August 4, 2022 3:05 am
On this episode of Our American Stories, more than any other sports figure, Vince Lombardi transformed football into a metaphor of the American experience. David Maraniss (author of "When Pride Still Mattered"), captures all of Lombardi: the myth, the man, his game, and his God.
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Excellence must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one's might and every bit of effort that we have.
And each day there's a new encounter, each week there's a new challenge. All of the display and all of the noise and all of the glamour and all of the color and all of the excitement and all of the rings and all of the money, these are the things that really linger only in the memory. But the spirit, the will to excel, the will to win, these are the things that endure. And you're listening to the late Vince Lombardi and we celebrate great American iconic figures and there was no bigger one in the mid to late 20th century than Vince Lombardi. He affected everything and we love talking to great writers and we're going to talk right now with David Moranis who wrote the book on Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. David's the associate editor of the Washington Post and David thanks so much for joining us.
Well my pleasure. Let's start in the beginning, Vince Lombardi's dad. What did he do for a living and describe the world that young Vince grew up in? Oh man, Vince Lombardi's father Harry was a butcher. The family lived in sheepshead bay in Brooklyn.
Harry would commute over to the lower west side of Manhattan where he had a butcher shop. One of his nicknames was called Five by Five which described about how he looked. He was short and squat and very strong and sort of inculcated into his sons that there was no such thing as pain. He was tattooed you know before his time I guess you know he fitted with the modern day athlete in that sense.
But my favorite tattoos were on his knuckles. On one hand his knuckles spelled w-o-r-k work and on the other hand the knuckles spelled play p-l-a-y and that too sort of reflected some part of his son's mythology. Indeed and here's a quote from you, the trinity of Vince Lombardi's early life was religion, family and sports.
It would be true for his entire life wouldn't it be David? Oh absolutely yeah in various orders but he was a very religious man, Catholic family, Italian Catholics. At one point Vince himself thought he was going to be a priest and he always sort of carried that inside him for the rest of his life and he was traded at Fordham by the Jesuits and the Jesuit philosophy was a very important part of his coaching philosophy. But family was really everything. His mother's family were the Izzo's and she was one of 13 Izzo kids and that was all kinds of cousins and uncles and aunts and that family really is the environment that Vince Lombardi grew up in.
Something that he never was able to recreate with his own nuclear family as we'll talk about but was able to recreate with his team the Green Bay Packers. And by the way 13 kids people are listening like shocked right David but Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic and just lots of families 8, 10, 12 was well it was pretty normal wasn't it? Yeah no it was not out of the ordinary for an Irish Catholic or Italian Catholic family of that era.
The Izzo's were pretty well renowned in Sheepshead Bay because there were there were so many of them and they they had various professions in that place but no it was not it was not shocking that there would be 13 of them. Now you wrote quote the church was not some distant institution to be visited once a week but part of the rhythm of daily life talk about that. Vince Lombardi as an adult went to mass every morning when he lived you know wherever he lived. At Fordham as a student he was trained by the Jesuits. Then he was a teacher and coach at St. Cecilia High School in New Jersey where his best friends were the fathers there and the nuns. When he was at Green Bay he went to mass every morning at St. Willa Bronze in Green Bay which was a heavily Catholic place.
And finally I love this story related. In Alaska his last move in his career was to Washington DC. He of course wanted to go to mass every morning but the mass that he wanted to attend was held at something like 9 30 or 10 and he wanted to get to work before then. So he literally knocked on the door of the priest and told him to move his mass up so he couldn't get to work.
That one didn't work. He couldn't tell God what to do but he could tell everybody else. That's right. In the end there was a part of me that as I read your book he almost wanted to submit to something higher than him. That was about the only place in his life where that was true yes but I think that people have various levels of commitment to faith and religion and I think with Vince Lombardi it was authentic and deep and he did need that.
He also it should be said that he went to mass every day because he knew he was a flawed human being and he knew that he sometimes had anger management problems not that he was violent but just that he accepted you know with his words and he wanted to try to control that and he regretted it and now it's one of the reasons he went to mass sort of for penance in that sense. Now let me hit you with another quote and this is a Lombardi quote in your book. From the first contact on football fascinated me.
