Pigskin Perfection

The Night Vince Lombardi Lay Awake Brooding Over a 49-0 Win

In the as-told-to classic ‘Run to Daylight,’ the peerless sportswriter W.C. Heinz channels the wee-hours torments of Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Tony Tomsic/Getty

It’s easy to overlook football writing. Football is TV, NFL Films—it’s the cinematic sport. And there is a surprising lack of memorable writing about, say, the Super Bowl. Still, plenty of tremendous football writing does exist—just ask the Library of America, which is publishing Football: Great Writing About the National Sport in August.

When it comes to fluid storytelling and taut, sturdy prose, W.C. Heinz was a master. And versatile, too, as he expertly plied his trade as a newspaper columnist, war correspondent, magazine writer, novelist, and biographer. His most famous stories are about boxers and horse racing, but he had an affinity for football, too. So while we’ve got the Super Bowl and football on the brain, dig this excerpt from Run to Daylight!, Heinz’s landmark book with Vince Lombardi, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Let Heinz’s great admirer David Maraniss introduce the rest in his foreword to the 2014 edition of Run to Daylight!, which is reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.

David Maraniss:

For two summers while I was researching the biography When Pride Still Mattered, I lived in New York. Day after day I would venture out to Sheepshead Bay, where Vince Lombardi was born and reared; or up to Fordham University in the Bronx, where he went to school and had his first brush with legend as one of the Seven Blocks of Granite; or across the river to Englewood, New Jersey, where he taught and coached at little St. Cecilia’s; or farther up the Hudson to West Point, where he learned his football philosophy as an Army assistant under Red Blaik.

But the trip that had the most lasting impact on me during that period of research was a longer ride into New England to a hilltop home in Dorset, Vermont. It was there that I met and spent a memorable day with the writer W.C. Heinz.

I came to Run to Daylight! early, but to Bill Heinz late. The book that Heinz wrote under the byline “Vince Lombardi” was a staple of my mid-’60s Wisconsin childhood. I read it again and again, until the cover was gone and the pages were watermarked and smudged by mustard and dirt. I knew the book the way Lombardi’s Packers knew their Packer sweep after practicing it over and over. And every time I read it, I was thrilled anew by the game-clinching play when Milt Plum of the Detroit Lions throws a pass and the receiver slips and Green Bay’s dashing young cornerback swoops in and, as Lombardi in the book describes the scene, “I hear the thop-sound it makes as it hits Herb Adderly’s hands, and he’s got it. He’s got it, and he’s racing right by me now, down our sideline.”

It was three and a half decades after that October 1962 game that I found Heinz standing in the driveway of his Vermont retreat. He had been 46 when he wrote the book, and was 81 by the time I met him, but he still looked much like the writer I had seen hovering near Lombardi in old photographs. He was wiry, crisp, and clean and lean, his mind as sharp as ever. Through his thick black-rimmed glasses, he saw the world with uncommon clarity.

I arrived in Vermont with simple questions: What was it like to write a book with Vince Lombardi? Step by step, how did you do it? I left with the answers, but also with a deep appreciation of Wilfred Charles Heinz and his writing craft.

Over the course of a long and enjoyable morning and afternoon, he showed me the tools of his trade. He still had the old Remington manual typewriter on which he punched out Run to Daylight! and many other books (along with untold hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine stories). Of more material value to me, he dug into his closet and brought out a set of old Penrite memo books—ten cents apiece, spirals on top, neatly marked 1, 2, 3, and 4. Inside the notebooks, in neat handwriting (shockingly neat for a reporter, I thought), were all the notes Heinz had taken from his many interviews with Lombardi during his time in Green Bay. As a writing colleague, Heinz knew the notebooks would be as important to me as anything he said. And he was such a mensch that I didn’t even have to ask—he handed them over to me for my use and safekeeping.

The stories he did tell me that day were unforgettable. He talked about the legendary writers he had learned from over the course of his long career. Most of them were sportswriters, but Heinz made no distinction. He agreed with me that writers were writers, and much of the best writing happened to involve sports. He had covered sports most of his career, though during World War II he served as a war correspondent with distinction for the New York Sun. After that he wrote a sports column, then turned to books (including the book on which the movie and TV show M*A*S*H were based) and freelance magazine articles when the Sun folded. He was a favorite of Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon (as Runyon was dying, he scribbled on a bar napkin that Heinz was his choice to replace him as columnist for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan), and a close friend of Red Smith, then of the New York Herald Tribune, later of the New York Times, who was ten years his senior. He admired Smith’s writing, but considered him “more of a dancer and mover, with a style you couldn’t imitate.” The writers he most closely followed in style were Ernest Hemingway for novels and Frank Graham for everything else.

