was a relationship of trust between Vince and Bart.
And finally Paul Vernon Hornung, the prodigal son, talented and wasteful. All the bona fides that Lombardi coveted: Notre Dame, Heisman Trophy, good Catholic boy, polite to his mother and Marie. How could Vincent – or even Bart – compete with that? Here was the son who moved Lombardi. “He loved Hornung, loved him,” said Tony Canadeo.Page 279 – 280
Chapter 16 – A Night at the Elks
Description of a banquet at the Elks Lodge in Green Bay April 30, 1962 celebrating Lombardi and the Championship. Includes the story of how President Kennedy called Lombardi with three Generals in the room and asked if he would return to West Point to coach.
He could not accept the tribute, Lombardi said, without mentioning the people who were “every bit as important” as he was in bringing home the title, all of whom, he said should have been up there with him sharing the honor. “In particular, a very -“
For a moment it seemed that he could not go on, but he struggled to regain his composure. No one else in the room knew what Marie had endured for twenty years because of his obsession with football: the silent meals, the flashes of temper, the demands for perfection, the Mr. High-low, on top of the world here, sulking in gloom there. Nor could they know his share of the burden as the husband of a woman who numbed herself with alcohol. Yet, despite their troubles, she had devoted herself to his cause and become a coach’s wife. He finished the thought.
“… ehmmm … patient … wonderful … wife.”Page 302
Chapter 17 – Daylight
The genesis of the book Run to Daylight, and the 1962 season.
The Packers amassed more than thirty points eight times that season, outscoring their opponents by a total of 415 to 148 and compiling the highest point spread of the postwar era – 19.1 points more than their opponents per game. It was their defense that made them nearly invincible. Ray Nitschke had tamed his self-destructive off-the-field behavior and channeled his aggression into playing a ferocious middle linebacker on Sunday afternoons. He had always seemed like an angry man, especially when he had drunk too much, when even his teammates were afraid of him. Nitschke had grown up virtually parentless on the West Side of Chicago. His father had died when Ray was three, his mother when he was thirteen. He lived with an older brother and roamed the streets feeling that the world had been unfair to him and that he wanted to even the score. “I took it out on everybody else,” he said later. “A day didn’t go by that I didn’t belt some other kid in the neighborhood. I was like that right through high school and college and even after I joined the Packers. Didn’t take anything from anybody.” Now he was married, and calming down, six days a week at least. In front of Nitschke, Willie Davis and Henry Jordan were having dominating years on the front line. And behind him, Herb Adderly at cornerback and Willie Wood at safety lifted the play at those key positions to unparalleled heights, combining to stifle the oppositions’s passing game every week. Wood intercepted nine passes and Adderley seven, returning them an average of 18.8 yards.Page 316
Chapter 18 – The End of Something
The second NFL championship in 1962 (the Packers beat the Giants for the 2nd year in a row, 16-7 in the cold). There’s a paragraph about the birth of NFL Films (which I watched all the time as a kid) and about how Lombardi coached (or did not) during the games.
There were eight extra cameras at the game that day, filming not for television but for the league to use in publicity game films. The contract for the job had been won by Blair Motion Pictures, Inc., a small outfit in suburban Philadelphia owned by Ed Sabol, who had never before shot a professional game. When Sabol got the job he called his son Steve, who was then in college, and said, “I just bought the film rights and I can see from your grades that all you’ve been doing is going to movies and playing football and that makes you uniquely qualified for this job.” Steve signed on as assistant producer, launching a family enterprise that would later become know as NFL Films, an enterprise that more than any other would be responsible for creating the films and television shows that shaped the new mythology of professional football for the rest of the century.Page 330
Before a game, at halftime and after a game, his players thought of Lombardi as a football genius. He always seemed able to anticipate what the other team was going to do. Although his game plans seemed simple, it was because of the dozens of plays that he had eliminated – following Blaik’s dictum of discarding the immaterial – to get to the fifteen or twenty that he was certain would work. But once the game started, the joke on the team was that Lombardi was the most useless guy on the sideline. Starr called the plays for the offense. Bengston called them for the defense. Lombardi never wore a headset. Red Cochran, the offensive coach in the press box, was afraid to call down to Lombardi for fear he would snap at him on the phone. … The game itself was the superficial part of coaching for Lombardi. He had already done his work getting his team prepared.Page 331-332
Chapter 19 – Foot of the Cross
Paul Hornung’s suspension due to gambling after the 1962 season.
