Lambeau Field (aka “The Frozen Tundra”) in Green Bay, Wis., is about 2,313 driving miles from Cambria (according to Google Maps) — but it’s only about 1,750 miles if a guy sprouts wings and flies like a crow.
Actually, when I return to Wisconsin (where I was raised) to see a Packer game — as I do most fall seasons — I choose commercial airline services.
Last month, David Middlecamp’s Tribune column (“Photos from the Vault”) reprinted a Telegram-Tribune story recounting the Packers’ practice sessions in Santa Barbara from the Jan. 13, 1967, sports page. It aroused my interest because I visited those Packers in Santa Barbara later that year.
T-T reporter Charles Yoakum reported that Vince Lombardi’s team left icy Green Bay and rented the UC Santa Barbara football facilities to train (in balmy weather) for the first Super Bowl, held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967.
Eleven months after Yoakum visited UCSB, I learned the Packers were practicing the week of Dec. 3-7 on the UCSB campus for their Dec. 9 game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Coliseum. I cut my Cal Poly classes, put the top down on my Sunbeam Alpine and roared south on 101.
When I arrived, the tall screens surrounding the UCSB football field were covered with dark tarps; Lombardi always feared opponents would scout his practices.
I could hear the team practicing, and I tried to peek through one small crack, but a burly gent asked me for my ID, and I slipped sheepishly away.
The Packers were staying at the Sheraton (a step down in luxury from the Santa Barbara Inn, their venue when Yoakum visited), so I drove over there and located a busboy near the main kitchen.
After receiving my $5 tip, he told me where Lombardi was holding his “chalk talk” on that Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 4. It was on the second floor in a banquet room that had a service kitchen as part of the layout.
Unfriendly glances from the kitchen staff greeted me in that auxiliary kitchen as I cautiously approached the hard rubber double doors that led into the room where Lombardi was holding court. There were plastic windows — scratched and discolored — on both swinging doors.
I looked through a window into the banquet room, and there was the iconic coach who brought fame to Wisconsin, who transformed average football players into champions and who famously said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
It was a lifelong Packer fan’s nirvana: I witnessed the mythical Lombardi demanding uncommon attention as his X’s and O’s and curved arrows were drawn on the blackboard with punishing force. That image is burned into my memory’s software.
Lombardi’s body language reflected his well-documented passion for preparedness. He was loud, and when the chalk hit the blackboard, even through the foggy plastic window I could see little white chips fluttering to the floor.
Every Packer was sitting perfectly upright with a clipboard, taking copious notes as they faced Lombardi at the far end of the room from me. I stood there probably three or four minutes; my heart was pounding, and I was out of breath.
Suddenly, a Packer coach turned back and saw my face through that little window. I’m not sure what tipped him off, but he got up and started toward me. I hustled back through the kitchen and hurriedly made my way down a flight of stairs.
Once on the main floor, I glanced back for a split second and saw the coach pursuing me. At that point, I broke into a run, pushed the revolving front door as hard as I could (those doors move at one maddeningly slow speed) and ran to my car.
As I pulled out of the hotel driveway, top still down, the significance of the day hadn’t sunk in. But by the time I reached Solvang I was writing the story in my head, an encounter few football fans will ever be fortunate enough to experience.
Here’s some perspective vis-à-vis Lombardi’s impact on a young Wisconsin fan. In 1958, the year before Lombardi became the face of the Packers, the team’s record was 1-10-1. In his first year, Green Bay was 7-5, and in his second year the Packers (8-4) qualified for the NFL Championship Game (losing to Philadelphia 17-13).
Subsequently Lombardi led the Packers to five NFL championships and two Super Bowl victories. What’s the lesson we can draw from this man’s extraordinary achievements?
His undying passion for excellence, his insistence on unity and loyalty from his players, and his grasp of how to get the most out of people — these attributes transcend sports. They are the nuts and bolts of transformational leadership.
Our society — beginning with the U.S. Congress — urgently needs leaders like Lombardi to roll up their sleeves, help us find common ground, and get us past the hard-core ideological polarization and intellectual cul-de-sacs that are barriers to cooperation and progress.
According to Lombardi, “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”