Thirty years after his death, Vince Lombardi is experiencing something of a renaissance. The legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers is the subject of a well-regarded Broadway play and now a well-researched documentary from HBO that portrays him as equal parts drill sergeant, school teacher, autocrat and psychologist — a father figure who alienated his own children, and a loving husband who drove his wife to drink. But it was perhaps his self-proclaimed reputation as a madman — an obsessive workaholic perfectionist — that moved the National Football League to name its championship trophy in his honor.
Writer Ouisie Shapiro appreciates the ironies in the coach’s life. Lombardi’s father, Harry, was a meat packer who made sure his two boys helped him during the summer; without belaboring the point, the pic intimates that the man who was to gain fame as coach of the Packers literally worked as one as a teenager.
At age 26, after distinguishing himself as an undersized lineman at Fordham U., Lombardi landed a job as a coach at St. Cecilia’s High School in New Jersey. And while his record as football coach there was remarkable, Newark Star-Ledger writer Jerry Izenberg relates an even more amazing tale of achievement: Lombardi, who knew little about basketball, was asked to coach that sport, too, and, relying on a textbook on fundamentals, led the team to the state title.
In trying to encompass Lombardi’s entire life, rather than just a few key moments, as in the stage play, there is an inevitable brusqueness to portions of the briskly paced docu, which still finds time to detail his years as an assistant coach at Army and with the New York Giants, where a creaky-sounding Frank Gifford describes the coach’s difficult transition from a teacher of students to a leader of pros.
The pic includes some of the better-known details from Lombardi’s years as Packers coach, many of them mentioned in Jerry Kramer’s 1968 bestseller “Instant Replay” — Lombardi’s arduous training camps; his humiliating disparagement of players during practice, subsequently building them back up in the locker room; his drive to make the Packers the first team to threepeat as NFL champs. Kramer is among the former players interviewed here, along with Bart Starr, Gifford and Dave Robinson, and all have something new to add, most notably Robinson, who tells of Lombardi battling the league in the ’60s in support of one of his black player’s right to interracial marriage.
The football achievements are accompanied mostly by little-seen vintage clips, thanks to NFL Films’ massive archives. But it’s frequently away from the football field that the docu scores its finest points. The filmmakers let the coach’s son Vincent and daughter Susan relate the toll their father’s devotion to winning took on the family, mixing in interviews with wife Marie (who died in 1982) and Vince himself.
“It’s a game for madmen,” Lombardi admits, “and I’m the biggest madman of them all.”
Perhaps the truest measure of the man, though, is that none of people who had such differing relationships with Lombardi can hold back tears recalling the coach’s final days as he lay dying of cancer.
At one point, former Packer tight end Gary Knafelc remembers Lombardi’s three great loves: God, family and the Green Bay Packers. “He went to church every day,” Knafelc recalls, “and he was the altar boy. To this day, I believe the priest kept looking at Lombardi like, ‘Am I doing it right?’ ”
After considering this docu, warts and all, the coach certainly would have nodded.