When Pride Still Mattered

I recently finished reading When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi by Winner of the Pulitzer Prize author, David Maraniss. I chose to read this book for several reasons: it was recommended to me by one of my mentors, being a football fan I was always intrigued to learn about the man after which the most prized trophy is named, and last but not least this book is very highly rated in the categories of leadership, sports and biography.

It all started out with the fatherly figure of Enrico “Harry” Lombardi:

The ornamentation of his flesh is what truly announced Harry’s presence. He was covered with tattoos. They rose up from his forearms, a swirling blue and red mural of devotion to family and country, each splotch symbolizing another of his simple beliefs. He even had messages tattooed onto his hands, one letter per finger in a row above the knuckles. The letters appeared upside down and backward from his perspective, looking down, but in legible order to someone reading them from the front. On the index finger of the left hand was a W, followed by an O on the middle finger, R on the ring finger and K on the pinky. His right hand lettering began with P on the pinky, then r and A. ending with Y on the index finger. WORK and PLAY, competing for attention on the beefy digits of an immigrant meat-cutter in New York. There could be no more fitting passwords at the creation of an American myth.

Early on is his life, Vince established his life’s priorities – religion, family and sports:

The Trinity of Vince Lombardi’s early years was religion, family and sports. They seemed intertwined, as inseparable to him as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The church was not some distant institution to be visited once a week, but part of the rhythm of daily life. When his mother baked bread, it was one for the Lombardis, one for the priests, with Vince shuttling down the block between his house and the St. Mark’s Rectory delivering food and tendering invitations.

More precisely within sports, he was fascinated by football:

“From the first contact on, football fascinated me,” he said years later. Contact, controlled violence, a game where the mission was to hit someone harder, punish him, knees up, elbows out, challenge your body, mind and spirit, exhaust yourself and seek redemption through fatigue, such were the rewards an altar boy found in his favorite game.

Being a player helped anchor his passion for the sport:

Led by the golden arm of its crackerjack quarterback, Sid Luckman, Erasmus shut out St. Francis, 13-0. Vet Lombardi, who smacked Luckman with a few good licks on defense, felt like anything but a loser when it was over. He experienced what he later described as a locker room epiphany. As he sat slumped on the bench in his grass-stained red and blue uniform, he was overcome by joy, a rare feeling for him. Nothing on the sandlots felt quite like this. He understood that he was not a great player, but he had fought hard, given his best and discovered that no one on the field intimidated him, no matter how big or fast. He was confident, convinced that he could compete, puzzled why other players did not put out as much as he had. He felt fatigue, soreness, competitive yearning, accomplishment—and all of this, he said later, left him surprisingly elated. WORK and PLAY. It was an intoxicating sensation, one that he would want to experience again and again for the rest of his life.

Through his early experience as a player he learned valuable lessons that he carried with him throughout his career both as a professional player and later coach:

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.

His first substantial coaching assignment came with the Saints and it was there that he built his foundational system:

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 game. 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.”

Ethical values were a basis of his system:

At Saints, ethical values were largely passed on not by the priests and nuns but by Vince Lombardi, who found his pulpit everywhere, on the playing field, in the classroom and at school-wide auditorium meetings.

Vince then moved to West Point which in many ways aligned very well with his beliefs and offered him a natural progression:

In many ways the philosophy at West Point was similar to a way of life that Lombardi had learned earlier at Fordham from the Jesuits. There was a direct line from one to the next, from religion to the military to football, from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius to the football regimen of Colonel Blaik. Both emphasized discipline, order, organization, planning, attention to detail, repetition, the ability to adjust to different situations and remain flexible in pursuit of a goal while sustaining an obsession with one big idea. Lombardi was a daily communicant at both altars, absorbing what he learned from the Jesuits and Blaik to become the leading apostle of the mystical discipline of football. As integral as religion was to his sense of self, it was not until he reached West Point and combined his spiritual discipline with Blaik’s military discipline that his coaching persona began to take its mature form. Everything he knew about organizing a team and preparing it to play its best, Lombardi said later, he learned at West Point. “It all came from Red Blaik.”

After a number of years there, Vince was growing frustrated with remaining at the assistant coach position:

Lombardi was anxious and frustrated when the 1953 season arrived. This was his fifth year at West Point, and he had the quality of a postgraduate lingering on campus after his classmates had moved on. It was indisputable that he was Blaik’s top aide and wielded more power than any previous second-in-command—the “prime minister to Blaik’s king,” as one player described the relationship—yet no matter how much influence he had, he was still an assistant coach.

