Vince Lombardi Colon Cancer
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Just 23 when he died of leukemia in 1963, Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis had already smashed through barriers on and off the football field.

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By Ed Weiner

An Aggressive Opponent

With modern treatments, would football coach Vince Lombardi have tackled his cancer?

By Ed Weiner


In our mind's eye, we see Vince Lombardi in black-and-white.

It's the image from the flickering TV screens of the time—the '60s—and the stirring, heroicizing documentary footage that even now still makes it onto football pregame and halftime shows, 35 years after his death: any given Sunday, the sidelines of a frozen football field, Lombardi pacing, looking like an insurance salesman in a black hat and trench coat, his hands clenched behind his back, his eyes burning behind thick glasses as he exhorts his Green Bay Packers to another NFL championship or Super Bowl trophy, roaring at the officials, steam emitting in bursts from the wide gap between his two front teeth.

Black-and-white, too, is the way we think of his victory-at-all-costs philosophy. "Winning isn't everything—it's the only thing," was a maxim by which he lived. It wasn't "a sometime thing" but "an all the time thing." Men had to be strong (at just 5 feet 8 inches, he was tough enough to be part of Fordham University's legendary 1936 front line, the Seven Blocks of Granite); football was "controlled violence." His Brooklyn boyhood and devout Catholicism built into Lombardi a way of believing and acting, a work and life ethic that many saw as rigid and even punishing. During the Vietnam war, protesters vilified him and, by extension, the professional football he was shaping, as militaristic, pro-war and pro-Nixon.

But Lombardi was no more black-and-white than anyone else. His gruffness belied an easiness to laugh and cry. His football machismo was tempered by his ability to speak Latin conversationally. He could become intimately close with his players, but had difficulty being so with his own family. He was torn by opposing forces within him, and by a relentless pursuit of perfection, on the gridiron and off.

The self-stoked tension from all this, he believed, was at the root of his persistent stomach distress: the alternating constipation and diarrhea, the pain. For years, antacids had been his best and constant friend. The weight loss he'd been experiencing, the exhaustion he'd been feeling—stress can do that to you, and he was a pressure cooker.

But then, away from home on a speaking engagement, the pain became unbearable, and the constipation intractable. He flew home to Washington, D.C., where he'd moved from Green Bay, Wis., in 1969 to work his magic as coach and general manager of the hapless Redskins. He was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital, where from his window he could practically see his team's practice field, on the college campus.

An exploratory laparotomy—a procedure that involves an incision in the abdominal wall—found the tumor. The malignant mass in the sigmoid colon, part of the large intestine, was creating a partial obstruction. Doctors found that the tumor cells were dividing rapidly and barely resembled normal cells, a characteristic known as anaplasia.

 



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