NGSC Sports

Halfway Hilarity: Was Vince Lombardi Right That “Winning Is the Only Thing”?

Being 51 years old, and not being famous for my writing, I nevertheless arrive at a good place this morning. I remain professionally hungry and angry.

Acclaim for my writing has not been announced by the New York Times or anyone else — ever. In a career spanning more than 25 years, I continue to write in relative obscurity.

Constantly I blog. On average maybe ten or twenty people read each one, maybe no one. I will never know. Few people comment on what I write. As far as I can tell, my writing has little impact. It travels short distances. Think two-to-three centimeters.

Wanting to be more widely read and impactful with my prose, I did a wise thing this morning. I watched the 42-minute ESPN Sports Century documentary about Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers football coach who dominated the National Football League during the 1960s. Before writing this morning, I felt the need to hear from Vince about how to live one’s life, how to make the big time as he did.

“You don’t do things right once in a while,” the Green Bay Packers coach told his players during their run of five championships. “You do things right all the time.”

Vince’s words remind me of the importance of writing this essay the correct way, with passion, precision, and perfection. If I threw something down on this page and let it be whatever, maybe pedestrian or maybe not, without full commitment of mind and heart and brutal candor, there would be no point. I might as well go home and sleep. If I went at this half-heartedly, I should accept my mediocrity and undistinguished professional status.

Lombardi’s documentary also contained this pearl: “Choose to achieve perfection. We won’t achieve it because perfection is impossible. But by pursuing perfection, we will achieve excellence.”

This is my attempt to write a perfect essay. It is not perfect. But it is excellent. You know it. I know it. You are sharing with me this visceral emotion. Confidence is courageous.

Being judged about your writing skill is like being judged for anything else. Are you good? Are you average? Are you inept? Do you have that “it” factor? Should you accept that you don’t have that “it” factor? Should you have gone into medicine, or commercial real estate, or been a teacher?

The charismatic coach’s philosophy tells me that whatever that “it” factor is is irrelevant. All that matters is that I keep practicing the writing craft. In crafting every word, sentence, and paragraph, my aspiration must be perfection. In doing so excellence will be achieved.

“Battles are won in the hearts of men,” Lombardi told his players.

My interpretation: It is not how much natural talent anyone has that determines winners and losers. Countless people with exceptional innate abilities have been abject failures. People with mediocre abilities have been losers. But many people with average talent have become international success stories, all-time greats. Likewise, people with minimal natural talent have done the same.

Their greatness was achieved not because they were inherently great but because in their hearts they were fighters. They could not live with themselves being viewed as losers. It embarrassed them too much. Each day they thought they were not good enough was a day of restlessness, agitation, and emotional yearning. They refused to shame themselves. They insisted on being perfect. They were not. But they became excellent. In their hearts they demanded this.

Vince talked to his players about a running race. He said in every race there is only one winner. “We run to win, not just to be in the race.”

This man’s principles touch on some of the most complicated and controversial dilemmas that human beings have been grappling with for centuries. His family life was not great. His team was more of his family than his real family, which included a wife, son and daughter. Lombardi never threw a football with his son. Yet he spent eight hours one day at work explaining how to run his team’s vaunted play, the power sweep.

Lombardi was wedded to his job, absolutely obsessed with winning. Many NFL coaches, and other so-called “winners” in other professions, have become ensnarled in this situation.

The moody coach angered his players by insulting them. It was their dignity he wanted to destroy to see if they would stand up for themselves and prove to him they would protect it. He manipulated their emotions to get them to do what he wanted, which was to be known as a winner.

Ultimately, this was all about Vince wanting to be a winner more than him wanting his players to be winners. The latter mattered to him. But not as much as the former. People are ultimately focused on themselves.

As I watched the documentary, it became clear to me that his early experiences in childhood fueled his ferocious ambition. As a kid, some other kids teased him about his ethnicity. Vince beat the daylights out of one of them. Insult a man about who he is at his core, his roots, his family orientation, and expect a volcano to erupt.

That day he got insulted Vince’s volcano exploded. It continued spewing hot lava all over his players for decades. His anger was never completely assuaged. His fury was uncontrollable. He had to throw the last punch against everybody in his way.

Should we all be as obsessed with winning as Lombardi even at the expense of our family relationships? This is one of life’s most vexing questions. Most human beings instinctively want to be the best at their professions and be recognized for it. They want to be hailed as Number One, the Kings of their Domains.

Yet by doing that they often lose with their families. Which is more important, winning with your family or professionally? Can you be great at both?

I don’t think so. You have to choose one. You can search for and achieve a balance. But that’s not going to get you the top prize in both. Attaining a balance is somewhat fulfilling but not wholly fulfilling. It can be good but is usually not great.

If I seek balance, there will always be someone out there, such as a writer, who writes more and practices more than me. That writer will be more of a winner in the sense that he or she has sold more books and is more highly regarded for their skills. They make more money than me for their writing. For me to win against that person, I need to write more, pursue writing perfection more. This would take more time away from my family. As a father, my performance would deteriorate. I would be less perfect and less excellent. A compromise would be needed.

Cognizant of this, I still want to win. So does everybody. I want my writing to be recognized for its excellence. My anger at not yet achieving that status after writing for more than 25 years continues to rip at my insides, twist my emotions.

Not being the best writer in the world fuels my intensity, makes me seek perfection, make me want to channel Vince Lombardi. Even on this placid Sunday morning, there is a volcano burning inside me. The lava is thick and hotter than the sun.

As conflicted as he was, Vince was right about so much.

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Sammy Sportface
Possibly America’s best sports blogger. Sometimes relevant and insightful. Often funny and satirical. Mostly mysterious and unpredictable. Only mildly interested in the truth.

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