Washington, at last. The patron saint of American competition and success had finally reached a town where winners were everything. After napping for two hours in Suite 675 at the Mayflower Hotel and attending a prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill, he arrived at his new job on Connecticut Avenue a few blocks north of the White House at 10 o'clock and immediately snapped into his routine. This was what Edward Bennett Williams had hired him for, what people were expecting of him, what he knew how to do better than any politician here, including Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in as president a few weeks earlier. It was February 1969, and Vince Lombardi was taking charge.
His title was executive vice president of the Washington Redskins, but his function was boss. Just as he had done in Green Bay 10 years earlier, he began by rearranging furniture and personnel. The big office that had belonged to Williams was now his. Pictures were coming off the walls and into a box marked EBW. "Why don't you go back to your law practice?" Lombardi told Williams, half-jokingly, and the proud lawyer took it in good humor. He was still president, but had abandoned any pretense of running the club, something that was hard to imagine him doing for anyone but his beloved Lombardi. The very idea that he had landed "the Coach!" was said to make Williams quiver with boyish excitement.
One the son of an Irish night watchman, the other of an Italian butcher, and now here they were, Williams and Lombardi, strolling down the sidewalk to lunch in the nation's capital, and it seemed as though they sucked up all the power in the city as they walked by. The noontime crowd turned and stared at Lombardi as he waited for the walk light at the corner of Connecticut and L. Inside Duke Zeibert's, the regular table up front awaited Mr. Williams and his guest. Red meat, martinis, sports pictures on the wall, ephemeral clatter of boasting, dealing, lying, all suspended momentarily as patrons gawked and then pushed back their chairs and rose for a standing ovation. After lunch, the pair went to the Sheraton-Carlton, marching through the bright lights and television cables to the front of 200 cameramen and reporters in the Chandelier Room. Over at the White House, President Nixon had just finished a press conference, a mere warmup act for this announcement of the coming of Lombardi. "Gentlemen," the coach said, after Williams had introduced him by calling this the proudest day of his life, "it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac. Not even when it is frozen."
Perhaps not, but who was listening? Washington was agog over its new leader and the prospect of a football revival. The Redskins had not won a championship since 1942 and seemed in worse shape than even lowly Green Bay had been when Lombardi took control there a decade earlier. Four unsuccessful Redskins coaches had come and gone through 13 seasons without a winning record, from Joe Kuharich (26-32-2) to Mike Nixon (4-18-2) to Bill McPeak (21-46-3) to Otto Graham (17-22-3). If Graham, once a great quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, was not as ineffectual as Scooter McLean, Lombardi's predecessor at Green Bay, he suffered from some of the same unfortunate perceptions. Nice guy, not a leader. Players called him Toot (Otto, inside out).
The fact that the home team was a loser did not seem to diminish the sports fascination of Washington's power elite. Earl Warren and Richard Nixon, the departing chief justice and arriving president, might have had nothing else in common by that point in their careers, but both still read the sports section first. Football meant a lot to Washington even then, and Lombardi meant more; not just as a coach but as what Williams called the Philosopher King, someone who knew what he believed in and could get things done. David Broder of The Washington Post offered a similar assessment. "The Lombardi administration seems certain to revolutionize life in official Washington," he wrote. "For one thing, he is dedicated to winning. He defines happiness as the achievement of one's objectives. This is radical doctrine in a government and a city where most jobs depend on seeing that no problem is ever really solved." It was "bad luck for Mr. Nixon," Broder continued, that "fate has made him only a bit player in this momentous drama, but the Lombardi era has begun."
The hype seemed almost justified. Only 10 years earlier, before he began his unlikely run to fame in remote Green Bay, Lombardi was a virtual unknown, already 45 and worried that he might get stuck as a lifer in the anonymous ranks of coaching assistants. Now, after leading the Packers to five NFL championships in nine seasons, he was on his way to becoming an American icon, a coach who transcended his sport. His name was synonymous with winning, but more than that with a philosophy of winning, an old-fashioned ideal that he had forged from the Jesuit precepts he learned as one of Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite during the mid-1930s and maxims he borrowed later from other coaches, especially his mentor at West Point, Col. Red Blaik. It was a sporting ideal that reflected certain notions of character, will, discipline, obedience and teamwork, the need to compete, to strive for excellence, to fulfill one's human potential.
