Army is in the legends-making business, and most are alumni who’ve won wars, helped perpetuate democracy and helped familiarize millions worldwide with the concept of freedom. However, one particular former Army employee – one who, as a teacher received a deferment from military service – remains a man whose name has almost come to define a sport; a man whose influence on his former players is still spoken of in almost reverential tones.
West Point was where Vince Lombardi helped hone his craft. It was where working for another legend – longtime Army coach Red Blaik – helped form not just his coaching skills, but how he redefined life. Always a religious man, it was under Blaik where he learned to combine his spiritual discipline with Blaik’s military discipline.
He took that to his first professional coaching position, as an assistant with the Giants, before making his way to the Green Bay Packers. He took over the Packers in 1959; the year before – even with five future Hall of Famers on the roster – they finished 1-10-1. In Lombardi’s first year, the record was 7-5. By the time his nine-year tenure was complete, the Packers had won five league championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
Where did he pick up the skills that enabled him to make the franchise do a 180 in one season? At Army. Under Blaik. Ironically, though, it came when Army had come to the lowest point in its history.
The 1949, 1950, and 1953 seasons were successful. But the 1951 and 1952 seasons were disasters due to the aftermath of a cadet cheating scandal (a violation of the honor code), which was revealed in the spring of 1951. Forty-three of 45 members of the varsity football team were discharged. Decades later, looking back, Lombardi came to regard Blaik's decision not to resign as a pivotal moment in his own career, saying it taught him perseverance.
After leaving the Packers, Lombardi joined the Redskins. Washington finished with a record of 7-5-2, its first winning record in 14 years. The foundation Lombardi laid was the groundwork for Washington's early 1970s success under George Allen. In June, in his first offseason in Washington, he was diagnosed with malignant rectal cancer. He was dead by September.
His funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan was attended by approximately 1,500 people. Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic. Terence Cardinal Cooke delivered the eulogy. In attendance were NFL team owners, Commissioner Pete Rozelle, past and present members of the Packers, Redskins, and Giants, former players and colleagues from Army and classmates from Fordham University.
After his death, the trophy awarded to the Super Bowl champion was renamed for him, and with the likely exception of the Stanley Cup, and, perhaps, the Heisman Trophy, is the most coveted and well-known piece of sports hardware.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy will surely be among the stars of the show Wednesday at the Seahawks’ victory parade. Lombardi himself would likely have been surprised. His idea of celebration was his weekly trip to Sunday Mass. But when informed that two of the teams he had coached – the Redskins in 1988 and 1992 and the Packers in 1997 and 2011 – had taken home the trophy that bears his name, his famous overbite smile would surely be shining.