Could there ever have been such a team? Was the coach, that saintly tyrant, really of flesh and blood or simply the invention of fabulists? Were there actually such persons as Golden Boy, Fuzzy Thurston and Ray Nitschke, the last a player of such renowned toughness he scarcely flinched when a coaches' tower collapsed and fell on his head?
Well, yes, there was such a team as the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi, and pro football should be eternally grateful that the Packers, the stuff of myth and legend, should have become the first Super Bowl champions. It was this team that stamped the event with legitimacy and respectability.
Even the most scholarly fan might have trouble recalling who won, say, Super Bowl V, Super Bowl X or even XV, but everybody knows who won I. The Packers themselves will never let you forget it. Several of the players have written books on how wonderful they all were, and one of them, guard Jerry Kramer, is now up to four books on the subject, the last, DISTANT REPLAY, published only a few months ago. But they were wonderful, surely one of the best teams in history, possibly the best. The Super Bowl I victory gave them their fourth championship in six years; Super Bowl II would add a fifth. Six of their players—Bart Starr, Nitschke, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley—have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as has their famous coach. The Hall really isn't big enough to contain the Lombardi legend.
If he had never done anything else, Lombardi would have achieved lasting recognition for the maxim attributed to him, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing," which ranks right up there with "Nice guys finish last" as an immortal utterance. Actually, he said a lot more that made better sense, such as, "You don't do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time." Or, "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Or, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Or, "All men are not created equal. The difference between success and failure is in energy." Lombardi-isms, his players call them. Quotes about Lombardi may prove equally durable, particularly two by Henry Jordan, the team's defensive right tackle who died of a heart attack at 42 in 1977. "He treats us the same," Jordan once said. "Like dogs." On another occasion he said of the dictatorial coach, "When he says sit down, I don't look for a chair." But it was the power of Lombardi's remarkable personality that held such a disparate group of athletes together for so long. "We were all Lombardi's sons, all his children," Kramer wrote in his latest book.
January 27, 1986
It may well be true that Lombardi's methods, his preachiness, his fanatical devotion to the work ethic would not win him this sort of unflagging loyalty from today's far wealthier and certainly more independent athletes. But the Packers of Super Bowl I were scarcely robots. The Golden Boy, Paul Hornung, and Max McGee, the wide receiver, were legends in their time not so much for what they accomplished on the field, which was considerable, as for what they accomplished off it as intrepid bachelors in the barrooms and boudoirs. Starr and tackle Bob Skoronski were, on the other hand, the straightest of arrows. Nitschke was an avowed tough guy, and so, in a far less obtrusive way, was safety Willie Wood. Willie Davis and Ron Kostelnik, the defensive left end and tackle, were dutiful and hardworking, and both have made fortunes outside of football, as businessmen. So, for that matter, has the carefree McGee. Jim Taylor, the hard-driving fullback, was tough and tightfisted. And Kramer, by his own admission, was of a restless and adventurous nature. Some of the Packers came from broken homes. One, receiver Red Mack, spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. Many were dirt poor as youngsters, and few of them earned anything remotely approximating the comparatively lavish salaries their successors are taking home today.
Their common bond was Lombardi, actually the love of Lombardi. Some years after Lombardi's death in 1970, Kramer asked Adderley if he thought often of his old coach. "Every day," Adderley replied. "And I love my father, who is also deceased, but I don't think about my father every day."
Lombardi was himself a man of profound loyalties—to his church, his family, his players, the game and the National Football League. He approached that first Super Bowl game with a missionary zeal. The 1966 season was the last for the American Football League as a completely independent entity. Spurred on by the AFL's relentless raiding of its rosters, the NFL finally agreed to a merger of the two leagues in June of that year. In '67, interleague play in the exhibition season would begin. A realignment of the merged leagues would follow. Super Bowl I, then, would match the AFL's last true champion, the Kansas City Chiefs, against the lordly Packers on Jan. 15, 1967 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Lombardi was not about to suffer the humiliation of losing such an epochal encounter. "We got a pregame speech every day," Kostelnik recalls.
Lombardi, the onetime law student, was building a strong case against the upstarts from the new league. Chiefs defensive back Fred Williamson particularly outraged his sense of fair play. A favorite Williamson tactic then was to deliver a devastating (Williamson thought) forearm shiver to an opposing receiver just after the ball was caught or sometimes just after the whistle had blown. Williamson, who nicknamed himself the Hammer, noisily proclaimed before the game that Packer receivers could expect no mercy from him. Lombardi made it clear to his players that the Hammer should likewise expect no mercy from them. He wanted his braggadocio and his cheap shots taken care of cleanly but forthrightly.
One Packer receiver, McGee, was not the least bit concerned about the Hammer or any other Kansas City player. At 34, McGee was winding down a long and certainly colorful career. He had caught only four passes all season playing behind Boyd Dowler, the large (6'5", 225 pounds) and speedy receiver from Colorado. He had, however, caught a decisive touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the team's 34-27 win over Dallas in the league championship game, playing only because Dowler had injured a shoulder late in the game. Dowler was apparently hale and hearty now, and McGee was counting on a restful afternoon in the Southern California sunshine. With this in mind, he determined to do Los Angeles the night before the game with a pretty blonde from Chicago, whom he had met on a nocturnal adventure. Lombardi had warned his players earlier that curfew violators would be fined the then huge sum of $5,000, so McGee was dutifully in his room when assistant coach Dave (Hawg) Hanner took the customary bed check. But he was out of it in a flash after Hanner advised him, foolishly, that it would be his only check of the night. McGee returned to the hotel, he estimates, at 7:30 the morning of the game.
Later in the day, McGee found himself next to Hornung on the sidelines. Hornung was suffering from the pinched nerve in his neck that would prematurely end his career, and, like McGee, didn't figure on playing much. Hornung was correct in that assumption. He didn't play at all. Whimsically, he turned to his friend and inquired, "What would you do if you had to play?" "I'd be surprised," McGee replied.
Shortly after the kickoff, Dowler reinjured his shoulder and Lombardi called "McGee!" McGee seemed stunned, but he thought the coach had somehow just learned of his curfew violation and was going to levy the $5,000 fine then and there. No, it was worse than that: Lombardi wanted him to play.
With a storybook team, life should imitate art, and, indeed, the sorrowful McGee had the game of his career. The first ball McGee caught went for a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter, the first score in Super Bowl history. He caught six more passes that day for a total gain of 138 yards and another score as the Packers won easily, 35-10. He had a field day against the Chiefs' relatively inexperienced cornerbacks, Williamson and Willie Mitchell. The Hammer did little pounding that afternoon, and in the fourth quarter he was knocked unconscious tackling Donny Anderson.
Lombardi's great team would also win Super Bowl II, beating the Oakland Raiders 33-14. And then, sadly, it would be all over. In 1969 Lombardi would leave Green Bay for the Washington Redskins, and a year later he would be dead. Hornung's injury would force his retirement. McGee would retire after the '68 Super Bowl, and the Packers would never play in another one. Jordan died, Thurston would fight a bout with cancer, and defensive end Lionel Aldridge suffered severe emotional problems. All of their lives went in different directions, some down, most up, but they never lost that sense of community that made them so strong in their playing days. Their time as athletes has passed, but what a time it was.