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In the early ’70s, I wrote a scathing critique of the decision by Fordham University, my alma mater, to name its new sports center after Vince Lombardi. At that time, I viewed the legendary football player and coach as the epitome of a “win-at-all-costs” mentality that was contrary to what a Catholic college should espouse.
This past week I attended with a group of Fordham alumni the production of “Lombardi,” which just opened in Manhattan. Based on the David Mariniss book (“When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi”) and directed by Thomas Kail, the play stars Dan Lauria (of “The Wonder Years” fame) as Lombardi, Judith Light as wife Marie, and Keith Nobbs as a novice “Look” magazine reporter and narrator.
While the play brought back stirring memories of the Green Bay Packers’ glory years of the late ’60s, it also revealed much about Lombardi the man that I never remembered knowing. If I had, I doubt that I would have been so harsh on Fordham’s decision.
The man who emerges from this rousing production and riveting performance is above all driven by his love for his players. He exhibits his emotions in strange ways, largely by growling, fuming, and spitting. But there is no doubt that what motivated him was an obsession not so much with winning (despite the infamous quote, incorrectly attributed to him, that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”), but rather with getting each individual player to achieve his full potential – not just for himself, but for his teammates.
He was a flawed husband and father, as the play painfully depicts. His team was his true family and he gave them his all.
In getting to know more about Lombardi the man, I also learned a little-known fact (not mentioned in the play itself) that might have changed the history of U.S. politics in the 1970s. In 1968, both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey had Lombardi on their lists of potential Vice Presidents. As a lifelong Democrat and supporter of Robert F. Kennedy’s Presidential candidacy, Lombardi brushed aside the Nixon interest, but gave the Humphrey possibility some consideration.
We can only imagine what might have happened if Lombardi had agreed to be Humphrey’s running mate. The Nixon-Agnew ticket defeated Humphrey-Muskie by 301 to 191 electoral votes. The Democrats’ share of the Catholic vote dropped that year by over 15 percentage points from 1964. Might Lombardi’s presence on the ticket have been enough to move more Catholics, especially Italian-Americans, to vote Democratic? If states with high proportions of such voters – like California, Illinois, New Jersey, and, of course, Wisconsin – had gone Democratic that year, instead of Republican as they did, the electoral vote would have been reversed. How different our country might have been as a result.
“Lombardi” is also quite relevant to today’s political mess as a vivid portrait of a type of leadership that seems so lacking. As head coach and general manager of the Packers, he transformed a team from a dismal underperformer to a paragon of excellence. He brought sometimes frightening levels of passion and discipline to every aspect of the game. Mediocrity was intolerable, less than all-out effort unacceptable, and distractions unforgiveable. He provided his players with a confident and contagious vision of success, granite-solid core values (honed by a Jesuit education to which I plead guilty of believing remains best-in-class, although the play does refer ironically to Lombardi’s “four years of pain at Fordham”), and a convincing strategy for victory that offered reasons not just exhortations. He gave them his limitless heart along with his brilliant brain, and they responded with championship play that was selfless yet self-fulfilling. “They didn’t do it for individual glory,” he once said. “They did it because they loved one another.”
One of his more memorable quotes was “having the capacity to lead is not enough – the leader must be willing to use it.” He had it and he used it. And not only does Fordham’s athletic center rightfully bear his name, but so does the National Football League’s Superbowl trophy.