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In Washington, D.C., that self-proclaimed world capital of cosmopolitanism and all-round cool, restaurant diners have taken to rising from their chairs to offer a reverent rattling of applause upon the appearance in their midst of Vince Lombardi (see cover). They circle around and around his table, sometimes cadging autographs or reaching timidly for a handshake or simply drifting a small distance away to gaze. Grown men who would not glance at Mike Mansfield and would absolutely cross the street to avoid Strom Thurmond stand in their tracks on the street as Vince Lombardi strides by, gaping in wonder and joy that the man actually exists. There is even some doubt that all 10 dozen reporters attending Vince's first press conference as boss of the Washington Redskins actually believed his opening disclaimer: "Gentlemen, it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac River—not even when it is frozen."
Now that he has transcended the offices of the Green Bay Packers on Lombardi Avenue (which was named for him) for the Redskins' digs on L Street (which was not), Vince Lombardi has been treated as if he were some kind of home-rule Moses. Of course, he is no stranger to blind adoration: in Green Bay he was widely known as St. Vincent. Recently, when he was asked how he liked his sycophantic reception in the capital, his reaction was vintage St. Vincent. His eyes lighted up—a thousand suns of candlepower and white heat blazing behind those thick spectacles (which just might be made of bulletproof glass). His face split into that enormous grin—all wholesome glee and glittering inlays. And he spoke in that voice which resonates somewhere between a bear's growl and a string of small firecrackers: "What the hell's a Messiah to expect?" he said. Then he laughed—another unbelievable sound that rumbles like thunder from beyond the moon and has been put down in print as "Arararararargh!"
Vince Lombardi knows full well that, however rich the idolatry may be now, his reputation as America's leading Success Symbol and Dean of Champions is on the line in Washington. Insisting that he is spurred less by profit motives than by internal compulsion, he passes off his $100,000 salary and his $500,000 worth of Redskin stock by saying, "I don't need the money. Money I've got. I need to coach!" So he has come out of his own personal purgatory-retirement at Green Bay, where last year he general-managed only and did no coaching at all. He has brought himself—lock, stock and legend—to accept full responsibility for the Washington Redskins, a fun-loving group that last won an NFL championship in 1942, has a dismal record of 126-190-15 since then and turned in an indifferent 5-9 performance last year. It is in this lukewarm crucible that Lombardi has chosen to have his legend tempered for the future. To add audacity to that dubious decision, he coolly promises, "We're going to have a winner the first year!"
So in Washington he makes his stand: the miracle American who symbolizes—no, epitomizes—the advent of the Golden Millennium of Professional Football; the dashing commander of Sunday's mighty swashbuckle and exquisite mayhem, as well as the buttoned-down master of Monday's cool business of putting black ink in the books; Brooklyn-born Italo-American, who is able to fulfill both the purest and the most commercial of Anglo-Saxon dreams, the accumulation of trophies on the playing field and of money in the countinghouse. And all those folk heroics will be up for grabs with the Redskins—to be distorted, disfigured, diminished if he loses. But if he wins he will achieve actual deity at an early age.
Vince Lombardi is a genuinely loquacious man, open and surprisingly ingenuous and perhaps constitutionally incapable of being anything greatly different from what he says, shows or seems to be on the surface. A few days ago, shortly after he had accepted the Redskin job, he sat in one of the team offices at L Street and Connecticut Avenue and talked for hours about his past, present and future.
First, there was this thing about the Lombardi Legend. Oddly enough, it seemed to baffle him. "Legend? Well, yeah, I suppose I thought about my legend before I came here," he growled. He scratched his head. He stared fixedly at the floor. He ducked his chin down toward his necktie. He was silent. Given all the horror stories about Vince Lombardi, the volcanic martinet who reduces monsters to mice, it was hard to believe—but there he sat, simply being bashful about being a legend. "Dammit," he finally burst out, "dammit I'm not a legend, because I don't want to be a legend. One main reason I came back to coaching is that I didn't want to be regarded as a legend. Because one, it's embarrassing as the devil, and two, you have to be Halas to be a legend. George Halas is 74 years old and he's done something for the game. I'm too young to be a legend."
Well, Vince is 55. But geriatrics, semantics and esthetics aside, there isn't much room for argument about the Lombardi Legend in terms of history or statistics. In 1959 he began his role as Emperor of the Green Bay Packers ("Yeah, it had to be autonomy, a one-man deal or it wouldn't've worked at all"). At that time he was a ripe 46 years old and had not had a head coaching job since 1947 when he left St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. When he arrived, the Green Bay franchise was moribund, approximately bankrupt, and the year before Lombardi the Packers had compiled a dismal 1-10-1 record. The only feasible legend in the region was the amount of booze consumed in the town's 194 bars. So St. Vincent simply won the NFL's Western Conference title in 1960, lost the playoff, then won NFL championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967, plus Super Bowl jackpots in his last two years. In a scant nine years as a head coach, Lombardi had a 141-39-4 record, filled up the stadium to the rim every game and made enough money for the team so he could have lined the Packer lockers with gold. To add to all that messianic mystique, last year—the one season Lombardi was not coaching—the Packers were instantly transformed into mere mortals (although they would have grown old with Vince, too) and wound up 6-7-1.
Now, when Vince Lombardi tried to explain the phenomenon of his success at Green Bay, he began in a brisk, no-nonsense tone: "I'm not an overly modest man. Sure, I'm humble, but I've never been overly modest. What happened isn't so hard to explain." Then he hesitated, cleared his throat and started again, "Now a good coach is a good coach. Right? If you take all 26 coaches in pro football and look at their football knowledge, you'd find almost no difference. So if the knowledge isn't different, what's different? The coach's personality. See?" He paused, then laughed—arararararargh!—and said, "Now how am I supposed to explain my own personality? What am I supposed to say? That I'm a great leader? A mental powerhouse? That I've got charisma?"
He chuckled and then began squeezing his hands together, steadily and with what looked like great pressure. Then he shut his eyes tightly and said, "You cannot be successful in football—or in any organization—unless you have people who bend to your personality. They must bend or already be molded to your personality. See, my Redskin coaches—Sam Huff, Bill Austin, Harland Svare and Lew Carpenter—were with me before, either at the Packers or back when I was an assistant with the Giants. Look, I know damned well I can't coach all 640 players in the league. I'm only one man. I can only be that one man and I've got to have men who bend to me."
All the time he talked, Vince kept squeezing and twisting his hands, as if he were bending someone right there. But even when he is physically still, Lombardi's intensity is a phenomenon to behold. In leisurely conversation he seems constantly to be willfully exerting the force of his personality—on himself, on anyone near him, on the humming flow of traffic outside the window on Connecticut Avenue, maybe on the universe. It is almost like a religious act of Zen discipline. He exerts his personality not so much to control things as to keep himself taut, conditioned, perfectly disciplined. It is a kind of isometric exercise of the will—or perhaps of the soul. But the awareness of Lombardi's will, of the nearly physical intensity of his ego, never quite disappears when one is in his presence.