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Lessons From HBO's 'Lombardi'

During an interview last summer, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said one of the main reasons he wanted to make a film about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi was to give younger viewers a chance to learn about the man whom many only know as the namesake of the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy.

HBO’s Lombardi, a co-production with NFL Films, which has often chronicled the late Green Bay Packers coach over the years, provides an entertaining and instructive look.

The film, premiering on Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. (ET), is a portrait of hard-driven man, whose loves were God (he attended church daily), family and football, not necessarily in that order. He obsessed about the game.

As star Packers QB Bart Starr relates, Lombardi once told his charges that “we are going to relentlessly chase perfection because, in the process, we’ll catch excellence.” That patina also came with much riding and railing against his troops, who, in turn, lived for the moments when the coach offered an encouraging word and a pat on the back of the neck.

The doc mixes a number of well-worn stories and clips, featuring star guard Jerry Kramer and the Ice Bowl, with behind-the-scenes footage and tales of prejudice that delayed Lombardi’s head-coaching career and revealing interviews with his children. They discuss what it was like to live with their father and a game that took major tolls on their lives, and pushed their mother to the bottle as a prevent defense of sorts.

Lombardi’s story has great resonance today. After threatening to do so last year after experiencing chest pains following Florida’s loss to Alabama in SEC title game, Urban Meyer this time appears ready to quiet his whistle and leave the Gators to watch his daughters play sports.  It was the same reason Bill Cowher left the Pittsburgh Steelers — to spend some time around the house and watch his daughters play college hoops.

Herm Edwards, the former HC of NYJ, subbing for Golic on ESPN2’s Dec. 10 simulcast of the Mike and Mike Radio Show, described to Greenie the daily grind of an on-the-field NFL leader. Edwards talked about days stretching from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. How bye weekends are essentially the only time the head coach gets to take a day off over the course of an entire NFL season and how he went days, even during weeks when his team played at home, without ever seeing his young children during their waking hours.

Although HBO and NFL Films didn’t put a clock on his work week per se, Lombardi certainly presaged the demands of this all-in profession, more than a half century ago.

Indeed, my favorite moment in Lombardi comes during the segment about the post-game parties he hosted at his Green Bay home. How his initial conviviality and attempts at humor with his guests would turn during the course of the evening’s festivities toward next week’s opponent and game plan.

The footage from those parties came courtesy of NFL Films president Steve Sabol, whom Greenburg called the “father of reality TV,” during an interview over breakfast in HBO’s Manhattan offices on Dec. 8.

Greenburg said in talking with Sabol that this film now closes the book on Lombardi. “There are not going to be any more interview requests for Frank Gifford to talk about his old offensive coordinator [with the New York Giants],” he said.

If the co-production does proves to be NFL Films’ coda on the man renowned for the league’s championship hardware and the mentality that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” HBO’s Lombardi is certainly a fitting finale. The impact he had on so many of his players’ lives and their profound grief from his all-too-early passing from cancer at age 57 was palpable in the film.

Still, Lombardi can also serve as a cautionary reminder to the perils and consequences lurking for those who too fully consume themselves in the pursuit of success on the football field — or any other endeavor in life.