by Troy Sparks
No one in the National Football League did more for integrating a football team than legendary coach Vince Lombardi. And he was bold enough to do it during the turbulent 1960s when America still hadn’t come to grips with racial equality.
“Vince Lombardi had the power, the will and the determination to be fair,” said Royce Boyles, the author of his third book about the Green Bay Packers, “Lombardi’s Left Side,” (Ascend Books, $26.95).
Two of Lombardi’s best black defensive players are featured in the 280-page book, left linebacker Dave Robinson and left cornerback Herb Adderley. They recalled their days as players who started for Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers during the ‘60s when the Packers won five NFL Championships in that decade.
“I wanted to write a book that had something obviously more than football, and I knew the Herb had the stories about Dallas,” Boyles said. “It was a process to get Herb to come on board because he needed to get a certain comfort level and a certain trust level.”
Robinson and Boyles, who’s white, worked together on two previous books, “The Lombardi Legacy” and “The Lombardi Impact.” “Legacy” was credited as a resource for HBO’s 2010 Emmy award-winning documentary, “Lombardi.”
Robinson cited an example in the new book about a situation as a college football player at Penn State that created a culture shock on campus. “There was interracial dating when I was there, and there was nothing said about it,” he said in Chapter 6. “It’s probably a lot more prevalent than back then. But when it occurred, it wasn’t an unusual situation, like, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s dating a white girl.’ It wasn’t a big thing.”
However, it was a big thing up in Green Bay and around the league when defensive player Lionel Aldridge wanted to marry a white woman named Vicky Wankier. The issue was brought up after he arrived in Titletown in 1963. Both of them heard that Cookie Gilchrist, a black NFL player, was blackballed from the league because he married a white woman. Gilchrist finished his football career in the American Football League.
Both Lionel and Vicky feared that he would have to choose between football and marriage, so Lionel went to Lombardi to ask for his blessing. “Lionel called me and told me that Lombardi said, ‘You know what? I don’t care who you marry as long as you keep the Green Bay Packer team clean, your nose clean and you play good football,’ ” Vicky said in Chapter 2.
In that same chapter, Pete Rozelle, the commissioner back then, made a visit to Green Bay when the news got to him. According to Vicky Aldridge Nelson, the message was delivered in person. “Yes, the commissioner came into town and tried to stop it,” she said. “And Mr. Lombardi said (to Rozelle), ‘Absolutely not; this is my team. My team is who my team is and nobody can tell me what I can and cannot do.’ ” The Aldridges married in 1965.
Lombardi opened the pipeline for black players to be welcomed on his team in Green Bay the minute he accepted the head coaching job. He brought Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell with him from the New York Giants. Other black players were later added to the Packers.
“When Emlen Tunnell came to Green Bay, it made it okay for everybody, including blacks, to play in Siberia (frigid Green Bay),” Boyles said. “I think that may have been (Lombardi’s) biggest and best (move) in the grand scheme of things. That may have been his best personnel move, because back then, if you didn’t play well, the coaches around the league would send you to Siberia.” Both Robinson and Adderley had little problems with their white teammates on the Packers. All that winning made it more enjoyable.
Adderley was later sent to the Dallas Cowboys by Phil Bengtson, who replaced Lombardi. His attitude changed from the time he got there. Some of Adderley’s new white teammates and Tom Landry, who was the head coach, didn’t make him feel welcome.
Landry hated the Packers and anyone who played for them because he couldn’t beat them in the two NFL Championship games they played against each other in 1966 and 1967. According to Boyles, Dan Reeves, the Cowboys’ running back in the Ice Bowl game of 1967 and later head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, told Boyd Dowler, who also played in that game for the Packers and worked for the Falcons around the same time Reeves was the coach, that the quarterback sneak into the end zone that Bart Starr ran was the wrong play.
“He should have run a rollout because it was third down,” Boyles recalled Dowler saying. “Those guys are not over it yet,” Boyles added. “And I heard on more than one occasion that those guys will defend Tom Landry.”
After the Cowboys were shutout in a game in 1970 that left their record at 5-4, Adderley exploded in the locker room and told the team that they played like a bunch of losers. Everyone played better after that. Dallas got their swagger back and went to two straight Super Bowls, losing Super Bowl V and winning Super Bowl VI.
Without Adderley and Forrest Gregg, who later joined the team, the Cowboys would’ve never reached the pinnacle of professional football. It was said by many Dallas players that Landry destroyed the chemistry of the team. He would have rather lost Super Bowl VI without a Lombardi guy than win it with a Lombardi guy.
Robinson is 71 years old and Adderley is 73. Of the two former first round draft picks, Adderley still carries some bad memories as his football career was bittersweet with the two teams. Robinson may be over any bitter feelings now.
You can purchase the book at any Festival Foods store in Wisconsin, at the Packers Gift Shop inside Lambeau Field or online at lombardisleftside.com or ascendbooks.com.