Lombardi is best known for his winning ways as a football coach – especially as head coach of the legendary Green Bay Packers from 1958 to 1967 – and for his dedication to victory. But, like most famous people, Lombardi was far most complex than the legends and myths he created. He believed in traditional values – authority, teamwork, hard work, perseverance – during a time when such values were under widespread attack. But he also believed in, and practiced, equal rights for blacks and gays long before it was popular to do so, especially in the tough-guy world of mid-Western professional football. As his accomplishments and fame increased, he became a well-known orator. He was desperate to win, but he never cheated to avoid defeat. He talked about toughness, but was an emotional man, often breaking down in tears. He represented authority, but was also known for his loud laughter and huge toothy grin.
Lombardi was the oldest of five children; his parents were Italian immigrants living in Brooklyn. In many ways, the Lombardi story is the classic tale of immigrants making the American dream come true. Lombardi’s father was a butcher, and at times it seemed possible that Vince might join the family business. In a strongly Catholic family, it was also possible that he would become a priest. Lombardi studied business at Fordham University and was a member of the football team’s famous “Seven Blocks of Granite” defensive line. Having opted out of several potential occupations – priest, teacher, lawyer – Lombardi stumbled into a job as a high school football coach. He was a slow starter, spending many years as a high school coach before working at Fordham College and West Point as an assistant coach. He didn’t become a pro football coach until age 45, but at that point, he immediately began to carve his niche.
He had troubled relationships with his wife and children, although they idolized him. When he died from cancer in 1970 thousands attended funeral services in Washington and New York.