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 David suffering pain redemption it sounds like football and religion had intertwined. Yeah they certainly were with Vince Lombardi. There's one great irony or paradox to that which is that Lombardi was kind of a wimp.
He had a very low pain threshold himself. I mean he was a tough human being and a strong spirit but as I write and I believe this is true with many coaches and politicians and leaders in general they see their own weaknesses and understand them and try to eliminate them into others which they can't eliminate in themselves. So that but the whole notion of fatigue though and work giving your hardest and leaving it all on the field is something Lombardi did personally and that he truly believed in the reward of that hard work which is part of the Jesuit philosophy. And you're listening to David Moranis talk about the Jesuit influence on Vince Lombardi's life. More from the author of When Pride Still Mattered the story of Vince Lombardi continues here on Our American Stories. Folks if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. A place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to hillsdale.edu to learn more. And we continue here with Our American Stories and with David Moranis and his terrific book When Pride Still Mattered the story of Vince Lombardi.
Let's pick up where we last left off. People would never believe it now but New York City at one point in time David was a college football power. Talk about the impact of those Jesuits and Fordham on young Vince. Well I think that you can trace everything about Lombardi's coaching philosophy back to the Jesuits. The key one in my mind is the notion of freedom through discipline which I think explains Lombardi better than anything else and is a Jesuit notion. Which is that only through the hard work and repetition and commitment that comprises discipline can you eventually develop the freedom in your life. You know for the Jesuits it was free will for Lombardi if you transferred it to his football teams it was that once they learned they disciplined themselves through that hard work to understand what they were doing it slowed the game down for them and made them have a leg up on all of their opponents and that was the freedom that his hard work gave to his players. It's so true I'm going to read again from the book. All the detailed preparations resulted not in a mass of confusing statistics and plans but in the opposite paring away the extraneous reducing and refining until all that was left was what was needed for that game against the team.
Exactly your point there David. Yeah and I think that along with the Jesuits the other major philosophy that affected Lombardi was from West Point where he was an assistant coach under the great coach Red Blake who really had that same philosophy of making things simple. By being a good teacher it doesn't mean that things are dumbed down for the players but just that there's so much extraneous stuff that teachers put into something and the ability to make it understandable to every player and to simplify something until it has a more powerful effect it's something he also learned from Red Blake. Indeed in fact you wrote quote in many ways the philosophy at West Point was similar to the way of life that Lombardi had learned earlier at Fordham under the Jesuits. Absolutely you know it's a perfect storm you know our leaders born or made I think there's a combination of the two but I think that the making of Vince Lombardi with the ingredients he already had came from the Jesuits and West Point in a way that made him unique.
Now his first job out of Fordham his first coaching job was on a little hamlet in northern New Jersey called Englewood. I grew up not far from there and St. Cecilia's high school I'm going to quote again from the book when he took the job at Saints Lombardi said later his frame of mind was that he wanted to be a teacher more than a coach and for some people who really know him and you did as you studied him that was true all the way through wasn't it? Oh totally yes he was he was a teacher coach everything that helped him with the Green Bay Packers was refined first at little St. Cecilia he taught a lot of different classes including chemistry and again he what he tried to do was make it he wouldn't go on in the course work and tell every kid in the class understood it um and he had a that ability to make complicated things seem understandable comprehensible so that you know later when he first got to the Green Bay Packers Bart Starr the quarterback spent one hour since Lombardi had rushed to a telephone to call his wife to say that he'd never experienced anything like this and they were going to start winning because of the way that Lombardi who was a lineman by the way could explain what it was like to be a quarterback. You know this is extraordinary we're going to play the clip from Bart Starr in one second but what's interesting in what when Lombardi and we're just jumping ahead of the story we'll return back to St. Cecilia's when when Lombardi gets to Green Bay the team had been one in ten the year before one in ten so he's now meeting the players he gives this pep talk and within an hour as you said here's Bart Starr talking about that. I always remember our first meeting with him it was dynamite and I called my wife Cherry and I said honey we're going to begin to win that's all I said to her honey we're going to begin to win in his very first meeting you could see how well prepared he was and then how he approached what he was teaching at that session that day you could you could sense an outstanding teacher and builder that he was and that's exactly what we were he just brought us right up quickly.
