Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lombardi's Centennial

Today is a special day for Green Bay Packers fans like myself.

It would have been the 100th birthday of Vince Lombardi.

I barely remember watching Lombardi coach the Packers to victory in Super Bowl II. My family had just gotten its first TV set a few months earlier — black and white (color TV was way out of my parents' budget in those days) — and my mind still houses memories of seeing the Packers play on TV in those days.

Granted, those memories are kind of like those scratchy black–and–white newsreels that you see from time to time on documentaries, but that's where my lifelong support for the Packers was born.

My father was a college professor when I was growing up, and sometimes he spent the summers taking advanced education courses at other schools. One year — probably a year or two after Lombardi left the Packers' sideline — Dad spent about six weeks in Wisconsin. When he came home, he brought back a copy of the Packers' yearbook for that season for me. It was my most cherished possession for the next couple of years — until it literally fell apart.

Lombardi is an iconic figure for lots of people. In Green Bay, they call him St. Vince, the only Packer coach (so far) to win back–to–back Super Bowls. One other coach did take the Packers to consecutive Super Bowls, but he didn't win both.

I suppose when (if) another coach duplicates Lombardi's achievement, he will be elevated to sainthood in Green Bay. Until that happens, though, Lombardi stands alone.

I have vague memories of watching Lombardi in his one and only season of coaching the Washington Redskins in 1969, but the Redskins hadn't been good for a long time, and they didn't get too much TV coverage in those days (as I recall). Lombardi's presence raised the interest level, though, and he did wind up coaching the Redskins to a winning season.

He probably would have accomplished even greater things in the years ahead, but he was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1970 and died before the next season began.

I remember when he died in September 1970. The memory is linked to a childhood memory.

My father had been away at another advanced education course (at Northwestern, as I recall), and he was due to return by air on a Wednesday so Mom, my brother, some friends of the family and I piled into the family car and drove to Little Rock to pick him up.

As we drove to the airport, we had the car radio on. On the newscast, I heard reports that Lombardi was near death.

When we arrived at the airport, we were told that Dad had been delayed several hours. I don't remember why. Perhaps there were problems with the plane. Maybe he missed his flight and had to take a later one.

Whatever the reason was, my mother consulted with the family friends and decided to go home, have dinner and drive back to the airport when Dad's flight was due to arrive. That's what we did.

As we drove back to the airport that night, I remember staring out the windows of the car at a relatively starry sky and hearing another radio report that said Lombardi was likely to die within hours.

We greeted Dad's plane and drove home. I don't remember hearing the radio on the return trip. The adults were too busy talking, and the radio would have interfered.

But the next morning, when I got up, I remember going into the living room where my father was having his breakfast in front of the TV, which was reporting that Lombardi had died a few minutes earlier. I felt a depth of loss that I have rarely felt in my life. He was 57 years old.

And today he would have been 100. Most people don't live to 100; even fewer of Lombardi's generation have done so, and I sincerely doubt that, had cancer not ended his life, he would still be alive today.

But the 100th anniversary of his birth is a good occasion for reflecting on his life and times.

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