On Sept. 3, 1970, Vince Lombardi – a man whose influence transcended the Green Bay Packers and even the sport of football – passed away after a prolonged fight with colon cancer. Fifty years later, Lombardi’s impact on the game is still noticed to this day.
Yet, Lombardi’s greatest contribution arguably wasn’t the leadership qualities, the quotes or the on-field success. It was his push for integration and equality in the NFL and, indirectly, in greater society.
Even after the Los Angeles Rams broke the NFL’s color barrier in 1946, the league was slow to integrate. Often, teams would sign one or two black players, but rosters still remained mostly white. Some owners flat out refused to sign minorities. The most adamant among them was Washington owner George Preston Marshall, who at one point said, “We’ll start signing (expletive) when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
The Packers were no exception to this. “Curly” Lambeau never signed a black player during his tenure, though Walter Jean, a lineman who was biracial, did suit up for 19 games in 1925 and 1926. Towards the end of the 1950 season, the Packers brought in former Detroit Lion Bob Mann, who stayed on the roster through 1954. Despite integrating the roster and generally being well-liked by his teammates, Mann’s time in the greater Green Bay community wasn’t easy.
“When he joined the team, he could not stay in the hotels where the teams were playing or even where they were based in Green Bay,” said Vera Mann, Bob’s widow, in a 2018 interview. “They had to find a little shack that didn’t have heat or water, but that is all that was available to him at that time.”
By the time Lombardi took the helm, the Packers’ roster included just one black player in defensive end Nate Borden. That changed dramatically in June 1959, when he acquired six-time All-Pro Emlen Tunnell from the Giants.
“Lombardi brought him here, basically I think, the philosophy,” said Packers team historian Cliff Christl in 2019. “Of changing the culture. Tunnell was essentially a de facto assistant coach. There were no black coaches at that point in time, but he really served as a player-coach.”
By 1961, the roster had five black players, well above the NFL’s unwritten quota. That number grew to 13 in his final season on the sidelines in Green Bay.
“I would say that nobody had more impact in creating diversity in the NFL than Coach Lombardi,” said defensive end Willie Davis in his 2012 autobiography Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence. “It was partly because he took a new approach, almost playing ignorant to any kind of racial tension in the league. He didn’t buy into debates or arguments about his drafting, trading (or in the case of Willie Wood) letting black players walk on. Right from the start, he treated us as equals, just players competing for a spot on the team.
“He chose not to see color in an era where most chose to look the other way in terms of blacks. It was as if he felt the best way to fix the problem of segregation and racism in the league was to actually pretend it didn’t exist — at least to us.”
While attitudes were changing within the team, the community was slow to embrace the team’s new diversity. One area where this was most obvious was in housing.
“(Lombardi) said, ‘Look, if the black players are going to help this team win, the city needs to understand that these players need good places to live and they need to live in the city,’” said Herb Adderley in a 2012 interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “He slowly integrated us into the city. The players today don’t know what we went through.”
Not surprisingly, a cluster of apartment buildings sprang up not far from Lambeau Field in the years following Lombardi’s demands. Similar occurrences happened with local businesses, who were threatened with team boycotts if they did not provide service to all his players equally.
Lombardi’s disdain for prejudice stemmed from his own experiences with racism as an Italian-American.
“While in college he got in a fight when another teammate wanted Lombardi to stand next to another Italian player so they could determine who had the darker complexion,” said Vince Lombardi, Jr., in a 2013 interview. “A pretty good insult to an Italian at the time.”
Lombardi’s Italian heritage even hindered his career path as a football coach. It’s speculated it was a major factor in him not succeeding legendary head coach Earl “Red” Blaik at Army, in addition to not landing jobs at Notre Dame and Wake Forest, among others.
“While trying to advance his career in coaching, at one point an individual who liked Lombardi reached out to him and told him should evaluate his career choice because ‘the NFL wouldn’t hire a head coach with a last name that ended in a vowel’, meaning Italian American,” said journalist Jerry Izenberg in 2013.
That anti-Italian prejudice followed Lombardi well into his time with the Packers. Prior to a 1960 preseason game against Washington in Winston-Salem, N.C., Lombardi and his wife, Marie, were denied service at a restaurant because the maître d’ believed he – tanned from the summer sun – was a black man.
“I wasn’t there, but paraphrasing he said, ‘Well we don’t allow blacks in this restaurant,’” said Dave Robinson in the 2012 book Lombardi’s Left Side. “Vince said, ’I’m not black, I’m Vince Lombardi.’ The maître d’ said, ‘I don’t care who the hell you are, you’re not bringing that blond woman in this restaurant to have dinner.’”
That experience ended a seven-year run of preseason games between Green Bay and Washington in North Carolina. In the next two years, the two squads met in Columbus, Ga., only for the Packers to stay at Fort Bragg due to Jim Crow laws preventing whites and blacks from staying in the same hotel.
For Lombardi, despite all the turmoil facing the nation at the time, football offered a way to bring individuals from differing backgrounds together to unite for a common goal.
“If you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another,” Lombardi said. “You’ve got to love each other.”