The Collision Sport on Trial

  • 2016-01-25
  • The New York Review of Books

Of the many sayings attributed to Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, the one that seems most relevant to football today is not about winning, the pursuit of excellence, or the importance of will and character, but rather this:“Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport.”

Collisions are the essence of football. They are intended to occur on every play in every game. Football, Lombardi would say, comes down to blocking and tackling. Every block and tackle is a collision, and every collision could bring some measure of pain. When Lombardi was a boy in Brooklyn, his father, Harry, a tough little man who ran a butcher shop, pounded into him the notion that pain was all in his mind.

The truth is that Lombardi himself had a low pain threshold. He was often disabled with injuries when he was a member of the Fordham line romanticized in the 1930s as the Seven Blocks of Granite. But like many effective leaders, he drew on an understanding of his own weaknesses as a means of eliminating them in others. When he was a prep coach at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, he would line up across from his young players and order them to charge at him while he bellowed “Hit me! Hit me!” At Green Bay, Lombardi would cackle with delight during training camp when it came time for the one-on-one collision drill known as the nutcracker.

Image Credit: Nathan Shively