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Joe Paterno, Knute Rockne, and Vince Lombardi Are Similar In Many Ways


Dreams seem so realistic when we are young.  Goals then change over time, as we each are presented with a series of choices unique to our own lives.  Some who grow Joe Paterno College Photointo adulthood reach a false conclusion that life has not become what was expected.  But, a similar choice, made by a trio of amateur football players, shows us that dreams can be remixed into realities that were always meant to be. 

The photo to the right is of a young Brown University quarterback.  He was good, but not good enough to play professionally.  So, he took a position as an assistant football coach at a Pennsylvania school in 1950.  Of course that person was Joe Paterno, who later assumed Penn State's head coaching duties in 1966 and recently crossed his historic 400 career win goal line.

Knute Rockne College PhotoThe young man shown in the photo on the left joined the football team in South Bend, Indiana when he was 22-years-old.  He played end on a line at Notre Dame, eventually captaining the team, but also never played professional football.  After graduating magna cum laude and before turning thirty, Knute Rockne decided to accept a position as assistant football coach for his alma matter.  He then became head coach of the “Fighting Irish” when they started the 1918 season.

Many consider him to be a key force in having implemented use of the forward pass, which sharply increased interest among fans of the game.  He also helped to change college football's schedule from one of local rivalries, to that of national match ups.  Rockne's greatest achievement, a career .881 winning percentage, ranks as the highest ever recorded in major college football.  His teams lost a total of 12 games during his entire thirteen year Notre Dame tenure.

But, he is most celebrated for a half-time "Win one for the Gipper" speech that inspired Notre Dame to win a game for a famous alumni.  That person was a 25-year-old halfback who died two weeks prior to being named the team's first All-American player in 1920.  Before dying he reportedly had spoken to Rockne, asking the coach to invoke his name during a game if arch rival Army was leading.  When the scenario later came to pass, Rockne honored the request.  The team mounted a second half comeback to beat Army, winning that 1928 game for George “Gipper” Gipp.  

Rockne's legend would seem to have been built by a man who had led a long life.  He didn't.  A 1931 plane crash on TWO Flight 599 meant that his mythic status was achieved during a life that only spanned 43 years. 

The young man shown on the right played guard on Fordham University's 1937 front line.  Before doing so he had considered a vocation to the priesthood.  Like Rockne, he Vince Lombardi College Photograduated magna cum laude.  Vince Lombardi then began to pursue a law degree, before changing direction to accept a dual position as a teacher and assistant football coach at St. Cecilia Catholic High School in Englewood, New Jersey. 

From there he returned to Fordham where he coached until moving on to West Point.  His first NFL position was as an assistant coach for the New York Giants.  His next stop was in Wisconsin, where he led the Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls that were ever played.  He died in 1970, at the age of 57, while he was coach of the Washington Redskins.  His final team produced their first winning record in over ten years during his only season with them. 

Most people are well aware of these three men's names.  Hard core football fans can cite their statistics chapter and verse without any need for reference.  But, any discussion about their greatness should begin with a shared choice they made in the earlier days of their lives.  

They each had a passion for football, playing in college, but not professionally.  Love for the game transformed their youthful physical efforts into the highest levels of motivational management.  Each honestly assessed his own future and then intentionally morphed into a teacher who created lasting success with, not through, his players. 

It would seem difficult to leave the names of Rockne, Lombardi, and Paterno off a short list of the game's giants.  Sports does inspire passionate debate.  So, every fan can propose a fourth person who might be on an imagined football coaches' Mount Rushmore. 

Mount Rushmore

Comparisons aside, how did this Lion create and sustain such prolonged greatness? 

That answer can be found by looking at the faces of the players who carried the 83-year-old icon on their shoulders after his historic 400th win.  It can be found by listening to the emotion in the voices of the Blue and White faithful during their ritual chant ”We Are!...Penn State!”  And it can be found in the choice that Joe Paterno made to adapt his dreams, creating a life that was always meant to be.  The coaching lesson for his players and for each of us, is that we all can do the same.

Contact Sean O'Brien at seano@philly2philly.com