HBO's 'Lombardi' Breaks New Ground

The documentary, which premiered in the Lambeau Field Atrium on Thursday night, debuts on Dec. 11 on HBO. Bart Starr, Dave Robinson and Jerry Kramer were at the premiere of the brilliantly produced, two-hour program.

Right when you think there's nothing else to say about Vince Lombardi, HBO blazed a gripping new trail in its two-hour documentary, "Lombardi," which debuted at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.

"The people in this room got a chance to look into the insights of a man and how the players felt and people felt about a person who to me was bigger than life," Dave Robinson, who Lombardi made the first black linebacker in the NFL, told the audience gathered in the Atrium.

The documentary — which features plenty of never-seen-before NFL Films footage — started with Lombardi's childhood and how he almost became a priest. He was one of the famed "Seven Blocks of Granite" at powerhouse Fordham and, among other jobs, worked in a collection agency upon graduation.

Finally, he found his calling as a teacher and coach at St. Cecilia, a Catholic high school in New Jersey. He helped lead the school to six consecutive state championships in football, but his coaching genius showed in basketball, a sport he never played. He read an old book to learn about the game, then coached that squad into champions, as well.

"I don't think there's any difference whether you teach on the football field or you teach in the classroom. They're both exactly the same," Lombardi said.

Lombardi would become an assistant football coach at Fordham and at West Point, but grew increasingly frustrated at both spots because he couldn't land the head coaching job he coveted. Finally, the New York Giants hired him to run their offense. Lombardi was anything but a coaching genius early in his stay, with the techniques he learned in college rubbing the pros the wrong way.

Said Hall of Famer Frank Gifford: "We'd take the chalk away from him and he'd just get serious — screaming and yelling, ‘Who took my chalk?!' We didn't dislike him. We just thought he was kind of weird. Nobody professionally coached like that. ... It got to the point that he was laughable."

Lombardi went to the players for advice, and he listened. In 1956, the Giants beat the Bears for the championship. In 1958, the Giants lost the championship game in overtime to the Baltimore Colts in "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

He used that as a springboard to take over the laughingstock Packers. His daughter, Susan, couldn't find Green Bay on the map. Lombardi vowed to change that. He certainly succeeded.

Lombardi took Green Bay by storm with punishing practices and ruthless coaching. One day, Bart Starr recalled, one of his passes was tipped and intercepted. Lombardi lit into him.

"‘If you want me to be leading that team, then please don't chew me out in front of them,'" Starr said. "‘If you want to chew me out for something, please do it here in your office.' He never, ever chewed me out at practice again."

The 1958 team, coached by Scooter McLean, went 1-10-1. The 1959 team, with basically the same group of players, went 7-5 for its first winning season since 1947. The 1960 team advanced to the championship game, where they lost 17-13 at Philadelphia.

"‘We got beat today,'" Starr recalled. "‘I can tell you right now, it will never happen again.' He says this to us right after the ballgame. ‘It will never happen again. No one will ever beat us in a championship game again.'"

No one ever did, with Lombardi claiming NFL titles in 1961 and 1962, an unprecedented three-peat from 1965 through 1967, and wins in the first two Super Bowl games.

The documentary spends several minutes on the 1967 championship game, The Ice Bowl. Trailing the Cowboys 17-13 in the final seconds, the Packers called their final timeout after two running plays went nowhere because the backs were slipping and sliding.

"I ran to the sideline," Starr recalled, "and I said, ‘Coach, there's nothing wrong with the play.' I said, ‘The backs simply can't get to the line of scrimmage because the ground is so hard.'"

Starr said he could sneak into the end zone, with Jerry Kramer blocking Jethro Pugh.

Lombardi's response is legendary: "Well, then, run it and let's get the hell out of here."

What isn't legendary is Starr's response: uproarious laughter.

"I didn't want anybody to see me laughing because it just broke me up," Starr said.

The documentary goes deeper than football. Lombardi's obsession with the sport played a role in his wife becoming an alcoholic and his never having a truly close relationship with his children, Vince and Susan. A victim of discrimination as a youth because he was Italian, Lombardi gave his blessing to Lionel Aldridge — a black offensive lineman — marrying a white woman, which was so taboo at the time that commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to intervene.

After Super Bowl II, Lombardi retired as coach but stayed as general manager for a year. Bored, Lombardi moved onto Washington, where he was coach and general manager in 1969. There was no encore, though, as he was stricken with an aggressive case of colon cancer.

Players flocked to Georgetown University Hospital to see the man who had changed their lives in every way imaginable.

"He opened his eyes and looked at me," Kramer said. "I went over and shook his hand and told him how much I appreciated our time together and that he had a great impact on my life, and I loved him for that."

"I put my hand in his and he just squeezed it," Susan Lombardi said. "And then I realized that my dad was going to die."

Lombardi died on Sept. 3, 1970. He was just 57.

Incredibly, 40 years after his death, Lombardi remains a legend for all-time. It wasn't just that he won, but it was the rough but caring hand that guided so many players to heights they never dreamed they could reach.

Said Starr after the showing: "I don't think (love) is talked about (with) Coach Lombardi enough until you see something like this and appreciate the times in there when that word is very much on display."

"Lombardi" debuts on HBO on Dec. 11.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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