Saturday, August 28, 2010

Running to Daylight

Friday will be the 40th anniversary of the death of Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi died of colon cancer. While there have been many improvements in the fight against cancer in the last four decades, colon cancer remains one of the most common causes of cancer–related deaths.

A relentless perfectionist, Lombardi probably would be disappointed that, in 40 years, medical science hasn't conquered the thing that killed him. Medical science has made great strides against other forms of cancer, including the variety that killed Bears fullback Brian Piccolo less than three months earlier, but colon cancer remains a formidable adversary.

I guess that's fitting. During his life, Lombardi also was a formidable adversary.

In the 1960s, Lombardi may have been the most respected coach in the NFL. He became the first coach to lead his team to three straight NFL titles, and he was the winning coach in the first two Super Bowls.

Today, his memory is not so vivid in most minds. He is remembered by some for saying things that are generally considered cliches now — things like "Winning is the only thing" and urging his players to "run to daylight."

My personal memories of Lombardi are still vivid, though, and they are in black and white. That's because our TV was a black and white in those days — and the screen wasn't very big so Lombardi, who was not a tall man to begin with, looked even smaller to my elementary school eyes.

Actually, my family got its very first color TV in 1970, a few months before football season was scheduled to begin. Then as now, I loved football, and I was looking forward to seeing football games in color.

And one of the things I was looking forward to the most was finally seeing Lombardi, who was coaching the Washington Redskins by that time, in color.

In hindsight, I probably didn't miss much. Even in the color film I have seen of the Lombardi Packers, Lombardi was a black–and–white figure, almost always wearing dark pants and a white shirt, occasionally wearing a tan overcoat. He always appeared somewhat colorless, with his salt–and–pepper hair and his dark–rimmed glasses.

But appearances can be deceiving. Lombardi was far from colorless.

I was — and still am — a Packers fan. Lombardi was the reason for that, but, as much as he did for the Packers, he seems to have done even more for the Redskins in 1969, laying a foundation for the franchise's future success in the 1970s and 1980s.

But even though he took a team that was unaccustomed to winning and molded it into a contender, Lombardi worried that he hadn't been as tough as he should have been. Sonny Jurgensen said that, before he was stricken with cancer, Lombardi told him he had been "too easy" on the players after taking a year off from coaching and pledged to be tougher.

In the spring of 1970, it seemed all but certain that, with Lombardi at the helm for the second year, the Redskins would be televised beyond their local viewing area. That was good news for a young Lombardi fan living in Arkansas.

And, in that spring of 1970, there was no ESPN where football fans could get offseason news, but the sports writers I read in the Arkansas Gazette in those days all seemed to feel the Redskins were poised to make a real run for the playoffs.

That was an unfamiliar feeling, even though Washington could have been in the playoffs in 1969 if the Redskins had defeated the Dallas Cowboys in their two meetings (in fact, they didn't really come close to winning either game).

The old NFL and its upstart rival, the American Football League, merged earlier in 1970, then divided into the NFC and AFC, and folks expected big things from the Redskins (who actually would have been in the running for a wild–card playoff spot in 1969 if such a thing had existed at that time).

But it was not to be. Lombardi was stricken with cancer that summer. The oncologist who treated him called it the most aggressive he had ever seen, and Lombardi died about 10 weeks after his diagnosis.

His memory is honored, of course, in the name of the trophy that is awarded annually to the team that wins the Super Bowl — a fitting tribute to the man who coached the winning team in the first two Super Bowls, even though those victories had none of the drama of the legendary "Ice Bowl."

I still remember when I heard that Lombardi was dying. It was a week night in early September 1970. My father, a college professor, had been spending the previous eight weeks taking continuing education courses in Chicago, and he was returning that night.

My mother took my brother and me, along with some family friends, to the Little Rock airport to meet his plane — only to be told at the airport that Dad had called. He had missed his flight — I think he got stuck in Chicago traffic — and was booked on another flight. He would be arriving late that evening, we were told.

So we turned around and drove back to our small hometown about 30 miles away to have some dinner and kill a few hours. I clearly remember, on that drive home, hearing reports on the radio that Lombardi was near death. And, by that time the next day, he was gone.

The year after he died, Lombardi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After Lombardi died, one of his former players from his glory days in Green Bay, Jerry Kramer, put together a book about Lombardi that was primarily transcriptions of interviews he did with people who were influenced by the legendary coach.

He had had some experience with this kind of thing. In 1967, he kept a diary of the football season, which, as it happened, was the last season Lombardi coached the Packers. The diary was published as a book called "Instant Replay" and became a best seller.

Kramer played one more season, then retired, publishing another book titled, "Farewell to Football."

Most of the people he interviewed for his book on Lombardi were men who played for Lombardi. One was his brother. Another was a college teammate who became, along with Lombardi, one of Fordham's "Seven Blocks of Granite." Kramer also interviewed legendary Army coach Red Blaik, who hired Lombardi as an assistant coach in the late 1940s.

And the final entry came from Kramer's conversation with Sonny Jurgensen, a talented quarterback who was trying to come back from rib and elbow injuries at the age of 35 when Lombardi arrived in Washington. They had one season together.

When Jurgensen met with Kramer, he told him, "I envy you ... all you guys from Green Bay. You had him for nine years. We only had him for one — just long enough for him to educate us as to what it takes to win."

When the transcription was finished, Kramer wrote, "I think I felt sorrier for Sonny than I did for any other man affected by Vince's death. He'd waited so long to be a winner. He'd waited so long to find a Vince Lombardi."

Some people never find a Vince Lombardi, and others, like Jurgensen, don't have their Lombardi long enough.

On the surface, his lessons were about football, but they were really about life.

"If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive," he said, "and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done."

And, while there was no way he could have known it at the time, he had good advice for those people in the 21st century who find themselves in a poor economy and working at a job for which they have no passion.

"If you aren't fired with enthusiasm," Lombardi said, "you will be fired with enthusiasm."

Lombardi. His wisdom still rings true 40 years after his death.

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