How did a young Catholic boy who planned to be a priest grow up to become the namesake for the Super Bowl's trophy?
Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 11, 1913, to Italian immigrants Harry Lombardi and Matilda Izzo Lombardi. They lived in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, with extended family living nearby. His parents were true disciplinarians. His father, a butcher, had the letters W-O-R-K and P-L-A-Y tattooed on his knuckles. Vincent was the firstborn child, followed by three more sons and two daughters.
Lombardi helped his father in the butcher shop and soon realized that butchery was not a career he wished to pursue.
Due to his traditional Catholic upbringing, including service as an altar boy, Lombardi made plans to become a priest. At the age of 15, he enrolled at the Cathedral College of Immaculate Conception. While there he played baseball and basketball, but he lacked skill and had poor eyesight.
He soon realized that the priesthood was not the proper path for him. He transferred to St. Francis Preparatory High School and joined the football team as a fullback.
Lombardi attended college at Fordham University on a football scholarship. He was considered to be too small for his position as a tackle - he was five-foot-eight and 180 pounds. In his senior year he played right guard as part of the team's offensive line, known as the "Seven Blocks of Granite." He graduated from Fordham magna cum laude.
After college, Lombardi played semi-pro football and worked as a debt collector. As with butchery and the priesthood, these endeavors were not his true calling.
In 1938, Lombardi worked for a finance company during the day and attended law school in the evenings, with tuition assistance from his father. He eventually decided that the legal field was not for him, and he left Fordham Law School.
Marriage and Responsibility
Lombardi fell in love with a young woman named Marie Planitz in 1939. Her father objected to the couple's engagement, because he did not want his daughter to marry an Italian. Lombardi's father objected as well, but his reason was financial. He insisted that the two could not marry until Lombardi was gainfully employed.
Lombardi took a position as assistant coach at a Roman Catholic high school in New Jersey, St. Cecilia, under his former teammate at Fordham, Andy Palau. His duties also included teaching Latin, chemistry, and physics to the students at St. Cecilia. When Palau left, Lombardi became the head coach at the school. In 1943, under Lombardi's leadership, St. Cecilia was named the top football team in the country.
Lombardi and Marie were married in 1940. Shortly thereafter, she began to regret her decision, because he cut their honeymoon short to return to his coaching duties. Lombardi once said, "Unless a man believes in himself and makes a total commitment to his career and puts everything he has into it - his mind, his body, his heart - what's life worth to him?"
Their marriage was difficult. They endured a miscarriage and the death of an infant, and Marie suffered from alcoholism and depression. In addition, Lombardi had a tendency to carry his coaching techniques, including a quick temper and a quest for perfection, from the football field to the home front. He once said, "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." He treated his family as if they were team players.
The couple had two children - Vince Jr. and Susan - who were not close to their father.
In 1947, Lombardi left St. Cecilia for a coaching position at Fordham University. Not long after, in 1949, he became the offensive line coach for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was heavily influenced by the head coach, Earl "Colonel Red" Blaik. Lombardi learned to combine his spiritual approach with Blaik's military discipline, to become a truly effective coach. Lombardi once said, "There is something good in men that really yearn for discipline."
Lombardi left Army in 1954, after five years, to become the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants. He and the other Giants coaches led the team to a league championship in 1956. During his tenure with the Giants, Lombardi applied for a number of head coaching positions, but he was sometimes rejected and other times ignored. He worried that some teams might be prejudiced about his Italian heritage.
Lombardi invented a new strategy he called "rule blocking." The technique called for an offensive lineman to guard a specific area of the field, rather than a specific player.
Finally, in 1959, Lombardi was offered the head coaching position for the Green Bay Packers. The team had been experiencing financial trouble and the players lacked morale.
Coach Lombardi did what he could to motivate them, including establishing a difficult workout routine, and the team's performance improved. Lombardi said, "I've never been connected with a losing team and I hope to instill a winning spirit in the Packers in a lot less than five years." Fans supported the team as well, by buying tickets. In 1959, Lombardi's rookie year as a head coach, he was named Coach of the Year.
In 1960 the Packers won the Western Conference for the first time since 1944. Fans started to refer to Lombardi as "The Pope," honoring both his coaching skill and his religious convictions. The Packers went from being a losing team to domination during Lombardi's tenure as coach. The Packers won three consecutive NFL championships, in 1965, 1966, and 1967. In the latter two years, the Packers also won the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi served as both coach and general manager in 1967; he opted to serve only as general manager in 1968.
In 1969, Lombardi returned to coaching, taking leadership of the Washington Redskins. The team had offered him an ownership stake. Lombardi led the team to their first winning season in 14 years.
After the Packers won the championship in 1962, President John F. Kennedy called Lombardi, asking him to return to coach the Army team at West Point. Lombardi declined.
Lombardi fought for racial equality, warning his players that if they showed signs of racism they would be removed from the team. He also patronized only those establishments that would accommodate black players as well as white.
Lombardi took a strong stand against homophobia. His brother, Harold, was gay.
At one time Richard Nixon considered asking Lombardi to be his running mate on the presidential ballot, until he learned that Lombardi was a Democrat.
In his leisure time at home, Lombardi enjoyed reading cookbooks - even though he did not cook.
The first Super Bowl, in which Lombardi participated as one of the head coaches, was played in a stadium with about 30,000 unsold seats. The game was televised on only two networks.
In addition to his admirable record on the field, Lombardi is remembered for his eloquent quotes about football, discipline, and the human spirit. For example, he once said, "Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."
He believed in using football as a metaphor for life: "Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile."
Perhaps his most famous motivational quote is: "Winners never quit and quitters never win."
He neatly summed up the importance of winning: "If it doesn't matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?"
In June of 1970, Lombardi was diagnosed with colon cancer. Shortly before his death on September 3, 1970, he told a priest, "I'm not afraid to die, it's just that I had so much left to do in this world."
Due to his popularity, Lombardi was honored with two funerals. The public ceremony was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, and Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic in the vicinity.
Lombardi's children worried that their mother, Marie, was dealing with the loss by exaggerating her husband's good qualities and denying his faults. She died twelve years later, in 1982, and she was interred with her husband in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown Township, New Jersey.
Not long after his death, Vince Lombardi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Due to his skill as a coach, as well as the fact that his team won the first two Super Bowl championships, the trophy awarded to winning teams at the Super Bowl has been named the Lombardi Trophy.
Vincent Lombardi once said, "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious." He will always be remembered as a victorious football coach.