- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Washington Redskins linebacker Chris Hanburger was supposed to take two laps around the field before practice, but the new coach never said how quickly. So the Pro Bowl player walked that is, until the boss pulled alongside in his golf cart.

"He used to call everybody 'Mister,' and he asked me why I wasn't running," Hanburger recalled. "I said, 'You didn't say how fast.' He smiled and said, 'I've mellowed.' I ran after that."

Vince Lombardi spent only one season with the Redskins before dying of colon cancer 17 days before the 1970 season opener. While Lombardi's name now adorns the Super Bowl trophy because he led the Green Bay Packers to five championships from 1961 to 1967, perhaps his most overlooked legacy was reviving the Redskins. And as the two teams prepare to meet Monday night, many of his Washington players are remembering.

Before Lombardi, Washington hadn't won an NFL title since 1942 or posted a winning record since 1955. Even an offense with three future Hall of Famers wasn't enough to break the malaise that had gripped the franchise.

Washington sports was enriched in 1969 by the arrival of three big names. Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams came out of retirement to manage the Senators, and new coach Lefty Driesell promised to turn Maryland basketball into the "UCLA of the East." But the coming of "St. Vince" was the biggest news of all.

Lombardi, a daily communicant at Mass, nonetheless cursed like a sailor on the field. His fedora should have been a helmet befitting a sideline version of Gen. George S. Patton.

"He was the greatest football coach I've ever seen," said Sam Huff, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker who returned from a one-year retirement to play for and coach under Lombardi. "John Kennedy, Vince Lombardi and

Tom Landry were the greatest leaders I ever saw. He could take an average ballplayer and make him better. You played hard for him. He was really like your father."

The Redskins were 7-5-2 in Lombardi's lone season, including 4-2-1 at RFK Stadium. Successors George Allen and Joe Gibbs would later win three Lombardi Trophies and five NFC championships, but Lombardi started a 24-year tradition of success.

"People who played for him knew what he did for this organization," said Sonny Jurgensen, who played for nine other coaches during his Hall of Fame quarterbacking career. "Unfortunately, we only had him one year, but they saw what he did and what it took to win."

Still, players were a little worried when the legendarily tough coach was hired by Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams on Feb. 7, 1969. Rookie running back Larry Brown bought Lombardi's biography to discover what he was facing, but the veterans already knew.

Lombardi was about discipline and commitment. Everything was done one way his. If he had mellowed during his one-year sojourn from the sidelines to become the Packers' general manager, Lombardi must have once worn horns earlier.

"It was real mixed emotionally because Sonny, Sam and I were getting up there in age," said Redskins Hall of Fame flanker Bobby Mitchell, who retired at the end of Lombardi's opening camp. "We didn't know if we could handle a Lombardi or not. He beat us up pretty good. Just killed us. He was trying to teach us Green Bay Packer football."

When Brown fumbled once too often in practice, Lombardi made him carry the ball everywhere at meals, in the shower and in bed. Anyone not arriving 15 minutes before a scheduled meeting in other words, on "Lombardi Time" was fined because he obviously wasn't committed to the team. Mental mistakes meant a penalty lap around the practice field.

"After running three or four laps, your attention level would be finely tuned," Brown said. "In retrospect, I see a wisdom in a lot of things he did."

Lombardi would be in their faces with salty language and motivation, turning average players into standouts and a mediocre team into a winner.

"He would be hollering at the top of his voice," Brown said. "It wasn't a pretty sight. He once said to me, 'Larry, I don't mind you calling me an obscene name, but don't let me hear you.' "

Ultimately, the players didn't fear Lombardi as much as they respected him. They admired his commitment to excellence, organizational skills and versatility. It seemed the Redskins' nightmare was really a dream.

"He turned out to be a wonderful person," Hanburger said. "He was not only a coach, but in an indirect way he gave you ideas about life and what it was all about."

Lombardi's offense was amazingly simple. Jurgensen recalled calling 29 end run plays while playing in Philadelphia before being traded to Washington in 1964. Lombardi used one.

And what impressed Mitchell most was Lombardi changing the offense at the end of a two-month preseason after deciding the team was too fast for his old "Run to Daylight" system with the Packers.

"That was his greatness. He could make that assessment, accept it and change it enough to take advantage of Sonny and the guys," Mitchell said. "That impressed the guys."

Lombardi's virulent cancer was diagnosed in late June 1970, and a little over two months later he was dead. He tried to hide his drastic weight loss and obvious discomfort from visitors to Georgetown Hospital, but the players knew the coach was dying at only 57. The man who loved to ride the blocking sleds and bark signals was now driven to an occasional practice and limited his once booming remarks to soft words of encouragement.

"He was Coach Lombardi he couldn't die," Mitchell said. "It was a very difficult thing to accept. We had this man come in and show us how to win, and then he left us. The shock went through the whole team. Even guys that almost hated him because he worked them so hard were knocked out by it."

And the Redskins were left wondering whether if they would have become Lombardi's next championship team. Assistant coach Bill Austin stumbled through a 6-8 season before Allen was hired in 1971. Allen ordered Lombardi photos removed from Redskin Park, and the roster underwent wholesale changes as Allen led his teams to seven winning seasons, five playoff appearances and a Super Bowl VII loss to Miami. Still, Lombardi's players think the Redskins would have been even better under him.

"Unless we out and out screwed up personnel-wise, we could have rolled pretty high," Mitchell said.

There are still Redskins fans in Wisconsin, thanks to Lombardi followers. His name remains revered in Green Bay, where children build Lombardi Trophies instead of snowmen in front yards near the stadium.

"Everywhere you go, you see Lombardi, hear about Lombardi," Packers quarterback Brett Favre said. "If you asked anyone in this state if they've heard of Lombardi, they may not know what he's done, but they know the name."

Maybe younger Washingtonians won't remember Lombardi's brief stay with the Redskins, but former players said his strict discipline became a staple of their lives.

"I can remember almost every word he said to me," Huff said. "He was the closest thing to God. The man loved the game more than anybody I've ever known. He loved it more than I did. It was a year I've never forgotten. I don't think Lombardi will ever be forgotten."

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