Life was circling back on Lombardi again. The Packers had reached the top through talent and diligence. They had become the definition of first-class professionalism – and now this. The cadets at West Point were in the same position twelve years earlier, the very best, the model of collegiate prowess and class, and then it all collapsed in a cribbing scandal. A bewildered father asks his son, How could you? It was the question Colonel Blaik had asked his son Bob when the mess broke at West Point and the football team was about to be expelled, and now Lombardi was asking it of his boy Paul. How could he? Why did some of the Fordham Rams play illegally in semipro contests in that autumn of 1936 and come back lame for the crucial NYU game and thus ruin the team’s chances of going to the Rose Bowl? Why did the cadets pass the poop and destroy one of the finest squads Red Blaik had ever built? Why did Paul Hornung place bets on the Packers and endanger Lombardi’s awesome team? The answers are as complex and varying as human nature itself. Hubris. A sense of invincibility. Reckless youth. Thrill of winning. Peer pressure. Boredom. Temptation.Page 340
Chapter 20 – Coming in Second
Missing the championship game in 1963, losing Hornung, then Starr and Nitschke to injury – denied the three championships in a row that would set a record.
Lombardi understood that he was not the perfect vessel for the sporting life. He was short, stocky, slow, color-blind, awkward, injury-prone and emotional. He could not excel at any athletic endeavor that depended on his own primary skills, whether it was running or blocking or hitting a baseball or shooting a basketball or craps or playing hands of gin or a round of golf. All were difficult for him. He could make himself better, but never the best. But he had a sharp mind, keen memory and overpowering will. He knew what perfection looked like and what was required to approach it; all he needed was the material with which to work. In football, as a coach, he had it – in the arm of Bart Starr, the agility of Willie Wood, the fluid grace of Paul Hornung and Herb Adderly, the muscled abandon of Jimmy Taylor and Ray Nitschke, the rugged perseverance of Forrest Gregg and Henry Jordan, the savvy of his captains, Bob Skoronski and Willie Davis. They provided the talent that he lacked; he provided the will and the way, pushing them to levels of performance that he knew were possible for them but that he could never attain himself, closing the gap between the hugeness of his desire and the smallness of reality.Page 357
The Packers get Hornung back for the 1964 season, but go 8-5-1, missing the playoffs for the second year.
It was an uncertain time for Lombardi, the most confusing period for him since he reached Green Bay. He had thought about leaving the year before, when the 49ers made a covert inquiry and then the AFL’s Jets presented him with a lucrative offer to return to New York. But none of that had worked out, Olejniczak and the league would not let him go, nor would his pride; he wanted those three in a row, so he had stayed and appeared committed to Green Bay for several more seasons. Two years of losing, or not winning, had taken a toll, and Sunset Circle was a particularly depressed place after the season. Mr. High-Low was low and his wife was lower as the long Green Bay winter continued through the first months of 1965. The dark, dreary days, the agitated condition of her husband, her own psychological need to be the center of attention – all apparently combined to send Marie into a depression.Page 362
Chapter 21 – Winning Isn’t Everything
The origin of the phrase “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” is not from Lombardi
Still, there was a crucial distinction in his philosophy between paying the price to win and winning at any price. He did not believe in cheating to win, and he showed no interest in winning the wrong way, without heart, brains and sportsmanship. Although he never shied away from the violence of the game, insisting that football was “not a contact sport, but a collision sport,” he did not encourage dirty play. “Piling on, cheap shots, clotheslining people – that wasn’t our style of play,” said Tom Brown, the former baseball player who took over as strong safety in the mid-sixties. When one of Lombardi’s defensive backs tripped a receiver in frustration, he immediately yanked him from the game, even though the referees did not see the violation. Winning in and of itself was not enough for him. His players knew that he was more likely to drive the mercilessly after that had played sloppily but won than when they had played hard and lost.Page 366
Chapter 22 – It’s the Only Thing
Winning the 1965 NFL Championship against the Browns 23-12, the last Championship before the Super Bowl era
In time, this game would be nearly forgotten, lost in the middle of Lombardi’s greatest triumphs. It was the last title game played before the era of Super Bowls, and though it was attached to the two Packers championships that followed in a remarkable string of three straight titles, the fact that it was not hyped as Super in retrospect made it seem oddly apart. This was both unfair and fitting in a sense, because the game was best considered on its own, a faded dream played in the mist and slop, a transitory moment between football past and future. It was, as it turned out, the last great game for Lombardi’s glorious running back Tandem of Taylor and Hornung, No. 31 plowing for ninety-six yards despite a sore groin, No. 5 stepping his way to 105 with his ailing shoulder, their jerseys and faces caked in mud,
And the winning the first Super Bowl in 1966 35-10 against the Chiefs, with Max McGee getting the MVP after staying out all night.
