Maraniss' 'When Pride Still Mattered' -- Lombardi writ large

September 26, 1999|By WILLIAM K. MARIMOW | WILLIAM K. MARIMOW,Sun Staff

"When Pride Still Mattered," by David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster. 544 pages. $26.

The son of a successful wholesale meat market owner and the grandson of Sheepshead Bay's best known barber, Vince Lombardi grew up in an environment where average performance -- whether in school, work or sports -- was simply unacceptable.

David Maraniss' biography of the inspirational coach who led the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s to five NFL championships in nine years and victories in the first two Super Bowls skillfully chronicles the forces that transformed a boy from Brooklyn into a football legend.

This is a relatively long biography, but Maraniss is an evocative storyteller, who skillfully narrates the stories of Lombardi, his family, friends, teammates and the teams he coached. At the same time, he re-creates, with an unerring eye for color and telling detail, the era in which they lived and played.

The Fordham campus in the Bronx, where Lombardi played football in the 1930s and later coached, comes to life: There was, Maraniss wrote, "trainer Jake's old barber chair, the Keating Hall clock tower, Jesuits in cassocks clucking along, lunches of linguine and calamari on Arthur Avenue, leaves and mud on the practice field ..."

So do the other stops along the way: St. Cecilia, the small Catholic high school in Englewood, N.J., where Lombardi taught and coached for eight years in the '40s; West Point, where he worked as an assistant coach under Colonel Red Blaik; and finally Green Bay, Wis., the NFL's northernmost outpost, home to one of the league's most historic and -- when Lombardi arrived in 1959 -- hapless franchises.

Because of Maraniss' descriptive prowess, the Lombardi saga more closely resembles a carefully stitched together, gripping novel instead of a meticulous work of scholarship, teeming with footnotes. So I thoroughly enjoyed reading all 544 pages.

Admittedly, I have a special interest in the era and the sport. As a teen-ager who came of age in the Sixties, I was 13 when the Philadelphia Eagles, my hometown team, beat Lombardi's Packers 17-13 for the NFL title in 1960. And I was 20 -- by then, a college junior -- in January 1968 when the Packers, in Lombardi's final game as coach, trounced Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.

So it's very possible that some readers -- especially those who are not football fans -- may choose to skim through Maraniss' carefully crafted re-creations of the Packers' epic gridiron battles.

More important, though, for both the football aficionado and the general-interest reader, is how well Maraniss has captured the components -- and significantly, the costs -- of achieving greatness as a leader. He effectively explores Lombardi's capacity to inspire, invigorate and, when needed, intimidate one's fellow man into achieving his potential.

In Lombardi's case, the drive to excel originated at home with the legacy of the hard-working and equally hard-playing Lombardi and Izzo families.

As Maraniss describes life at the Lombardis', he makes it clear that playing to win was a dominant family value: Grandma Izzo, the barber's wife, was a ferocious competitor at cards; Harry Lombardi, the butcher, hated to lose at Scrabble.

"Beat Harry in Scrabble," Maraniss wrote, "and his eyelids blinked violently, a trait passed on to Vince, whose buddies noticed it when they stuck him with the queen of spades in a game of hearts."

Add to the beaker what Lombardi learned from the Jesuit philosophy of duty, obedience, responsibility and the exercise of free will, instilled in him during his years at Fordham, and one can discern the core elements of Lombardi at Green Bay.

But just as important as the values that shaped Lombardi were the people: His college coach was Sleepy Jim Crowley, one of the four Horsemen of Notre Dame; Crowley's coach had been Knute Rockne, whose name is synonymous with "The Fighting Irish."

At Army, Lombardi was hired and trained by "Red" Blaik, the most successful college football coach of the 1940s. In Blaik, one of the pioneers in using film to analyze in microscopic detail his players' performances -- not only in games but also in practices -- Lombardi met the "most prepared" person he would ever encounter.

Like other truly gifted coaches, Lombardi also understood that practice, repetition and determination were what separated the good teams from the truly great. Lombardi -- teacher, coach and leader -- was at his best drilling his offense in plays like the Packer sweep, the 49 as it was known in the playbook, making certain that every player had mastered not only the play itself but also the logical response to "as many as twenty defensive possibilities," Maraniss recounts.

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