Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vince Lombardi

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was a football player, coach and executive that was best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s. He led the team to three straight and five total National Football League championships in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi is considered by many to be one of, if not the best coaches in NFL history. Today the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

It would be safe to say that I have an infatuation with Lombardi and those Packer teams. However, it’s not based solely on their excellence and high level of success. That helps, but there are other reasons.

Lombardi and those Packer teams transcended the football field. I can and have listened to the seemingly endless stories about this legendary man and his accomplishments. He was decades ahead of the rest in many areas and not just with football.

On Christmas Eve, the NFL Network ran part one of “A Football Life – Vince Lombardi.” They ran part two on New Year’s Eve. It was tremendous. I recorded it and have watched it several times since. I also suggest you read “When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss. This book on Lombardi is the best I have read and pulls no punches.

Here are a few examples of way I am fascinated by Lombardi:

The plaque at the top of this blog is dedicated to him and was installed in 1974 in the sidewalk near Sheepshead Bay Road and East 14th Street in Brooklyn, New York. The nearby football field at Old Bridge School, New Jersey, is named Lombardi Field.

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Lombardi was a man of faith, a devout Catholic. In fact, while he coached the Packers, he not only attended church every day, but also served as the altar boy. Rumor has it that the priest saying Mass would often nervously glance over his shoulder, hoping that he wasn’t making any mistakes in front of Lombardi.

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Lombardi demanded excellence from his players, his coaches and himself. He always wanted to the team to perform at the best of its ability. On one particular Sunday, their opposition soundly defeated the Packers. The did everything wrong. The game was a train wreck. The very next practice, Lombardi stood up and said, “Gentlemen, I’ve seen about enough. We’re going to start over, right at the very beginning! The object I am holding in my hand is a football.”

Max McGee, the team jokester, yelled out, “Coach, please don’t go so fast.”

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What Max McGee had to say about Lombardi: “But Vince was about as smart as anybody who ever put on a coaching hat. One time before a big game, he told us that if anybody was caught sneaking out before the game it would cost him $5,000. And he looked at me and said, ‘McGee, let me tell you something — if you find somebody worth $5,000, let me know — I want to go with you.’ That broke the tension. He could get you so wired before a game you almost couldn’t play

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Although Lombardi was born in Brooklyn, New York, he loved Green Bay, Wisconsin. This was made quite evident by this story:

It was 1975, the year that Lombardi and several of his players were being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. The group included Don Chandler, Willie Davis, Paul Hornung, Henry Jordan, Jerry Kramer, Ron Kramer, Max McGee, Jim Taylor and Fuzzy Thurston. There was a banquet for the event, which was, of course, sold out.

Lombardi’s widow, Marie, was there to accept the award on the behalf of her husband. It was an emotional time, as it was a short time after he had passed away. She told the audience about a conversation she had with Vince a couple of days before he died.

She said, “I was sitting on the edge of the bed and Vini (as she always called him) was so sick and semi-conscious. He awoke and said, “Marie, honey, I want to go home.”

I said, “You are home.”

And Vini said, “No, I mean I want to go home to Green Bay.”

It was a tear-jerking moment for everyone present.

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Lombardi hated racism. When he first came to Green Bay, the color barrier in pro football was still recently broken, and there was still teams that were nearly all white and one that was all white. Lombardi once said he didn’t see black and white. He only say Green Bay Green. He once pulled his team out of a hotel at midnight when the owner asked Lombardi to get the blacks on his team other accommodations. He let his team and the city of Green bay know that if blacks and whites alike were not accepted at their establishments, all Packers players and personnel were banned from the place.

In his first year in Green Bay, some veterans brought to his attention that a black player was to marry a white woman. The next day before practice, Lombardi (he a victim of racial prejudice as a dark skinned Italian) told his players that if any of them displayed any racism at all, they would be kicked off the team. In and of itself, his intolerance of racism at a very volatile time in the civil rights movement would solidify Lombardi as a great man. But, he was further ahead than you know.

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Lombardi hated all forms of bigotry. When he took over as Washington Redskins coach in 1969. In training camp, he had a marginal player, Ray McDonald. Lombardi knew McDonald was gay, as did the coaches. Lombardi told his coaches to get on McDonald, and work him, and work him hard. Seems normal enough. But, the Lombardi told them “and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground”. Lombardi also had other players he knew were homosexual, such as Jerry Smith, who Lombardi turned into an all-pro tight end. He told Smith that his sexuality would never be an issue as long as Vince coached the team.

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October 1961, a number of NFL players were called to active duty in the National Guard because the Soviet Union had demanded Western forces leave West Berlin in what became known as the Berlin Crisis. This was the Cold War, and American forces needed to be on the ready. That included professional football players.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that more than a dozen NFL players were called to serve their country, and that involved three of the Packers top contributors – eventual Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, eventual Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke and two-time Pro Bowl receiver Boyd Dowler.

Though the latter two were granted weekend leaves and didn't miss a game, the calls to duty didn't make life easy for Green Bay, which was rumbling along to an 11-3 record but which needed extra help before attempting to win its first NFL title in 17 years. Hornung had told Lombardi he was keeping in shape while he was deployed, though he later admitted that had been a bit of a fib, and Lombardi constantly mailed him game plans.

Vince Lombardi then made a special phone call to one of his good friends.

As the story goes, Lombardi met John F. Kennedy when he was campaigning in Wisconsin for the 1960 presidential election. Lombardi endorsed Kennedy, and Kennedy gave Lombardi his personal phone number. That's who Lombardi dialed up when the Packers were set to play the Giants for the 1961 NFL title to see if the president could pull some strings to make sure Hornung would be on leave and available for Green Bay.

Kennedy, the commander-in-chief, made it happen.

"Paul Hornung wasn't going to win the war on Sunday, but football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day."

That reportedly is what Kennedy told Lombardi, and Hornung made the favor pay off for his team, rushing 20 times for 89 yards and a touchdown while kicking three field goals in Green Bay's 37-0 domination of the Giants.

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I will stop here. Hopefully my tales of Lombardi haven’t put you to sleep. Tomorrow I plan on switching to something a bit more cerebral – Survivor. Until next time…from the booth.

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