“Lombardi, a certain magic still lingers in the very name. It speaks of duels in the snow and the cold November mud” – John Facenda, narrator for NFL Films, sometimes known as The Voice of God (p. 14)
Friday it was cold and snowy here in Mobile. And I had a lot of time to read. Both are unusual. After finishing A.W. Boudreau’s One Cop’s Journey, I still wanted to lounge on the loveseat and lose myself in a book. So, I cast about and found When Pride Still Mattered, which had been sitting on my shelf for four years. I started reading and continued until after 12:30 a.m.
In November 2013, my wife, my late sister, and I went over to Atlanta to see South Alabama play Georgia State in football at the Georgia Dome. Before the game, we went to Decatur and visited one of my favorite places in the world – the amazing used book store Book Nook.
While there, I found a $2.99 copy of David Maranniss’ When Pride Still Mattered. I’d seen a copy in a co-worker’s office and – when I asked – he said that it was good. So I bought the book. Then it sat on my shelf. For whatever reason, it just didn’t bubble to the top of the list until Friday.
Maranniss gets off to a shaky start. He notes that he’s borrowed the title from a Richard Ford novel that uses the phrase in reference to Lombardi and that Ford “intended it with a certain irony” (p. 13). Oh no, I thought, Maranniss is going to waste 500 pages on snark, moving his opinions to the center of the story.
Even worse, as Chapter 1 begins, Maranniss includes an awkward description of Lombardi’s father –
“He had a face that reminded one of a full moon, a round ball that surely would bounce on the sidewalk if it could be yanked off his shoulders. His thin lips, slatted eyes and disjointed nose seemed painted on, or imagined – as if they had been made by looking up at the moon and creating facial features from shadows of gray on a white-lit orb” (p. 15).
Gag. At this point, I was wondering what else was on the bookshelf.
Fortunately, Maranniss soon rights the ship. He occassionally shifts back into clunky prose, and – at times – gets in the way, injecting too many of his opinions into the story. But such passages are rare. What emerges instead is a fascinating story of an extraordinary, deeply-American life.
Maranniss sees Lombardi as an outstanding person, but he also tries to strip away the myth. He constantly refers to two sets of myths 1) those surrounding the man and 2) those surrounding the supposedly-simpler era in which Lombardi lived.
Maranniss recounts Lombardi’s early life and the sometimes-lucky breaks that resulted in Vince becoming one of Fordham University football’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” in 1936. Surprisingly, after graduating, Lombardi wasn’t so different from many young people in that he floundered for a couple of years. Then, a Fordham teammate called and asked Vince if he’d like to be an assistant coach and teacher at a New Jersey high school. Vince was on his way.
Lombardi at Fordham
Lombardi’s life was not all that it seemed. His marriage was often rancorous and marked by Vince’s obsession with football and long absences from home. (“I wasn’t married to him one week, when I said to myself, Marie Planitz, you’ve made the greatest mistake of your life,” (p. 74), Mrs. Lombardi once said). Sadly, Marie lost two baby daughters and had a drinking problem. Maranniss does a decent job of exploring Lombardi’s home life, though I wish it got more attention.
Even more frustrating is Maranniss’ very-short account of Lombardi’s lack of service in World War II. Vince received three draft deferments for three different reasons (for teaching (1941), for dependents (1943), and for age (1944)). Maranniss states that many men in similar circumstances still served. The reader wants to know why a man who often stressed duty (and who later coached at West Point) was not in the service. But perhaps that story has been lost to time.
In the late 1940s, Lombardi began to move up the coaching ranks. First, he returned to Fordham as an assistant coach and then he began coaching West Point’s offensive line, at a time when West Point was the U.S.’ premier college football program. Lombardi’s association with West Point head coach Red Blaik was crucial to Lombardi’s development as a coach.
My reading ended early Saturday morning with a section on the infamous 1951 West Point cheating scandal, in which 43 of the 45 varsity football players were expelled. Maranniss does a great job on this section and I could not go to bed before West Point’s investigation concluded. The next chapter (#8) is going to be about how West Point’s football coaches managed after the scandal.
Obviously, I was not thrilled with When Pride Still Mattered’s first few pages. But I stuck with the book, and I’m glad that I did. Maranniss redeems himself and his book. So far, I’d rate When Pride Still Mattered as 8.5 out of 10.