Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The mark of a champion: Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers

Presented to the Club by Erik Bruun on Monday evening, December 12, 2011




1. If you can walk, you can run

The best athlete I have ever known was a friend from college named Henry Fox. Henry had been the New England cross-country ski champion in high school. When I became a coxswain on the Trinity College freshman crew team, Henry was the strongest rower on the Trinity varsity lightweight team, the fastest lightweight boat in the country. He was the kind of person an underclassman like me aspired to be. He was funny, enthusiastic and drove himself incredibly hard. One of his favorite ways to push himself on a run was to pick a spot 100 feet away and hold his breath tightly until he reached the destination, his lungs exploding for oxygen upon arrival.

Henry loved to recite Vince Lombardi sayings and stories. "If you can walk, you can run," he crooned with delight. He told of a time Lombardi's Green Bay Packers played a particularly lackluster first half. As the players waited in the locker room, dreading the fury of their notoriously fiery coach, Lombardi instead opened the door, stuck his head in and with a surprised look declared: "Oh, I'm sorry. I was looking for the men's room." He closed the door and left, letting the players stew in their own shortcomings. The Packers stormed back on to the field and won the game.

Until last summer, Henry's stories about Lombardi were about as much knowledge I had about the legendary coach, other than the cartoon-like mythology of the NFL. To me, Lombardi was a string of clich├ęs. When a theatrical group came to Great Barrington to work out the kinks on their pending Broadway production about Vince Lombardi, they offered to donate proceeds of their opening performance to Monument Mountain High School. A friend asked me to go and having nothing else to do that evening, I went. This was not a play about football, it was about the struggle to achieve perfection, knowing that it is not going to be reached, but embracing the full depths of that struggle. Vince Lombardi, I thought, is a perfect Monday Evening topic. The play was based on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. It is the primary source for this paper. The title of this paper comes from a saying of Lombardi’s: “The mark of a champion is not whether you fall, it is whether you get back up again.”

2. The Smallness of Reality

Vince Lombardi was born June 11, 1913, the eldest of five children to Matilda and Harry Lombardi in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York. His parents, immigrants from southern Italy, were devout Catholics from large, bustling families. Matty was known as a perfectionist, demanding high standards from all her children. Harry left his home every morning at 4:30 to a slaughterhouse on Manhattan's West Side. His job was to haul sides of meat. Tattooed across the knuckles of his two large hands were the words "Work" and "Play," two themes that marked his son's life.

Vince Lombardi's youth revolved around family, religion and sports. He was a strong, determined athlete, known more for his drive than his athletic talents. Lombardi was ambitious. When he spent a week working alongside his father in the Meat District, he quit, vowing not to end up doing manual labor. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer. Lombardi used football to get into Fordham University, then a powerhouse in the national college football scene. On the first day of practice, the head coach moved Lombardi from fullback to offensive guard, a position that called more for aggressiveness than size, which Lombardi really did not possess.

Lombardi took subways for an hour and a half each way to Fordham, a Jesuit school. One of his favorite classes was an enormously popular course on ethics. Lombardi seriously considered becoming a priest. The university imposed tight discipline. When Lombardi finally broke into the starting line as a junior, he was suspended for fighting when a fellow player jokingly called him a "dago" in the locker room. Lombardi erupted in fury, lunging at his teammate. Fortunately, he was reinstated on to the team the next year, becoming one of the legendary "Seven Blocks of Granite" that anchored Fordham's run as the national champion. Lombardi, however, was considered the slowest and least talented of the seven. When the season ended, his career as a football player also came to an end.

Lombardi wanted to get into the business world, but this was the Depression and he struggled to find work for two years before landing a job as a teacher and assistant coach at a small Catholic private school in Englewood, New Jersey, called St. Cecilia. He had recently married his wife Marie Planitz, but was frustrated by his slow start and the realization that his career might be centered around a game. His deep ambition transferred into an extraordinary drive to win. He was embarked on a similar struggle as the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, to reconcile "the intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality."

