JFK's Friendship with Lombardi Helped the Packers Win the 1961 NFL Title Game
Today marks the 48th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was quite a football fan and he ended up becoming good friends with a coach by the name of Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
The year 1961 created a very difficult political landscape for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, especially regarding foreign policy. The United States was getting close to its most volatile point in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, as the country was led by the young 44-year-old Kennedy.
1961 was also the year that Titletown became the new name of Green Bay, as local merchants coined the community nickname...Titletown USA...to describe the spirit of the little town that could.
The Green Bay Packers had won six NFL titles under Curly Lambeau, but the last occurred in 1944, plus Lambeau had been gone for over a decade and the team was woeful in the 1950s overall.
But Vince Lombardi changed all that in 1959, when he guided the Packers to a 7-5 record in his first year, after a 1-10-1 record had occurred in 1958 under then head coach Scooter McLean.
Then in his second year, Lombardi helped steer the Packers to a 8-4 record, good for the Western Conference crown and a spot in the NFL title game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Packers should have beaten the Eagles in the NFL Championship game, a game they lost 17-13. The Packers outgained the Eagles by a wide margin, but settled for field goals early in the game despite having outstanding field position. The game ended with Jim Taylor being tackled inside the Eagle 10-yard line.
That set up the magical year of 1961. Before the season started, the Packers executive committee and team President Dominic Olejniczak rewarded Lombardi with a new five-year contract, tearing up his old contract, which still had three years to run.
The Packers were grateful that Lombardi had not gone back to his hometown to coach the New York Giants, who had pursued him earlier after his success in Green Bay. The Giants were near and dear to Lombardi's heart, as he made his NFL stripes there as an assistant coach under Jim Lee Howell from 1954-1958, plus the G-Men had won the NFL title in 1956.
Green Bay was ripe for a NFL title in 1961 and the Packers and the community knew it. The Packers were 11-3 in 1961 and showed that they could be dominant at times. After losing to the Detroit Lions on the opening weekend of the season 17-13, the Packers rolled to six straight wins.
Here were the scores and the opponents of that domination:
Packers 30, 49ers 10
Packers 24, Bears 0
Packers 45, Colts 7
Packers 49, Browns 17
Packers 33, Vikings 7
Packers 28, Vikings 10
Then something happened in October. Because of the escalation of the Cold War and the building of the wall in Berlin by the Soviets, the Department of Defense had activated thousands of military reservists and national guardsmen for duty, which included a couple dozen players from the NFL, and three very important players from the Packers.
The players were Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler and Ray Nitschke. As noted in David Maraniss' book When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi was very upset by this situation. He mentioned that the Packers were hit harder than anyone in the NFL because of the scenario.
It was one thing to miss a game or two in the regular season if one couldn't get a weekend pass, but it would be very critical to the Packers chances of winning had anyone of the three Packers missed the NFL championship game, especially Hornung.
This is when the relationship between Lombardi and Kennedy helped make Hornung available for the title game. Lombardi was a big JFK supporter during the 1960 Presidential election. They became friends over time. The Packers won two NFL championships while JFK was in the White House as well.
Initially, Hornung was not granted access to go back to the Packers for the championship game. That would have been a HUGE blow as Hornung was the NFL MVP in 1961.
Lombardi was obviously concerned about that situation, so he placed a call to JFK to see if the President would get Hornung a pass to join the team for the big game. Sure enough, Hornung was given a pass to play in the game.
"Paul Hornung isn't going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day," Kennedy told Lombardi a few days before the championship game against the Giants.
The Packers beat the Giants 37-0 in that game, and Hornung scored 19 points in that game just by himself.
Titletown was born that year. That was also the first year a title game was ever played in Green Bay. Lombardi and his Packers brought four more NFL championships to Green Bay (including two more championship games in Green Bay), as well as the first two Super Bowl wins. But 1961 was the start of it all.
And JFK played a big part in making the name Titletown stick.
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