when pride still mattered

In January I read When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss in my book group at the public library. From Goodreads:

More than any other sports figure, Vince Lombardi transformed football into a metaphor of the American experience. The son of an Italian immigrant butcher, Lombardi toiled for twenty frustrating years as a high school coach and then as an assistant at Fordham, West Point, and the New York Giants before his big break came at age forty-six with the chance to coach a struggling team in snowbound Wisconsin. His leadership of the Green Bay Packers to five world championships in nine seasons is the most storied period in NFL history. Lombardi became a living legend, a symbol to many of leadership, discipline, perseverance, and teamwork, and to others of an obsession with winning. In When Pride Still Mattered, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss captures the myth and the man, football, God, and country in a thrilling biography destined to become an American classic.

I was really excited and surprised that a book about Vince Lombardi was chosen for our book group—I would have never suggested it (well, not unless I was in a book group in Wisconsin 😉 ) since it’s 500+ dense pages—so I was also pretty curious to see how my bookish Kansas City cohorts would take to it. I knew off the bat that I would love it, and I did. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t quite up their alley. I can absolutely see why I had special interest in When Pride Still Mattered over the rest of the group, though—unless you are a fan of football (Packers or otherwise), or are interested in football (and Wisconsin) history, this book probably won’t do it for you.

But since I am a football fan, Packers fan, Wisconsinite, and interested in popular American history, When Pride Still Mattered was endlessly gripping for me. Best known as head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s who brought the team to an unprecedented five championships wins in nine seasons, Vince Lombardi has transcended mere historical figure to storied legend, surrounded by a particular mythology that began to develop even before his death in 1970. I absolutely LOVED the chapters about his time in Green Bay; Maraniss’s descriptions of the small industrial city are spot-on. I felt like I was living through every game recounted, and it was fun to read about Lombardi’s players—Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Willie Davis, Max McGee, Jerry Kramer, and more. I found myself becoming nostalgic for an era that happened 20 years before I was born!

Maraniss’s When Pride Still Mattered is the definitive Lombardi biography, covering his family growing up in New York to his Jesuit education (Fordham University), and career as an assistant coach (West Point, New York Giants) long before ever having a chance at a head coach position. Along the way Maraniss ties in historical events and changes in the United States and how they related to Lombardi’s career, like the rise of television (and how that changed professional football), the Kennedy family’s political reign and JFK’s assassination, and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s.

Beyond this broader scope, Maraniss objectively presents Lombardi the man as well, as a son, brother, husband, and father. Despite having a seemingly larger-than-life persona and air of success in the public eye, Lombardi was actually quite shy, lonely, and awkward, as well as a disappointing, frustrating husband and father. I felt like I knew the family intimately after reading When Pride Still Mattered. One part of Lombardi I found especially striking were his progressive, liberal social leanings, particularly with sexual orientation and race on his football teams.

When Pride Still Mattered hit home on a personal level for me, too, beyond just being a Packers fan. Lombardi lived just under a mile away from my grandparents’ house, where my mother and her siblings were raised, and where I spent a lot of time myself before my gramma moved out in 2010. Lombardi frequented Resurrection Catholic Parish in Allouez, where my mom’s family attended, where my parents were married, and where my grandparents’ funerals were held. I just felt extra connected having been to a lot of these places mentioned in the book and having times in my family’s history click with Packers/Lombardi history (my grampa taking my uncle to the Ice Bowl, for instance). I rarely cry over books and movies, but I cried at the end of When Pride Still Mattered, when Lombardi was dying of cancer in the hospital:

By August 31, Lombardi was slipping in and out of consciousness, but he remembered that this was a special day, their thirtieth wedding anniversary. “Happy anniversary, Rie,” he said to Marie. “Remember, I love you.” (page 497)

The day after my gramma died in October 2013, a few of us went on the Lambeau Field tour and saw the Packers Hall of Fame (because duh! That’s how we do in Wisconsin):

I can’t recommend When Pride Still Mattered highly enough! It’s a chunkster, but totally worth it if football history, the Packers, Lombardi, and/or American biographies are your jam.

Read from January 3 to 29, 2014.

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