Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960’s has become a mythical figure in the 40 years since his death. He was almost a mythical figure when he was alive, winning five NFL Championships (1961, ’62, ’65, 66, and ’67) and the first two Super Bowls. His relentless pursuit of excellence on the field also applied to endeavors outside of football, he believed, and he was much in demand as a speaker at business and other group functions. There is one aspect of Lombardi that is not as well known today, but it is something where he was ahead of his time. Vince Lombardi believed in equality for all, regardless of race, and his football teams reflected this.
Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born June 11th, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an Italian immigrant. For much of his early life, Lombardi faced prejudice and stereotyping based on his Italian heritage, something not uncommon for a time when ethnicity ranked just behind race in one’s social standing. Having to deal with prejudice in his own life no doubt shaped his belief that everyone was to be treated equally, and he had empathy for those who were discriminated against.
Lombardi as Coach of the Green Bay Packers
After being an assistant coach of the New York Giants, Vince Lombardi was named head coach and general manager of the Packers in 1959. One of the first players he brought in to improve the team following their dismal 1-10-1 season of 1958 was safety Emlen Tunnell of the Giants. An excellent player, Tunnell had been in the league for years, and could provide some leadership both on and off the field. He was also African American and lent credibility to Lombardi’s efforts to bring in more black players.
Lombardi would tolerate no racial or ethnic slurs on his team and threatened to get rid of anyone who used them. Lombardi let it be known to the Green Bay restaurants and bars that if his African American players were unwelcome, none of the rest of the team would patronize those businesses either. There was a very small minority population in Green Bay , and Lombardi made sure the African American players could get away on off days to Milwaukee and Chicago for entertainment venues and other social opportunities.
The Packers would play some preseason games in southern cities, and due to segregation, black and white players would have to stay in separate hotels. Following the 1960 preseason, Lombardi could no longer tolerate that situation and refused to have his team stay in separate accommodations. It was all or none. He even went so far as to house his team at the military base at Fort Benning, Georgia, once to keep the team together on a trip to the deep south.
Out of the ten players in the Pro football Hall of Fame who played primarily with Lombardi’s Packers during their careers, three are African American–defensive backs WIllie Wood and Herb Adderley, and defensive end Willie Davis. All played prominent roles in the Packer dynasty, as did many others. The concept of teamwork was paramount with Vince Lombardi, and that meant everyone, regardless of race, worked together for the goal of winning a championship. And it worked.
Green Bay Packers Hall of Famers at Packers.com
Maranis, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Vince Lombardi biography at vincelombardi.com