Freedom in Discipline

While the Super Bowl is a distant memory (in the age of day-trading, instant e-mails and online newspapers, anything that took place more than a month ago is a distant memory), it is by no means too late to talk about a book and a man intimately connected to championship football games. The book is When Pride Still Mattered, and the man is Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. The change in the sports calendar from gridirons to diamonds should by no means preclude a discussion of this remarkable icon and an equally remarkable biography [reviewed in these pages, 12/18/99].

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Washington Post who wrote a best-selling biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, has compiled an unforgettable portrait of Coach Lombardi, warts and all. Of the many reasons to recommend it, one seems especially appropriate for this journal’s audience: Maraniss delivers a textured, colorful and sympathetic treatment of Lombardi’s strong Catholic upbringing. He attributes much of what we associate with Lombardi discipline, strength, character and, yes, pridenot only to his upbringing in Brooklyn, but to his Jesuit education at Fordham University.

"The Jesuits taught him that human perfection was unattainable," Maraniss writes, "but that all human beings should still work toward it by using their God-given capacities to the fullest. While complete victory can never be won,’ Lombardi said, it must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one’s might.’" Lombardi the coach, Maraniss writes, was the embodiment of the lessons he learned at Fordham from Father Ignatius Cox, the famous Jesuit who taught ethics there in the 1930’s.

Granted, Vince Lombardi may not be every Jesuit’s ideal advertisement for the virtues of a Jesuit education. He was by no means an intellectual. He made his mark on the football field, not in the classroom, research laboratory or embassy. His personal life was complicated, to say the least. While he really believed in the importance of family, he was, like so many driven, high-achieving men, a distant father and husband. His priorities in life were God, family and footballbut not necessarily in that order.

Still, these days it is a rare biographer who finds something positive to say about the kind of upbringing Lombardi had. He was a product of an ethnic-Catholic neighborhood, he considered the priesthood while a student at Cathedral Prep in Brooklyn, and he was a middle-of-the-class student at Fordham at a time when Catholic universities were Catholic indeed. He was very much a child of the old-fashioned urban parish. Maraniss offers a vivid picture of Catholic higher education as he describes young Vinnie Lombardi’s freshman routine at Fordham: "[In] his sparely furnished freshman room...he awoke each morning at six-thirty, dressed in coat and tie, put on his maroon-bowed miraculous medal...and followed the path to the chapel for daily mass before breakfast and class." It is not hard to imagine how some other writersno names, pleasewould deal with such a seemingly simple canvas. Certain fashionable words spring to mind: repressed, insular, parochial.

David Maraniss is too sensitive an observer, too textured a writer, to resort to such silly generalizations. Instead, he paints a complex, moving and indeed loving portrait of a vanished era in the life of New York and American Catholicism. When Pride Still Mattered is an antidote to the more popular treatments of ethnic Catholic life, whether in novels or in film, in which villains wear Roman collars and the heroes are those who either spurn or spite their Catholic upbringing.

In fact, the Maraniss book also is an antidote to the myths surrounding the legendary coach. In the public imagination, where he still lives 30 years after his death, Vince Lombardi is considered the prototype of the authoritarian football coach, a discipline-enforcing, law-giving bishop who tolerated no dissent, no questioning of dogma and no personal or intellectual irregularities. To some he would seem to be, and no doubt would be pictured to be, the quintessential pre-Vatican Council Roman Catholicwhatever that might mean.

In Maraniss’s telling, however, we learn that Lombardi was, in fact, quite a bit more complicated. He tolerated free spirits like Paul Hornung. He was an immensely creative coach who took the life lesson he learned at Fordham, what Maraniss described as the "Jesuit concept of freedom within discipline," and applied it to his play-calling. He welcomed African-American athletes at a time when professional football was barely integrated and when they still faced resistance in the locker room. He supported his brother when, in middle age, he told his family that he was gay. Indeed, he supported gay football players in the 1960’sno small matter. And he strongly believed in social justice.

Maraniss sees Lombardi’s open-mindedness and compassion not as evidence that the coach had outgrown the faith of the old neighborhood, but that he had thoroughly absorbed its teachings. Vince Lombardi, tough, gruff Vince Lombardi, was not afraid to use the word love when talking about the men he pushed to excellence.

The coach was a proud man who loomed large when pride still mattered. He surely would be proud of his biographer, David Maraniss.

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