That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

by John Eisenberg


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John Eisenberg's That First Season is the seldom-studied prequel to a phenomenal football career for Vince Lombardi and the Packers, drawing on exhaustive research and interviews to tell an incredible ensemble tale of a team, a town, and their leader.

The once-vaunted Green Bay Packers were a laughing stock by the late 1950s. They hadn't fielded a winning team in more than a decade and were close to losing their franchise to another city. They were in desperate need of a savior, and he arrived in a wood-paneled station wagon in the dead of winter from New York City. In a single year, Vince Lombardi—the grizzled coach who took no bull—transformed a team of underachievers into winners and resurrected a city known for its passion for sport.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547395692
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/21/2010
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 763,505
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Eisenberg was an award-winning sports columnist at The Baltimore Sun for two decades, and is the author of seven books, most recently My Guy Barbaro, co-written with Hall of Fame horse racing jockey Edgar Prado, and The Great Match Race. He has written for Smithsonian Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Details, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt


It was a game they would never forget, their worst defeat, a day so miserable some players just shrugged and gave up before the final gun.

On November 2, 1958, the Green Bay Packers were in Baltimore playing the undefeated Colts. They did little right on offense or defense as rain fell and fifty-two thousand fired-up fans screamed for their heads, and by early in the second half, they trailed by six touchdowns. A few players decided that since they had no chance of winning — and they sure as hell didn't — they could ease up and go through the motions for the last twenty minutes. Why not? Their coach, Ray "Scooter" McLean, wouldn't mind, as long as they didn't make it obvious. Scooter was a swell guy. Everyone liked him.

Not every Packer quit. Jim Ringo, an All-Pro center, quietly continued to knock down defenders as others stampeded past. Tom Bettis, a veteran middle linebacker, screamed for better effort in the huddle as the rout spiraled out of control.

A few Packers, in frazzled frustration, dreamed of stealing a sideline policeman's gun and shooting that damn white horse, the Colts' team mascot, which took a celebratory gallop across the field whenever Baltimore scored.

But more than a few Packer players just gave in, their minds drifting from this pitiful scene toward more pleasant thoughts, such as the steak dinner they would enjoy on the plane ride home that evening, or the paycheck they would receive later in the week — the paycheck they pocketed win or lose, thank goodness.

The Packers were fixtures on the bottom of the NFL pile, chronic losers who until recently had played their home games in a former high school stadium. They didn't practice hard, didn't mind losing, and hadn't produced a winning season since 1947. They were just happy to get to spend the fall playing football instead of selling tires or insurance, as many did during the rest of the year.

Their franchise's past was as glittery as its present was miserable: the Packers had reigned during the NFL's rough and rowdy early years, attracting loyal fans and accumulating six championships as charismatic legends Johnny Blood and Don Hutson led them to glory. But those heady days were just hazy memories now. The Packers' losing habit had swallowed up three head coaches in the past decade, and Scooter, just halfway into his first year on the job, was already seeing his dreams disintegrate.

A wiry bantam with a narrow face and squinty eyes, Scooter had been a quick-footed halfback for the Chicago Bears in the 1940s, and he resembled a mob machine-gunner now as he paced the sideline in a crisp dark suit and fedora. But in reality, he had a genial and forgiving nature and was grossly miscast as a boss. He had been a Packers assistant coach for the past seven years and still saw himself as one of the boys. He played poker with the players on the road, didn't enforce curfews, and failed to scold veterans who repeated mistakes. When he called for wind sprints at his laughably easy practices, he shouted the squad through a few until Billy Howton, a veteran receiver, groaned, "Come on, Scooter, we need to save our legs for Sunday." Scooter would smile, blow his whistle, and end practice.

The Packers had come to Baltimore for this midseason game with a record of one win, three losses, and a tie, and the Colts, winners of five straight, were favored by nineteen points. But the Packers, incredibly, in hindsight, believed they could win. They had almost upset the Colts earlier in the season in Wisconsin — as Western Division rivals, they played a pair of games every year on a home-and-home basis — and they thought they could finish the job this time.

Their optimism wasn't entirely unwarranted. They had capable veterans such as Ringo, Bettis, Howton, linebacker Bill Forester, and Bobby Dillon, a superb defensive back despite being blind in one eye. And Scooter, for all his shortcomings, knew offensive football. His system traced to the strategies of Clark Shaughnessy, a legendary guru who had reworked the T-formation in the 1930s to improve the passing game. Chicago Bears coach George Halas had picked up the offense and won four NFL titles in the 1940s, and Scooter, after playing on those teams, had added his own wrinkles — a lot of them. His playbook was a four-inch-thick maze of diagrams, so complicated that Jim Taylor, the Packers' rookie fullback, couldn't get a handle on it and had to sit on the bench. But the Packers could move the ball, or at least, had so far in 1958. Even though their quarterbacks, Bart Starr and Babe Parilli, had proved to be just modest talents, receivers Howton, Max McGee, and Gary Knafelc could get open, and the Packers were averaging more than twenty points per game.

