America had seen something like Vince Lombardi's Chiclets-teeth grin before. His face often radiated competitive fury, but when it crinkled with happiness, you saw the visage--and spirit--of Teddy Roosevelt, apostle of the strenuous life, who could have said, as Lombardi did, that fatigue makes cowards of us all. TR thought an occasional war could invigorate the nation, tuning its spirit and teaching it teamwork, and thought football could serve as a substitute. However, he found college football--the NFL was two decades away--alarmingly rough. Being the first busybody president, he convened a White House conference on rules changes to cut down the number of undergraduates being killed and maimed.
In 1959, half a century after TR's last full year in office, Lombardi drove his mauve and white Chevy from his native New York, where he was the Giants' offensive coach (Tom Landry coached the defense), to Green Bay. In the turbulent next decade, stalking the sideline in his camel's hair coat and fedora, he would become emblematic of the counter-counterculture. Today, 29 years after his death from cancer, he remains a remarkably durable embodiment of values that the nation, when waxing nostalgic, thinks got lost along the way.
David Maraniss says in his new biography, "When Pride Still Mattered," that Lombardi is the "patron saint of American competition and success." If so, the 1990s may be a Lombardi moment in America. The nation currently has the swagger and success of Lombardi's Packers, who from 1960 to 1968 won five NFL championships, including three in a row, and the first two Super Bowls.
Maraniss, a Washington Post associate editor, was drawn to Lombardi as a subject by "cultural geography." Maraniss was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin when it was a roiled sea of radicalism and Lombardi, 130 miles north, was vivifying martial values. He imbibed those values as assistant to coach "Red" Blaik at West Point in the early 1950s. In those days Lombardi took game films down to Manhattan, to the Waldorf Towers, to delight a former superintendent of the academy, Douglas MacArthur, who said what Lombardi believed: "There is no substitute for victory."
Such aphorisms appealed to Lombardi, whose father, a butcher, said, "No one's ever hurt. Hurt is in your mind." Lombardi's grandparents came in the wave of immigrants drawn to America by ads seeking workers to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Lombardi grew up in Brooklyn, became muscular carrying slabs of meat, then traveled to the northern Bronx to play football at Fordham. There the coach was Jim Crowley, one of the "Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame's 1924 backfield. Crowley's high-school coach in Green Bay, Curly Lambeau, founded the Packers.
Colorblind and extremely nearsighted, Lombardi, a 5-foot-8, 175-pound lineman, played, Maraniss says, with the abandon of someone nearly blind. Fordham's Jesuits taught Lombardi to understand virtue in terms of freely chosen subordination to a collective enterprise. Football entices many writers to commit dubious sociology--football's conquest of territory is Manifest Destiny redux, and all that. But Maraniss sensibly writes, "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 closely aligned with unity and conformity, for better and worse."
Although aging flower children paint the 1960s in pastels, the NFL prospered then in part because it fit that decade's celebration of the military--remember the Kennedys' fascination with the Green Berets--and the modern, meaning the intricate, the technically proficient, the specialist. Hence the apotheosis of the coach as "scientific" tactician.
In football's early days, coaching during the game was forbidden as unsportsmanlike. When Illinois's Bob Zuppke invented the offensive huddle in 1921, referees joined the huddles when substitutes entered the game, to prevent surreptitious coaching. But the man most responsible for the early growth of football, Yale's coach Walter Camp, preached that football coaches trained the managerial elite who would command the big battalions of American industry in the wars of commerce.
In 1878, when football was just becoming a staple of life on American campuses, some credit for Princeton's unbeaten season went to an unathletic but cerebral undergraduate who helped coach the team--Tommy Wilson. He went on, did Thomas Woodrow Wilson, to become the bane of Teddy Roosevelt's existence. "Everything," wrote young Tommy, foreshadowing Woodrow, "depends upon the character of the captain and president [of the team]."
In chaotic 1968, both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, Maraniss says, considered Lombardi as a running mate. (Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat, having met Jack during the 1960 Wisconsin primary.) Instead, Lombardi, like Alabama's Bear Bryant and Ohio State's version of George Patton, Woody Hayes, stayed on the sidelines but remained a center of attention at a time when Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali were setting a different tone in sports.
Maraniss's balanced biography is not a "pathography," obsessive about its subject's defects. But it is a cautionary tale about the cost of athletic success, the collateral damage done by an obsession with winning. What has been said of the study of the law--that it sharpens the mind by narrowing it--can be true of coaching. Lombardi was an inattentive parent and a negligent husband, whose wife took solace from alcohol.
Football, writes Maraniss, blends elegance and violence into contact ballet, but at bottom football is hitting, and hitting causes pain to most players on most plays. Hence football fit what Maraniss calls Lombardi's premodern heritage from southern Italy's "history of pain"--earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, revolts, famines, invasions, "a communal memory of the works of man collapsing."
Lombardi's Packers were such a work. Having won Super Bowls I and II, the Packers next won Super Bowl XXXI.