By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published November 22, 2012
Thanksgiving Day and pro football are as closely linked as turkey and dressing.
In fact, the National Football League has actually been more consistent in its observance of Thanksgiving than has the United States government.
Since 1945, the Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day, and the Dallas Cowboys have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1966. Though tradition and conventional wisdom had long before established the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, it took until 1956 for all states to agree on the congressionally mandated holiday that Franklin Delano Roosevelt established in 1941.
But since 1920, on the fourth Thursday of November, the National Football League has scheduled a Thanksgiving game. Now, of course, we have three; like everything else in this country, including a day that has become more associated with consumption than gratitude, it’s too much. But it is a tradition, and if nothing else, the National Football League, perhaps more than any other professional sport, honors its heritage.
The league honors its heroes as well, and none is more lauded than its greatest coach, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
The name, like all icons, immediately conjures up familiar images, even clichés: “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”; “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Even these two familiar sayings get confused; they’re actually paraphrases and combinations of similar statements Lombardi made hundreds of times.
There is much more to Lombardi than the pithy motivational statements, much more to the image than the camel hair coat, the glasses and the gap-toothed smile.
Vince Lombardi was a devout Catholic, and his Catholicism was inseparable from the two other passions of his life: his family, and football.
As a young man, Lombardi studied two years for the priesthood before transferring instead to Fordham University, where he studied under the famous Jesuit ethicist Father Ignatius Fox. Following college and various coaching positions, including an assistantship with the New York Giants, Lombardi took the head coaching job at Green Bay, at that time a mediocre and struggling franchise. In two years, Lombardi took the Packers to the NFL championship game, where they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. The next year, 1961, Green Bay won the title. They won again in 1962 and in 1965. They won the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. By that time, Lombardi was a national hero, a model for motivation and success, a beloved speaker, counselor and confidant. President Kennedy was one of Lombardi’s greatest fans.
At his death in 1970, Lombardi had transcended NFL legend to enter into national myth, prompting poet James Dickey to write an elegy in which he says, “You are holding us Millions together … and we’re with you/We’re with you all the way/You’re going forever, Vince.”
What few people know today, unless they read David Maraniss’ splendid biography “When Pride Still Mattered,” is that the essence of Lombardi’s vision, and yes, his drive to win, was motivated by a profound Catholic faith. When he was beginning his coaching career and teaching physics and Latin, he shared an office with a priest and often interrupted both men’s work to make confession. His morning prayers included invocations to St. Anthony and St. Jude. The famous camel hair coat always contained cigarettes and a rosary; the beads remained, long after Lombardi gave up smoking. Most importantly, he was a disciplined daily communicant for essentially his entire life. In Green Bay, he attended Mass every day—and often served—at St. Willebrord’s Church. Even on road trips, Lombardi made Mass a priority, and he often took his players with him.
Lombardi had many flaws with which he struggled, chief among them a terrible temper. As Green Bay Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr has said, “If you heard Coach Lombardi at practice every afternoon, you knew why he had to go to church every morning.”
But Lombardi’s faith was more than just an antidote for personality flaws; it gave him sustenance, developed his meticulous attention to detail and encouraged his devotion to discipline and order.
It also inspired his imagination. Lombardi had felt called to the priesthood while serving as an altar boy; the atmosphere of the high Mass so engaged all his senses, he felt that he had a vocation. Years later, in Green Bay, his secretary was startled to see Coach Lombardi emerge from his office dressed in bishop’s regalia, complete with miter.
His Catholic sense of order and purpose absolutely carried over into his real vocation as a football coach and strategist. His signature play, “The Sweep,” is the defining example of the integration of his faith and work. The play, which was deceptively simple, depended upon parts coming together as a whole. It functioned much like the Tridentine Mass at which Lombardi served: ordered, precise, intricate and unifying. Each of the 11 men in the play had a specific assignment. Each had practiced his part multiple times a day, day after day. If one block was missed, or if the slightest variation in the play’s pace and rhythm occurred, the sweep could fail. But if each man performed as he had been taught, the sweep was beautiful. Right guard Jerry Kramer could lead halfback Paul Hornung widely through the blocks all the way, in Lombardi’s words, to daylight.
Lombardi’s Catholicism also revealed itself in his progressive social attitudes, beliefs and practices that often differed from convention. Lombardi is revered today for his determined stance against the bigotry that persisted in both sport and society. Lombardi refused to segregate his black and white players in hotels. He refused to patronize businesses that would not serve blacks. He told his team that if he ever heard any player use a racial or ethnic slur, that man would be off the team. “You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.”
Furthermore, Lombardi empathized with the quiet struggles faced by homosexual football players, and he was among the first professional sports figures to play for a cause. In today’s National Football League, players don pink ribbons and apparel to support the fight against breast cancer, but in his own time, Lombardi annually donated gate receipts to the Church’s struggle against poverty.
Some people may find it difficult to see Lombardi as an artist, but that is in fact what he was. He was one of a few gifted men who transformed football from a game of brute strength into a sport characterized by athleticism, precision and beauty. He was among a handful of visionaries who made the National Football League the most popular sport in America. Most importantly, he worked in a difficult medium—not language, not images, not notes, but human beings. He took a group of average football players, motivated them to excel and designed a strategy in which each of them achieved exactly what he imagined for them. When it worked, as it usually did, the Packer Sweep was like an ideal plane.
“Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about,” said Lombardi. “They didn’t do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another.”
The love that he had for his faith, and the love that faith returned to him, made Vince Lombardi who he really was. Beyond the gruff exterior, beyond the motivational jingoism, beyond even the hyperbole about success, the myth of Lombardi endures because he knew how to live and love fully, not just for his own reward, but for the benefit of others.
And that is certainly worth thinking about as you watch football on Thanksgiving Day.