It's extraordinary eight years he spent at St. Cecilia doing just that eight years David that really mattered didn't it? In a couple of ways one is the that he was ready when he finally got his chance secondly in another way all of that time eight years at St. Cecilia's and then and then several other assistant coaching jobs you know 20 years basically in the in the wilderness before he got his break all made it so that he had this enormous overriding will to succeed when he finally did get his chance. West Point is the next gig talk about this man read Blake because we all need mentors in life and sometimes we're just lucky enough to stumble on one. Well Blake was a superior football coach he had great organizational skills he also was a terrific teacher and his motto was you have to pay the price and the notion that you get out of life what you put into it and it was part of the learning tree for Vince Lombardi. And what's interesting is this is back when West Point is again hard to believe was a national powerhouse in football championship teams.
Yeah they when when Lombardi got there they'd come through a couple of amazing seasons where they were the number one team in the country. One of the other threads of my book however is the fallacy of the innocent past where you know we're always longing for something golden in the past and and tend to romanticize it for that reason there are many valid reasons to do that but you can't look look at it through rose-colored glasses so during Lombardi's time at West Point there was a cheating scandal among among the football players you know human nature doesn't really change the culture around it does but but the temptations of life are there you know in every generation and so at West Point it was you know a cheating scandal that almost brought red blake to his knees they had an amazing recovery but it was a very difficult couple of years. And there's an honor code there so in a place like West Point it's even just it's worse than Big State University a cheating scandal. Right I mean yes it's sort of more discombobulating that those young men would would be involved in that it wasn't the first time it wasn't the last time though that one of the academies had a scandal like that and partly because of the pressures of the honor codes.
You bet and that they're young men in a very tough circumstance and that nothing changes there. One scene in the book really stood out for me David it was of Lombardi taking game film from the West Point game and bringing it to New York City for an important graduate who lived in the Waldorf Historia. Who was that graduate? That was uh General Douglas MacArthur who by that time was stacked from his controversial uh period as a general army general but still revered West Point he'd once been the superintendent at West Point he and red blake were very close and so one of of assistant coach Lombardi's assignments was to go down to New York to get the film developed and stop off at MacArthur's penthouse suite in the Waldorf Historia hotel and show them the game film. MacArthur was always following in great detail starting lineups of the West of the army football team, their schedule, their preseason drills. He wanted to know everything about every player on that team and one of so Lombardi got to spend time with him showing him game film during the season. That had to be a real learning experience for him at a minimum. Lombardi and MacArthur by the way both believed David in the value of competitive sports to shape and mold men's character.
Talk about that. Oh definitely yeah no um MacArthur was very much into the notion that that you know mind and body went together and that sports were essential to to building character. And you've been listening to David Moranis his book When Pride Still Mattered. It's an older book but what we do here on this show is we go back and we let you hear the stories that are some of the best ever told and bring them to you. Again David Moranis When Pride Still Mattered the story of Vince Lombardi continues here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and with author David Moranis who wrote When Pride Still Mattered quite a while ago but we call them up because well no one knows more about Vince Lombardi.
Let's continue where we last left off. Let's talk about his next job because it may have been his most important. He was an assistant coach with Wellington Marrow's New York Giants. He was the offensive coach and a young Tom Landry. Dallas of course would ultimately get Tom Landry. He was the defensive coach.
Nice nice start. You could say that that was the best combination of of assistant coaches in NFL history so much so that the head coach Jim Lee Howell they used to joke that it only made it so it was to make sure the footballs had enough air in them and then he turned everything over to Landry and Lombardi who were um yin and yang uh just opposites of personality and coaching styles. Landry was cool cool methodical almost uh almost an automaton in the way he wanted his players to to act and the way he coached and Lombardi was um much more emotional uh much more uh uh you know high high and low in terms of how he would deal with the players uh just complete opposites. Indeed and by the way he had to learn something new he had to adapt Lombardi.