3. A Way to Live With Defeat

Lombardi learned how to be a teacher at St. Cecilia. In the classroom, he started with the basics — to teach to the slowest students and then build their knowledge up from there. He coached both basketball and football. Early in his 8-year tenure, the head football coach asked Lombardi to give the pep talk to the team before the game started. Lombardi went into a frenzy. "You haven't done anything for me this week," he roared at them. "Now go out there and show me what you've got!" The players stormed on to the field, ready to run through brick walls. Lombardi gave every pre-game speech after that. He soon became head coach, leading the best high school football team in New Jersey to 27 victories and 3 losses under his leadership. "I don't want any good losers around here," he told his players. "Good losing is just a way to live with yourself. It's a way to live with defeat."

Lombardi's success brought him into the college ranks, returning to Fordham as an assistant coach for two years and then to West Point where he was an assistant to Colonel Red Blaik for five years. General Douglas MacArthur took a strong personal interest in West Point's football team. While leading American forces in Korea northward to the Chinese border, MacArthur wrote long letters to Blaik offering advice on pending games. Lombardi often went to the New York City Waldorf Astoria Hotel to brief the general on the team's status, MacArthur in turn delivered talks to Lombardi on the paramount importance of victory at all costs. Blaik taught Lombardi how to run a professional organization, exacting high standards and imposing tight discipline. He introduced Lombardi on how to use films to study opposing teams.

In 1951, however, West Point went through one of its worst scandals when it was discovered that almost the entire football team had been cheating. Players informed each other on test questions, a blatant violation of the college's honor code. The scandal was national news and virtually every player was expelled from the school. There is no evidence that Lombardi knew anything about the violations until after the fact, but his sympathies clearly went to the players. As an immigrant son, he associated himself with the struggling up-and-comers that distinguished West Point's football players. He worked the phones with other college coaches to help players get into other universities. Lombardi also joined Blaik in not resigning. They knew that they would now have a terrible team, perhaps for years to come. Lombardi pushed the new players for perfection, and after two years West Point once again had a winning record.

The owner of the New York Giants, Wellington Mara, had been a classmate and acquaintance of Lombardi's at Fordham. Mara fired his coaching staff in 1954, and he hired Lombardi to be the offensive coordinator under head coach Jim Lee Howell. Lombardi was in his early 40s and ached to become a head coach. Mara implied that he would succeed Howell one day. Howell hired a promising young coach named Tom Landry as defensive coordinator. Landry and Lombardi respected each other, but they were not friends and they were very different. Lombardi had a brilliant, embracing smile; Landry a dour, distant grim. "You could hear Vince laughing from five blocks away," Mara said. "You couldn't hear Landry from the next chair." Both were extremely talented coaches and super competitive.

In his first year, the Giants scored 264 points, the most in the NFL. Lombardi gained a reputation as a sporting intellectual. The New York Daily News ran a photo spread with a large photo of Lombardi and a one-word headline "THINK!" Lombardi was no simple jock. Trained as a priest, and failing to enter law or business, Lombardi applied professionalism to his task and he demanded his players do the same. His signature play was the power sweep in which the ball is handed off to the running back who “sweeps” to the left or right. Every player takes on specific assignments to clear a path for him to run through. The play calls for aggressiveness, precise teamwork, and individual flexibility. These were Lombardi's trademarks. He once delivered an 8-hour talk about the power sweep and the various ways the play could unfold.

In 1958, the Giants lost the championship game in sudden death to the Baltimore Colts 23 to 17. Some people still call it the best game in football history. It was also Lombardi's last game with the Giants. The Green Bay Packers in way-off Wisconsin had offered Lombardi the job of head coach. The team, which is still the only NFL team owned by its community, had just gone through a season of one victory and ten losses. They wanted a change. Mara — who adored Lombardi--recommended he take the job. The news merited a single-paragraph notice in The New York Times.

