Awesome Men Throughout History: Vince Lombardi
In honor of the Super Bowl (go Ravens!), this week’s Awesome Men Throughout History will focus on a man whose accomplishments as a football coach have made him something of a folk hero in American culture: Vince Lombardi. Lombardi coached the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers (who transformed from a joke into an unprecedented football powerhouse under him), and the Washington Redskins, and never had a losing season during his NFL coaching career.
That’s not what’s awesome about him, though. Well I mean, it is, but it’s not the only thing, and not even the most important thing. Lombardi was a hardass workaholic whose no-nonsense, I’m-in-charge demeanor and grueling training camps demanded much from his players, but made them better, stronger, and tougher than even they realized they could be. Lombardi was a leader in the truest sense, I that he inspired his players to achieve beyond their own perceived limitations.
Lombardi invested in his players in other ways, too. As a guy who endured both the Great Depression and no shortage of prejudice against Italian-Americans (and Catholics), Lombardi was aggressively egalitarian in his attitudes. He ignored the NFL’s color barrier during his tenure with the Packers, and made it very clear that racism, whether in word or deed, would not be tolerated.
That attitude extended beyond the football field, too. Lombardi only patronized businesses that treated his black and white players as equals, and made no secret of shunning restaurants, bars, and hotels that felt differently. He was one of the few coaches in that era to be that outspoken about racial issues, even as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.
Even rarer at that time was Lombardi’s acceptance of gay players. Redskins tight end Jerry Smith, who was gay, flourished under Lombardi’s watch, as did Redskins running back Ray McDonald. Lombardi apparently saw McDonald as something of a project, and told running back coach George Dickson to “work on him and work on him – and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.” Lombardi was creating safe spaces for gay football players before that concept even existed, and he was as tireless and dedicated to that as he was to anything else.
Even if you don’t agree with Lombardi’s zealous brand of tolerance, it was certainly even-handed. If you’re going to demand peak physical and mental effort from a group of men at all times, and if those efforts are being put towards winning you championships and acclaim, then you’re obligated to give back to them in some way. That’s what separates being a leader from just being a really good salesman; in the end, all a salesman does is take. A leader understands and nurtures the idea of reciprocity.
That said, Vince Lombardi was still an uncompromising taskmaster in many respects, and this fun little retrospective video captures that side of him well, I think.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.