Earlier in the season they had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles and tied the Detroit Lions, the defending NFL champions. But they had almost blown a twenty-four-point lead against the Eagles, needing a recovered onside kick by rookie linebacker Ray Nitschke in the final minute to survive; Scooter had looked ashen after that one, wondering what had gone wrong. And to say they were lucky to tie the Lions was an understatement. The Lions were in position to kick a game-winning field goal in the final minutes, but Lions quarterback Bobby Layne imperiously waved off the kicker and threw an incompletion on fourth down, preserving the tie. Layne, the hard-drinking leader of a Lions team that had won three NFL titles in the 1950s, was traded to Pittsburgh two days later.

Encouraged by such performances, the Packers didn't see an epic defeat brewing in Baltimore. But their bad habits were bound to catch up with them and finally did, turning the rematch with the Colts into the game that exposed them for what they were, a team destined to be recalled as one of the worst in NFL history.

On the night before the game, they stayed at the Washingtonian Motel in Gaithersburg, Maryland, nearer Washington, D.C., than Baltimore. It was out of the way, but the Packers had stayed there when they came to the area to play the Washington Redskins a few weeks earlier, and the motel cut the team a deal for agreeing to stay twice. That was how the Packers traveled, always looking to save pennies.

As the players checked in and headed for their rooms, Scooter hollered, "Practice in half an hour!" The bare-bones Washingtonian had a football field on its grounds (the Redskins used it during their preseason training camp) and the brief practice that ensued was typically light: a short run, some calisthenics, a run-through of a few plays. Scooter was "saving the legs" for the next day.

That evening, some players and coaches went to a movie while Scooter, Howton, McGee, second-year back Paul Hornung, and a few others played poker. They played religiously, on trips, during training camp, after practice during the season — often enough that they almost passed for a card club that dabbled in football. They talked animatedly about memorable poker hands more than memorable football games, and recorded their wins and losses on the backs of their playbooks, settling up at the end of the year. McGee, a lanky Texan who found the humor in most situations, was an intuitive card shark who had fleeced his teammates for hundreds of dollars over the years. Scooter regularly lost.

Some players didn't go to the movie or play poker. Before the Redskins game a few weeks earlier, Bettis, Knafelc, and Starr had headed out just to stretch their legs. They were married, by-the-rules guys. When they passed by the poker room, Scooter leaned back and said, "Hey, where you going?" When Bettis shrugged, Scooter said, "Well, make sure you're back by ten thirty." Bettis walked away cursing their poker-playing coach for believing he had any right to dictate how they should prepare to play.

On this Saturday night, before the Baltimore contest, the card game broke up a little after Scooter's curfew, but what the hell, Scooter said, at least the guys were in. The next morning, some players attended early church and then everyone ate breakfast and boarded a bus for the forty-five-minute drive to Baltimore. The players quietly stared out the window during the ride, contemplating what lay ahead. Despite the closeness of their earlier game, they knew the Colts were capable of pounding them. Led by Johnny Unitas, a brilliant, hunch-shouldered young quarterback, the Colt offense had already scored fifty-one points against the Bears and forty against the Lions this season.

Hornung was disconsolate as the bus rolled through the Maryland countryside toward Baltimore. He knew he wouldn't get off the bench in this game except to kick field goals and extra points. Eyeing his reflection in a window, he glumly told himself, Your career is going nowhere, buddy.

Less than two years earlier, the Packers had made Hornung the first overall pick in the 1957 draft, thinking he would become their biggest star. During his college career at Notre Dame, he had been a triple threat on offense, running, catching, and passing the ball (as well as kicking it) and had won the Heisman Trophy as a senior. The Packers had been so excited about his potential as a quarterback that they traded Tobin Rote, their longtime starter, who had passed for more than eleven thousand yards, and signed Hornung to a three-year contract that included a $2,500 signing bonus and a $17,500 annual salary, more than many veterans earned.

But once Hornung was in uniform, the Packers realized he didn't have a strong enough passing arm to be an NFL quarterback, and also lacked the speed to be a running back or receiver. He was a player without a position.

Blond and handsome, he had been nicknamed the Golden Boy at Notre Dame because he seemed to have everything going for him. He played football with swashbuckling style and a nose for the end zone. Hollywood producers liked his looks and gave him cameo roles. He knew more beautiful women than any one man deserved to know; his female fan mail piled so high he paid a classmate to handle it.

But the Golden Boy had become tarnished. Lisle Blackbourn, the Packers' coach before Scooter, had tried him at quarterback and fullback without success. It was believed that Hornung cared more about what he did off the field. When the Packers played the Rams in Los Angeles in 1957, an attractive young woman approached him on the bench and asked to have her picture taken with him — during the game! Her request was audacious, but Hornung stood and posed with her, a move some teammates and fans interpreted as clear evidence of his priorities.

