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What is everything and the only thing

  • Sep 9, 2012
I have now in order read biographies of the two greatest football coaches of the 20th century.  I hadn't intended to, but after finishing Paterno, and with Maraniss' highly-honored biography of Lombardi on my ready-to-read shelf, I felt the pairing unavoidable and perhaps worthwhile.

The similarities between the two men was sometimes striking:
  • They came from the same place, Brooklyn, and their paths even crossed briefly, when the high school coached by Lombardi beat the high school team featuring Paterno at back.
  • They came from similar roots:  large families of recent Italian immigrants.  Lombardi's parents had come from Italy, but adopted their new country and culture whole, insisting on English being spoken in the home.   Even so, both Paterno and Lombardi valued and cherished their heritage.
  • Perhaps because of that heritage, both men hated discrimination in any form, and were among the first to welcome and encourage African-American players into their largely white communities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
  • They shared similar interests, both reading widely in literature and history, both putting the lie to the "dumb jock" image of players and coaches, and maintaining their wide range of interests throughout their lives. 
  • Both languished long years before reaching the pinnacle they were both so ambitious and certain they were capable of reaching.  Paterno's long years as an assistant at Penn State were matched by Lombardi's long journey from Catholic high school head coach to college assistant (at Fordham and then West Point) to NFL assistant (leading the New York Giants offense while Tom Landry lead the defense, certainly the strongest assistant coaching pair in NFL history).

But both did finally achieve their dreams, and found them perhaps both more and less than they hoped.  It is easy to say they were driven to win (Lombardi, famous for the quote that winning is not just everything but the only thing, didn't originate it, and Maraniss devotes a brief but interesting chapter to the history of the phrase) but that drive alone neither accounts for their success, and for their inability to enjoy it beyond the moment.  While Paterno found his career continuing beyond the peak of his success driven by some single-minded pursuit or perhaps because having driven so long for it that he was incapable of another path of mind, Lombardi found his health consumed by his devotion to his ambition, and by his stubborn refusal to seek treatment for internal illness that took him as a relatively young man after attempting to recreate his success with the Washington Redskins.

As a young football fan when Lombardi went to the Redskins after his brilliant years of success in Green Bay (five championships in nine years), I remembered before reading that he had not lasted long with the Redskins and hadn't been able to recreate his success there, but I didn't know why and assumed he had faded in failure.  In fact, he had only one season with the Redskins, taking the down and out franchise to its first winning season in many years, when he was cut down by colon cancer.  In a way, by placing this end in context, Maraniss while humanizing the legend has enhanced it in my mind; he hadn't been a failure, he had died before he could achieve the success he certainly would have given time!

But Maraniss, writing in a more classic biographical style than Joe Posnanski in his Paterno book, certainly makes no effort to gloss over the inadequacies of Lombardi the man.  While beloved by the community and (if begrudgingly and sometimes after the fact) his players, he was not a great husband and father.  While he was a faithful husband to wife Marie, he was often so absorbed in his work he failed to attend to her needs and desires, especially as his job path took him hop-scotching around the northeast and then to the frigid hinterlands of Green Bay.  Similarly, his relationships with son Vincent and daughter Susan were alternately distant or strained, as neither met his expectations or were able to find his attention long enough to register as much as his players, coaches, and fans.

I am rating the Lombardi biography one star less than the Paterno one, not because it is not as well written and researched (it is, despite the difference in style), but because the subject was not so recently an open wound in my life and those who follow football and current events.  Writing from a further emotional distance, Maraniss had the time to give a considered and balanced approach to Lombardi that lacks just a bit of the immediacy of Posnanski's first-draft study of the recently-passed Paterno, while at the same time providing more depth and breadth. 

In the end, Lombardi's life, while cut short, was not as tragic as Paterno's rapid and utter fall from legend.  In fact, Maraniss makes the point briefly in the epilogue that perhaps Lombardi was better served to leave a world early that was on the brink of finding him either irrelevant or bypassed by events, the "win-at-all-costs" symbol of a rigid conservatism being dashed to pieces by the turbulence of the late 1960s.  While Lombardi was not a rigid conservative (he was in fact a Kennedy Democrat), his fame and legendary status had put him on a pedestal in a place not of his own choosing.

Perhaps this position, so much like Paterno's, was their greatest similarity, their greatest weakness, and in the end their greatest mystery. 

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review by . March 01, 2009
It's refreshing to see a serious sports biography about a legend. So many sports and entertainment biographies are puff pieces and not worth the paper they're printed on. This biography is well researched, well written, insightful, serious, and entertaining. Being an avid football fan I found the biography extremely informative about not just Vince Lombardi, but the Packer dynasty and football in general. I learned a great deal from this book. Maraniss does an excellent job on many fronts. He puts …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


Biography of Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers (1913-1970).
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ISBN-10: 0684870185
Author: David Maraniss
Genre: Biography
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date Published: September 2000
ISBN: 0-684-84418-4
Format: Hardcover,Paperback
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