Though his subjects could not seem more different, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Maraniss finds in Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi as compelling and paradoxical a leader as Bill Clinton (First in His Class, 1995).
Like prior biographies, such as Michael O’Brien’s Vince (1987), Maraniss’s covers Lombardi’s childhood as the son of a Brooklyn butcher, college playing career as one of Fordham’s “Seven Blocks of Granite,” apprentice coaching at a small New Jersey high school called St. Cecilia’s, West Point, and the New York Giants, the five championships with the Packers in the ‘60s, and the last year with the Washington Redskins before dying from colon cancer in 1970. What else can be written about a coach who seemed to symbolize the best and worst of professional sports? As it turns out, quite a bit. Maraniss’s coach is less self-confident than the martinet of myth, more aware that his rage, while the source of his success, is also sinful and self-destructive. Lombardi could play that father figure more convincingly to his locker room band than he could with his wife, a secret drinker, and his children, whom he neglected. Frightened by the anarchy he saw in the late 1960s, he became a favorite of businessmen and conservative Republicans because of his belief that sports build character. His private actions might have surprised his admirers, however. On the negative side, he was not afraid to ask John Kennedy (whom he warmly supported) to defer stars Paul Hornung and Ray Nitschke from active duty in the army. More positively, he practiced quiet toleration, both of blacks and gays. In addition, Maraniss sensitively analyzes the influence of the coach’s zealous Catholicism on his work, and paints extraordinarily vivid tableaus.
From the myth of this model of order, loyalty, and victory, Maraniss has fashioned a richly complicated counter life of a sports icon committed to and consumed by the quest for perfection. (First serial to Vanity Fair)