4. A God-forsaken Place

Lombardi made an immediate impact on the Packers. The team’s committee-like ownership and governance structure had led to easy-going standards and an unfocused approach. Lombardi demanded and received total control of the team. He embraced that authority with a deep fullness, bringing a completely new attitude to the team. “You defeat defeatism with confidence,” Lombardi said, “and confidence comes from the man who leads. You just have it. It is not something you get. You have to have it right here in your belly.” Lombardi was driven to win, but he embraced losing as a learning opportunity. He was consistently harder on his teams if they won playing sloppy football, then if they lost but made a strong effort.
In his first year as head coach, the Packers were 7 and 5. Lombardi won Coach of the Year. The Associated Press declared of the national poll “Vinnie, Vidi, Vici — NFL’s Top Coach.” Lombardi coached the Packers for nine years. They won the national championship five times (1961, ‘62, ‘65, ‘66 and ‘67), including his final three seasons as head coach, which also corresponded with the first two Super Bowls. His string of championships still reigns as the greatest championship streak in professional football. When he died in 1970 from colon cancer, having retired after the 1967 season, the NFL named the Super Bowl championship trophy after Lombardi.

Lombardi started each season from scratch, as if he were teaching a class again at St. Cecilia. Winning a championship season meant knocking his team back to the ground the next season. “Gentlemen,” he declared from the front of the room at the team’s first pre-season meeting, “this is a football.” To which veteran championship player Max McGee once responded: “Uh, coach could you slow down a little. You’re going too fast for us.”

The story of the Green Bay Packers and Lombardi coincided with the emergence of football as a national sport, broadcast into living rooms across the country with the growing popularity of television. Football was an almost ideal sport for television’s format with commercial breaks, zoom-in lenses and the struggles the game evoked. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a former marketing man and he understood football’s appeal and also Lombardi’s. Lombardi personified a deeply American story. The son of immigrants rising from obscurity through hard work and self-discipline, Lombardi went into the American heartland to lift a struggling team to victory through those very same traits. When Lombardi first went to Green Bay as a Giants coach, he told his wife that it was “a God-forsaken” place. But for him, it proved to be a place of opportunity, offering the right ingredients to bring his own life story to success. Lombardi set the tone for national football’s rise to prominence, and also represented the American ideal around hard work, determination and fair play.

5. “The Man Believes in Me”

One of Lombardi’s long-time players described Lombardi as “the biggest asshole in the world.” Experiencing him at work was often like watching tyranny in action. Having gone through the honeymoon period with the national press, articles later emerged portraying Lombardi as an arrogant bully. Lombardi pushed his players to the limits of their own endurance. These were tough, tough men. Linebacker Ray Nitschke grew up homeless and claimed to have beaten someone up every day of his teenage years. The sons of Pennsylvania miners, New England mill workers and prison convicts, football players threw themselves on the field with incredible violence. Lombardi said that football was not a contact sport, it was a collision sport. He used his own role as the authority figure to drive players’ aggression, converting it into an opportunity to become a stronger person. Almost every Green Bay Packer player said that they went through episodes of hating Lombardi.

When players appealed to Lombardi’s wife for help, Marie let them in on a secret. Her husband only yelled at players if he liked them. They should be worrying if he wasn’t yelling in their face, she told them. Many Packers came to love Lombardi. Bart Starr and Paul Horning adored him as a father figure. Lombardi’s secretary with the Packers described him as a “real softie.” One player, Em Tunnel, told a reporter “I’d get out of this town if it wasn’t for Vince. He’s the kind of guy you have to cuss out once a week when you are alone, but nobody else can cuss him out to me. In my heart, I know what he is.”

When friends and colleagues pointed out unfair things Lombardi had done, he often went to great lengths to make amends. He may have believed in tearing his players down, but he was brilliant in building them back up. Vincent Lombardi loved his players. “On this team, there is great love,” he said. “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. You will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright, isn’t glamorous. It takes a special person to love something unattractive, someone unknown. That is the test of love. Everybody can love someone’s strengths and somebody’s good looks. But can you accept someone for his inabilities?”

