I hadn’t been out of college very long when my dad, as a Christmas gift, gave me a plaque featuring a snippet of a Vince Lombardi speech. It was taken from one of Lombardi’s more common speeches, beginning with the statement that, “Winning isn’t a sometimes thing, it’s an all-the-time thing.” Since my dad gave it to me, I’ve kept it on the wall at my office, first at the newspaper I worked at and now behind me as a community college media relations specialist.
To me, the characteristics Lombardi promotes in his speech and has come to symbolize in Americana — determination, discipline, honesty and old-fashioned values — are indistinguishable from my dad’s best characteristics. As a result, I’m partial to books about Lombardi, and this will be the second to take a spot on my bookshelves.
Last year I read THAT FIRST SEASON by John Eisenberg, about Lombardi’s first season with the Green Bay Packers and how he turned around a franchise that had previously been an NFL cellar-dweller. WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED is more all-encompassing, and has positioned itself as the definitive Lombardi biography. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two books, but while THAT FIRST SEASON relies heavily on newspaper clippings from that season, Maraniss has obviously gone far beyond that, interviewing Lombardi’s children, friends, co-workers and former players, researching court and hospital records and even acquiring personal letters written to and from Lombardi. One letter is so personal between Vince’s wife Marie and his son Vincent that I’m amazed a member of the family was willing to share it with Maraniss.
That research makes for a fascinating book, a biography that not only details Lombardi’s accomplishments and milestones, but also analyzes his relationships — with his family, mentor, religion, the Kennedys, his players and the Green Bay community. Maraniss is very fair in his analysis of Lombardi, detailing both his strengths and weaknesses, and showing how some of the characteristics that help Lombardi on the football field strain his relationships in other areas of his lives. More than anything else, Maraniss handles his subject with respect, even while detailing his flaws.
The only real criticism I can muster is that the beginning is slow — Lombardi doesn’t coach a game for the first 100 pages, and until he begins coaching under Red Blake at Army, the story seems to drag a bit. It’s important stuff for what Maraniss is trying to do — tell the complete story of Lombardi’s life — but that didn’t make me any less impatient to read about Lombardi’s interactions with Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. Some of the stories from players about their reactions to Lombardi — and their obvious love for the Old Man — were my favorite parts of the book.
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