While his philosophy worked for his teams and for most of his players, and made him a powerful draw as a motivational speaker in the business world, it did not begin to reveal the complexity of the man. His public image -- what made establishment Washington swoon -- was of fearless determination, but he was in truth almost painfully shy. He had to screw up his courage every day to be a public figure; witty chatter and glad-handing did not come naturally to him. He did not fake or seduce or charm his way to fame. He was literal, not subtle. If you invited him to a 6:30 cocktail party, peer out the window at 6:25 and you would see him pulling up in his Pontiac, ignoring his wife's pleas that they drive around the block a few times to avoid being the first guests ringing the doorbell. Nothing flashy about his looks: squat and sturdy build, gap-toothed smile, broad and fleshy nose, thick-lens glasses, short wavy dark hair salted with whitish gray, always fresh from the barber's chair. In dress he was indistinguishable from a State Farm agent on Monroe Street in Green Bay: invariably neat, with his big Class of '37 college ring and wristwatch and tie clasp and button-down short-sleeved white shirt.
He wore hats and galoshes and rain slickers made of translucent plastic, and played golf and gin rummy and cried and screamed and sweated and watched "McHale's Navy" and laughed so hard that tears squirted from his eyes like windshield wiper spray. He fell asleep in a recliner chair in his den and snored away until supper.
No way around it, Lombardi was a square. And the interior of his life during his final years with the Packers had become more complicated than anyone could imagine. At the same time he was delivering speeches bemoaning what he viewed as the excesses of freedom, worried that American society was collapsing around him, his personal life was silently imploding. His health was deteriorating, his body punished by his need to prevail, what Bertolt Brecht called "the black addiction of the brain." In late January 1968, right after his moment of ultimate football triumph, his second Super Bowl victory, his unwed daughter, Susan, revealed that she was pregnant, provoking Lombardi to concoct a fake elopement for her and to pull strings to arrange a private Catholic wedding. His namesake son followed a straight and narrow path, playing football in college and then going on to law school, but all the while struggled to live up to the Old Man's standards and to find ways to connect with a famous father with whom he had a love-hate relationship. His wife, Marie, enduring a decade of snowy winters in Green Bay and dearly missing the East Coast and metropolitan life, fell into more frequent and pronounced bouts of depression, occasionally ending up in the hospital to recuperate from mild overdoses of alcohol and painkilling drugs.
All this was the internal trauma of the flesh and blood Lombardi. But by the time he made his triumphant march into downtown Washington in February 1969, his fame had transformed him from a man into a symbol. The idea of Lombardi was being used and misused by opposing sides in the raging ideological debate of the times, with the establishment hoisting him up as a monument to law and order, patriotism and free enterprise, and his critics smashing him as a relic of old-line authoritarianism and a dangerous win-at-all costs pathology exemplified by a maxim most often attributed to him: Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.
His philosophy on winning was in fact more authentic and interesting than either side would allow. The "winning isn't everything" line was first uttered publicly not by Lombardi but by a young actress in "Trouble Along the Way," a 1953 football movie melodrama starring John Wayne. It later became part of the coach's football psalm book, but to say that he believed it is true yet meaningless out of context. Every year Lombardi told his players that professional football was a cruel business. His job and theirs, he would say, depended on only one thing, winning, and the only way to win was to accept nothing less. To that extent his statement was an articulation of the obvious, the reality faced by any professional athlete or coach. But to say that winning was merely a practical consideration for Lombardi would be misleading. He considered it a matter of personal as well as national definition -- "the American zeal," he once called it, "that is to be first in what we do and to win, to win, to win." He was indeed obsessed with winning, and that obsession led to the unfortunate imbalances in other aspects of his life.
Still, there was a crucial distinction in his philosophy between paying the price to win and winning at any price. He did not believe in cheating to win, and he showed no interest in winning the wrong way, without heart, brains and sportsmanship. Although he never shied away from the violence of the game, he did not encourage dirty play. When one of his defensive backs in Green Bay tripped a receiver in frustration, Lombardi immediately yanked him from the game, even though the referees did not see the violation. Winning in and of itself was not enough for him. His players knew that he was more likely to drive them mercilessly after they had played sloppily but won than when they had played hard but lost.