These were grown men guys like Charlie Connolly had served in war. Talk about how Lombardi adapted from teaching young people to teaching grown men. Well you're right uh you know his first uh training camp with the giants um he he did the the offensive players really didn't uh take to him at first. Frank Gifford uh the great halfback and Charlie Connolly the old quarterback they thought he was sort of amateurish and you know trying to sort of a rah rah college guy so it took him a while to adjust to the pro style but that's a very important point about Lombardi which many people don't quite understand he has the reputation of sort of my way or the highway being inflexible he wasn't like that at all really he was very disciplined and tough but he was also a master psychologist who who would study his players and figure out how to get the best out of all of them and learn and change and adapt and that's exactly what he started doing when he became an assistant coach at the Giants.
And all teachers in the end have to do that because culture changes people change and you just can't teach you can't treat people as robots they're people. That's exactly right and that's why when people ask me whether Lombardi could succeed today I say yes um he would he would he would learn how to get the best out of players today just as he did in his era and he would adapt to that without changing his fundamental philosophy and the players would adapt to him because they realized that he had their interest at heart and that he would help them win. Indeed let's talk about the professional football experience then because it's not today baseball boxing even horse racing got more coverage in newspapers pay was poor in your book you talk about how players barely got paid for pre-season games and many teams had no compensation plans for injured players but Lombardi was lucky to come into the league just as all of that was beginning to change David and it didn't hurt that he was in a big media market like New York. No it didn't and it didn't hurt that um that the game had him as well and it sort of was a nice uh synergy between the rise of professional football and the rise of Vince Lombardi so everything that he learned in New York by the time he got to Green Bay football the NFL was finally coming out from being a second-class sport to being the dominant sport that it would later become and and the sport used Lombardi and Lombardi used him in that rise. Indeed and so he ends up in a little hamlet in the midwest called Green Bay and his poor wife I mean New York City and it might as well have been Alaska that he was going to as far as his wife and family were concerned we haven't talked much about this thing called the marriage and the wife had drinking problems Vince wasn't exactly a model husband in terms of how he talked to his wife treated his wife and he was never there talk about that relationship and what the wife did because she really tried to keep Vince in New York.
Yeah well you know it's a it's a difficult it's a love story but a very difficult and human and problematic one. Marie was from New Jersey she loved the east coast she liked the clothing stores in in Manhattan and just the whole lifestyle there and and for her to go to to Little Green Bay was just a utter culture shock. There was a Broadway play that was made out of my book and the character that steals the show in the play is Marie Lombardi played by the great actress Judith White.
The scene of them driving west for the first time in rounding Chicago and then running into a snowstorm is amazing to see Judith White portray Marie in that scene where she sees nothing but white ahead of her and what that sort of represented to her. I think Lombardi was much better creating a sense of family out of his football team than he was out of his nuclear family. His wife had a paradoxical situation where she loved being Vince Lombardi's wife and she grew to love football and and really understood him and the game but in the end quite well and yet it was a very lonely experience because he in a sense was married to football as much as so more than her and she did have a drinking problem and there was several moments in their lives in Green Bay where things got pretty dicey.
She was in the hospital once for for an overdose of of drugs that you know of pills I'm sorry not drugs and of course the relationship with Vince Jr. was equally difficult. Imagine being carrying that name and that bird. There's a book in that David, The Sons of Great Men, maybe maybe yeah I know there really is yeah. There's a great scene in your book where Lombardi, the new coach, gives his first impassion speech to the Green Bay team that had just lost 10 of 11 games. He told them they were going to be the New York Yankees of football. He told them that he would relentlessly pursue victory and anyone who didn't like it was free to leave. After the speech and I'm quoting from your book, there was silence.
The room empties. Lombardi approaches veteran Max McGee. What did you think? Lombardi asked. Well I'll tell you, you got their attention coach. McGee replied, you know I wasn't sure Lombardi confided everybody could have just gotten up and walked out for all I knew. It showed a tremendous vulnerability in Lombardi and in honesty and I think that is what really came out of this book for me. What a human being he was.
