Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

LOMBARDI’S LEGACY

Gridiron

LOMBARDI’S LEGACY

Gridiron NFL

It was a game Vince Lombardi simply had to win. But, then again, weren’t they all? We’re talking about a man whose trophy haul was matched only by his zest for the next great quote about victory.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Take your pick. He said ‘em all. Lombardi, though, was a rare breed who backed up his words, a man who had become synonymous with success after turning the downtrodden Green Bay Packers into serial champions since undertaking the roles of head coach and general manager in 1959. Three championships in five years were the ultimate validation of the irascible New Yorker’s methods.

Reputations were meaningless come January 15, 1967, however. Lombardi’s all-conquering Packers faced the upstart Kansas City Chiefs in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game (it would not be called the Super Bowl until two years later). Green Bay were charged with protecting the honour of their league, entering the game as 13-point favourites after a 12-2 regular season and victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship game.

But Lombardi was under no illusion as to the task ahead. Players noticed he was particularly uptight and Wellington Mara, influential owner of the New York Giants, laid it on the line. “Vince, I know no other man who would lead us into this game. You must win this game.”

As 60million people tuned in to watch at home, and with tickets priced at $6, $10 and $12 – called “exorbitant” by some – Memorial Coliseum was only two-thirds full due to poor promotion. Few of the 63,946 who did attend knew what the Super Bowl would become, but they saw Lombardi’s Packers justify the hype thanks to storied quarterback Bart Starr and Max McGee, a veteran wide receiver well-known for his curfew-breaking exploits.

He had just four receptions to his name that season and as a consequence, was not in any danger of playing. Or so he thought. On the eve of the game, he spent a night out in Los Angeles and was spotted returning to the team’s hotel at 7:30am by a stunned Starr. Yet an injury to Boyd Dowler on the sixth play forced the 34-year-old onto the field, staggering and forgetting his helmet as he did so. He would play the game of his life, scoring the first touchdown in Super Bowl history, reeling in Starr’s underthrown ball with a one-handed grab before dashing down the middle for a 37-yard score. It signalled a clutch performance.

But, directed by quarterback Len Dawson, the Chiefs had come to play. They led the AFL in total points and yards, and – with his “moving pocket” – Dawson helped tie the score in the second quarter after a six-play 66-yard drive, finished off by fullback Curtis McClinton’s touchdown. Jim Taylor put the Packers back ahead, with Lombardi calling a trademark power sweep and the running back crossing the paydirt to complete a 13-play, 73-yard drive. Mike Mercer’s field goal reduced the arrears to 14-10 and the Chiefs went into half-time buoyed by their efforts.

It would take a simple adjustment from the master to flip the script. Ditching his naturally conservative style, the Packers blitzed Dawson after the break, and the pressure reaped instant dividends. On third and five, the signal-caller was thrown by the ploy and tossed the game-changing interception to safety Willie Wood, who ran 50 yards to the Chiefs’ five-yard-line. Halfback Elijah Pitts bundled over on first down to give the Packers a 21-10 lead that they never looked like relinquishing. McGee and Pitts would add further scores to give the Packers a 35-10 victory.

While the methodical Starr drove off in the car awarded to the game’s MVP, having completed 16 of 23 passes, it was the man on the receiving end of seven throws who truly starred. “These guys can’t cover anybody. Nobody’s covering me out there,” McGee told room-mate Paul Horning during the game of his life. Amid Green Bay’s players walking away with $15,000 a piece (the Chiefs pocketed $7,500 each), Lombardi did not celebrate the win. He coveted three titles in a row, and would achieve that goal a year later after triumphing in Super Bowl II over the Oakland Raiders.

Exhausted, and with deteriorating health, he retired to become the Packers’ general manger following that feat. Yet his competitive spirit saw him struggle away from the locker room and he took on a new challenge in 1969, becoming head coach, general manager and part-owner of Washington, another ailing franchise. His only season brought a 7-5-2 record, their first winning campaign in 14 years.

Lombardi did not get the chance to build another dynasty. Diagnosed with cancer of the colon, he passed away in 1970 at the age of 57. Yet his indelible mark on football was confirmed that same year as the trophy lifted by each year’s Super Bowl champion was fittingly named after a man for whom winning was a way of life. The Vince Lombardi Trophy. A trophy for winners.

This article originally appeared in Issue XIX of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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