His addiction was more to the competition, the constant testing of himself against other men, the thud, thwack and sweat of the game. It was his need for that fix, which he could get only among his players in the locker room and on the practice field during the week and on the sideline on Sunday, that finally allowed Edward Bennett Williams to lure him to Washington. The physical and mental exhaustion that had forced him to abandon coaching and serve as the Packers' general manager in 1968 had been quickly overtaken by the abject misery he felt being one step removed from the action. He endured that final year in Green Bay with an odd sensation of afterlife, as though he had died and his ghost had returned to see how everyone was getting along without him.
Now he was back where he belonged, with a football team to turn around, and he went about it the same way he had in Green Bay. Repetition had always been his mantra, so there was no reason for him not to repeat what had worked for him before. Again he assembled a coaching staff of loyalists, looking not for innovative young football minds or future head coaches, but seasoned pros who understood his methods and could carry out his directives. From his early Green Bay days he brought back Lew Carpenter, one of his first halfbacks, and Bill Austin, his first line coach, recently fired as head coach of the Steelers. He wanted to hire two of his retired players, Forrest Gregg and Zeke Bratkowski, but the Packers would not allow it. For the defense he turned to Harland Svare, who had played for him when he was an assistant with the Giants. George Dickson was hired to coach the backfield with a glowing recommendation from Bob Blaik, the colonel's son. Don Doll and Mike McCormack were retained from the Graham regime.
What kind of material did they have? Lombardi had been studying game films every night, and assigned each of his assistants to assess the players at each position. He took the quarterbacks himself, by far the easiest task. Sonny Jurgensen had been in the league for a dozen years, and Lombardi had always loved the way he passed. The films confirmed his impressions: Jurgensen was the best pure thrower he had ever seen, with a quick release and unerring accuracy. My God, he was heard muttering in the darkness of the film room one day. If we'd have had him in Green Bay . . . His voice trailed off. Bart Starr had been his brain on the field, the most committed and disciplined of his ballplayers, but in terms of pure talent, he was not in the same category as Jurgensen.
Jurgensen's reputation as a playboy did not bother Lombardi. If anything, it reminded him of his favorite son in Green Bay, Paul Hornung. The Golden Boy might break curfew, but he had uncommon talent and did not waste it, the best money player Lombardi had coached. People who did not know Lombardi often held the misimpression that he expected his players to be as conservative in their private lives as he appeared to be. That is what Jurgensen feared at first. When he heard that the Old Man was coming to Washington, he called Hornung and asked, "Jesus, Paul, what am I to expect?" Hornung chuckled and said, "Sonny, you're gonna love the guy." Lombardi announced at his opening press conference that he was giving Jurgensen a "clean slate," and noted that despite his autocratic image he had never been obsessed with rules. "The city of Washington may have a lot of bars but I assure you Green Bay has 15 times more," he said. "We will have as few rules as we can get away with." After his first meeting with Lombardi, Christian Adolph Jurgensen came away saying he wished the season could start the next day.
Who would carry the ball? George Dickson studied films of the returning running backs and presented Lombardi with a pessimistic assessment, the last line of which read: "If we are going to win here, none of these guys will be here when we do." Lombardi was a realist. He knew that Dickson was probably right, but the report angered him nonetheless. "He came in after he read my assessment, threw that paper on my desk, and said, `God damn it! But you've gotta coach 'em! Maybe you don't think these men are any good, but you've gotta coach 'em!' " Dickson recalled. "I said, `I know I gotta coach 'em. But you only asked me what I thought of 'em!' "
It was typical of Lombardi to expect the world to bend his way. He established the expectations, the routine, and people adjusted. The barber at the Mayflower knew when to expect him for his weekly haircut. The administrative staff quickly learned about Lombardi Time, and arrived at meetings 10 to 15 minutes early. His assistant coaches knew that they would be expected to work late on Monday nights and go to Duke Zeibert's for dinner. He had been a daily early-morning communicant at St. Willebrord during his years in Green Bay, and wanted to establish the same pattern in Washington. One morning, a priest answered a knock at the door of St. Matthew's Cathedral, and there stood a man who introduced himself as Vince Lombardi. What time was the first daily Mass? Lombardi wanted to know. At 7:30 a.m., came the reply. "Why don't you change it to 7, it would fit my schedule better," Lombardi said. The priest was a kind man; it amused him that a football coach would try to reschedule his Mass, but that was asking a bit much. Lombardi might be bigger than the president, but there was still a higher order.