Oh absolutely. You know you can try to create a mythological creature as a saint but it's the frailty and humanity of someone who then goes on despite all of that to achieve success that makes Lombardi the more interesting character and he did have those vulnerabilities and those uncertainties and they drove him as much as as his confidence that he was going to win. Indeed and I love there's a video I don't know if you've ever seen it's Lombardi on a on a in front of a chalkboard and he's outlining the sweep.
Oh yes that's that's iconic yeah. It's like a physics class it's so intricate and yet he mastered this team mastered this play and it became well it became the iconic play of the great American football team known as the Green Bay Packers. I love the story of the sweep as much as anything to describe Vince Lombardi because superficially it seems simplistic you know the other teams would have all of these fancy plays and and the Packers had this power sweep the Green Bay sweep and other teams knew it was coming.
So why did it succeed? It's because Lombardi taught it so well and so thoroughly and allowed freedom in the discipline of that sweep so that every player involved in that sweep whether they're a blocker or the runner knew about 10 or 20 variables that they could use on the sweep depending on how the defense was reacting and they understood it so well that they were one step ahead of the defense on that play and that was the freedom through discipline of of Lombardi's philosophy exemplified by one play that seemed simple but actually was rendered simple in its complexity. And you're listening to David Moranis author of When Pride Still Mattered the seminal book in understanding the life of coach Vince Lombardi.
More after these messages. This is our American stories and we continue with our American stories and with author David Moranis Pulitzer Prize winner and author of When Pride Still Mattered. Let's pick up where we last left off on the life of Vince Lombardi. Lombardi had no room in his locker room or in the entire city it turns out for racism David. Talk about this did some of it have to do with how Italians were treated in much of the country? He was called names like WAP and Dago and Guinea. You know it did certainly affect Lombardi that that's not to say that that was the only factor because I think there are other Italians who were discriminated against or anybody.
You can react one of two ways you can then find somebody else to discriminate against yourself or you can take it as a learning lesson about you know that we're all in the same boat. Lombardi took it that way in the best possible way. When he got to Green Bay you know I think there were three blacks in the whole town and one was the shoeshine man at the Northland Hotel and the other two were packers. He brought the first wave of great black athletes to Green Bay and one of the first things he did was go to all the taverns in Green Bay or most of them there's so many and overwhelmed it was a tavern on every block but he said if I hear that you're discriminating against any of my players you're off limits for all of them and that had a pretty profound effect and that was the sort of thing he did throughout his career when they had preseason games in the south. The first instance they were in New Orleans and the black players had to sleep somewhere else he said we'll never allow this again and he would put the whole team up together at an army base instead of having to deal with the Jim Crow south. He was very strong on race and all of his black players from the day they first met him to the day he died revered him for that. Yeah in the military we all know this about the military long before there was integration talk the first real cultural institution in America that brought the races together was the military David.
