Michael MacCambridge's 2004 America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation:
As pro football rose in popularity in the '60s, almost in counterpoint to the youth movement and the anti-Vietnam fervor on college campuses, it began to take on a larger symbolic meaning. For a growing group of middle-class adults, the game itself served as a kind of social touchstone, which recognized and honored -- especially in the archetypes like John Unitas -- the eternal verities of hard work, dedication, respect for authority, and community.
If Unitas was the embodiment of this spirit among players, Vince Lombardi was the apotheosis among coaches. In his 1963 best-seller Run to Daylight!, Lombardi spoke of the way the game occupied his mind during almost every waking hour. Recounting his trip to the office one morning, he noted, "There is a traffic light at the corner of Monroe and Mason and I stop behind a line of cars in the left lane. When that left-turn arrow turns green, and if everyone moves promptly, six cars can make that turn. Six days a week this traffic light is the one thing that invades my consciousness as I drive to work, that constantly interrupts that single purpose of winning next Sunday's game."
Nowhere was Lombardi's attention to detail more manifest than in the Swiss-watch precision of the brutal, beautiful Green Bay power sweep, the single play around which much of the Packers' offense was built. At coaching clinics, Lombardi would spend eight hours discussing the intricacies of the play, interrupting only for a short lunch break.
Jerry Kramer, the all-pro lineman, would remember Lombardi pounding his troops with the phrase, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Bill Curry, the erudite center who played on the Packers' 1965 world champions, recalled it differently. "Winning is not the most important thing -- it's the only thing," was how Curry remembered the statement. "You might hear that every day for three weeks! Never deviated."
Whatever the exact wording, the sentiment as attributed to Lombardi became a lightning rod, as divisive a motto as Barry Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" speech during the 1964 campaign. Those who would criticize Lombardi and the institution of pro football found in the "winning is the only thing" phrase a soulless mind-set that typified everything from male chauvinism to American manifest destiny. His admirers, of course, saw something in the man and the sport that was completely different: a standard at a time when standards seemed to be slipping, a commitment to respect the game and its larger purpose, a testament to the ennobling effects of desire and willpower. There was in here, as well, an unapologetic desire for excellence. After hearing a pregame speech in which Lombardi invoked St. Paul's epistles and concluded that the key to Paul's teachings was that one must "run to win," Kramer concluded, "Vince has a knack for making all the saints sound like they would have been great football coaches."
Tags: Michael MacCambridge, America's Game