In 1965 the Detroit Lions clobbered the Packers in the first half 21 to 3. Detroit lineman Alex Karres yelled at Lombardi as they were returning to their locker rooms at half time: “Whadaya think of that, ya big fat wop!” Surprisingly, the players were more upset than Lombardi. Rather than yell in frustration, Lombardi stepped on a foot locker and delivered a speech on loyalty. “Win, lose or draw, you are my football team,” he concluded. “You are the Green Bay Packers and you have your pride!” These hardened, beaten up men misted up, went back on the field and stomped on the Lions for a 31 to 21 victory.

When the Packers lost a game to the Baltimore Colts, rookie Willie Wood was burned for nine catches and more than 100 yards trying to keep up with Raymond Berry. His teammates teased Wood mercilessly, predicting his career would come to an end that week. But Lombardi took the rookie to the side and told him “Don’t you believe anything those fellows say. You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right here with me. Every one of those guys making fun of you has had the same thing happen to them. You’re going to be here as long as I’m here.” Wood, who later entered the NFL Hall of Fame, told Lombardi’s biographer “Lombardi gave me confidence when he did that. I said, ‘What I’m doing has got to be right because the man believes in me.’”

Wood was one of four black players on the Packers at that time. This was in the very early days of integration in national sports and in Green Bay blacks represented .01 percent of the county’s total population. Lombardi later said that he did not have black players or white players, with the Packers he only had green players. This was more than a trite truism. Restaurants and bars in Green Bay were warned that if any of them refused to serve black football players, no players would be allowed to frequent their establishments. During his first year as the Packer head coach, he delivered a speech on racism to his team. “If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me. You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.” Lombardi avoided games played in the South where Jim Crow laws would split the players into different accommodations. When this was impossible, he used his old army connections to arrange for housing on military bases so the team would stay together.

Tolerance ran deep in the Lombardi family. When his younger bachelor brother Harold Lombardi who was in his 40s living in San Francisco wrote their father a letter that he was gay, Harold dreaded the return letter. This was in the early 1960s when society viewed homosexuality as a disease. But when Harold opened the envelope, his father simply wrote: “I don’t care. You are my son.” Vincent Lombardi knew his brother was gay and never gave any indication to anyone that this was an issue.

“Vincent Lombardi,” Willie Wood said “was the fairest man I’ve ever known.”

6. The Greatest Mistake of Your Life

Lombardi was driven to win. He no sooner savored a victory with a party at his house, then his mood turned sour as he thought about the next week’s game. He left the party and went into the basement to watch films on the next opposing team until the early morning. It was such a predictable event that his family called it the Cinderella hour. Lombardi’s obsession with winning did not justify doing anything to win, however. He did not allow cheap shots. Winning was the outcome of his drive to achieve perfection. Winning also meant making sacrifices, something Lombardi often said, rarely noting what his own sacrifices were. But his obsession led to unfortunate imbalances in other parts of his life.

Marie told a visiting writer in the 1960s “I wasn’t married to him a week when I said to myself, Marie Planitz, you have made the greatest mistake of your life,” he told the surprised interviewer. “I found out what to do. When it gets so bad I that I can’t stand it, I stand right up to him and he backs off.”

The Lombardi household was an unhappy household. Marie was usually alone at home and when her husband was home, football was often the only thing on his mind. Drinking problems plagued her throughout her life. The couple had two children, Vincent Henry and Susan. Visitors often noted a tension inside the family. A friend of Susan’s later said it was a home of sadness. “It was a sad house as soon as you walked in, empty. You could feel the family void.” Although Vince Lombardi’s parents attended all of their son’s games when he was a player in high school and at Fordham and even afterwards when he became a coach, Vince Lombardi never went to his son’s games. The son longed for his father’s approval, but when he declared that he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become a coach, Vince Lombardi was furious. “You can do that, but I will not spend one dollar to support you,” he said. Lombardi wanted his son to become a lawyer, just as his parents had wished for him. Nonetheless, the son played football and received tongue lashings for his play, even when he did well. When he was injured, the legendary coach ripped into his son for falling short, bringing tears to the boy’s eyes.

