Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Joe, as Simon and Garfunkel told us in the year 1968, has left and gone away. And the golden age of American sports left with him, or so the song implies.
I recall the popular “Mrs. Robinson” tune today because I have been contemplating another hero of the past on these cool spring days. I’m sure I risk the indignity of getting run out of Minnesota by contemptuous Vikings fans when I tell you this, but I’m currently reading a book by David Maraniss called, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.”
There are a lot of things I didn’t know about the legendary Green Bay Packers coach until I picked up the biography. I didn’t know, for instance (or if I once did, I forgot) that when Lombardi first began coaching in the National Football League as an assistant with the New York Giants, he was partnered with Tom Landry. Yes, that Tom Landry. With Lombardi running the offense and Landry running the defense, it’s fair to say that never before or since has an NFL team had two more impressive assistants performing on the same team.
I enjoy biographies and histories. I really don’t know why it took so long for me to pick up a book on Lombardi, but after exhausting so many accounts about American presidents, the Revolutionary War years, Lewis and Clark, The Civil War, World Wars I and II, the treatment of the American Indian, the Wright Brothers, Daniel Boone, Winston Churchill, etc., etc., I would have been senseless not to have found a little time for Vinny.
He was my dad’s favorite football coach. My dad loved all of those “old-school” kind of guys -- the tough guys, the no-nonsense guys. Guys like Lombardi, who dominated their professions through sheer force of will.
In his book, Moraniss revealed the full man, however, warts and all. Turns out that Lombardi realized that at times he could rub players the wrong way. He was actually considered something of a joke by the veteran Giants players when he left West Point to join the pro ranks. That changed quickly, however, when he began looking upon them less as serfs and more as colleagues. Besides that, Lombardi was a neglectful, sometimes abusive, husband and father -- a risk all of us take when we get too wrapped up in our work.
Lombardi, the son of an immigrant Italian butcher, often doubted himself, especially in the early years of his coaching career. And yet, he succeeded like no one else, turning a terrible Green Bay franchise into “Titletown, USA.” The trophy awarded to Super Bowl champions bears his name.
I remember liking Lombardi as a kid, first because my dad did. And secondly, because it was Lombardi who famously said the line, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
But here’s another irony in the Lombardi legend. It wasn’t him who originated the quote. Historians say it was first uttered by UCLA football coach Henry Russell Sanders in 1950, and Lombardi only repeated it.
In the modern sports age, many people say that winning isn’t the only thing. They say it’s not winning that counts, it’s how you play the game.
I say they were mistaken then, and they’re mistaken now. You must learn to live with losing, of course, but sports isn’t fun, and it’s not as meaningful as it should be, when the ultimate goal -- winning -- is relegated to secondary status. Lombardi, who is the man who made Sanders’ quote famous, understood that. Athletes who settle for less than the ultimate goal become satisfied with losing, and if I’m not mistaken, Lombardi said that, too.
Would you have wanted to play for a coach like that? Would I? Maybe you have. You might have chafed under him, or you might have loved him like a father. Some of us respond well to the Lombardis of the world. Others respond better to those who tread softly and just want to be friends.
It’s a lot more enjoyable to be understood than to be yelled at. To be honest, I can appreciate that.