Friday, January 14, 2011

Super Bowl Moment II: Lombardi goes out a champion...and a tradition is born

Vince Lombardi: All he did was win Championships.


The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 2 on the list of the top 25 that I'm adding onto daily to countdown to Super Bowl Sunday on February 6th.

The second Super Bowl moment once again pertains to the Green Bay Packers, only in Super Bowl II this time.

Having won the NFL championship in 1965 (there was no Super Bowl at that point) and then the first Super Bowl the next season, Green Bay entered the 1967 season with one goal: to become the first professional football team ever to “three-peat.”

Vince Lombardi, Green Bay’s longtime coach, was absolutely fixated on this and never let his players think about anything else. All at once this represented one of the best and worst qualities about the legendary coach. All he cared about was winning.

HBO’s recent documentary about Lombardi did an excellent job of capturing how his relentless pursuit of victory caused problems with his family and health, but probably my favorite anecdote was regarding his color-blind treatment of players.

(And yes this is a tangent but I promise two things: 1) It's a cool story and 2) It ties into the larger story...no seriously.)

As the story went, one of the African American players on his defense, linebacker Dave Robinson, wanted to marry a white woman. Previously, this was treated as a serious offense in a league where cruel prejudice and racism was still very prevalent. Worried, Robinson told Lombardi expecting a negative response.

Instead what he got was a bedrock resolution from the coach that it didn’t matter who he married as long as he kept up his Pro Bowl standards on the field. I always love hearing things like that. More than any innovation in tactics or training, it reveals the character of Lombardi that’s helped to make the NFL one of the most racially diverse leagues in the world today.

But back to the Packers in 1967, fighting for their three-peat. They triumphed famously over Tom Landry’s Cowboys in the epic “Ice Bowl” on nearly the final play. Quarterback Bart Starr successfully pulled off the sneak up the middle on the frozen tundra to secure another NFL championship and a ticket to Super Bowl II.

Playing the Packers was another rising football power, Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders. The Silver and Black had scored over a hundred more points than the Packers during the course of the season, but Vince Lombardi’s defense proved stout, holding prolific Oakland receiver Fred Biletnikoff to just two catches for ten yards.

The game was all but locked up for Green Bay (who were leading 26-7 in the fourth quarter) when cornerback Herb Adderley stepped in front of an errant pass from Oakland quarterback Daryle Lamonica and took the ball 60 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

When the final gun sounded, Green Bay had a 33-14 win, their second straight Super Bowl and their third straight championship. All that was left was a moment that lives on in Green Bay lore.

Though he had aged like only a President can in such a short period of time during his tenure as head coach, Lombardi sprung to life following the win, jubilant that he’d reached his goal of the three-peat.

His players, especially All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer, gave the legend a proper sendoff. They carried the Brooklyn native and historic coach off the field, beginning a long and illustrious Super Bowl tradition for winning coaches (except for you George Seifert).

It was to be his last game with the Packers, but Lombardi went out the way he had come in: winning. His life would be cut short tragically only a few years later to cancer, but his legacy had been set.

Under his tutelage, the Super Bowl had emerged from a quirky exhibition game to become a proper Championship. Three days after his death, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would name the Super Bowl trophy after Lombardi in his honor.

Yet for all the footage, sound bites and traditions synonymous with Lombardi, the immortal image of him smiling as he was carried off the field that last time, champion once again, remains one of football’s finest hours.

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