I obviously never met Vince but I spent many days and hours with Ray Nitschke and he said time and time again that the Packers, that extraordinary band of men, had a special love for each other that almost defies the written word but the thing I took most from conversations with No 66 was how much influence he had on everyone’s life and how they lived it.
Vince, always more comfortable with his players in the heat of battle in December 1967 playing the LA Rams in Milwaukee. In a 28-7 victory over the Rams on the back of two Travis Williams touchdowns the Packer defence took control and sacked Roman Gabriel 5 times. Roman Gabriel remembers this encounter well as he will recall in a future article when I met him in Carolina and discovered that Vince Lombardi tried to acquire him from Los Angeles but George Allen, Head Coach of the Rams, refused to negotiate.
Willie Davis, the Hall of Fame end who played for Paul Brown in 1958 and 1959 before joining Vince Lombardi in Green Bay for 10 seasons said, “They were very different personalities. Both men were tough on the practice field but Vince was more vocal. He’d jump all over you. Paul was quieter but when he said something critical, it was so cold and nasty it cut your heart out. I remember my rookie year, Paul came up to me once and said, “it’s obvious this team has scouted you and they are picking on you, I just want you to know that”. The man cut me lower than grass and I couldn’t understand it because I wasn’t the one getting beat. The next day we were looking at film and Paul said, “Willie, I owe you an apology.” He didn’t elaborate but I knew what he meant and I appreciated it. Several years after he traded me to Green Bay, Paul looked me up after one of our games in Cleveland and said, “Willie, I just want you to know we made a big, big mistake letting you go but I’m happy for you, keep up the good work. Coming from Paul, that meant a lot”.
Vince Lombardi could see abilities in players that others couldn’t and that set him apart from other coaches. The next example shows Vince’s eagle eye once more saw something that others would not have dreamt of.
During the summer of 1969, the new Washington Redskins coach, Vince Lombardi, was perplexed at the lacklustre performance of his rookie running back from Kansas State. Larry Brown was an 8th round draft pick but had all the tools Lombardi sought in a great ground gainer. At 5 foot 11 inches and 195 lbs he was a power back with speed, toughness, vision and above all, desire. Yet something was missing. Brown was always just a second slow in drills and scrummages. For all his talent, it appeared that Vince might be forced to cut his young back. One evening during training camp, Vince was showing his films of a recent Redskins exhibition game. He ran it in slow motion. There it became even more apparent that Brown was a split second late getting off the ball than the rest of his teammates. Vince asked Brown if something was wrong, if he suffered from any physical ailments. “I’m having trouble recognising the defensive alignments” Brown said, knowing he was giving the coach a stock excuse often used by rookies. One day, though, two men in long, white coats appeared at training camp. While teammates watched in wonder, they approached Brown in the locker room and took him out of the building. They had been ordered to give Larry a hearing test. The test revealed that Brown was deaf in his right ear, something he had suspected since childhood but he had never told anyone. When Lombardi received the diagnosis, he approached Pete Rozelle and obtained permission to have a hearing aid installed in Brown’s helmet. After Brown received the hearing aid Vince wanted to test it. He told Larry to stand in one corner of the room while he stood in the opposite corner. “Larry, can you hear me?” Lombardi screamed. “Coach, I’ve never had a problem hearing you,” Brown replied.
There was no doubt about the hearing aid’s effect on Brown’s performance. Lombard’s ability to recognise Larry’s problem saved the rookie’s career and he gained 888 yards to lead the Redskins in rushing at an average of 4.4 yards per carry in his first year. He played from 1969 to 1976 before injury finished his career, scoring 55 touchdowns with 5,875 rushing yards and 2,485 receiving yards. He was All-Pro in 1970 and 1972 and played in 4 Pro Bowls thanks to the great Vince Lombardi.
The effect that Vince had on another Washington Redskins player was equally game changing as Hall of Fame quarterback, Sonny Jurgensen, often commented that he learned more under Vince Lombardi’s short tenure than in all the previous years under many coaches. Vince was unique in so many ways but maybe one of the most important qualities he had was in never overlooking the smallest detail.
On our many visits to Green Bay I met a man, Lee Remmel, whose memory for facts and dates was simply unbelievable and I was always urging and encouraging him to write a book from his bank of memories. This is what he told me about Vince.