It was from Graham, Heinz said, that he learned how to construct an English sentence, and how to be a fly on the wall, to catch athletes at their most authentic moments and then use their dialogue verbatim to re-create a scene—all without a tape recorder and without taking notes until later. “Frank never took notes, so… I learned how to do that too, how to look and listen,” Heinz told me. “The first time I tried it, Frank and I were both interviewing Rocky Graziano at Stillman’s gym. He wasn’t taking notes, so I wasn’t either. When we came out I said, ‘You jerk! I don’t think I’ll remember.’ He said, ‘You will. When you get home tonight and Betty [Heinz’s wife] asks you where you were and what you did, you’ll tell her who said what and where you were and what you did.” Graham was right, and the powers of memory that Heinz developed then stayed with him thereafter, so four decades later he could remember the smell in the air and the color of a tie. Still, as a backup, he continued to take copious notes in his unhurried longhand.

His pal Red Smith sent him out to Green Bay. Smith had been signed by Prentice Hall to serve as general editor of a series of as-told-to sports memoirs, and it was decided that the series should start with the most famous coach of the moment, Vince Lombardi, whose Packers had won the NFL title in 1961. Smith’s first choice for the assignment was Tim Cohane of Look magazine, who was Lombardi’s old Fordham pal, but Cohane declined, saying he was too busy, so Smith turned to his friend. Heinz said he was still finishing a novel, The Surgeon, but would be done in time to get out to Green Bay for preseason training camp. Heinz and Smith both knew Lombardi from his days as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, and what Heinz remembered especially was a trait that might make the book difficult. “Here’s the problem,” Heinz told Smith. “Did you ever hear Lombardi tell a story up there? He’s got a great laugh, but he doesn’t contribute. That’s gonna be a problem.”

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He was right. Lombardi was a problem. At first, when Heinz reached Green Bay, the coach seemed gracious enough, picking the writer up at the airport, inviting him to stay at his home on Sunset Circle, even staying still long enough for an interview. But it was not long into the first interview when Heinz grew frustrated, chiding Lombardi for having “no audio-visual recall.” He was getting only the bare bones, none of the rich details that make a book sing. How could he build a memoir out of that? At night, unable to sleep, stewing about his dilemma, Heinz came up with the solution, falling back on a structure that had worked for him once before.

This was the progressive narrative technique that he had used for a magazine article on a boxer. Heinz followed Rocky Graziano from the break of dawn on the day of a major fight. The beauty of the progressive narrative was that it provided a natural plot line, established by the minute, the hour, the day. Maybe this is the way I can do Lombardi, Heinz decided. I’ll start the Monday after a game and take it through the next game. What little Lombardi gave him could be supplemented by the players and most of all by Marie Lombardi, his wife, who was much more willing to tell Heinz detailed stories. All of that material could weave through the game preparation chronology. Heinz chose the first Lions game in October for the game, and everything flowed from there.

Heinz wrote the book in his makeshift den, a bantam-size office that he had constructed off the TV room in a corner of his garage. A radiator warmed him as winter approached. The floors were softened by cork tiles, the walls by Philippine mahogany paneling. There was just enough room for a desk and chair and a small daybed for naps. With his notebooks indexed and laid out before him, he rolled two sheets of yellow copy paper around the platen of his Remington portable and began tap-tapping away. He wrote every day from the week after the game until late December, rarely taking a day off. By then he had finished six chapters—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. When the season was over, Lombardi came to New York, and together he and Heinz watched film of the Lions game again, going over every play for the final chapter—Sunday.

The book came out the following September. Heinz had wanted to title it Six Days and Sunday, but Smith vetoed the idea. “With that title it’ll end up in the bookstores with the biblical tracts,” he said. The publisher, picking up on a phrase that Lombardi was known for using too often at home, wryly suggested, “How about Shut up, Marie?” But of course Marie would not shut up, and the fact that she kept talking to Heinz helped make the book possible. It was only fitting that Marie came up with the title. She said she loved Vince’s phrase describing his philosophy of offensive football. Perfect, the others realized, and here at last was the title for a book that became a sports classic, with 23—no, this makes 24—printings over the ensuing 50 years. They called it Run to Daylight!

Chapter 1: Mondayby W.C. Heinz

Excerpted from Run to Daylight! By Vince Lombardi with W.C. Heinz, 240 pages. Simon and Schuster. $16, paperback.

3:15 A.M.

I have been asleep for three hours and, suddenly, I am awake. I am wide awake, and that’s the trouble with this game. Just twelve hours ago I walked off that field, and we had beaten the Bears 49-0. Now I should be sleeping the satisfied sleep of the contented but I am lying here awake, wide awake, seeing myself walking across that field, seeing myself searching in the crowd for George Halas but really hoping that I would not find him.

