(Letter to Vince Lombardi, now coaching in a place where the Hail Mary passes are completed every day)
I hope that it’s OK to call you Vince. I know we never met, but I read Jerry Kramer’s book (”Instant Replay”) when I was a kid and I watched the Ice Bowl from my warm den in Groton when I was in middle school. Remember Joe Mooney? He was your groundskeeper when you came back to coach the Redskins in 1969 and he’s told me a lot about you. Old Joe left RFK and took over as lawnmower man at Fenway Park. He’s seen quite a few sports miracles through the years.
Anyway, I’m writing to tell you about this pro football team we have here in New England. I know you’ve probably been paying attention from your luxury box in the sky, but there are some things you should know about these guys. Maybe you’re getting tired of hearing about how Bill Belichick is a genius and has a 10-1 playoff record. People keep talking about how he’s topped your postseason record of 9-1, but don’t be annoyed because Belichick isn’t having anything to do with the phony comparison. He reminds everyone here that you won five NFL Championships. He knows the reason you won only two Super Bowls is because they didn’t invent the ultimate game until the end of your reign with the Packers. We all know that.
Maybe you’re a little sick of the rampant “dynasty” talk that’s spread across America since the Patriots won. That’s understandable. But the NFL has lowered its “dynasty” standards since you coached in the league. It’s tougher now because of a thing called the salary cap and the NFL’s obsession with parity. The league today legislates to avoid the kind of dominance that marked your years in Green Bay.
Trust me when I tell you that you’d love this Patriot team. If you’d been around them this year you would be OK with comparisons to your Packers of the 1960s. You know why? Because they’re old school, that’s why. And I’m not just talking old school, NFL-style. I’m talking old-school, Fordham-style. As in, Seven-Blocks-of-Granite old school. Boola-boola, raccoon coats, leather helmets, win-one-for-the-Gipper. Old school old school.
Obviously, you know how tough it can be to coach professional ballplayers. And you know it was only getting tougher when you retired from the game. I’m sure it’s been sad for you to watch the degeneration of team play in the decades since you left us. Big money, loss of fundamentals, and something called ESPN conspired to create a generation of athletes many of whom are more interested in self-promotion than winning. It seems that some players today would rather win an ESPY than a championship ring. Coaches lost the hammer somewhere along the way and it’s become difficult to get your players to do what you want them to do.
That’s why you’d love the Patriots, Vince. Really. They’ve got a 33-year-old career wide receiver who played defensive back most of this year. They’ve got a young all-pro defensive lineman who plays fullback and blocks for Corey Dillon in goal-line situations. They’ve got a veteran linebacker who’s caught touchdown passes in two Super Bowls. Two-way players, Coach. And they do it willingly. How’s that for old school?
The quarterback would remind you a little of Bart Starr. Remember how Unitas and Y.A. Tittle put up all the gaudy numbers while Bart was content to win those championships? It’s like that now. This kid Brady gets dissed (Sorry, I know you’re scratching your head. “Dissed” is modern slang. In your time it would have been “overlooked” or “ignored.”) while folks talk about Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. Like Starr, Tom Brady completes the short passes, makes few mistakes, and wins games just about every week. He’s also humble like Bart. He deflects the attention. I know most everybody did that back in your day, but believe me, it’s rare in 2005.
It’s been like this for a while, Coach. These are hardly the Clive Rush Patriots of your era. They won 21 straight games in one stretch. They won nine straight playoff games. They won in brutally cold weather, just like your guys. They won the close ones and they won the blowouts. Oh, and I know you’re an Elvis guy, but the resemblance on the new helmets is not a tribute to The King. It’s an inadvertent quirk of design.
Like your players in Green Bay, these Patriots immersed themselves in the local community (sorry about our junior senator saying “Lambert Field” on the campaign trail). They’ve earned the unconditional love of their fans and returned that love. They even had a Pro Bowl linebacker who negotiated his own contract and gave the team a hometown discount, just because he likes it here and wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.
You’d like Belichick, too. He’s got all of your books. He is the son of a guy who coached at Navy for 33 years and he was breaking down film when he was 9 years old. He met Paul Brown when he was in junior high school. He has great reverence for those who came before him.
I know you are honored that the Super Bowl trophy is named after you. They had a big parade here yesterday, the third in four years and all three silver Lombardis were on display in the lead float/vessel.
You’ve been gone for 25 years, but we both know that the spirit never died in Green Bay. There are still thousands of fans in Wisconsin homes and bars and workplaces who share stories of the glory days. It was a special time and they never tire of talking about all that happened when you and your players were the kings of the NFL.
That’s what it’s like here now. These are our glory days, and 40 years from today we’ll be spinning the tall tales of a coach named Belichick, a quarterback named Brady, and a band of gridiron brothers who dominated the NFL and demonstrated the true meaning of the word “team.”
You would approve, Vince. You really would. And if you don’t believe me, go ask Will McDonough. He was here when it all started. Willie knows.