After spending a few seasons with the Giants as an assistant, it was finally time for Vince to be the Head Coach of an NFL team – where he would become a legend – Green Bay:

The newspaper strike ended the next morning, and in the first days of the final year of the fifties more of the old gave way to the new. Colonel Blaik retired at West Point after a final unbeaten season. Tim Mara, the old man of the Giants, died. Toots Shor sold his old three-story sports saloon on Manhattan’s West Side and began looking for a newer spot. And Vince Lombardi left the Giants, heading west to a place that he had once called god-forsaken, where at long last he could bust out of the category in which Sports Illustrated bad placed him with its one-paragraph notice of his change of jobs. This might never have happened, a thousand flits of fate could have taken him somewhere else, yet his entire football life seemed to have readied him for this moment, when he could carry the mythology of the Four Horsemen and the Seven Blocks of Granite, the blood of the Izzos, the pragmatic discipline of the Jesuits, the faith of Saints, the order and clarity of Red Blaik, the nosubstitute-for-victory philosophy of MacArthur, the professional cool of the Giants, the cult of the modern, with his leather satchel full of diagrams, his temper and fire and fearsome grin, his mauve and white Chevy and his Struggling little family—take it all with him out to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he had his one best chance to become more than just a face in the crowd.

He was intolerant towards racism:

During his first year in Green Bay, Lombardi called his team together on the practice field and delivered a rare lecture on racism. “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.” His actions that year were more often quiet and behind the scenes, like paying Tunnell’s hotel bill when it was hard to find suitable housing, or making sure the black players had enough money to go to Milwaukee or Chicago on off-days. But as his status and power increased in his second season, his sensitivity to racial inequities intensified as well, and his responses became more overt. Before the season began, Lombardi spread the word among Green Bay’s tavern and restaurant owners that any establishment that did not welcome his black players would be declared off limits to the entire team. At Tunnell’s suggestion, he allowed the black players to leave the St. Norbert training camp twice during the preseason for quick trips down to Milwaukee, the closest city where they could find barbers who knew how to cut their hair.

Success at Green Bay wasn’t without its share of challenges:

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 of 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 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.

What made Vince so successful?

To others, Lombardi’s brilliance was his simplicity and dependability. Straight ahead all the way. Tell everyone what you are doing and do it better. That undeniably was an important aspect of his coaching character, yet it might also be the most misleading explanation of all, according to Lombardi’s son, Vincent. “People say the only constant in life is change. I say the only constant in life is paradox. My father’s life was a paradox. Everything about him.” A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory but in reality is possibly true, and by that definition Vincent was right. It is only by looking at Lombardi as a paradox that one can fully appreciate him as a leader and coach. Was it love or hate, confidence or fear, that drove Lombardi and his players.? All—at the same time. Lombardi confessed in Look that he considered football “a game for madmen” and that he once pounded on a huge lineman with his fists to get him to “hate me enough to take it out on the opposition.” He struck the player, the coach said, because he believed that to play football well you had to have “that fire in you,” and there was “nothing that stokes that fire” like hate. Hit or be hit, that was the reality of football, Lombardi believed. He had coached much the same way since his days at Saints, when he had ordered his adolescent charges to hit him until they felt a surge of emotion that approached hate.

In his own words, what makes a great leader?

What makes a great leader.? This was Lombardi’s next theme, block six of his speech. Here again, one could hear the echoes of the Jesuits and West Point. “Leaders are made, not born,” he said. “They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” In those two sentences he combined the free will of Ignatius of Loyola and the price-paying of Colonel Blaik…Lombardi’s final theme, the seventh block of granite in his speech, concerned two inseparable qualities that he believed distinguish great leaders: character and will. All the men who took Father Cox’s ethics class in the mid-thirties had the intertwining definitions pounded into them day after day. Character is an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament It IS the mil exercised on disposition, thought, emotion and action. Will is the character in action. Character in action, Lombardi asserted at the end of his speech, was the great hope of society. “The character, rather than education, is man’s greatest need and man’s greatest safeguard, because character is higher than intellect. While it is true the difference between men is in energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in the invincible determination, the new leadership is in sacrifice, it is in self-denial, it is in love and loyalty, it is in fearlessness, it is in humility, and it is in the perfectly disciplined will This, gentlemen, is the distinction between great and little men.”

In memory:

Not the Green Bay Packers, perhaps, and certainly not the Old Man himself There are no roadside markers pointing to his childhood home in Sheepshead Bay, nor to his gravesite at Mount Olivet in New Jersey. He is buried next to Marie and Matty and Harry in a modest plot on the back edge of the cemetery, his gray tombstone softened by shrubs on a gentle slope a few steps from a gravel road. Men from the Knights of Columbus attend to the grave, clearing away ice in winter and weeds in summer, and there are often a few weather-worn tokens of worship left behind: seashells with shiny pennies in them, miniature statues of the saints, a green and gold plastic helmet, a felt Packers flag. The remnants of Lombardi’s world are fading, yet his legend only grows in memory: the rugged and noble face, commanding voice, flashing teeth, primordial passion, unmatched commitment. In the end it is perhaps Vincent—who had been there—who gave him the highest honor. After years of working through the contradictory feelings that he had for his father, the son found his calling. He became a motivational speaker, using for his inspirational material the life and words of Vince Lombardi.

A highly recommended read, on leadership, coaching and for any sports fan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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