I was a kid in the 1960s, or as we like to refer to it in Wisconsin: “The Lombardi Era.” Inspired by Coach Vince Lombardi and the many titles his Green Bay Packers won for our state, I worked very hard in high school and became an all-state lineman. From there, I headed off to college, fully intending to work my way up to become a Green Bay Packer someday, until a neck injury ended my football career in the first year of college.

While I never spent one day in the military, I believe those early years on the gridiron sowed the first seeds of a warrior spirit that prepares well for battle, empowered to combat the forces of evil and fight for souls. I’ve come to believe that the desire to enter the fight is a desire to enter into a genuine training in holiness, pursuing the goal of becoming one of God’s champions. St. Paul put it this way:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

St. Paul talks about a strict training and a desire to run in such a way as to win. Vince Lombardi would’ve heard these words from St. Paul many times in his life, as he went to Mass every day. In fact, he admitted, “I derive my strength from daily Mass and Communion.” As Coach Lombardi describes what it takes to be number one, see if you don’t recognize a bit of St. Paul in his words:

“And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat. I don’t say these things because I believe in the ‘brute’ nature of men or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”

In reflecting on his father’s ability to bring the best out in a man, Vince Lombardi Jr. wrote in his book, What It Takes to Be #1, that this kind of hunger for excellence is hard to find today: “We live in a time when authority is questioned, gratification is instant, morals are relative, ethics are situational, and the truth is apparently what we decide it is. We lead lives of comfort and ease and, as a result, we’ve lost our hunger to lead and achieve. Today, fewer people are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to become a leader.”

Yes, in this namby-pamby, “everyone-gets-a-trophy” world in which we now live, we’ve lost the “drive to strive.” And yet, this striving cuts to the very core of who we are. The Church Fathers of Vatican II stated, significantly, “All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive” (emphasis added).

Sadly, far too many people have become conditioned to cower when they hear the words, “strive for perfection.” In the coddled culture in which we live, the reflex response is, “I’ll never be perfect.” Yet, Coach Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

(Excerpt from Church Militant Field Manual by Fr. Richard Heilman)

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