All week long there builds up inside of you a competitive animosity toward that other man, that counterpart across the field. All week long he is the symbol, the epitome, of what you must defeat and then, when it is over, when you have looked up to that man for as long as I have looked up to George Halas, you cannot help but be disturbed by a score like this. You know he brought a team in here hurt by key injuries and that this was just one of those days, but you can’t apologize. You can’t apologize for a score. It is up there on that board and nothing can change it now. I can just hope, lying here awake in the middle of the night, that after all those years he has had in this league—and he has had forty-two of them—these things no longer affect him as they still affect me. I can just hope that I am making more of this than he is, and now I see myself, unable to find him in the crowd and walking up that ramp and into our dressing room, now searching instead for something that will bring my own team back to earth.

“All right!” I said. “Let me have your attention. That was a good effort, a fine effort. That’s the way to play this game, but remember this. You beat the Bears, but you know as well as I do that they weren’t ready. They had key personnel hurt and they weren’t up for this game. Those people who are coming in here next week will be up. They won again today, so they’re just as undefeated as we are. They’ll be coming in here to knock your teeth down your throats, so remember that. Have your fun tonight and tomorrow, but remember that.”

“Right, coach!” someone behind me, maybe Fuzzy Thurston or Jerry Kramer or Ray Nitschke, shouted. “Way to talk, coach!”

Am I right and is that the way to talk, or has this become a game for madmen and am I one of them? Any day that you score seven touchdowns in this league and turn in a shutout should be a day of celebration. Even when the Bears are without Bill George, who is the key to their defense, and Willie Galimore, who is their speed, this is a major accomplishment. But where is the elation?

Once there was elation. In 1959, in the first game I ever coached here, that I ever head-coached anywhere in pro ball, we beat these Bears 9-6 and I can remember it clearly. I can remember them leading us into the last period and then Jimmy Taylor going in from the 5 on our 28-Weak, and Paul Hornung kicking the point, and then Henry Jordan breaking through on the blitz and nailing Ed Brown in the end zone for the safety. The year before, this team had won only one game and tied one out of twelve, so now they were carrying me off the field because a single league victory was once cause enough for celebration.

What success does to you. It is like a habit-forming drug that, in victory, saps your elation and, in defeat, deepens your despair. Once you have sampled it you are hooked, and now I lie in bed, not sleeping the sleep of the victor but wide awake, seeing the Detroit Lions who are coming in next Sunday with the best defensive line in the league; with Joe Schmidt, that great middle linebacker; with Dick “Night Train” Lane, that left defensive halfback who is as quick and agile as a cat; and with Milt Plum at quarterback who, although he is not as daring as Johnny Unitas or Y.A. Tittle or Bobby Layne, can kill you with his consistency.

I don’t see them as I do from the sideline, but as I have seen them over and over in the films. I see them beating us 17-13 in our opener in Milwaukee in 1961. I see them beating us 23-10 in Detroit the year before, and that’s what I mean about success. My mind does not dwell on the two games we beat them in 1959 or the single games we took from them in 1960 and again in 1961. For the most part you remember only your losses, and it reminds me again of Earl Blaik and West Point after Navy beat our undefeated Army team 14-2 in 1950.

“All right,” the Colonel would say whenever there was a lull. “Let’s get out that Navy film.”

You could see the other coaches sneak looks at one another, and although you couldn’t hear the groans you could feel them in the room. Then we’d all file out and into the projection room once more.

“Look at that,” the Colonel would say. “The fullback missed the block on that end.”

How many times we had seen that fullback miss that block on that end I do not know. I do know that every time we saw that film Navy beat Army again, 14-2, and that was one of the ways Earl Blaik, the greatest coach I have ever known, paid for what he was.

So what I see now is that opener in ’61, the last time they beat us. I see them stopping us twice inside their 5-yard line. I see us running their quarterback, Earl Morrall, out of his pocket, the rhythm of that pass-play broken, and both their split ends, Gail Cogdill and Jesse Whittenton, relax. I see Cogdill start up and Whittenton slip and Cogdill catch it and run it to the 1, and on the next play Nick Pietrosante takes it in. Then I see them on our 13-yard line and Pietrosante misses his block and falls. As he gets up, Morrall, in desperation, flips the ball to him and he walks the 13 yards for the score.

Lying there like this, in the stillness of my house and conscious of any sound and every sensation, I am aware now of the soreness of my gums. It is this way every Monday, because for those two hours on the sideline every Sunday I have been grinding my teeth, and when I get up at eight o’clock and put in my bridge I’ll be aware of it again. That, come to think of it, is only fitting and proper, because that bridge had its beginnings in the St. Mary’s game my junior year at Fordham. Early in that game I must have caught an elbow or forearm or fist, because I remember sitting in that Polo Grounds dressing room during halftime and it felt like every tooth in my head was loose.