Perhaps there was something to be said for ignoring Lombardi and staying out all night. McGee was among the few Packers playing free and easy. Willie Wood had two interception chances, but was too anxious and dropped them. Ray Ntischke was so keyed up he forgot his assignment on several plays. The Packers were playing hard, but just missing, and took a precarious 14 to 10 lead to the locker room at halftime. Lombardi told his men that they were “too tight”. Nitschke muttered to his defensive pals, Well, who the hell does he think got us so nervous in the first place? In the first half, Lombardi continued, they adjusted to Kansas City. “Now I want you to go out there and make Kansas City adjust to you.”Page 395
Chapter 23 – In Search of Meaning
The seven themes in Lombardi business speeches:
- The meaning of football
- The value of competition
- Striving for perfection, “a man’s personal commitment to excellence and victory”.
- Too much freedom, not enough authority.
- What makes a great leader.
- Character and will
These were read on pages 400 to 406.
Chapter 24 – Ice
Of course, this describes the Ice Bowl game, the 1967 NFL Championship game against the Cowboys in unbelievably cold weather. I’d forgotten the anecdote that Lombardi as GM had overseen the installation of underground heaters that had been keeping the field usable over night. But the below zero temperatures (thirteen below at kickoff and estimated wind chill of minus 46) or some mis-handling of the equipment made the system inoperable.
The Packers were on their thirty-two, first down, sixty-eight yards to go for the winning touchdown, four minutes and fifty seconds remaining in the game.Page 420
The coach, it could be said, had nothing to do with that final drive in a game that would be remembered thereafter as the Ice Bowl. Starr called the plays and scored the touchdown, Anderson and Mercein offered helpful advice and made the key runs and catches, Kramer and Bowman threw crucial blocks. Yet to every Packer on the field, and to many of those watching from the sidelines and in the press box, that final drive, more than anything else, was the perfect expression of Vince Lombardi. The conditions were miserable, the pressure enormous, and there were no fumbles, no dropped passes, no mistakes, just a group of determined men moving confidently downfield toward a certain goal. In his speeches Lombardi talked about character in action, and here i was, in real life. “Of all the games I’ve done,” said Ray Scott, “that final drive was the greatest triumph of will over adversity I’d ever seen. It was a thing of beauty.”Page 426
Chapter 25 – Until Lombardi Loves You
The Packers win Super Bowl II against the Raiders, getting Lombardi his three championships in a row, and Lombardi retires from coaching, becoming GM.
Why did Lombardi quit? Not even his aides accepted at face value the pragmatic answer he gave about simply not having the time to do both jobs. “I guess all of us were sitting back and trying to read between the lines,” Chuck Lan said later. Lombardi’s claim that he would be satisfied doing only the work of a general manager, Lane thought, was “like a great racehorse saying it would be content plowing.” Despite his assertion that he was in “excellent health” and that “any rumors to the contrary” were “completely false,” it was indeed Lombardi’s health, physical and mental, that more than anything drove his decision.Page 432-433
Two other reasons were mentioned by others as factors in Lombardi’s decision, although he was hesitant to acknowledge them. He had pushed his Packers as long and far as they could go, many believed, and it was becoming obvious that their era was over. “He was a smart guy. He knew. The Packers were dead,” said Gary Knafelc, who had played on Green Bay’s early championship teams. “He didn’t do Phil [Bengston] any favors. To win the Ice Bowl and that last Super Bowl was amazing. The Packers were old and dead. He didn’t want to go down a loser.” Even if that judgement was too harsh, perhaps the relationship between Lombardi and his played had reached the point of diminishing returns. He had said it all; they had heard it all. That was the assessment of Lombardi’s son Vincent. “Anybody who motivates and gets people going sooner or later runs out of things to say. You’ve got to take your act to a new venue. What’s he going to tell these guys to get them to reach down and do it one more time? They’d done it five times now. I think he saw that coming. I don’t think he bailed out because he saw the inevitable decline so mach as he just figured, what’s the point?”Page 434-435
Lombardi was GM only for the Packers 1968 season. They finished 6-7-1, out of the playoffs.
Chapter 26 – The Empty Room
Lombardi leaves as GM of the Green Bay Packers to be head coach and GM of the Washington Redskins. As a Green Bay Packers shareholder this section is quite interesting.