Devoting endless hours to the film room, watching, rewinding, grading, was second nature to Lombardi, he had been doing it for 20 years, since he joined Red Blaik's staff in 1949, but it could never replace the thrill he felt being around players. Even this off-season, during which he had far more than usual to do as he analyzed what it would take to make winners of the Redskins, seemed far too long for him. He visited relatives in New York, played golf at Congressional and Burning Tree, attended more social functions in Georgetown in a few months than he had in Green Bay in years, but still he was itching to get on with it. Marie saw the telltale sign; they had been in their new home in Potomac Falls only two months when he started cleaning the closets.
The football began on June 16, when Lombardi took his first look at candidates for the Redskins roster at a four-day minicamp of skull sessions and drills on Kehoe Field at Georgetown University. The first practice was scheduled for 2 p.m., and most of the players were there 20 minutes early, revealing an early appreciation of Lombardi Time. Tom Brown showed up, the former strong safety from the Packers having been acquired in a trade for a draft choice. He sensed the beginning of another era, convinced that players who stuck around Lombardi would "someday feel on top of the world." As passers and receivers went through basic drills, Lombardi was back in his element. Marie privately fretted about his health -- he had suffered a severe bout of prostatitis shortly after his arrival in Washington and had complained of dizziness, which reminded her of his occasional collapses during his final year of coaching in Green Bay. But now he seemed refreshed and eager, no signs of physical exhaustion, no outward indications of worry, just pure football again. "I missed it more than I can say," he said. "It feels good to be back."
That night in the dressing room with his assistants, Lombardi expressed his private hopes and concerns about one of the running backs. Ray McDonald had been the team's No. 1 draft choice in 1967 from the University of Idaho. On paper, he was an incredible talent, huge, fast and powerful, 6-4 and 248 pounds. Edward Bennett Williams had selected McDonald himself, the club president's most conspicuous intrusion into the realm of player personnel, and had been disappointed by McDonald's performance during his rookie year. Surely Lombardi could get the best out of him. It so happened that McDonald was gay. The players and coaches knew it; some felt uncomfortable about it and talked about him behind his back. Lombardi knew and did not care. His own brother Harold was gay. He had made it a point throughout his coaching career that he would not tolerate discrimination of any sort on his teams. "George," he said to Dickson. "I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him -- and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."
Confidence and fear, that was how Lombardi coached the game. He needed his quarterback to be confident, not afraid, and from the first day treated Jurgensen like a leader, something other coaches had been reluctant to do. They had considered Sonny talented but self-oriented. Lombardi saw more. "Take 'em down to the goal post, Sonny," he said at the start of practice on the third day. Jurgensen running ahead of the pack -- an unheard of thought before, but there he went, holding the lead for several strides. Sonny was Lombardi's man, and after only a few days, he realized what that meant. Jurgensen had been around great quarterbacks much of his career, including Norm Van Brocklin in Philadelphia and Otto Graham in Washington. Yet it was not until he hooked up with the undersize guard from Fordham that he understood the best way to play his position. Lombardi's system, he said, was "completely different" from anything he had seen before. It placed the emphasis on reading the defense and giving the quarterback fewer plays but more options. As had happened to Bart Starr earlier, as soon as Jurgensen got into Lombardi's system, the game seemed to slow down, what had been chaotic suddenly made sense, everything became clear and comprehensible.
When training camp opened at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., at high noon on July 9, Lombardi was surrounded by old friends and familiar faces. Sam Huff, who had played for him in New York and now came out of retirement for one last year, and his traditional army of priests, this time led by Father Guy McPartland, who had played fullback for him at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J., and Father Tim Moore, the jovial Carmelite who had been the athletic director there. Ed Williams came up from Washington along with his pals Art Buchwald and Ben Bradlee, whose young son Dino was a ball boy. Lombardi took one look at the shaggy-haired adolescent and compulsively barked out, "Get a haircut!" as though he were talking to his own son or one of the ballplayers. Dino showed up the next day with a crew cut. It was the same for Sam Huff as it was for the ball boy, Lombardi ruled as the voice of authority. On the first night of camp, he gathered the squad together for his opening speech, similar to the one he had delivered for nine straight years in Green Bay, and though it was always effective, in this case it hardly mattered what he said. All he had to do was gesture with his big hand and let his Super Bowl ring glisten in the light and the message was clear. "He was like God himself to these players," George Dickson said. "This was the be-all and end-all of knowing how to win." He told the Redskins that night that he did not have many rules. "But, gentlemen, there is just one thing that I want you to understand. If you do anything to embarrass me or the organization, in any way, you will answer to me and me alone."
