Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing
Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer
Out of Their League
Player of the Year
The City Game
“If we do not like the survival of the fittest we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.”—William Graham Sumner, as cited in Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought
“I wasn’t one of Vince’s favorites at Green Bay. When I hurt my knee in a scrimmage before the 1966 season he yelled, ‘Drag him off the field and let’s get on with the scrimmage.’ “—Bob Long recalls his initiation in Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing
The idea that football survives as our last undisputed expression of the Social Darwinism of Spencer and Sumner seems first to have drawn the attention of George Sauer, Jr., wide receiver of the New York Jets, while he was reading Eldridge Cleaver:
Our mass spectator sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving. (Soul on Ice, p. 86)
Sauer has since occupied the void between seasons with refining that notion. His search for the origin of a credo set and never questioned in its church has carried him back, he told me, to the Yale of 1890 where Sumner taught the laws of society and Coach Walter Camp the rules of the game, and where each great preceptor preached from the principle of natural selection.1
Sumner had hardly enunciated his doctrine before having it disputed by Lester Ward and Henry George. But in Camp’s discipline the creed has gone so long without challenge that even now one is shocked to recognize a faint crack in the rock when one of the seven works under discussion appears to decry its fundamentals. That two of the other books should be attacked as heretical is only a mark of the ultra-montanisme of this church: Johnny Sample and Jim Bouton, the displaced Yankee pitcher, complain about the priesthood but they swallow the Revelation entire. Only Dave Meggyesy, the St. Louis linebacker who walked away from the game, can truly be called an apostate among these witnesses.
Meggyesy tells us that athletes call persons who fawn upon them “jocksniffers,” Jock-sniffing is so fixedly the donnée of sports literature that even the memoirs of professionals are often a protracted sniffing of their jocks. Los Angeles quarterback Roman Gabriel’s journal of his 1969 season has, for example, room in it for subjects of such uniform enthusiasm as Mrs. Gabriel’s Christmas present (“a hair-styling comb and brush set…I’m going to take to Minneapolis tomorrow [for a championship game] because it’s equipped with a blower, [and] the heat styles your hair at the same time you blow it”); the dedication of Johnny Unitas (“They had asked him to go to Vietnam that winter, but he turned them down. ‘I wanted $1 million of insurance,’ he told me, ‘and they wouldn’t go for it’….He’s a player’s player always alert to the possibility that athletes will be taken advantage of”); the author’s Volkswagen agency, his Porsche agency, and his interest in Sportstab Vitamins.
There are also his tie-in with Rawlings (“When people ask me for autographed balls, I suggest that they drop by a sporting goods store and get a Rawlings football with my name on it”); his love for his teammates (“We don’t have cliques on the Rams. We’re all brothers on this team”) and his admiration for his coach, George Allen (“The first time Joey Bishop handed him a question, George put in a plug for one of his accounts, Montgomery Ward”). Gabriel’s memoirs are so dreary a mixture of piety and cupidity that it is difficult to find in them any realized purpose at all except to solve the David Eisenhower Christmas Shopping Problem for Mr. Nixon.
Where jock-sniffing for Gabriel is an onanistic activity, Dan Jenkins, a sports writer, can take proper delight in it only according to the degree of its multiplication. He is a man for circuses on a continental scale. Saturday’s America is indeed an intergalactic orgy tour to novae as obscure as Columbia, Missouri, West Lafayette, Indiana, Fayetteville, Arkansas, or any other star where Sports Illustrated had descried the College Game of the Week. At last, when the traveler collapses in the presence of the last coach on the voyage—in this case Woody Hayes of Ohio State—no feeling remains except a bruised reflection rather like Yeats’s on Wilfred Owen (“There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him”).
And yet, reason though we try, the Cross remains so much harder to dismiss than the incense around it. The Cross, of course, is, in this case, a game whose prime social function is to unite us in the feeling that we are all still in high school.
“I suppose I shouldn’t have been,” says Jerry Kramer after his researches into the novitiate before the apotheosis, “but I was amazed by how closely Vince Lombardi, the high school coach, paralleled Vince Lombardi, the professional coach.”
Lombardi had no need to change his methods; he would likely have failed if he had. We are still surprised when we meet a high-school football player who talks like some elder professional; but we ought to have noticed long ago that elder professionals talk like high-school students. “I spent my life,” Dave Meggyesy says, “on the ‘will-I-get-approval?’ trip.” And Lombardi’s special skill in developing men appears to have been for keeping them high-school boys, and best of all boys conscious of the marks of acne still upon them.
“I always doubted myself…. Call it insecurity or anything you want, but that’s what I was like,” Frank Gifford says of himself when Lombardi was his backfield coach with the New York Giants. “And Vinny could put his finger on these elements in a personality. I know that, after a while, it got to a point where I was playing football for just one reason: I was always trying to please him.”
There is the further testament of Max McGee, the wide receiver of the Green Bay Packers, a man sophisticated enough to be recognized as the Fun-loving Rover Boy of the team. Even at thirty-five, McGee says, “I couldn’t stand being embarrassed in front of my teammates. I may not act it all the time, but, basically, I’m a shy guy. I’ve got to be accepted. When he chewed me out in front of my friends, I felt like a complete ass.”
