The Barnes & Noble Review
Quite simply, Vince Lombardi was the most brilliant, tough, emotional, unpredictable, loud, moody man I have ever met. And, oh yes, was he a perfectionist. He often talked about playing a football game free from error, physical and mental.
For 42 years, I covered the Green Bay Packers for The Milwaukee Sentinel, including all of Lombardi's games. I never was at ease with him. They were his Green Bay "Pacahs" and nobody had better pry into them.
After the Packers lost a game, his locker room could be an explosive minefield. Often, the same unpredictability awaited when his Packers won. Mostly, though, his post-game press conferences were made up of short answers to sports writers' short questions. Anyone who asked what he considered a dumb question would get a go-to-hell snarl. And he volunteered nothing.
At 8:30 every morning, Lombardi would stop for breakfast at a place called Sneezer's in Green Bay, pick up The Milwaukee Sentinel, turn to the sports page, and begin his day with me.
I remember interviewing Jim Taylor after the Packers had beaten the Chicago Bears, 49-0, for their third-straight victory to start the 1962 season. The headline on my story read: "Pack unstoppable -- Taylor."
"Is this what I want?" Lombardi wrote in his book, Run to Daylight, about my story. "I want them to believe in themselves, to believe that we can beat anyone, but just because we beat the crippled Bears, 49-0, I don't want us strutting and spreading overconfidence."
The Packers finished 13-1 that season and defeated the New York Giants, 16-7, for the NFL championship, the second of five league championships under Lombardi.
From the start, I wasn't prepared for Lombardi after covering five losing years of Packer football, including the infamous 1-10-1 season in 1959. Nobody was.
Even as biographer Maraniss demonstrates that the aphorism "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" was first uttered by a young actress in a John Wayne film, Lombardi loved slogans, and that one fit. A locker room sign read: "What you see here, what you say here, what you hear here, let it stay here... when you leave here." And he meant it.
If he didn't agree with something I wrote, he told me so -- immediately. But he never held a grudge against me.
Filled with restless energy, Lombardi was complex and more than a little puzzling. Regularly, he hosted what was termed the Five O'Clock Club, an hour-long, off-the-record chat session with the media. In essence, attendance was mandatory, even as Lombardi conversed more freely with selected friends than the beat reporters. On the eve of the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game (later termed Super Bowl I), Lombardi was relaxing at his Five O'Clock Club, reading a newspaper and watching television. He leaned around to the bar, asking for another scotch; during the lull, assistant coach Red Cochran killed the TV.
Lombardi returned, screaming. "Who turned off my program?" Cochran jumped to his feet, quickly reviving the set.
The megawatt smile lit up once more, as Lombardi resumed watching a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. Nobody again tampered with Vince's television. The genius needed his rest.
I read the new Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss, this summer while attending the Packers' training camp. Memories flooded back, good and bad.
I was privileged to know Lombardi in person, spending a decade with the man. As coach of the Packers, he was the focal point of my professional life: I covered him and the team. And, still, the book illuminates many fresh details, delivering pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. Maraniss, a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer at The Washington Post, has beautifully, diligently re-created Lombardi's life and made more understandable Vince's inconsistent, often contradictory behavior.
While Lombardi's old-line Catholic faith was apparent, the depth of his lifelong commitment was private. For instance, Lombardi had hoped to become a priest when he was growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, studying for the seminary in prep school. Religion remained a cornerstone for the rest of his life, as he attended 8am Mass daily and every morning offered devotions to St. Jude and St. Anthony, patron saints of loss and miraculous recovery. The outer Lombardi praised perfection and winning; the inner Lombardi sought solace with the human and the frail.
Fordham football, and the Jesuit training there, also carried forward, as did his membership in the Seven Blocks of Granite. But "Butch," as Lombardi's Fordham teammates labeled him, knew he was the least-talented member of that famed front wall.
On the homefront, Marie, Lombardi's wife, developed an alcohol addiction trying to serve the man she loved and idolized, for he often invested more in his teams than his family. Vince was easy to live with, she said, as long as he wasn't thinking about football, which was nearly always. And when Vince was in a loving mood, his timing was sometimes awkward. He was always in a rush. Marie once confessed, "Vince came home from the football office at 11am when I was baking a cake. He wanted to make love to me and got flourall over both of us." Mostly, though, Lombardi lived and breathed football.
President Kennedy asked Lombardi to come back to West Point -- where he'd stood out as a long-time assistant -- and coach Army during his successful run with the Packers. Having finally made the NFL, Lombardi was no longer interested, and he merely laughed nervously at the President's request. Kennedy understood.
Bud Lea worked 42 years atThe Milwaukee Sentinel. During his career, he served as the paper's first beat writer assigned to the Green Bay Packers, sports editor, and sports columnist. Since his retirement in 1995, he continues to write for Packer Plus, a weekly magazine published by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.