'The Timeline' looks back at Vince Lombardi's year with Redskins

During his 41 years at NFL Films, veteran producer David Plaut says virtually "every permutation" of Vince Lombardi's legend has been told in numerous documentaries -- except one: The coach's final season as a coach with the Washington Redskins in 1969.

Plaut fills in the void as producer of The Timeline: Lombardi's Redskins Narrated by Dan Rather, the film airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

Rather's narration refers to Lombardi's work in Washington in 1969 as "the forgotten year." Plaut believes it was highly memorable, which is why he pushed for the last chapter of his life to be featured in the one-hour documentary.

"(NFL Films) has documented that season before, but it's always been in a very condensed narrative," Plaut said. "We really felt the story hadn't been properly told."

It is quite a story offering a compelling mix of Lombardi's greatness, Richard Nixon politics and social turmoil that marked the late 1960s. After taking a year off as coach of the Green Bay Packers following his victory in Super Bowl II, Lombardi realized he wanted to be back on the sidelines. He took over a terrible Redskins team that suffered its 14th straight losing season by going 5-9 in 1968.

Under Lombardi, the Redskins went 7-5-2 in 1969. Unfortunately, he never got to build on that season as he was diagnosed with colon cancer the following spring and died on Sept. 3, 1970, at the age of 57.

The Timeline shows how Lombardi, putting a premium on discipline and conditioning, turned the perennial losers into a winner. Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen is among the former Redskins players who provide testimony to Lombardi's mastery as a coach.

"Sonny was so thankful to have him for that one year," Plaut said. "He was yearning for someone like Lombardi. He had all that talent, but never had a coach who could harness it ... Lombardi was a guy who was able to get more out of players than they dreamed was possible."

However, this film is much more than what occurred on the field. If Lombardi had coached his final season in Detroit or New Orleans, perhaps the story isn't the same. Instead, the great coach worked in Washington, the nation's center of power and unrest in 1969.

"Lombardi was at the epicenter of everything that was occurring at that time," Plaut said. "He was this rock in a sea of chaos."

Lombardi arrived shortly after Nixon was inaugurated as president. Plaut knew Rather covered the Nixon White House for CBS News. When he reached out to Rather about narrating the film as a direct historical connection, he learned the correspondent also was a Redskins season-ticket holder in 1969.

"I told him, 'This is perfect. You were there when it all happened,'" Plaut said.

Rather discussed how Nixon, an avid sports fan, loved what Lombardi represented. Yet it went deeper. Plaut found a 1969 White House memo that suggested Nixon, with his popularity sagging, go to a Redskins game as a way of demonstrating his regular guy status. It almost seems surreal to see the shots of Nixon in the stands at RFK Stadium, not a private box, as the first president to attend a NFL game.

Lombardi operated at a time when several of his key starters had to wedge in practices while serving actively in the National Guard. Tight end Jerry Smith once caught three touchdown passes in a game after being up all night while on patrol.

While it was not disclosed at the time, Smith and running back Dave Kopay were gay players on that team. In the film, Kopay speaks how Lombardi's views on football and life helped inspire him to eventually go public with his sexuality.

Rather, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, says, "For his era, (Lombardi) was well ahead of the national norm on racial tolerance, tolerance on gender issues, lifestyle issues. If you could play and play his way, he wouldn't care if you were green or what you did in your private life."

Lombardi had such an effect on that Redskins team. His former players, even though they only played one season for him, choked up in recalling his last days battling cancer in 1970. Plaut believes his death "leaves a sense of unfinished promise that aches at you when the film is over."

Lombardi's last season in Washington, though, reinforced the winning methods he employed during the glory days in Green Bay. The film shows excerpts of his speeches on leadership that he gave in his final years.

"It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men," Lombardi said at the end of the documentary. "Once you've won their hearts, they will follow you anywhere."

It is those words, along with his achievements, Plaut said, that show why Lombardi continues to captivate and resonate 46 years after his death.

"It's really fascinating," Plaut said. "He was progressive on some issues, and conservative on others. He was so many things to so many people. He had something for everyone."

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