When Pride Still Mattered
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster, $27.50
This is an article from the Sept. 6, 1999 issue
This profile of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, which
forges a near-perfect synthesis of fine writing and fascinating
material, may be the best sports biography ever published. In
Lombardi, author Maraniss has a subject worthy of the
considerable research and narrative skills he demonstrated in a
controversial 1996 biography of President Clinton.
St. Vincent was surely no Slick Willy. In his private life
Lombardi was, in the vernacular of his time, a square: He wore
hats and galoshes and rain slickers, the latter made of
translucent plastic, and played golf and gin rummy and cried and
screamed and smoked and sweated and watched Tom and Jerry
cartoons and laughed so hard that tears squirted out of his eyes
like windshield-wiper spray. He fell asleep in the recliner in
his den and snored away until supper.
This is the same man who was the very symbol of the tyrannical
coach obsessed beyond reason with winning. He was the genius who
took a Green Bay Packers team of perennial losers and whipped it
by the sheer force of his will into the holy terror that won
five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in
his nine years at the helm. He was the master of all he
surveyed, and in heavily Catholic Green Bay he was called the
Actually, he was a good deal more complicated than that. And he
didn't coin the famous line that is always credited to him:
"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Maraniss traces
that chestnut back to former Vanderbilt and UCLA coach Red
Sanders, who first used it, possibly in jest, in the mid-1930s
when he was coaching at Columbia (Tenn.) Military Academy.
Lombardi did, of course, believe that winning was the only
thing, but not at the cost of cheating or dirty play, which he
forbade. In fact, at the start of his career he was so uncertain
of the worthiness of coaching that he sought somehow to elevate
his job to something approaching the priesthood or the law.
Maraniss calls him the "philosopher-coach."
Lombardi was a mass of contradictions. He was an avowed believer
in family, but while he busied himself making a family of his
team, he sorely neglected his wife, who suffered from depression
and alcohol addiction, and their son and daughter. He could be
abusive and dictatorial, but he was so painfully shy that, as
Maraniss writes, "he had to screw up his courage every day to be
a public figure." He was a tyrant without a trace of bigotry
regarding race, religion or sexual preference. He loved his
players, but he could motivate them by browbeating them to the
point at which they temporarily despised him. Then he'd win back
their love. "The players understood," said Packers guard Jerry
Kramer. "This is one beautiful man."
Lombardi died of cancer at 57 in 1970, possibly, Maraniss
suggests, at the right time: "He was in danger of being reduced
to a convenient symbol by then, his philosophy misused by all
sides in the political debates of that war-torn era. The
establishment had turned him into stone even while he was alive,
hoisting him up as a monument to righteousness, patriotism and
free enterprise. Counterculturists smashed him as a relic of
old-line authoritarianism and a dangerous win-at-all-costs
philosophy. Both were wrong."
Best Shots: The Greatest NFL Photography of the Century
DK Publishing, Inc., $30
There are more than 100 photos, some dating to the 1930s, in
this handsome collection. A few are classics: Y.A. Tittle,
kneeling helmetless in exhaustion, blood streaming from his bald
head; Chuck Bednarik pumping his fist in triumph over an
unconscious Frank Gifford; Jim Taylor carrying the ball behind a
wall of blockers on Lombardi's patented Packers sweep.
Every Down, Every Distance
By Wayne Chrebet with Vic Carucci
The New York Jets receiver recounts his rise from undrafted
obscurity to the NFL. "When you're a small guy from a small
school," he writes, "you pretty much have to beg just for an
opportunity to get noticed." Beg no more.
Inside the Meat Grinder
By Chad Brown and Alan Eisenstock
St. Martin's Press, $24.95
Chad Brown, an NFL official, rises to the defense of his
colleagues in this account that is written, curiously enough, in
the third person: "Chad is an indifferent flyer. He's never
afraid, never thrilled, mostly bored." At least he's on a
first-name basis with himself.