Welcome to the first part of a multi-part Shutdown Corner series celebrating the life and legacy of Vince Lombardi. In conjunction with the opening night of the play, "Lombardi," which is currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City, we're presenting views on the man himself, as well as the dramatization of his life. Before we get too far into the play, it's important to talk with the man who wrote the book on which the play is based. It was my honor to talk recently with David Maraniss, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of When Pride Still Mattered -- the definitive biography of Lombardi's life, and quite possibly the finest sports book yet written.
Shutdown Corner: What first motivated you to write When Pride Still Mattered?
David Maraniss: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, during the glory years of Lombardi's Packers, so the story always had resonance with me. But I did not write the book because of that. I love the Packers, but would never write a book about Brett Favre(notes), for instance. And I would never write a book about another coach.
It was all the themes of the Lombardi story that attracted me to it. I saw it as a chance to write about the mythology of competition and success in American life, what it takes and what it costs to be great; about what it means to be a great leader; and about a fascinating American life of someone who grew up in New York and became a national icon because of what he accomplished in less than a decade of incandescence in tiny Green Bay.
SC: In the foreword to the book, you wrote that "Many yearn for Lombardi out of a sense of longing for something they fear has been irretrievably lost." You connected that to shallow athletic celebrations and contract holdouts, but the book speaks to a larger metaphor. Do you think Lombardi represents something in ourselves that is so hard to maintain -- that sense of honor that seems to guide the best in us and among us?
DM: Lombardi, like all icons, like all great characters in real life and novels, becomes more than the man, he becomes a symbol of human aspiration, and part of his symbolism is of old-fashioned honor, of doing things the right way, the hard way, the lasting way, without frills or phoniness. As our culture becomes more attracted to the fleeting and the superficial, that symbolism in Lombardi grows deeper and stronger.
SC: Certainly Lombardi was more complex a character than he's given credit for. In researching for the book, what were the most surprising things you found out about the Old Man?
DM: Lombardi was stereotyped by the left for what they saw as his win-at-all-costs philosophy, and from the right as a figure of old-fashioned discipline. He was much more complicated than either of the stereotypes. Some of the interesting and unexpected things about him: He had a gay brother, and was very sensitive and good not only on issues of race relations but human relations; President Nixon once explored the possibility of Lombardi as a running mate only to discover he was a Kennedy Democrat (though becoming more conservative as the counterculture of the '60s went on); he talked about playing through pain but was a baby about pain himself and would complain about a hangnail; one of his players, Henry Jordan, uttered the famous line, "he treats us all alike, like dogs" -- but in fact Lombardi treated each of his players differently and was a master psychologist.
SC: Given those complexities, did you start writing one type of book and end up writing another?
DM: No, not at all. In all of my books, my only mission is to write the truth as I report it, and to try to explain the forces that shape my subject, why he is the way he is. I never go into a book with a preconceived notion of what I will write beyond the real story wherever it takes me.
SC: As a writer myself, I found your recall of the process behind W.C. Heinz's writing of Run to Daylight to be one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Did the process you were recalling remind you of any biographical processes you've gone through in your own writing?
DM: One of the joys of researching this book was dealing with great old sportswriters. I interviewed Fred Russell, a great friend and contemporary of Grantland Rice, who recalled in vivid detail a train trip he had taken across the country with the Vanderbilt football team to play Fordham (where Lombardi was a guard with the Seven Blocks of Granite) in the 1930s. And getting to spend time with Bill Heinz was thrilling. I went up to his house on a hill in rural Vermont and spent a day with him. He showed me his old portable Remington typewriter, he showed me all the original notes he kept for his Run to Daylight book, 10-cent little notepads, his writing perfectly legible, and he told me how old sportswriters taught him to remember everything about a conversation. I use a tape recorder for almost all of my interviews, but I still learned something about memorization techniques from the great W.C. Heinz.
SC: You also mentioned the parallels between Lombardi and your father. And as a Packers fan from way back, what did Lombardi mean to you? What did it mean to have that Packers franchise turn into this national power all the way up in that snowy outpost?
DM: My father also came from Brooklyn, and was a tough city editor, and wore a trenchcoat and smoked...all like Lombardi. Happily for me, my Dad was a much better father in terms of showing that he loved me than Lombardi was. Coach Lombardi was better creating a loving family out of his team of Packers than out of his nuclear family. In my childhood and teenage years, I always felt that the Packers were winning for me, for Wisconsin, for the midwest, against the hugeness and pomposity of New York and Los Angeles.
SC: Lombardi aspired to be a priest at one time, and there seemed to be political aspirations tied into his life at times. Dr. Harry Edwards once said that Bill Walsh was almost wasted in coaching, because he was brilliant enough to do so much more. Do you think that in the end, Lombardi found his ultimate calling in coaching, and how did he pull those other aspects of his life into what he did?
DM: Lombardi had too much of a temper to be a priest, though part of him always thought he should have been one. But first and foremost he was a teacher. His ability to teach, to take complicated subjects and make them simple and understandable, was one of the great traits of his leadership. I think he found his calling as a football coach, though over the years his sayings and lessons and themes have been used in business and many other realms.
SC: Two stereotypes seem to follow Lombardi decades past his death -- the cruelty to his players, and the credo that "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." What made him more than the martinets other coaches seem to turn into when they try to emulate what they perceive to be his style?
DM: Lombardi could be tough on his players, no doubt. But he had a knack for knowing just when to let up, or when to show that his toughness had a reason behind it. He was not a raging egomaniac or sadistic bastard. He was an early practitioner of what has become the cliche of tough love. But love was a very essential ingredient in the Lombardi magic. There is a line in our play where Marie tells the reporter that to understand Lombardi you have to realize that "he truly loves his players."
SC: Did he have an expiration date in the modern game? Given the technology and methods of today, would he still win?
DM: There is a great debate over whether Lombardi could still win in today's game. But often the argument is based on a fallacy, which is to look at Lombardi as inflexible and stuck in his time. He was in fact very flexibile and adaptable and I think he would find a way to win in any era.
SC: How did you become involved in the play? Was this your concept, or did someone bring it to you?
DM: Last summer, Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the producers, called me and said they were interested in making a play based on When Pride Still Mattered. It was not a new concept for me. [Playwright] Eric [Simonson] and I had worked on a wholly different Lombardi play that was performed in Madison. I told them I would be interested but wanted them to know how talented Eric was and hoped that we could form a team with Eric as the playwright.
We met in Chicago, the four of us, and everything flowed from there. And Eric wrote the play that will be performed on Broadway. It has been a joy for me to watch the process, and be a part of it, kind of like the grandfather or godfather. I try to stay out of the way of Eric and the director, a brilliant young guy named Tom Kail, but they turn to me as a kind of dramaturg. I began researching the Lombardi book in 1996 when my wife and I moved to Green Bay for the winter ... and coincidentally the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl while we were there. Now, all these years later, the story is going to Broadway. It has been fun all the way through ... even enduring that first Green Bay winter.