Referred to as a champion of equality, Vince Lombardi’s life and legacy will be highlighted in honor of Italian American Heritage month.
Vince Lombardi’s early life
At the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn in 1913, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born to father immigrant Enrico Lombardi, and mother Matilda Izzo.
From the beginning, Enrico was raising his three sons to be perfectionists, teaching them the only way they would be succesful was to be better than everyone else. This mentality followed Vince through his career in football.
As a teen, Vince was considering two potential career paths – priest or football player. Although, football obviously won, Lombardi was always deeply religious.
Vince Lombardi’s playing career
Ultimately, Vince’s gift to the football world was not playing in it.
A succesful stint as a fullback in high school won him a scholarship to Fordham University. At Fordham, he was a offensive guard. At 5’8′, and 185 pounds he was a very small guard, known for playing through extreme injuries. He gained 20 pounds and tried his hand at semi-professional football, but his small stature was too much of a limitation.
Vince Lombardi’s family
In 1940, Vince married his wife Marie Planitz. They had two children.
The marriage was eventful. Lombardi was insensitive, and obsessed with football. Marie struggled with her mental health and substance abuse.
Like every other personal relationship he had, Lombardi had a tense and complex relationship with his son. He was a great coach, but struggled with being a family man.
Vince Lombardi’s coaching career
Lombardi started from the bottom, and now he was definitely there.
Vincent had a long road to the NFL. He was a teacher and high school football coach in 1939, after retiring from playing on the gridiron. Times were tough, and money was tight. In 1947, he became a coach at his alma mater, and in 1949 he was a coach for West Point. From there he started his five-year position as an assistant coach for the Giants. After that, he was the head coach for the Green Bay Packers for nine years. He was Washington’s head coach the last two years of his career.
Vince Lombardi’s legacy
Was Lombardi as decent as a person as he appeared?
Some people point out his faults – it seemed that he enjoyed emasculating his players’, and was a hard core disciplinarian with a tendency to scream. Although emotional abuse is always a problem, these qualities were likely in the job description of every coach in the 1950’s and 60’s.
The Green Bay Packers coach was popular among politicians later on in life, he was considered as a potential vice president candidate for both parties. He was complex and a dichotomy in every aspect of his life. He was controversial in this area at times.
Lombardi had religious inclinations that lead him to believe that there is a firm hierarchy in life. As the coach he felt he was the leader of all his players. He also felt that power comes with responsibility – he was to love each player equally. He loved as hard as he coached.
Vince Lombardi’s focus on racial equality
Susan Lombardi suggests that part of her fathers’ inspiration to fight racism was his own experiences through life.
He was told that he should reconsider a career in coaching because people wouldn’t want a coach of Italian heritage. Rumors flew when he and his wife married, that he wanted to marry her for her light complexion and blonde hair. He was refused service at a restaurant once because the wait staff would not allow someone they perceived as African American to eat with a Caucasian woman in their establishment.
The coach was pretty quiet about his experiences and motivations. He was more a man of action than of words.
Vince Lombardi’s actions on the field
Head coach Lombardi came to a team with one African American player. In two years, he had five. Significantly above the unofficial quota the NFL had established. He shook the status quo with this one action.
Lombardi seemingly enjoyed cutting players from his team at the first sign of any predjudice. He threatened to cut anyone who had a word to say to an African American player who was dating a Caucasian girl in 1960. Future Hall of Famer, Jim Ringo, allegedly used racial epithets when speaking about Lombardi one night. He was traded by end of day. Another player had a drunken, racist rant at a bar one night, and he too was removed from the team.
Vince Lombardi’s actions off the field
Despite being new to the town, the coach threatened the town of Green Bay. If a African American player was not allowed to eat at any restaurant, the Packers would boycott that place.
Also, he refused to help advertise the first game played in Columbus, Georgia because he didn’t support Jim Crow laws. Their opposing team showed up a week early for photo shoots, and media involvement. Lombardi and team showed up the day before, with no fanfare. Turnout was low. In 1962, Lombardi refused to approve a segregated seating plan in that same stadium. In 1963, he cancelled the game in Georgia altogether. He wasn’t much a fan of Miami either. He described the games in Miami as “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players.” The Packers only played there two years. He made it clear that he would only play teams that would allow his entire team to play, with no exceptions.
Vince was deeply offended that his players were respected for their contributions on the field, but were disparaged off the field. Lombardi was told his African American players had trouble finding housing in 1960. He sprung into action by reaching out to a succesful local real estate developer to find a solution. The pair worked together for five years on this problem, despite incredible resistance. They fought for the Fair Housing Act in Wisconsin. Lombardi publicly endorsed the bill finally passed in 1965 that prohibited discrimination in renting and selling homes in Wisconsin.
Vince Lombardi’s support for LQBTQ+ community
Those were just some examples of the contributions he made in advancing racial equality in the NFL, and the United States. Lombardi didn’t stop there.
Ray McDonald, cut from his team in 1968 after being arrested for having relations with another man, was recruited by the Packers, and signed on the team in 1969. Lombardi was also aware two of his players were a couple, and shielded them from hate. He once again threatened his players that if he heard an discriminatory remarks about players regarding sexual orientation, they would be cut from the team. Vince went as far as to specifically invite gay men to his team try-outs, giving them an opportunity to compete for a spot on the team. Hes stated his interest in increasing diversity in this way on his team.
Is Vince Lombardi a champion of equality?
In conclusion, yes. Lombardi was a complex, confusing man with problematic qualities and complicated relationships with the people he loved. But ultimately, he had an attitude of radical acceptance on and off the field. As a coach often passed up for coaching opportunities because of his own ethnicity, he would not allow people to quiet him down or lessen his convictions in the face of injustice.
Unfortunately, the great coach passed away in 1970 at just 57 from aggressive cancer.
Vincent Lombardi cleared the pathway for inclusion in the NFL, accomplishing more in this area than the entire league has been able to do since he passed.
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