The ability of Lombardi to better himself as a shareholder in the Redskins is what would allow him to break his Green Bay contract, which still had five years to run. The NFL’s policy was to allow coaches and general managers to break contracts only if they were moving to higher positions. Lombardi was by no means a business expert, but he had made the capital gains argument earlier to Olejniczak when he sought a share of the ownership in the Packers.Page 457
Perhaps he had been leaving, slowly, for a year, but in the end it did not seem like a long goodbye. There was a farewell party at the office. The secretaries ordered cake and coffee. Not many send-off jokes, nor much talking at all. Ten years of brilliance gone in a flash. As Lombardi often told everyone in his speeches, all of the color, and all of the glamour, and all of the excitement, and all of the rings, and all of the rewards were now limited to memory. He had promised that the will to excel and the will to win would endure in Green Bay, but there was a sense that he was taking that will with him, leaving behind an overwhelming sense of loss.Page 462
The Packers would get back to the playoffs in 1972, finally win another playoff game in 1982, and finally get back to the championship game and win the Super Bowl in 1996, winning the trophy now named for Lombardi.
Chapter 27 – Taking Charge in Washington
One single season coach in Washington DC, a winning record (7-5-2) for the 1969 season. This would be Lombardi’s 10th and final season.
The move to Washington was as much for Marie’s well-being as for Vince’s restoration. She had braved ten snowy winters in Green Bay, and though she had tried to put the best public face on it she dearly missed the East Coast and metropolitan life. During the previous year, after her husband retired to the front office, she had longed for the action of being a coach’s wife as much as he had yearned to return to the sideline. Her occasional overuse of alcohol and prescription drugs to numb her pain had become more frequent and alarming to her family. “I’ve got to get her out of here, ” Vince had said one winter’s day in Green Bay, when she had drunk too much at a game. Now he had kept his work, got her out of there, with the promise of a new life and new hone. The outside world knew none of this internal trauma. In social settings Marie seemed optimistic and vibrant, and in her first public comments in Washington she sounded as certain of her role as her husband was.Page 466
Confidence and fear, that was how Lombardi coached the game. He needed his quarterback to be confident, not afraid, and from the first day treated Jurgensen like a leader, something other coaches had been reluctant to do. They had considered Sonny talented but self-oriented. Lombardi saw more. “Take ’em down to the goalpost, Sonny,” he said at the start of practice on the third day. Jurgensen running ahead of the pack – an unheard-of thought before, but there he went, holding the lead for several strides. Sonny was Lombardi’s man, and after only a few days he realized what that meant. Jurgensen had been around great quarterbacks much of his career, including Norm Van Brocklin in Philadelphia and Otto Graham in Washington. Yet it was not until he hooked up with the undersized guard from Fordham that he understood the best way to play his position. Lombardi’s system, he said, was “completely different” from anything he had seen before. It placed the emphasis on reading the defense and giving the quarterback fewer plays but more options. As had happened to Bart Starr earlier, as soon as Jurgensen got into Lombardi’s system, the game seemed to slow down. What had been chaotic suddenly made sense; everything became clear and comprehensible.Page 471
Chapter 28 – Run to Win
Lombardi has colorectal cancer, which apparently could have been caught earlier but he refused to get scoped. He dies on September 3, 1970.
Later that afternoon, Dr. Robert Coffey, a specialist in colon surgery, conducted a preliminary examination that found Lombardi in “no distress.” His prostrate was slightly enlarged, according to the medical report, and he had tenderness and fullness in his lower abdomen, a small internal hemorrhoid, but no rectal mass. But further tests the next morning brought grim news. The biopsy from a protoscopy revealed anaplastic carcinoma in the rectal area of his colon – a fast-growing malignant cancer in which the cells barely resemble their normal appearance.Page 489
On July 27, exactly one month from the day of his first operation, Lombardi was readmitted to Georgetown and immediately sent back into surgery. His preoperation symptoms pointed to trouble. He had not had a bowel movement in three days, and an X-ray showed a partial bowel obstruction. This time the exploratory surgery found that the cancer had spread massively to his liver, peritoneum and lymph nodes. Dr. Coffey was stunned, calling it one of the most voracious cancers he had ever seen, There was nothing they could do except sew him back up, bombard him with cobalt irradiation and chemotherapy, and pray. He was a terminal case. Ockie Krueger would never forget Marie’s wail of despair when DPage 493
Marie and the Hall of Fame induction of Jim Taylor.
When her son, Vincent, visited and heard her talk about the Old Man that way, it perplexed him. Yes, his father was an extraordinary coach, amazing in many ways, inspiring and heroic. But he was also all too human. Couldn’t she remember what it was really like?
“Come on, Mother,” he would say. “I … was … there!”Page 503
Any other suggestions for books on Packers history are appreciated, please leave a comment. I’ve seen the announcement that the Packers are putting out a four volume history called “The Greatest Story in Sports”. It is certainly on my list. In addition to Vince Lombardi, I’d by interested in reading more about Don Hutson.