CHAMPION — The Green Bay Packers finished the 1958 season with a 1-10-1 record. The next year, the Vince Lombardi era began.
Following a 7-5 season in 1959, the Packers advanced to the 1960 NFL Championship Game, falling to the Philadelphia Eagles. During the next seven years, with Lombardi at the helm, the team never lost another postseason game and won five world championships.
What leadership characteristics made the legendary coach so successful? According to his grandson John Lombardi, many of the principles Vince Lombardi used in football can apply to a family, career, business or “wherever you want to be in life.”
John, the son of Vince Jr. and the late Jill Lombardi, presented “Faith, Family and Football,” Thursday, Oct. 3, at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. His luncheon talk was part of the National Novena to Our Lady of Good Help, Oct. 1-9.
John shared a letter his grandfather wrote to the players and their wives following the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The Packers defeated the Giants 16-7 in New York on Dec. 30, 1962. John explained that his father said the weather at that game was worse than the Ice Bowl in 1967. The temperature was 13 degrees, but the wind was so bad that at halftime the team benches blew onto the field.
In the letter, Coach Lombardi expressed his gratitude and praised the players for their character and being mentally tougher than the Giants. He closed the letter by writing, “Remember, there is no substitute for victory.”
John discussed the mantra most associated with his grandfather, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
“What I felt that he stood for was to accomplish anything, you must pay the price,” said John. “I hope each one of you has goals and dreams because, if you don’t, you wither and die. Success is a habit. Winning is a habit and, unfortunately, so is losing.”
While much has been written about Coach Lombardi over the years, John recommends the book “When Pride Still Mattered, the Life of Vince Lombardi,” by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss as the best source. He shared excerpts from the book during his talk. Maraniss explored the influences that made Vince into the coach and person he became.
“(Vince) was a deeply religious man. He attended daily Mass,” said John. “He never saw victory or a championship as divine providence. He considered it as men working closely together and being disciplined.”
John said that his grandfather had great examples in his parents. Vince’s father, a butcher, taught him about the value of hard work. His mother took him to church. Among the other influences in Vince’s life was Jesuit Fr. Ignatius Wiley Cox at Fordham University in the Bronx who taught him “duty, obedience, responsibility and the exercises of free will.” John also pointed to Red Blaik, who was the head football coach at Army, where Vince served as an assistant.
“There was a direct line of thinking from the Jesuits to the military to football,” said John.
While he didn’t pursue football coaching like his younger brother, Joe, quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints, John did work as a scout in the NFL. He played lacrosse at the Naval Academy and at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and coached the sport at different levels. John, the father of four, has lived in the Nashville, Tenn., area for the past 11 years after five years in Green Bay, which he describes as a coincidence due to a job in the city where his grandfather became a legend.
John said that his Catholic faith focuses on “trying to make sure my kids do the right thing.” His favorite Bible verse is from 1 Corinthians Chapter 9, due in part to a connection to his grandfather.
“All run in the race, only one takes the prize. So run to win,” he paraphrased Scripture in explaining the message of the verse.
Prior to the 1967 playoffs, Coach Lombardi read this passage from St. Paul to the Packers. John explained that the design of the Super Bowl rings after defeating the Oakland Raiders, incorporated the message.
“On one side on the bottom, it says ‘Challenge.’ On the other side, it says ‘Run to win,’” he said. “Please run to win. Run to that prize, whatever that may be. Whatever you try to achieve personally, professionally … do the best job you can.”