Lombardi talked himself hoarse, riding the seven-man blocking sled, daring his linemen to knock him off, hollering at his troops during grass drills. He was a perfect gentleman in social settings and loved a good joke, but in the film room and on the football field he could not stop cursing and yelling. His voice was so loud, and his language so purple, that a Dickinson official called David Slattery, Lombardi's administrative assistant, and asked whether he could tell the coach to calm down. When Slattery broached the subject with him, Lombardi seemed contrite. "You know, David, I don't understand it. I go to Mass, I never use bad language in my life, until I get to the football season." Then he laughed and said, "I'll try to watch it."
Many of the Redskins were not accustomed to Lombardi's style and had as hard a time with it as the college secretaries who had complained to the dean. Within a week, three rookie draft choices had bolted camp. Once, 14 years earlier when two rookies named Sam Huff and Don Chandler had packed up and headed for the airport at the Giants camp in Vermont, it was Lombardi who had talked them back. This time he let the rookies go, berating the "moral code," or lack of one, that would allow them to take signing bonuses and then go home. In some ways he seemed as gruff as ever, especially when he was lost in thought on the football field. Joe Lombardi, his little brother, who was then a regional salesman for Rawlings sporting goods, visited camp with two company executives and approached the coach at afternoon practice to see if he had time to meet them.
"Get the hell out of here and get those God damn people out of here!" Lombardi snapped.
"But c'mon, Vince, these are my bosses!" Joe pleaded.
"I don't give a damn who they are," Lombardi said.
It was not that he did not love Joe or did not want to help him. In fact, Lombardi bought new uniforms from Joe that year, and sparked a minor controversy by clothing his team in a color that he insisted was the traditional burgundy but actually was a variation of rose. (Only his family knew Lombardi's secret: He was colorblind.) Kicking people off his field was just a matter of habit, he had been doing it indiscriminately ever since he became a coach. Despite his bluster at Carlisle, in fact, some people who been around him for years thought Lombardi had mellowed that summer. "To me he was not as aggressive, and I figured, well, he's just trying to feel his way around," recalled Tom Brown. "But maybe he didn't have the energy, the enthusiasm, to do what he did in Green Bay. The other guys thought he was pushing them like crazy, but I'm thinking he doesn't have the same intensity."
Brown's perception was discerning. Lombardi had lowered his intensity a notch, and was struggling in private with his decision to come back to coach, something he would never admit in public. When Howard Cosell visited camp to do another piece on his favorite coach, Lombardi told him that he had no regrets. "I want to say that I'm very, very happy that I am back," he declared. But with a few confidants he talked about feeling older and tiring more easily, and questioned whether his desire to coach had overpowered the common sense that led him to retire. "I don't know if I made the right decision," he told Father McPartland one night as the two men sat on the back porch of the house he had made his training camp headquarters. "I think I made the wrong decision." The priest at first thought he was talking about the prospects of a winning season, and tried to encourage him by recalling how he had turned the Packers around the first year in Green Bay.
But Lombardi was also still hurting from the harshest portraits of him during his final years in Green Bay, and the criticism of him as a bully who used brute force and intimidation to win continued even now. George Wilson, coach of the Miami Dolphins, was quoted that summer insisting that he was just as good as Lombardi, but more humane. "I'm tired of all this Lombardi business. Everyone makes him out to be such a great coach," Wilson harrumphed. "Given the same material, I'll beat him every time. I can get a team up on the day of a game. I bawl guys out as much as Lombardi does, but I don't holler at a fellow in front of his teammates. I don't want to embarrass him. That's just a big show, and I'm not going to do it." (Wilson finished 3-10-1 that year and was fired, ending a 12-year coaching career with 68 wins and 84 losses; in 10 years Lombardi won 96 and lost 34.)
As training camp progressed, Dickson and Lombardi found their runner, though it was not McDonald or any of the other veterans but an unheralded rookie from Kansas State named Larry Brown. From the scouting reports, there did not seem to be much promise in Brown; he was relatively slow and small, had few moves and little experience catching passes out of the backfield. But he was fearless, with uncommon leg strength and terrific explosion off the ball. Dickson considered him the toughest runner he had ever seen. Lombardi needed convincing. "You're always looking for tough guys," he said to Dickson early on. "Give me talent, I'll make them tough." He was also concerned about Brown's mental errors; he had a tendency to miss the snap count and go too early or too late.