Yeah no it's true I mean too late it happened after World War II basically but the military and sports more than any other parts of American life have become true meritocracies at least on the playing field or on the field of battle they did a lot both of those institutions to break the racial barriers of this country. Let's talk about prayer you said it was quote the essence of Lombardi's religious practice and the constant of his daily routine quote his daily prayers were an effort to balance the tension between his will to succeed and his desire to be good. You know it's quite something that he saw that in himself he might have the appearance of not being the most self-reflective human being so obsessed did he seem with with prevailing but in fact he did have that self-awareness and it was the central part of his faith of his life of prayer was to try to find the right balance even if he couldn't do it outside of the the church he understood the problem that he was dealing with in his own frailty on that and that was that was what he spent a lot of you know he didn't pray to win he prayed to be a better person. And in your chapter trinity his son talked about his dad and I'm going to quote from the son life was a struggle for my dad 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 that paradox to church it went back to the jesuits always and the struggle between the shadow self and the real self your humanity and your divinity he saw that struggle clear my dad in concrete terms wow what a wise son David isn't that something I know I felt blessed when I started this biography that Vince Lombardi's son was not perpetuating a mythological sated creature as a father but had a clear-eyed vision of him and it wasn't he didn't hate his father he loved his father but he knew his father's flaws and he had suffered because of that himself and spent a lot of time thinking about it so that by the time I approached this book Vince jr was very open to letting an author sort of see the reality and the complexity of the paradox of of his old man and what father and son doesn't have this complicated relationship and the honesty of this the brutal honesty it was absolutely beautiful oh I agree I mean every every father-son mother-daughter relationship has some complexity to it of one degree or another this one was a little more complex because of the father's fame and his obsession and the son's inability to break through until until you know it's almost too late but that level of comprehension of of Vince jr of what his father was dealing with is quite extraordinary Lombardi would go on to win a world championship by beating his old team the new york giants and he didn't just beat the giants David he destroyed them when the score was 37 and nothing he finally started playing his subs and Lombardi called that title game the biggest thrill of his life well you know he probably thought that he was going to be the coach of the new york giants that was you know he was a new york kid that was he liked uh he and wellington barrow both went to Fordham in the same era there are a lot of connections there he he didn't get the job and then by the time he was might have gotten it he didn't want to leave again so beating the beating the new york giants I would say that first 37 to nothing game was probably the the most important of his career along with the last along with the ice bowl at the end yep there was this great celebration at the elks club in town and everyone was there after this victory players too you wrote this about Lombardi and the men he coached quote as despotic and unfeeling as he could sometimes seem on the practice field the coach had taught them how to win he lifted their self-image he challenged them to accomplish things that they had thought were beyond their reach I want to play you a clip it's of Jerry Cramer talking about coach and this is a guy talking possibly David 20 to 30 years after this incident let's take a listen to Jerry Cramer I jumped off sides one time in a scrimmage and he got in my face and he said mister mister the concentration period of a college student is five minutes high school is three minutes kindergarten is 30 seconds you don't even have that so where's that put you put me checking my shoe shine I go up the locker room sitting there chin on my hand album and he's looking at the floor thinking I'm never going to play for this guy he came in the door he came across the room slapped me on the back of the neck messed up my hair he said son one of these days you're going to be the best guard in football he turned around and walked away and that started my motor with that comment he allowed me to think about being a great football player and from that point on I worked my tail off I gave him everything I had it made a profound impact on my life and the key to Lombardi which many coaches who think they're mini Lombardis don't understand is that you have to have that balance yes you can be tough but you have to have the ability to know when to when to show the love to your to your players and that you really you know it's about them and their ability to work together and Lombardi had that there's some Lombardi wannabes who just see the tough part of it and don't see the love part yeah they don't see the softness either or the vulnerability and that's that's a considerable loss for them final parting thoughts here once that giant's game wins in my mind the super bowls were after thoughts they were going to happen he had achieved all he'd achieved what if it was there something after it was all done that you you thought I should have put that in the book I missed it boy that's a great question I missed a couple of stories that I wished I'd gotten one was about Lionel Aldridge the defensive and an African-American who was in love with and married a white woman and there was a lot of pressure to prevent that from happening believe it or not in that era you know we still had that level of of racial bias and Lombardi stood up for Aldridge and said you know we're human beings first and don't feel any pressure from me about that seems obvious now but I wish I'd had that story in my book because it was one more level of Lombardi I do have in the book the fact that um his brother Harold was gay and Lombardi was terrific on that issue which still is not something that professional athletes can deal with in a particularly healthy way even today but Lombardi made it clear on all of his teams that if he found anybody discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation they were off the team and as a Catholic that had to be something I mean he was actually practicing perfect Catholicism he was loving on the gay player I love the way you put that because there's so many different ways that people distort uh religion and in Catholicism and and he was applying the the fundamental love of of what faith should be and you've been listening to David Moranis author of When Pride Still Mattered it's an older book but pick it up if you haven't read it you won't regret it go to Amazon for the usual suspects the story of Vince Lombardi told by no one better than David Moranis here on Our American Stories
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