Susan Lombardi felt herself to be almost a non-person to her father. He insisted on bringing her on the road for away games, but never interacted with her. She was left alone in hotel rooms and sent to the stands to watch the football games, thousands of miles away from her friends and an even greater distance in her own eyes from her father.

But the coach was not a complete goon at home. He loved to practice magic tricks and was notoriously bad at them. He relaxed by watching McHale’s Navy and cleaning closets. A friend of Susan’s recalled a time when Lombardi took his daughter and a bunch of her friends, all around 20 years old, out on the town to a bunch of restaurants and bars in Green Bay. “I danced with Mr. Lombardi,” Mary Jo Antil recalled. “I can still see him doing the locomotion and the watusi. He was totally out of his realm, and he enjoyed it immensely.”

In the off-season, golf was almost as much of an obsession to Lombardi as football was during the season. The difference was that he was a bad player in golf and no matter how hard he tried, he could not get better. In football, Lombardi could use the skills and talents of his players to extend beyond his own limitations. It allowed him to become greater than himself in a way that he could not do alone on the field of sports, or at home with his family.

7. The Shadow Self and the Real Self

Vincent Lombardi got up early every morning to go to mass. He prayed every time that he would gain control of his temper and be a better husband. But every day he went to work and lost his temper. He then went home and struggled to be a man connected to his family. Prayer was the essence of his religious practice. He exercised it with the same discipline he invoked in sports. Lombardi did not call upon God to win football games, but he did bring the same fundamental principles the Jesuits taught him to the task of winning. Repetition, discipline, clarity, faith, subsuming individual ego to a larger good were extensions of his religious faith.

Lombardi kept old black wooden rosary beads dating back to high school in his coat pocket and he carried a bible wherever he went. It was the Holy Name Edition of the Catholic Bible, which had been given to him as a gift. Inside were two black-and-white photographs of his children Vincent and Susan. Neither child knew the photographs existed or were constantly in his clutches. Years later Vincent said of his father: “He went to mass to repent for his anger. He thought, I’ve got this temper. I fly off the handle and offend people. I apologize. But it’s this temper that keeps me on edge and allows me to get things done and people do things. Life was a struggle for him. He knew he wasn’t perfect. He had a lot of habits that were far from perfect. His strengths were his weaknesses, and vice versa. He fought it by taking the paradox to church. It went back to the Jesuits and the struggle between the shadow self and the real self — your humanity and your divinity. He saw that struggle in clear and concrete terms.”

8. The Mark of a Champion

The Green Bay Packers played the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 1961. The Packers were undefeated going into the game, but Detroit had a brutal defense, anchored by a pair of 300-pound interior linemen named Roger Brown and the previously mentioned Alex Karras. The Lions leapt to a very fast 26 to 0 lead and the defense was absolutely pulverizing the Packer offense. Quarterback Bart Starr was getting sacked on almost every drive. Offensive lineman Fuzzy Thurston said this was the game in which he perfected the so-called “lookout block,” a maneuver in which he would look over his shoulder and yell “Look out, Bart!” By the time the fourth quarter arrived the Packers still had not scored and it was clear they were going to lose. Starr turned to his bruised and bloodied wide receivers and asked if any of them could get open. The ball-hungry players normally pestered Starr to throw to them, but not this time. Max McGee answered “Bart, why don’t you just throw an incomplete pass and nobody’ll get hurt.” The joke lightened the mood and the Packers scored two more touchdowns, not nearly enough to win, but to make the rest of the game bearable.

This would become a championship season for the Packers and Lombardi did not give up on his team. In fact, Lombardi saw the defeat as an opportunity. He gathered his team around him and told them: “Let it be an example to all of us. The Green Bay Packers are no better than anyone else when they aren’t ready, when they play as individuals and not as one…. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

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