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Documentary captures force of nature that was Vince Lombardi

BILL DWYRE

HBO production depicts what the legendary Green Bay coach was: a bear with brains, a bully beloved by nuns. In football, his genius was to perfect a few things and minimize the complicated stuff.

December 13, 2010|Bill Dwyre

For much of the 1960s in the state of Wisconsin, there was a shared deity. There was the incumbent and there was Vince Lombardi.

It was a time of bobby socks and crew cuts, of Edsels and Cadillacs with fish-like tail fins. Everybody smoked, drank brandy at parties, bought snow tires in October and looked forward to Friday night fish fries.

Everybody also worshiped Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.

As in all small pro sports markets, Wisconsin fans were both protective and paranoid about their teams. Back then, they had reason. The Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and given the state two World Series appearances, including the 1957 title with a series in which New Yorkers made big headlines by calling the city "bush league." In Wisconsin, those were the ultimate fighting words.

But in 1962, the Braves were sold to a man named Bill Bartholomay, who immediately started shopping his team to bigger, richer, sexier cities. Wisconsin fans felt like, and would become, abandoned orphans.

The Braves left for Atlanta in 1966, but the love left long before the divorce was final. To this day, Bartholomay's name is seldom used in Wisconsin without its accompanying descriptor, the carpetbagger.

Into this breach stepped Lombardi, an unheralded assistant coach for the New York Giants. His only head coaching experience had been at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J. The Packers had been dreadful — 1-10-1 in 1958 — and so, as much an unknown quantity as Lombardi was, he was welcomed with open arms in Wisconsin. He may have been a neophyte, but he was their neophyte.

Wisconsin was ready for improvement. It was not ready for what Lombardi brought. Hoping for high surf, it got a tidal wave.

Millions of words have been written about those days in Green Bay. Any sportswriter with minimal typing skills tried to capture them. Few have done as well as HBO in its newly released documentary, which was broadcast for the first time last weekend and will continue with more than a dozen showings into early January on HBO's On Demand.

To capture the man is to lasso a speeding train. He was a grizzly bear with brains. He filled every room he entered. He was a devout Catholic and daily communicant who could melt the hearts of nuns and altar boys. He was also a bully who would leave his victim grateful for the chance to have been one.

As a football mind, his genius was to perfect a few things and minimize the complicated stuff. In the documentary, John Madden talks about attending a Lombardi clinic and hearing him discuss the famed Packers sweep — one play — for eight hours. It is hard to compare him to today's NFL sideline bosses. He was Bill Belichick with a personality.

An aging sportswriter who has done thousands of interviews since then still remembers, vividly, the moment Lombardi confronted him on the steps of a building at Packers training camp one summer day in 1967. The writer, then working for the Des Moines Register, had scheduled an interview with Jerry Burns, a Packers assistant who had been the University of Iowa's head coach. The writer was waiting for Burns and suddenly was face to face with Lombardi.

In machine gun cadence, the writer was asked who he was, why he was there, whether he knew Packers camp was off-limits and why was he just standing there, looking lost and dopey. The reply was that he was a few minutes early and Burns hadn't shown up yet.

The answer had been honest. Also, heaven-sent. To Lombardi, being early was being punctual, and being punctual was the first ingredient to success.

Lombardi turned, disappeared, emerged again in seconds with Burns and instructed him, smiling broadly through his gapped front teeth, to "take all the time you need with this nice young man."

The Packers won seven games in 1959, Lombardi's first season, then went all the way to the NFL title game in 1960 and lost. To this day, any true Packers fan remembers the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik sitting on Jim Taylor at the Philadelphia eight-yard-line as the game ended.

It would be the only title game Lombardi ever lost. In 1965, '66 and '67, the Packers won it all. The culmination was the '67 Ice Bowl game at Lambeau Field, minus-38 windchill factor, beating Tom Landry and the Cowboys.

It was said in those days that Lombardi lived the doctrine of God, family and the Green Bay Packers. Nobody was quite sure about his order of preference. The same could be said those days of Wisconsin fans.

Vincent Thomas Lombardi died in 1970, 40 years ago. It is unimaginable that he was only 57 when he died. It is also unimaginable that he died at all.

He was a force like few others, and HBO has done him, and that, justice.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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