NFL turns 100: Lombardi's faith and the story of the Hail Mary pass

A statue of Packers coach Vince Lombardi outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Wikipedia photo.

A statue of Packers coach Vince Lombardi outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Wikipedia photo.

(OPINION) The NFL turns 100 this season. You may have noticed the “100” anniversary logo on footballs, jerseys and in TV commercials. You may have noticed all of those Peyton Manning mini-documentaries.

This anniversary has also given newspapers, sports sites and TV stations a chance to look back at the players and coaches who made NFL history.

Exactly what is included in those histories matters. Mentioning statistics, great plays, Super Bowl performances and impact on the sport are all a given.

What about what players and coaches believed? What about their motivations? How about religion and the impact it left on the game? These are very important questions that have not been answered fully (or some cases even explored) in many of the retrospectives that have been rolled out this season.

Football and religion are not such strange bedfellows. The league has been — and currently is — loaded with outspoken Christians. Evangelicals have included Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, Reggie White, Tony Dungy, Nick Foles and Carson Wentz.

There have also been some prominent men who also happen to be devout Roman Catholics to make gridiron history. Harrison Butker, Matt Birk, Philip Rivers, Don Shula, Roger Staubach and Vince Lombardi are a few notable ones.

Before players took a knee to protest the national anthem, it wasn’t so unusual to see them praying before the opening kickoff. And, of course, some of those kneeling protesters have been praying.

It’s the faith of some of these men that has been overlooked — whether intentionally or not — in the “NFL 100” celebrations. Let’s look specifically at Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach.

Under Lombardi, the team won five NFL championships in a span of just seven years during the 1960s (including three in a row). Those victories also included winning the first two Super Bowls. After all, Super Bowl champions are presented with the Lombardi trophy.

Lombardi isn’t only arguably the best coach in NFL history, but he was a devout, daily Mass Catholic who wasn’t shy about his faith. Major mainstream newspapers and TV networks have largely ignored the Lombardi faith angle.

On a smaller scale, however, there have been retrospectives that haven’t shied away from it. Knox Pages, an online news site in operation since 2005 that covers Central Ohio, posted a piece on Sept. 16 where City Editor Carl Hunnell wrote a piece about playing the legendary coach in a local theater production. The story includes the following information:

A larger-than-life figure despite his own small physical stature, Lombardi was iron-willed, loud, extremely profane and demanding of everyone in his life, including his players and his family.

But he was also a man who attended Catholic Mass every day and was ahead of his time in many ways in terms of civil and human rights, creating a supportive environment for black and gay football players.

His own personal experiences with prejudice as an Italian-American, and having a gay brother, helped to develop his view of the world.

Lombardi once said he didn't view his players as black or white, only Packer green. He loved his players — but demanded they show the same overwhelming dedication to winning that burned deep his own soul. Those who didn't do this experienced his wrath.

His daughter, Susan, was quoted as saying, "Like the saying goes, my father treated them all the same, like dogs.”

Those five paragraphs encapsulate the man Lombardi was as a coach. While a lot of that is recalled today, the part where he’s described as “a man who attended Catholic Mass every day” is often overlooked. The part about “creating a supportive environment for black and gay football players” is not. A piece from NBC Sports from 2013, for example, dwelled on the gay issue. Not once did it mention that Lombardi was a Catholic or a religious man.  

That seems to be the template sports writers and editors have been following when writing about Lombardi and other Catholics who played in the NFL this season. Another NFL legend known for his Catholic faith is former quarterback Roger Staubach. The Dallas Cowboys great was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018. This is what Catholic News Service wrote about Staubach at the time:

Staubach, a native of Cincinnati, won the Heisman Trophy as college football's best player in 1963 and became two-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys. Retiring from football after an 11-year career, Staubach went on to have a success in commercial real estate. He regularly is invited to speak to various audiences, including Catholic school students, about success in life and the importance of faith in his life.

Sports coverage is only as good as the research departments and ability of reporters/editors to look at the past and inform present-day readers. Staubach’s faith and football abilities are so intertwined that ignoring it has to be intentional.

Ever heard of a Hail Mary pass? The term became common after a December 1975 playoff game between the Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, when Staubach said of the game-winning touchdown pass: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.

The term, some argue, dates back even further to 1922 and originated at — where else? — Notre Dame, by far the most-successful Catholic school in college football history.

Nonetheless, you’d think Lombardi’s faith, Staubach’s “Hail Mary pass” and the many other accounts with a Christian connection would find their way into mainstream news and sports coverage this season. Looking back and recounting sports history can be a wonderful thing.

Ignoring parts of it, for whatever reason, paints an incomplete portrait of the NFL’s 100-year history.  

This column originally appeared at GetReligion.