"Does that Brown hear?" Lombardi asked Dickson one night at a coach's meeting.
"I don't know, he always turns his head one way when I'm talking," Dickson said.
"God damn it, he must be deaf!" Lombardi said.
They fitted an earpiece in his helmet, and suddenly the errors stopped. Brown played impressively in the exhibition opener at RFK Stadium, pounding through the mud and rain on two short touchdown runs, and when Dickson walked out to the practice field a few days later he saw Lombardi standing with his arm draped around the rookie. "Son," Dickson said to him later during drills, realizing what the Lombardi drape meant, "you've got this ballclub made."
Lombardi was still at training camp when his son, Vincent, recently graduated from law school in St. Paul, came out to begin a new life in Washington. He and his two young sons flew out first, while his wife, Jill, stayed with baby Gina until the movers loaded their furniture. By the middle of August they were all staying in Marie's dream house on Stanmore Drive in Potomac Falls. In his few public comments, Vincent politely made it seem that he wanted to move to Washington, that it was his idea, or at least that he understood and agreed with his father's expressed desire to have the family close together. In fact, he did not feel especially close to his parents then, and from the moment he arrived was uncertain about what he was doing here. Was this going to be another time when he could not meet his father's expectations? Lombardi had mentioned helping Vincent get a job at the Justice Department, but the talk seemed to evaporate when he finally got to town, and there were few contacts for Vincent to pursue. The Old Man was unavoidably too busy with the football team to spend much time with family. Vincent understood this. He did not blame his father, but merely felt awkward about it. He took his boys to Carlisle for a few days, and Lombardi enjoyed his limited time with his grandchildren, tooting them around in his golf cart. Then what?
Lombardi had good intentions, he wanted to create one big happy family, but it never quite seemed to work. Little John banged his head on the bathtub of the Potomac Falls house and had to be taken to the hospital. Jill suffered a miscarriage, losing a troubled early pregnancy. She and Vincent decided to rent the house Marie had found for them rather than buy it, and Vincent finally found a job in a downtown law firm, but during the long drive into town every morning he asked himself, "Do I need this commute? I could be working for a law firm in Minnesota and life would be easier." The season had started and Lombardi was back from training camp, preoccupied with his players and the next game. Marie seemed to love her house and the social whirl. She spent much of her time shopping in Georgetown with her friend Jackie Anderson. There were catered postgame parties at Stanmore Drive, the family room filled with celebrities: Joe DiMaggio, Martha Wright, Frank Gifford, Nancy Dickerson, Ethel Kennedy.
It was a wonderful life, or so it seemed. One day Lombardi and his son were in the car together and Vince said, "You think I've made a big mistake coming back, don't you?" Vincent took this remark as an indirect way for his father to express his own misgivings, and the implication surprised him. He never considered the possibility that his father doubted himself. It was he, not his dad, who had made the mistake in coming to Washington, he thought. A few weeks later he and Jill decided to move back to St. Paul. When Vincent broke the news to his parents, not much was said. Vince was preoccupied; Marie expressed herself largely through body language, according to Jill, who could sense that her mother-in-law was "extremely upset."
The full measure of Marie's anxiety came pouring out in a letter to Vincent that arrived in St. Paul shortly after his return. She was "absolutely frantic" about her husband's health. He had been bleeding "from his kidney, bladder, prostate, who knows," she wrote, and though a hospital check could find nothing wrong, she feared it was cancer. She had a premonition that he would die. "Believe me, son, if anything happens to him I will fold up my tent and go with him 'cause there is no way I could live without him. I suddenly realized what a price I had paid for fame and fortune . . . It was always enough that Dad and I loved each other so much that everything else I had missed was all right, but the thought that I could lose him staggered me. So now I am going to get tough and try to protect him from anyone or anything that might pressure him -- no speaking or public appearances, no books or anything. It's just Dad and I 'cause in the end that's all we have."