“After practice today, George Allen told me,” Roman Gabriel solemnly records, “that he thinks Larry Smith is one of the few athletes who could ever play regularly for him as a rookie. ‘…I like the way he talks. All he ever says is ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ You hardly ever get that kind out of the universities today.’ ”
High school is, one remembers, one of the worst points of moral peril in life, and to no degree more testing than when under the influence of the coach. Johnny Sample, for example, takes particular pleasure in boasting of acts of which he might better be ashamed; he is especially proud of the maiming of Del Shofner, the Giant receiver, in a game absolutely meaningless to his own Pittsburgh Steelers. (“Shofner dived for the ball and caught it about three yards inside and then started rolling out of bounds…. Now I could have jumped over him touching him just enough to down the ball. But I didn’t. And the result was that I broke three of his ribs.”) Johnny Sample was, then, an athlete whose particular vanity lay in hurting people; most of us might hope that he would get over it; but, when he went to the New York Jets, his coach Weeb Ewbank seems to have feared only his moral improvement:
For example, the San Diego Chargers had as a running back a small kid named Dick Post…. Weeb asked me if I thought I could intimidate him and I told him I could. “If you get a chance to get close to him, hit him around a little…[the coach] said…. I got a good shot at [Post], right on his knee…. They took him out because his knee was hurting…. But it wasn’t necessary for the coaches to tell me to do it. It came naturally.
Lombardi spent time as an assistant coach at West Point, when Earl Blaik was in office there. Blaik, it must be confessed, is one of the most impressive men I have ever met; yet consider the moral self-examination which informs his contribution to Winning Is the Only Thing:
Vince was with me when the cribbing scandal broke at West Point, when practically the entire football squad, including my son, was expelled. Next to me, Vince was probably the most depressed person there…. Everything we’d built up, and everything we’d stood for, went right out the window in twenty-four hours. He, like myself, never forgave the people up there, the antifootball people who forced and magnified the whole thing. It was an asinine thing, sheer stupidity. They harmed a lot of young boys.
It did not then, in their grief, nor did it long after, in their regret, seem to have occurred to Blaik and Lombardi that their own obsessions, their own pressures on these young boys, might have had a share in their harm.
And yet, even Dave Meggyesy cannot be sure in truth that, if he had been lucky enough to play for Lombardi, he would ever have turned against the game. And Lombardi was only the mythic heightening of that ideal of the Coach that Meggyesy began to serve in the high school where, in the final game of the season, he carried the ball twelve straight times and on the thirteenth failed to score from the two-yard line and returned to the dressing room to hear his coach say, “If he had hit in there like he did on third down and not tried to pussyfoot it over, he would have made it.”
“I never completely believed in coaches after that,” Meggyesy tells us, “although I wasn’t quite able to step outside the father-son relationship that is football’s cornerstone.” Fifteen years later, in training camp, feeling cut off from the 1968 Democratic convention, he suggested to Rick Sortun, a Cardinal guard, that they write a petition supporting Eugene McCarthy and “see how many ball players we could get to support it.”
“Rick said he felt McCarthy was merely a reformist who would never bring about the kind of significant changes the society needed…. He agreed, however, that the petition would be a good tactic to make the players aware of the coming confrontation between the forces of peace and the forces of war.”
Still, for all the alienation suggested by this dialogue, Meggyesy started as a Cardinal linebacker in the 1968 season; and by the third game of the season, when he had been hit on the head and was struggling to keep up, he was on the one hand supporting Eldridge Cleaver for President and on the other as worried as he had ever been when “I noticed that the coaches were a little cool to me” because of his troubles with headaches.
"Yale, after all, produced Walter Camp himself, 'the father of American football,' who gave us the down system, the idea of eleven players to a side and modern scoring" (Dan Jenkins, Saturday's America). Also the game's first law of civilization, a precept so enduring as to be taken for granted nearly seventy years later by Johnny Sample, an old Blue whose actual university had been the Eastern shore's shabby, black Maryland State. In his first year as a professional, Sample had displaced Jesse Thomas as cornerback for the Baltimore Colts:
I hated to see Jesse go . But that, I began realizing, was what the game's all about—survival of the fittest. Jesse was over the hill and any sad thoughts I had about leaving him were far outweighed by the tremendous feeling of happiness I had over making the team.↩
“Yale, after all, produced Walter Camp himself, ‘the father of American football,’ who gave us the down system, the idea of eleven players to a side and modern scoring” (Dan Jenkins, Saturday’s America). Also the game’s first law of civilization, a precept so enduring as to be taken for granted nearly seventy years later by Johnny Sample, an old Blue whose actual university had been the Eastern shore’s shabby, black Maryland State. In his first year as a professional, Sample had displaced Jesse Thomas as cornerback for the Baltimore Colts:
I hated to see Jesse go . But that, I began realizing, was what the game’s all about—survival of the fittest. Jesse was over the hill and any sad thoughts I had about leaving him were far outweighed by the tremendous feeling of happiness I had over making the team.↩