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Profile of David Maraniss and ‘When Pride Still Mattered’

Maraniss’ Lombardi biography puts its ‘gems’ in context
By Robert Lalasz
Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
17 September 1999

Washington, D.C. - When David Maraniss heard about the tattoos above Harry Lombardi’s knuckles, he knew he was on to something special.

They were straight out of a Robert Mitchum film – spelling the words “W-O-R-K” and “P-L-A-Y” across the hands of a man whose son went on to coach the Green Bay Packers to five world championships in nine years. And no one had even written about them before.

“That was the first jewel,” says Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor for the Washington Post and author of the new biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” (Simon & Schuster, $26).

“I got that right away, and when I got that, I knew there was a lot out there that hadn’t been reported.”

Maraniss’ book is studded with such small and symbolic revelations. That Vince’s brother, Harold, is gay, for example, and that conservative icon Vince not only knew it but prohibited the hazing of his teams’ gay players. That he cleaned closets to release tension. Or that his secretary, Ruth McKloskey, once discovered her Jesuit-educated boss in his office one morning dressed like a Roman Catholic bishop, complete with miter.

But it’s how Maraniss sets these gems in a larger context that has some already calling “When Pride Still Mattered” one of the best biographies of the year. Much more than another rehash of the Glory Years, Maraniss gives us Lombardi in the round – daunting, naturally, but all too human as well, victimizing himself and his family with his own perfectionism.

It’s also a vivid and meticulous cultural history of mid-20th century America, taking readers from the close-knit neighborhoods of Lombardi’s childhood Brooklyn into the polarized ’60s, when the charismatic coach became a political football of sorts for both the right and the left.

“What’s impressive is that it supersedes Lombardi, supersedes football, supersedes sports,” said W.C. Heinz, who wrote the bestseller “Run To Daylight” with Lombardi. “It’s one of the finest books I’ve ever read.”

“I purposely had several people who hate football read the whole book, and they loved it,” Maraniss says. “They told me that it wasn’t a football book, but a book about an American family and the meaning and place of success. I tried to write for a general audience, to tell a universal story through particulars.”

Maraniss (pronounced MARE-uh-niss) is a lifelong Packer fan with deep Wisconsin roots. He moved to Madison as a child when his father, Elliott Maraniss, took a job at the Capital Times and eventually became editor.

David started writing for the Capital Times when he was 19, covering high school sports and college protests.

On a job-hunting swing out East in 1974, he lost copies of his work at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Stand on Coney Island. But he talked his way onto the staff of the Trenton, N.J., Times, telling its editor that “if you hire me, I’ll be your best reporter in six months.” Not long afterward, he was covering national politics for the paper.

Now 50, with slightly haunted eyes and a voice that retains more than a little Midwestern accent, Maraniss does long-narrative reporting for the Post.

He started there in 1977 and won the Pulitzer in 1993 for his coverage of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.

Those articles were the basis for his highly praised biography of Clinton, “First in His Class” (Touchstone paperback, $14), which quickly became the reference work for those interested in the president’s background and character.

An acknowledgment of his family in that book, calling them “not everything … but the only thing,” was adapted from a slogan that Lombardi made famous – “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Maraniss says that the moment he finished that sentence, he began thinking about Lombardi as a subject.

And after covering the 1996 presidential elections, he found himself “totally sick of politics.”

“So I said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we move to Green Bay and I’ll do Lombardi?’ ” Maraniss says.

“And she said, ‘Brrrrr.’ That was her one-word response.”

He took a leave of absence from the Post and moved to Door County in November 1996, right in the middle of the Packers Super Bowl drive.

Packers columnists wrote about his project, and Maraniss began hearing from hundreds of people who’d known Lombardi, from the coach’s paper boy to his golf caddies to the piano player at his favorite supper club. “One of the real fun things was getting to talk to people in their 80s and 90s who wanted to tell their stories and were very emotional about it,” says Maraniss.

And by all accounts, Maraniss is a skilled interviewer.

“He kind of disappears,” Heinz said. “He’s letting you say what you want to say, and then he almost apologetically will ask you another question, and you keep talking because you want to help him.”

But Maraniss also does prodigious research. He tracked down everything from Vince’s draft deferment records to the price of cigarettes in 1935. For days he played played tapes of Lombardi’s speeches, “just trying to absorb his voice and his eccentricities.” He also combed the archives of Fordham University, Lombardi’s alma mater, and hung around the coach’s old New York haunts. “I think it’s important for a biographer to be in the place where his subject’s life was lived,” he said.

The life Maraniss uncovered was obsessive and fascinatingly complicated, molded by a competitive family, Jesuit philosophy and the military precision Lombardi learned as an offensive coach for Army.

“When Pride Still Mattered” depicts a man who was tortured by his own explosive temper and impatience and yet knew he needed those qualities to excel as a coach.

His knife-edge personality and sound-bite leadership made him the perfect father figure for the Packers and an instant celebrity for a nation newly taken with the professional game. But they also left him ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of his own family.

His wife, Marie, always second to football, became an alcoholic and abused tranquilizers. His relationship with his son, Vincent, was seldom better than strained. And as the pressure to continue winning mounted, Lombardi occasionally veered toward paranoia.

Yet Vincent has pronounced the unauthorized book “fair, balanced.” And Maraniss finished the project with his respect for the coach intact.

“In some ways I think I’d be the last person who could identify with Lombardi,” he says, “but in the end I find him very authentic and very admirable, even with all of his flaws. My basic take was that I would have trusted him.”

Maraniss, who’s now working on a series for the Post on Al Gore, says he loves doing biographies. Perhaps the Midwest in him is why he does them so well.

“There’s a Midwestern attitude of not being cynical,” he says, “a tradition of not having pretenses and of believing there is such a thing as truth. That old Cap Times slogan of ‘give the people the truth and the freedom to discuss it.’ I believe in that.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

G.E.Toonkel Ms.Ed. April 4, 2011 at 11:00 am

Loved the play Lombardi ! Now, to read Marraniss’s biography
of the same.

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