Reaching into the past, happening upon a few words of American sports’ toughest competitor, we find a harmony to calm our time’s discord. “What is the meaning of love?” iconic coach Vince Lombardi once opened a team meeting of his Green Bay Packers. Doubtless, these words had never before been spoken in a pro football buzz session and have not since. Just where was the old man going with this one, linebackers must have wondered while exchanging glances with running backs. What the hell did love have to do with beating the Chicago Bears next Sunday?
Even today, it is remarkable that this complex leader could drive his men to excel in the bare-knuckled combat of American football while he pondered the meaning of love and its place in his sport. What might explain how an implacable dictator of his team could single-handedly integrate housing in Green Bay, or offer to buy a bus ticket out of town for the first player he heard bashing gays—and this over 50 years ago.
Lombardi once unabashedly told a reporter on national TV, “My players don’t just like each other, they love each other.” This expression came from someone who had once played on a defense nicknamed the Seven Blocks of Granite. The Super Bowl trophy bears his name. His storied Pack won 5 league championships in 7 years, not with finesse, but by physical intimidation. His team endured the Ice Bowl, and triumphed in those brutal Arctic conditions. One player said that in the minus 20 degree weather the ball felt like a brick in his hands and the frozen turf like a slab of concrete as the Packers drove for the winning touchdown. Coach Lombardi’s was a macho world, yet he felt deeply, and said often, that there is love for each other in the game of football.
The coach explained to his warriors what he meant by love. “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. But you will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright or isn’t glamorous.” Love among teammates always came back to one simple question, Lombardi said. “Can you accept someone for his inabilities?”
Accepting someone for his inabilities is a concept lost in the haze of hostility hovering over our society. In today’s politics, where anger and contempt reign unchecked, Lombardi’s precepts about love and its place in an aggressive world ring like a bell, clear and true. Only a strong, positive emotion can counter the negative emotions that pervade politics. An appeal to the better angels of our nature is the alternative.
It is possible to envision a political world where an opponent’s weaknesses are not derided and distorted to raise cash, or to score cheap partisan points for the next election cycle. Differences could be respected within a fair contest where rules are adhered to, not cynically bent. In Lombardi’s era, American politics was a contest often played this way, though after the last four decades of descent into the maelstrom that might be hard to fathom.
The experiences of two famous political rivals in 1850s America suggest a path forward. The United States would have broken apart if these men in 1861 had not put aside their personal differences, which were considerable, for the love of their country. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had been longtime foes in the back alley politics of Illinois, fought an election there in 1858, waged the most famous debates in American history, and met in the bitter presidential contest of 1860. They were a pair of determined adversaries whom Lombardi surely would have appreciated.
Yet, when the South seceded after Lincoln took office, Douglas approached his former rival and offered to embark on a speaking tour to enlist Democrats in the Union cause. Lincoln did not treat him as the vanquished foe, but as a respected partner. Without Douglas’ selfless act (his fragile health was ruined by the exertion), it is doubtful whether Democrats would have rallied to Lincoln’s leadership. A purely Republican effort to preserve the Union was doomed to failure; only with substantial Democratic support was success possible.
Following this brief detour to the Civil War era, we return to face Lombardi’s enduring question. During grueling and often brutal practices, the Packers would curse Lombardi under their breaths. Back in the locker room, they would tell each other what a son-of-a-bitch he was. As they matured and looked back over their lives, some of his best players told a different story. Forty years after Lombardi’s death, in a distant echo of the coach’s question at that team meeting, Hall of Famer Herb Adderley told an interviewer, “I love my father. But Coach Lombardi I think about every day.” Such is the legacy of love, even in an aggressive corner of the world.