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February 05, 2014
Lombardi’s Trophy
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Last week, the Super Bowl; tomorrow, the Winter Olympics.  Last week, the Lombardi Trophy; soon the Gold.  Always, running the race.

The Trophy Is Conceived at Fordham University

In his biography, When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss details Vince Lombardi’s family life to his football days.  Raised in a devout, Catholic Italian family, Lombardi drew his strength on the field from attending daily Mass, a practice begun in his youth. At Fordham University in the 1930's, Lombardi found his lodestar in the teaching of Fr. Ignatius Wiley Cox, S.J.

“Cox was not just another Jesuit,” writes Maraniss, “but the most renowned teacher at Fordham and an important figure in American Catholic thought. He embodied a philosophy whose every point was meticulously and clearly explained.” In class, Cox would call on the future coach, “Is that clear to you, Mr. Lombardi?” Cox pressed: “As clear as a mountain lake in springtime?” (64)  For Cox, the Ignatian Exercises formed the core of his teaching.  For Lombardi, the Ignatian Exercises would form his philosophy of football.    

Cox on Character

Fr. Cox’s, students learned the meaning of character: 

Character integrates habits of conduct with temperament. 

Character is the will exercised on disposition, through emotion and action.

It is a person’s obligation to use his/her will to elicit right and good free actions and refrain from wrong and evil actions. 

While men and women are blessed with intellect and free will, they are ennobled only when they sublimate individual desires to join others in the pursuit of the common good.

“The modern world is turning away from this notion,” lamented Cox.  “Liberty, which is to make us free, has resulted in a more galling servitude to man’s lower nature.”

The Exercises Brought to Football

Vince Lombardi shaped the Ignatian Exercises for football. The coach does not just tell the players what is so. He repeats and repeats until the team is convinced that it knows the challenge at hand. Repetition instills confidence and passion.  It is said that “the difference in men is energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in invincible determination,” but in contrast, “the Lombardi leadership lies in sacrifice, in humility and in the perfectly disciplined will—the formation of character. This, gentlemen,” he would orate, “is the distinction between great and little men” (406).  Today, coaches still refer to Vince Lombardi’s winning philosophy inspired by basic Ignatian principles:

1.  Life is ordered in a properly ordered hierarchy. What takes priority over all? The answer determines whether a life is balanced or disordered, whether one oscillates from one extreme to the other. Man’s liberty to choose between action and inaction, good and evil applies both to coaches of sports and to their players.

2. Freedom comes through discipline and simplicity. These lead to perfection.

3. The mundane is important to serve the higher ideal.

4. There is no tolerance for the halfhearted.

5. Strict attention to detail, spiritual discipline, and precision are essential.

6. Daily examination show one’s progress or regress. (213)

Lombardi Nuggets:

On Truth:

“The object is to win fairly, by the rules—but to win.”

“Morally, the life of the organization must be of exemplary nature. This is one phase where the organization must not have criticism.”

On Discipline:

“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

“The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.”

“Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.”

On Commitment:

“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time.”

“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

On Success and Sacrifice:

“Football is a great deal like life.  It teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness, and respect for authority are the price everyone must pay to achieve any worthwhile goal.”

On Passion:

“It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the heart. Men and women respond to leadership in a most remarkable way.  Win their hearts, and they will follow you anywhere.” 

“If you aren’t fired up with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.”

On Results and Winning:

“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”

“Running a football team is no different from running any other kind of organization.”

“Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.”

“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”
This, in a nutshell, is Lombardi’s Trophy.

Running the Race: the Christian Vocation

St. Paul describes his own vocation in athletic terms. He writes of the dignity and harmony of the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24ff, Paul compares running for an earthly prize to the ultimate run and prize of eternal life: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. And everyone who competes for the prize goes into strict training and is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. This is how I run, intent on winning. This is how I fight, not beating the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”

In Philippians 3:14, Paul again refers to athletics: “I press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus.”
At the end of his life, Paul writes with confidence: “I have fought the good fight. I finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:6).

(One note of interest:  Vince Lombardi and my father were boyhood friends in that idyllic and closely-knit Brooklyn community, Sheepshead Bay.)

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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