Lombardi's football team knew nothing about his deteriorating health. The Redskins were winning again that fall, never easily or impressively, but enough to maintain the coach's status as the ultimate winner. Just having him there raised the public expectations, perhaps unreasonably, but there was a growing sense in Washington that Lombardi was creating another dynasty. After they defeated the Giants, 20-14, at RFK in the fifth game, the Redskins' record stood at 3-1-1, in second place in the division behind the Dallas Cowboys, and the postgame party on Stanmore Drive was especially festive. A band of Izzo cousins (his mother's side of the family) came down from New York and Baltimore, mixing with the Washington elite. A few days later, Ethel Kennedy wrote Lombardi a note on her Hickory Hill stationery.
Many thanks for an exciting afternoon watching our favorite team. And also for the after game victory celebration in your delightful home. I didn't think anybody had as many relatives as the Kennedys. I guess you know the greatest asset to the team is living right in the house with you. Basically you realize it isn't Sonny's arm but Marie's Hail Marys that pull us through every Sunday. The children and I are grateful to you both for sharing your box with us. With continued admiration and affection,
P.S. -- Is it true you fired up the team at halftime by telling them it's only a game!
For a year after Robert Kennedy's death, Ethel Kennedy had been in mourning, staying away from Washington's social life. When she had begun appearing in public again that June, a year after the assassination, she immediately found comfort in Lombardi's presence. She first sat next to him at a party at Ben and Tony Bradlee's house, and though he made her nervous at first, he quickly put her at ease, talking about his friendships with Jack Kennedy and her husband and how they both had the qualities of great athletes. "His presence was so overwhelming," she said later, "that I forgot who else was in the room." Over time, she saw more of the coach and in her prayers thanked Bobby for sending Vince Lombardi to Washington to look after her. He was invariably polite in her presence, as was Marie, though in private Marie could be dismissive of the Kennedys. As a conservative Republican, she found President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew more to her taste.
Lombardi was moving that way himself, pushed away from his Democratic roots by what he saw as the excesses of the counterculture, and pulled toward conservative Republicans by their growing hero worship of him. The Lombardi Credo on discipline, respect for authority and the American zeal to win had become the anthem of the business world. His "Second Effort" motivational film was then the best-selling film of its kind, promoted by insurance companies and corporations as the positive capitalist answer to Arthur Miller's dark "Death of a Salesman." Patriotic groups reprinted his speeches and recruited him to join their causes. William O'Hara, a friend and classmate from Fordham, persuaded him to join a list of conservative figures supporting the Nixon administration's policies in Vietnam and development of the ABM defense system. O'Hara considered Lombardi by then "very much to the right." In fact, he was not so much to the right as disturbed and confused by the cultural choices.
During his years in Green Bay, as he developed his strong rhetoric challenging the behavior of young antiwar protesters, Lombardi was speaking from a removed perspective. Green Bay, with its heavily Catholic working-class population, was largely isolated from the '60s, its sons more likely to fight in Vietnam than to march in the streets of Madison or Washington. During his years there, he later acknowledged, he knew little about the antiwar movement, the student protests, hippies, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, and he tended to think of them all as a single entity that challenged what he believed in and what he had accomplished. Now that he was in Washington, he could see it firsthand. Hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters flooded into the city twice that fall, first for an October 15 demonstration sponsored by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, then a month later for the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam -- "the Mobe." The November 15 event, organized by a more confrontational wing of the peace movement, drew an enormous crowd, estimated by police at 250,000 and by others at twice that number. When the speeches ended at the Washington Monument, a few thousand young militants scrambled over to the Justice Department and incited a rocks-and-bottles-versus-tear-gas melee with police. Attorney General John N. Mitchell looked down on the confrontation from his office and seized on the opportunity to portray the antiwar movement as anarchistic, even though all but a small fraction of the demonstrators were peaceful.
Lombardi's reaction was not precisely like Mitchell's, but he also worried about anarchy. Before and after the demonstrations, thousands of peace marchers had filled the sidewalks of Connecticut Avenue on their way to and from the Mall, and the coach had watched them out his office window, lamenting the sight -- the long hair, the seeming disregard for authority. What kind of courage did it take to be a college rebel? he wondered aloud. "It's easy to break the law if there's impunity. I'd like to go out there and throw a rock through that window, if I knew the only thing I'm going to have is a reprimand." As a band of protesters passed below, he shook his head and said, "Look at that!" George Dickson, his backfield assistant, snarled sarcastically that he would like to turn a machine gun on the crowd. "God damn it, that's your generation!" Lombardi responded. In fact, Dickson was only eight years younger than Lombardi, and unlike the coach, had served in the military. He had been a paratrooper in World War II and still had his helmet with a bullet hole in it. But Dickson knew better than to argue with Lombardi when he thought he was right.
