The latest recognition for Vainisi, the Packers’ personnel director throughout the 1950s and the man who played a major role in bringing Vince Lombardi to Green Bay as the team’s head coach, has arrived on Broadway in the production of “Lombardi,” which is based on the biography of the iconic coach entitled When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss.
In the play, there’s a flashback scene from late 1958 in which Lombardi returns a phone call from Vainisi during the preliminary search for a new head coach and general manager in Green Bay. Lombardi, an assistant coach for the New York Giants at the time who knows of Vainisi, makes a reference to him in the dialogue by saying, “Everyone in the league knows he’s the best, one of the best scouts,” and in pondering whether to throw his hat into the ring for the Green Bay job, Lombardi muses that the Packers are “chocked full of talent” thanks to Vainisi.
It’s only one scene in the play, and a brief one at that, with Vainisi an unheard voice on the other end of the line. But to Sam Vainisi, Jack’s younger brother and a semi-retired veterinary ophthalmologist who still lives in the Green Bay area, it meant something to know that the Broadway production, which opened last month, did not ignore his brother.
“I’m glad it came out, because the older generation knew how important Jack was to the Green Bay dynasty, but the new generation has no idea who he is,” said Sam in a recent visit with Packers.com. He found out about the reference to his brother from a friend who saw Judith Light, the actress who plays Lombardi’s wife Marie in the play, interviewed on television by Regis Philbin.
“It kind of hurts a little bit because you wouldn’t have Lombardi, you wouldn’t have any of this if not for Jack. Nobody really realizes other than those in that generation back then how valuable he was.”
Vainisi was instrumental, without a doubt, in a couple of ways. First, as the Packers’ personnel director through the ‘50s, he was responsible for drafting many of the star players that Lombardi eventually molded into a five-time championship team. Vainisi’s list of acquisitions before Lombardi’s arrival in 1959 included defensive tackle Dave Hanner (1952), linebacker Bill Forester and center Jim Ringo (’53), receiver Max McGee (’54), quarterback Bart Starr and offensive tackles Forrest Gregg and Bob Skoronski (’56), and back Paul Hornung and tight end Ron Kramer (’57).
And that draft record doesn’t include what is considered probably the Packers’ best draft of all time in 1958, when Vainisi selected linebacker Dan Currie, fullback Jim Taylor, linebacker Ray Nitschke and guard Jerry Kramer.
Yet with all that talent assembled, the Packers had yet to post a winning record in the 1950s under head coaches Gene Ronzani, who had hired Vainisi, Lisle Blackbourn or Ray “Scooter” McLean. The Packers had gone 3-9 in 1957, Blackbourn’s final year, and 1-10-1 in 1958, which turned out to be McLean’s only season at the helm.
“He used to tell me he was so frustrated during those early years when he had built this team up, in the later ‘50s,” Sam recalled. “He said, ‘We’ve got the best team in black and white but we can’t do a damn thing. It’s just so frustrating. In black and white we’re the best team in the league. I just have to find a better coach.’ So that was his goal, to find a good coach.”
That became Vainisi’s other contribution, luring Lombardi from the big market of New York, where he was potentially in line to become a head coach for the first time. Vainisi and Lombardi knew each other through mutual friends, and they had even played for the same coach in college. Hugh Devore was one of Lombardi’s coaches at Fordham and also was Vainisi’s freshman coach at Notre Dame a decade later.
As Maraniss tells it in his book, for which Sam Vainisi was one of his sources, Jack Vainisi used his many connections to find out more about Lombardi and became convinced he was the best choice for the job, which prompted the phone calls revisited in the Broadway play.
“He was telling me he was hoping to get this fabulous guy as coach, but he had to work with the board of directors to bring Vince in,” Sam said. “He knew Vince was a very dynamic person, so he had to sell Vince to the board before he even brought Vince here.”
Jack Vainisi and Lombardi immediately developed a close working and personal relationship, according to Sam, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Packers went on to win five league titles, including the first two Super Bowls, in the seven-year stretch from 1961-67.
The unfortunate part, and the reason Vainisi is often overlooked in the stories recounting the dynasty, is that he wasn’t around to see all those championships.
In the late 1940s, Vainisi was drafted into the Army and sent to Japan, where he played football for General Douglas MacArthur’s service team but also contracted rheumatic fever.
The rheumatic heart condition, made worse later on by the stresses of his job with the Packers and his unending dedication to it, eventually led to Vainisi’s death in November 1960 at the age of 33. Less than a month later, the Packers would win their first division title under Lombardi and the following year their first championship since 1944.
Vainisi was eventually inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1982 and is one of only two members of the team’s Hall along with John “Red” Cochran with “scout” as part of his title. But outside of that and Maraniss’ book, knowledge of Vainisi’s significant contribution to the franchise’s history has faded over time, another reason Sam and his nieces – Jack’s daughters Valerie and Terry, who also still live in the Green Bay area and were very young when their father died – cherish the collection of photos they have of Vainisi with Lombardi and/or the star players he drafted and signed.
(The photo in the middle of the collection shown above, and the one Sam Vainisi is holding on the home page, depicts Lombardi, on the left, and Jack Vainisi, in the middle, discussing some paperwork with an unidentified third individual.)
Ironically, it’s the third Vainisi brother who is perhaps more well-known in football lore. Jerry Vainisi, 10 years younger than Sam, was the general manager of the Chicago Bears when they won their only Super Bowl under head coach Mike Ditka following the 1985 season.
The Vainisi connection to football actually started with the Bears, as Sam and Jack grew up in Chicago playing street football with “Mugsy” Halas, son of the Bears coach George Halas. The Vainisi family also owned a grocery store and delicatessen in Chicago near the hotel where many of the Bears’ players who weren’t full-time Chicago residents lived.
Players like Bronko Nagurski, Bulldog Turner and George Musso ate at the deli and occasionally at the Vainisi house, so all three Vainisi boys grew up connected to football.
Sam was the one who didn’t pursue the sport – for a lack of size, he says – but he always paid attention to the game through his brothers. He even has his own classic Lombardi story.
Sam Vainisi had moved to Green Bay in 1959, the same year Lombardi came, and opened an animal hospital upon completing his initial veterinary training. At that hospital, which wasn’t far from Lambeau Field, he once cared for a little lion cub that Marie Lombardi adored and would stop by to play with almost on a daily basis.
Then one day, Marie brought her ailing dachshund to Sam at the animal hospital. The dog had developed significant back problems and couldn’t walk. Sam advised her that there were two courses of treatment – surgery, or rest and medication, both of which gave the dog a decent chance of walking again.
Marie couldn’t decide what to do, so she tried to call her husband from Sam’s waiting room and was told he was at practice with the team. Sam chuckles at remembering how the rest unfolded.
“I could hear the whole conversation, and she said, ‘I don’t care where he’s at. Get him on the phone,’” Sam recalled. “About 15 minutes later Vince comes on the phone, she tells Vince what’s going on, and I could hear Vince yelling over the phone, ‘You mean to tell me you got me off the goddamn playing field over that goddamn dog?’ And he slammed down the phone.
“She came back in and she says, ‘You do what you think is best,’ and the dog did fine.”
The story might have made for a funny anecdote in the Broadway play, but there were more than enough football-related stories in the script, to be sure. Sam Vainisi is just glad his brother was included somehow.
“Vince was such a dominant figure -- it was all Vince, he overshadowed everything, and Jack didn’t mind that. He never complained about it,” Sam said. “But as years have gone on, I feel kind of sad that he never got the recognition that he should have.”