Most of his teammates liked him in spite of it all. Although they derisively called him Heisman or Golden Dome or, worst of all, Goat, because he resembled one, being thick and strong from the waist down but narrow up top, they knew Hornung could take a joke. He was a man's man, hard not to like as he flaunted rules with a wisecrack and twinkling eyes. His best friend, McGee, was a kindred spirit; they shared an apartment, girls, and booze, and were regulars at bars and clubs all over Green Bay, where they were widely known as good-time guys who weren't too serious about football.

In truth, Hornung desperately wanted to play — he was embarrassed to stand on the sideline. But Scooter, like Blackbourn, didn't know what to do with him.

Discouraged, Hornung had started to contemplate giving up football. With his looks and personality, he could go to Hollywood and star in movies, or sell real estate back home in Louisville, Kentucky, where he would always be a hero. He craved more excitement. The guys playing for the Browns, Giants, and Lions had it so much better; they won games, played for championships, and still had a good time. In Green Bay, playing for the Packers, Hornung had a good time, but the team was unorganized, the environment unprofessional, the experience disappointing.

Feeling bored leading up to this rematch with the Colts, he mentioned to Howton and McGee one day that they should take the nineteen points that bookies were offering for a bet on the Packers. Having grown up in a city where horse racing was popular and the Kentucky Derby was held every year, Hornung enjoyed gambling and followed the football betting lines coming out of Las Vegas. Nineteen points? The game was bound to be closer than that, right?

The NFL strictly forbade players from betting on games, fearing a point-shaving scandal, but Hornung, knowing he wouldn't be playing in the matchup against the Colts, figured he could make his Sunday afternoon more exciting if he had money on the line. He told Howton and McGee he could get a bet down. They agreed to take part in the wager.

But Hornung tried without luck to contact his bookmaker connection as the Packers completed the week's practice and flew to Baltimore. By Sunday morning, it was too late. Hornung shook his head as the team bus rolled toward Baltimore, depressed about not playing and disappointed about the easy money he believed he had lost.

A chilly rain fell as the bus approached Memorial Stadium. The streets around it were filled two hours before kickoff, the fans seemingly unconcerned about the weather. The throng was so thick that policemen, arms waving and whistles blowing, had to clear a path for the bus to reach the players' entrance.

Baltimore, a working-class city that had been without major-league sports until recently, was jazzed up about its winning team. The Colts' offense shredded opposing defenses with playmakers such as Unitas, receiver Raymond Berry, halfback Lenny Moore, and fullback Alan Ameche, and the Colt defensive included All-Pros such as end Gino Marchetti and tackle Art Donovan. And their home crowd was intimidating. The stadium would be packed with raucous fans and a white pony named Dixie that had become a celebrity for crossing the field after Colt touchdowns. A sportswriter would soon call Baltimore's crowd "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

The Packers found their cramped locker room, put on white jerseys, gold pants, and gold helmets, and jogged out for warm-ups, eliciting boos. The wet afternoon was so dank the stadium lights were on, setting an eerie tone. Parilli, who would start at quarterback, zipped passes to Howton. Ringo and the other linemen got down in their three-point stances and burst forward, working their muscles. Hornung practiced field goals. The Colts soon joined them, coming onto the field as the Baltimore Colts Marching Band played, and the fans stood and cheered for the opening kick, which sailed into the mist and lights and through the back of the end zone — first down Packers, at their 20-yard line.

The Packers' offensive starters jogged onto the field and formed a huddle. Other than Ringo and Howton, it was a nondescript group. Parilli, a former first-round draft pick, had accomplished little in the NFL. Young linemen Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg were raw unknowns. Of the veteran regulars — tackle Oliver Spencer, guard Hank Bullough, halfback Don McIlhenny, and fullback Howie Ferguson — only Ferguson had made it to the Pro Bowl, the NFL's end-of-year all-star game.

As those players formed a huddle, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, and Hornung watched from the sideline, relegated to the second team.

Parilli called the first play, a run by Ferguson off right tackle. The Packers broke their huddle and trotted to the line of scrimmage, where the Colt defense waited. The crowd roared in anticipation. Pro football, since its inception just after World War I, had always been among the roughest of sports, an organized brawl between rugged athletes who relished violence, many having experienced real combat in World War II or Korea. They kicked, scratched, and clubbed each other, gouged eyes, knocked out teeth, and tackled around the neck.

But the game had evolved far beyond its simplistic roots, with offenses and defenses now employing sophisticated strategies and multiple alignments. Toughness remained the quality a player needed most, but speed was almost as important. The Los Angeles Rams were so desperate for it that after this season they would trade nine players for Ollie Matson, a big-play back with the speed to win games by himself.

The Packers had their share of tough guys but little speed. Ferguson picked up three yards on first down, and then McIlhenny, running left, gained one. On third down, Scooter put in veteran Al Carmichael to run a deep pass route. Carmichael broke open twenty yards upfield and Parilli hit him with a perfect toss, but Carmichael dropped the ball. McGee, who doubled as the punter, booted the ball away on fourth down.


Excerpted from "That First Season"
by .
Copyright © 2009 John Eisenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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