This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
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To say that Vince Lombardi was a legend is an understatement. Though an understated man himself, he led one of the earliest professional football dynasties in Green Bay Packers and earned himself a place in the annals of the sport’s pantheon. Even the Super Bowl trophy is named after him! But as author David Maraniss tells it, Lombardi was more than just a football coaching machine. In his biography, “When Pride Still Mattered,” he paints a new picture of Lombardi that includes the green and gold strokes of his time in Green Bay, as well as the more nuanced hues that represented his family and religious life.
Though it has been in print for almost 20 years, Maraniss’ depiction of Vince Lombardi remains iconic with both Packers fans and professional football viewers. Unlike few other biographies on the topic, this one dug deep into the personal interactions and experiences that would forge a young Lombardi into the remembered coach and family man that he became. Even if you don’t know much about America’s game, you’re sure to find this biography to be as engaging and uplifting as the man on its cover.
As with most biographies, “When Pride Still Mattered” is structured in a chronological manner that accounts for most of Vince Lombardi’s memorable life. As such, the first several chapters of this book cover the biographical details of Lombardi’s early life and upbringing. Though other individuals come into play, a heavy emphasis is placed on Lombardi’s heavy-set father, Harry, and his many, many tattoos.
The book devotes lots of energy to dispel the “myth” that Lombardi’s father was callous in his treatment of his children, Vince included. While the author does admit that Harry had a considerably “rough” exterior and would hit his children, he does emphasize that Lombardi’s father was not precisely the “humorless autocrat” that other biographers have seemingly portrayed. You’ll be surprised to learn that it was Lombardi’s mother who was more likely to inflict a “painful lesson” upon the children.
Also, Maraniss touches on how specific activities in Lombardi’s youth would seed the cornerstone elements of his adult life. This included serving as an eager altar boy, with the initial hopes that he might one day pursue the priesthood. You’ll also quickly notice that football, among other sports, engaged Lombardi most in his early years, enough so that he even took to “coaching” his teammates by helping design plays.
As he grew older, Lombardi’s interest (and talent) in football grew with him. Lombardi’s high school team excelled with him on the field, enough so that he himself earned all-city recognition for his part of Brooklyn. As Maraniss tells it, Lombardi saw the game as both work and play, which certainly enabled him to earn multiple opportunities to play football at the collegiate level.
In the end, though, Lombardi chose to attend Fordham University in 1933. As soon as Lombardi arrived on Fordham’s Bronx campus, Maraniss says that his impact on the team’s already noteworthy defensive line became undeniable. He also attributes a fair amount of Lombardi’s growth during this period to his coach, Jim Crowley. At this point, the author goes into Crowley’s own history of football greatness at some length and uses it to indicate how Lombardi’s ability to comprehend the game of football grew under Crowley’s tutelage.
Lombardi’s college life is then explained in great detail, both on and off the field. While this doesn’t specifically enhance your understanding of Lombardi, the football player, it does allow you to see Lombardi, the person, in a manner most biographers miss. Though Maraniss’ writing at this point can at times feel long-winded, you won’t be able to flip through this section without missing out on a very humanistic look at Lombardi as he stands on the cusp of full adulthood.
The beginnings of a coach
While Maraniss does devote some space to Lombardi’s post-collegiate life during the heart of the Great Depression, the narrative of the biography begins to pick up the pace again when Lombardi is hired to coach a high school football team in Englewood, New Jersey. Maraniss’ depiction of Lombardi’s hiring is unique because it takes into account the personal connections Lombardi possessed with some of his former Fordham teammates at the school. Out of all of the detailed parts of this book, this portion on Lombardi’s time in Englewood may surprise you though most simply because it digs into the fact that the eventual namesake of the Super Bowl trophy was initially reticent to take up a football coaching position (favoring teaching instead).
By 1947, Lombardi moved onto a job opportunity that – from a historical perspective – may have felt like a perfect fit for the newly energized Lombardi. At that point, Lombardi was hired to act as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Fordham, which allowed his zeal for leadership and commitment to take form. To a certain extent, Maraniss even asserts that Lombardi’s considerably brief time back at Fordham provided him his first chance to be the top dog of a fully-fledged football team, primarily because the true head coach, Ed “Potato” Danowski, was not particularly proficient at the task.
Though a quick turnaround, 1948 saw Lombardi move into an assistant coaching position for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s football team under contemporary legend Earl Blaik. It is here that Lombardi’s coaching style and spirit truly “mature,” thanks in large part to the existing discipline and structure afforded by the military academy. As you read through Maraniss’ recounting of Lombardi’s days at West Point (five seasons in total), you also can’t help but feel that Lombardi picked up another key piece of his coaching mentality – perseverance – while working in the shadow of Coach Blaik, who faced intense pressure following a string of losing seasons.
