We all know who the greatest football coach of all time is. He brought the Green Bay Packers from the depths of nothingness to absolute greatness from 1959-1967. He coached thirteen pro football hall of famers. He won five titles with the Packers. He is Vince Lombardi. But outside of the great wins, championships, and football intelligence how much do you really know about Lombardi?
This past weekend I had to say goodbye to my Grandfather for the last time. He lived a great life of eighty-eight years, and I will always cherish the great times I had with him. There are many great memories. Fun activities, humorous quotes, road trips, but one of them came at the most unexpected of occasions. I was a Junior in High School, and I was going through Confirmation preparation in the Catholic Church. For this preparation, we had to select a sponsor. Someone who was close to us, excluding parents, that would help us see through our confirmation. My Grandpa was a very Catholic man. God and Church were a source of energy that fueled his every day. Of course, I selected him to be my sponsor.
The class was instructed to have 3-4 meetings with our sponsor to prepare. I thought “great, I’ll go over by my grandparents and hang around a bit, sounds fun.” Well, little did I know my Grandpa would turn these meetings into one-on-one religious discussions. Yeah, not fun for me. But I believe that’s why the third meeting took a different turn.
Lombardi Demands Full Attention
My Grandpa was a Packers fan. However, he never really liked watching the games. In fact, I don’t think he owned a Packers shirt, maybe one? He would joke about sitting in his den reading and listening to my Grandma watching games. He could tell by what my Grandma was yelling how the Packers were doing. But he was still a fan and would talk about the Packers from time to time.
This third meeting we had; I feel he knew I was getting very unenthusiastic with our subject matter. Out of nowhere, he started talking about Vince Lombardi. Lombardi, like my Grandpa was also of strong catholic faith. My Grandpa said “The Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.” My ears suddenly perked up when he followed with, “Vince Lombardi said that.” Just like that, he had my un-divided attention.
Grandpa started out by telling me how Lombardi would lead his Catholic players to mass every Sunday. And of course, he mentioned the famous, “God, family, Green Bay Packers” line. But it was what came next the resonated with me the most.
“Football is like life, it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority.” – Vince Lombardi
Everybody knows that Lombardi’s players respected him. Not only did they respect him as their coach, but they respected him as another father figure in their life. But that respect was earned by it being a two-way street.
Bart Starr famously has said that he told Lombardi he could take all the chewing out he could give. But he had to do it behind closed doors. Otherwise, others in the locker room would never see Starr as a leader. Lombardi respected this wish, and Bart Starr led the Packers to five NFL titles under him.
In his Hall of Fame speech, Jerry Kramer said he had a bad practice once and Lombardi made sure he knew. Afterwards, Kramer sat at his locker contemplating what to do with the rest of his life. Lombardi walked in, slapped him on the back and said, “Son, one day you’re going to be the best guard in football.” Kramer commented that from that moment, if Lombardi believed in him, he could too.
Lombardi treated his players as his family. Even when he was tough on them, his players knew it’s because he wanted the best from, and for them. He was the father of their football family. So, their respect for him saw no end.
“We respect every man’s dignity, black or white.” – Vince Lombardi
It didn’t matter where you came from. Race, background, political views, Lombardi said that his team stood as one. When Lombardi joined the Packers in 1959, they had one black player. In 1967, the Packers had 13 black players. Four of which have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Packers played an exhibition game in the South during Lombardi’s tenure where the black players had to stay in a separate hotel. Lombardi vowed to them that they would never have to experience that humiliation ever again. He was true to his word as the Packers would never frequent a segregated establishment again.
He made it clear to his players that no acts of discrimination would be tolerated on his football team. He reportedly traded or released several players for any words of discrimination that came to his attention including Hall of Famer Jim Ringo. Due to segregation laws in some stadiums, Lombardi would refuse to help build press for certain matches on the schedule. He had zero tolerance for it. Some say it had to do with prejudice he endured as an Italian American in the past. He had an empathy for his black players.
Perhaps one of the most endearing stories of these actions is his support of Lionel Aldrige‘s marriage. Aldrige, a black player for the Packers was engaged to marry his longtime girlfriend, Vicky, a white woman. Vicky was never really accepted by the other player’s wives black or white due to the situation. Before their marriage, commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, told Lombardi that the marriage would be bad for the league. Lombardi completely struck down these comments. He responded, “This is my team. You can’t tell me how to run it.” And immediately supported the marriage. They were his family, and he wouldn’t let one member of his family be treated poorly no matter what.
Hard Work, Compassion, and Empathy
Lombardi always preached hard work and determination. My favorite quote from him, is “You don’t do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time.” He taught to treat others with respect, and they will treat you with the same in return. Jerry Kramer echoed another quote from him in his Hall of Fame speech that will live with me the rest of my life. Part of it says “make this old world a little bit better place because you were in it. You can, if you will.” It’s your job to make it happen, it doesn’t happen by accident.
Now, all of these facts weren’t poured out in that conversation with my Grandpa. Some are other facts I’ve learned or researched myself. But the moral of what I believe he was trying to teach me was not only about respect and hard work. But also, compassion and empathy for others around me. We are all created equal, and that’s how Lombardi viewed his players. Showing his players these traits in himself made them willing to follow him to hell and back.
I went into this conversation bored out of my mind and it turned into a lesson I will never forget. For that, I am forever grateful to my Grandpa for having shared it with me. I will cherish it for the rest of my life.
We could all learn a lot from Vince Lombardi in this fashion. With these traits we could all make this old world a little bit better, because we were in it. We can, if we will.
Greg Meinholz is a lifelong devoted Packer fan. A contributor to PackersTalk as well as CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter at @gmeinholz. for Packers commentary, random humor, beer endorsements, and occasional Star Wars and Marvel ramblings.