The Sunday before the Mobe, Lombardi staged a patriotic counterdemonstration of sorts, a ceremony at halftime of the Redskins-Eagles game called "The Flag Story." It was much like the patriotic show he had put on at Lambeau Field the previous December. This one brought a letter of thanks from President Nixon. After first offering condolences that "the game didn't turn out better for you and your Redskins" (it was a 28-28 tie; the would-be coach in the White House was down on the defense), Nixon wrote: "You have always demonstrated on the field and off the qualities of faith and determination which are at the heart of true patriotism. I am very happy to know that the fans got to see such a wonderful and inspiring show of this kind at a time when it can do the most good."
Lombardi did not slow his schedule despite Marie's vows to protect him from outside interests. He gave speeches, accepted awards, made frequent jaunts up to New York, and continued his coaching duties without showing a hint of trouble to his assistants. Not long after Marie wrote the foreboding letter to her son, Vince called two of his favorite old Packers, Paul Hornung and Max McGee, and asked them to come to Washington and hang out with his team. "I want these guys to see some winners," he told McGee. He invited them to stay at his house, and McGee almost accepted until Hornung talked him out of it. "No, no, no, Max, we're not gonna stay three nights at Lombardi's. Hell, no way! Get us a suite." The trip probably meant more to Lombardi than to his players. McGee and Hornung visited the dressing room, but stood around joshing with a few friends, nothing more than that. Vince and Marie took them to dinner, and when they walked into Duke's the patrons again gave Lombardi a standing ovation. "He pretended he was embarrassed as hell, but down deep he loved it," Hornung recalled. When it reached 11 o'clock, McGee started checking his watch, and Lombardi knew what that meant. "McGee, you guys haven't changed a bit. You want to get the hell out of here, don't you. Get the hell out of here."
Perhaps Max and the Golden Boy made no difference, but the Redskins won that week, defeating Pittsburgh. Their offense, led by Jurgensen's accurate passing (completing 62 percent) and Larry Brown's toughness (gaining 888 yards), was explosive all year, but the defense remained inconsistent. In the final home game against New Orleans, the Redskins broke out to a quick 17-0 lead, then held on to win, 17-14, and the players gave Lombardi the game ball. The club went on to finish with a 7-5-2 record, and the years of losing were done and gone. It was the same winning percentage that Lombardi had during his first year in Green Bay, but he was disappointed. "I thought we could have had a better won-lost record," he said. "I hope we can find some better people. That's what we're going to have to do -- find them." In Green Bay, the talent was already there, and by his second year he was taking the Packers to the championship game. That seemed less likely now, it was a more competitive league, with smarter coaches, better scouting, and 26 teams instead of the old dozen.
He went to Super Bowl IV in New Orleans that year, watching in the stands as the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings, the second straight loss for old NFL teams. It would be the last meaningful game he ever attended. His wife's fear that he was dying turned out to be hauntingly prescient -- by the next September, after a ferocious struggle with colon cancer, he was gone. But on the afternoon of the Super Bowl, Vince Lombardi's fate was still unknown.
Sonny Jurgensen was also in the stands that day, and the connection between the coach and the quarterback seemed almost mystical. Sonny was his boy now, his new golden boy, and even though the season had been Jurgensen's best ever, it was only the beginning. There would be no stopping them now that Sonny knew the system, no reason for him not to complete 70 percent of his passes next year. Yes, the culture was changing and the game was changing, but Lombardi thought he had it figured out. Even this newfangled defense that the AFL teams were winning with, the 3-4, with four linebackers. There was a way to beat it, Lombardi reasoned: read the key of the weak-side linebacker and flood the zone and there it was -- the passing game of the '70s! Vince and Sonny sat too far apart to consult during the game, but every now and then they looked at each other, catching eyes the same way they would from the huddle to the sideline, with the crowd roaring, and they made hand gestures indicating what play they would have run against the Chiefs, nodding in agreement, both certain that soon enough they would be down on the field, playing for a championship, and winning.
David Maraniss is an associate editor of The Post. This article is adapted from When Pride Still Mattered, to be published in October by Simon & Schuster.