By 1954, Lombardi made a move that would solidify his career path (though that certainly wasn’t clear at the time). During this year, the New York (Football) Giants, a true blue National Football League team, hired Lombardi to the position of assistant coach. Throughout the chapters that describe this period, you can see how Maraniss goes to great length to show how much acclaim Lombardi was personally picking up as a coach. In effect, the author uses these chapters to set the stage for what would become Lombardi’s finest hour – coaching the Green Bay Packers.
You’d hardly believe that the Green Bay Packers had just hired their unwitting savior in 1959. At that time, Vince Lombardi and his family moved far west from their homeland on the coast to what remains one of the smallest professional sporting markets in the United States. Hired as the Packers’ new head coach, Lombardi had hopes that he would improve on their franchise worse 1-10 record from 1958.
And improve the team he did. Lombardi’s “imperious leadership style” immediately came into effect as he reshaped his coaching staff to fit this new style of football. Though Lombardi was considerably harsh on his players in this first season, Maraniss believes that their improved results – a 7-5 record – spoke for themselves. Even the league took notice of Lombardi’s particular ability to turn a near winless team into a respectable squad by awarding him Coach of the Year honors for his first full year at the helm.
From there, Lombardi’s star began rising ever higher with the successes of his players. The Packers improved the next season to an 8-4 record that was good enough to win their conference and earn them a ticket to the league championship game. Though they came up a few yards short on what would have been a game-winning drive against the Philadelphia Eagles, Lombardi’s convictions to win really began to shine through after the game. Maraniss emphasizes one particular quote that embodies this fiery spirit, “…you will win it all next year. This will never happen again. You will never lose another championship.”
In describing more of the moments after that first major loss, Maraniss also allows you to see how self-reflective Lombardi was as a coach. In relating a conversation Lombardi had with friends and colleagues, he describes Lombardi as putting forth a self-deprecating narrative. To this effect, Lombardi referenced several field goal opportunities that he had ignored during the course of the game and said, “I learned my lesson today. When you get down there, come out with something. I lost the game, not my players. That was my fault.”
Down but not out, Lombardi learned a great deal from this landmark loss. Indeed, by Maraniss’ account, Lombardi used his rock-solid commitment to his players to fuel their back to back league championships immediately after in 1961 and 1962. The author also declares that this era of undeniable dominance began in the fall of 1960, after the sudden passing of the team’s skilled and beloved player scout, Jack Vainisi.
In addition to illuminating the Packers’ three-peat of championships in 1965-67, this book also chronicles many of the personal relationships Lombardi had with his players during this golden era. Throughout all of these retellings, Maraniss projects both the players and their now-nationally famous coach as remaining focused on the task at hand without giving up what made them personable. This particularly shines through with Maraniss’ recounting of the escapades of players Max McGee and Paul Hornung before the very first “super bowl.”
Starting with his Catholic upbringing, the reality of Lombardi’s faith is on full display throughout the biography. Indeed, at one point, Maraniss even describes this faith as being as “integral” to Lombardi’s disposition as a legendary football coach as his actual knowledge of the game. His faith, not to mention his stature at the top of the Packer’s organization, even earned him the nickname “the Pope of Green Bay” over the years.
But to address Lombardi’s faith, we must first understand the inclinations and actions that fueled his personality. As such, the best way you can gain an appreciation for how Lombardi lived faithfully is to read through the entire biography and highlight those moments when a higher moral purpose guided his hand (such as when he pushed for more racial integration in the league later in his coaching career).
As for Lombardi's family, Maraniss accomplished a similar job to ensure bringing them into the picture at every opportunity. His depiction of Lombardi’s wife, Marie (who could “take Lombardi and give it to Lombardi like no one else”) really drives this point home. You also see another wax of Lombardi’s larger humanity in these family-centric sections, as he put forth every effort to remain a family man despite his unquenchable thirst to see his Packers through to success.
There’s no doubt that author David Maraniss wrote this biography with the belief that die-hard Packers fans would gladly pick up another biography about one of their patriarchs. But even as you read through the first few pages of this book, you immediately notice that sometimes he went far beyond the expectations when it comes to humanizing a man known more for his accomplishments on the field than those in the home. For that reason, “When Pride Still Mattered” manages to transcend what would have otherwise been a narrow audience to find broad appeal with appreciators of remarkable lives lived to their fullest.
Vince Lombardi was undeniably one of the all time greats in professional football history. His path should be a lesson and encouragement to everyone willing to take their deserved place in this world.
David Maraniss is an American writer and journalist, currently working as an associate editor for The Washington Post. In 2008, he was assigned the job of biographer for their coverage of presidential candidat... (Read more)
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