In this story from January 1968, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr recalls how the legendary coach Vince Lombardi instilled confidence in Starr and his teammates.
This is the story of how a small city in Wisconsin—and a team of football players—were hit by lightning. The lightning I’m referring to is Vincent Lombardi, a stocky Italian-American whom many consider the best football coach in the world. The city happened to be the town where I live, Green Bay, where the Packers come from.
In case you are not a sports’ fan, the Green Bay Packers are a professional football team. They are one of the fabled teams of the game with a history of excellence going back to 1919. In that post-World War I year the first players trotted out on the gridiron wearing jerseys that said “Packers” on them, and this was for the nearby meat packing plant which put up the money for the jerseys. The Packers won 10 games out of 11 that season and started on their way towards making themselves one of the resounding stories of sports.
When my wife, Cherry, and I came up from the University of Alabama in 1956, all eager and dazzled by the prospects of my being quarterback on so illustrious a team, the Green Bay Packers had fallen upon some dismal days.
My first year in Green Bay we lost twice as many games as we won, and in 1957 we lost three times as many. In pro ball, records like those are something you don’t joke about. Winning with us is a serious business, our bread and butter.
Pro football is a sport—and a clean one—but it is very much a moneymaking venture. Not winning, therefore, is like not selling the product you’ve manufactured. It’s a science, too, involving hundreds of plays, intricate formations both for offense and defense.
For a player like me, who wanted to be in pro ball more than anything else in the world, the season of 1958 was frightening. In all that long “history of excellence” the Packers’ ‘58 season was absolutely the bottom. Out of 12 games on our schedule, we tied one game and won—just one. Ten losses: sheer disaster.
In December our coach resigned. The danger signals were up for me and I knew it. I hadn’t exactly sparkled out there on the field.
And then the lightning struck!
We were a squeamish group who gathered to meet our new coach and general manager that day in 1959.
“Gentlemen,” Coach Lombardi said that day, “we’re going to have a football team. We are going to win some games. Do you know why? Because you are going to have confidence in me and my system. By being alert you are going to make fewer mistakes than your opponents. By working harder you are going to out-execute, out-block, out-tackle every team that comes your way.”
As the coach talked, you could see the guys straightening up to take a closer look at this intense man.
“But first of all,” he went on, “you are going to prepare yourself up here.” He put his finger to his temple. “You can’t win if you’re not ready to win mentally. Therefore, I expect you to think about only three things while you are part of this organization: your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers.”
I for one walked out of that meeting feeling 10 feet tall—and I hadn’t played a lick for him!
All of us caught his enthusiasm. Just as he said we would, we started working harder on the field.
I know I worked harder too. It reminded me of the summer I was waiting for my try-out with the Packers. Cherry’s folks had a big yard around their house and there I set up a large A-frame. Day in, day out, from morning to night I threw passes into the opening of the A-frame. High, low, on the run, standing still, I worked away at those passes from every conceivable motion and angle. I believe that that total concentration helped get me the job. And that same spirit of hard work was reignited by Coach Lombardi.
We started our preseason games. The tempo rose. Suddenly we won a game and our spirits soared. They kept on soaring. By the end of the 1959 season, we had won seven out of 12 games with virtually the same players who had lost 10 games the year before. In 1960 we won a Division title, then in 1961 a World title, and after that the sky always seemed to be our limit.
How had Coach Lombardi accomplished these things?
You can say, of course, that he did it with his particular genius. But that’s not an explanation. Having played for him for nine seasons, I think I have reason to say that his “genius” consists of some very simple things. These are ideas available to all of us and useful in any undertaking if we but have the mental toughness to weld them together into a way of living.
Coach Lombardi doesn’t make a secret of those principles. Wherever he is they come out in the way he lives his own life and in the way he thinks. We get plenty of his thoughts. Not only verbally, but in writing. Every week he tacks up fragments of home-grown advice on the locker room bulletin board.
At the start of the training season this year we found this typewritten notice, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all. High physical condition is vital to victory.”
This was supplanted the next week by, “The harder a man works, the harder it is to surrender;” followed by, “Pride is what causes a winning team’s performance.” And so it went week after week.
I can never forget, nor will I ever stop being grateful for, what Coach Lombardi did for me. As I look back to that first question mark of a year under him, I am quite sure he had never seen a three-year veteran who knew less than I did. But he was a patient teacher and he brought out something in me that changed my career and my life. Confidence.
Mind you, I was always sure of my talent. I never really doubted that I could play good football, but I lacked the kind of confidence that Coach Lombardi himself had, the kind that oozes out to others. A quarterback is in a position of command; it is he who calls the plays. He must be alert and ready to adjust to the sudden and the unexpected. He has got to have a high boiling point because opponents are going to try to rattle him and he’s going to get a lot of whacking around.
Coach Lombardi started building my confidence by first giving me the enthusiasm to work harder, the way I had done with the A-frame. He spent a lot of time just talking to me, examining the “hows” and “whys” of the game. Then he began to bear down on my thinking.
“Treat mistakes with a vengeance!” he’d pound at me. “Don’t brood over them, profit from them. If you think about mistakes, you’ll make more mistakes. Just come back wiser and harder.”
Through it all, the coach repeated his theory that winning is a habit. “It’s contagious,” he’d say, “and so is losing.”
Coach Lombardi won’t permit losing thoughts. He contends that pro football has reached a point of such sophistication, that the opposing forces are now in such complicated balance, that on any given afternoon any team can defeat any other. To him there are only two or three plays in a game that decide who wins or loses and if you are not ready for them at all times, you’re in serious trouble.
Last year we won the Western Division championship even before we had played our last game with the Los Angeles Rams. We were riding high and jubilant. But Coach Lombardi was not. He worried about the last game, even though it didn’t affect our league standing. He didn’t want us to get out of the winning habit—and we didn’t that day!
“If you give anything less than the best of yourselves today,” he said to us before the game that Sunday, “you’re not just cheating yourselves, or the team, or the millions of fans who are expecting a top-grade Packer performance. No, beyond all others, you are cheating your Maker, the God who gave you your special talent for ball-playing. Such waste is the worst cheating of all.”
This was strong and unusual stuff from him and though you may think it a corny, God-in-the-locker-room tactic, you wouldn’t think that for long if you really knew Vincent Lombardi. He is a sincere and believing man who goes to church every day of the week, who seldom talks in religious tones, but whose religion is as natural and as integral a part of him as are the prayers we say together before and after every Packer game.
Those prayers are something else I have learned from Coach Lombardi’s example. After the week’s preparations are over, after the sweat of the practice field and after the groggy hours examining movies and of note-making and of drawing diagrams, after all these things have been completed, the Lord’s Prayer said in unison becomes a unifying force pulling all our efforts together. And I have yet to come up from my knees without feeling personally that we were going to do all the things that Coach Lombardi had prepared us to do.
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