“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” — Vince Lombardi
Vincent Thomas Lombardi, perhaps the most famous American football coach, was born 100 years ago today. Football fans still revere him nearly 43 years after his death.
The name Vincent derives from Latin “vincens,” which means “conquering.” It spread from the fame of St. Vincent of Saragossa. The first Christian martyr in Spain, Vincent died in 304 after being roasted on a gridiron. Seriously.
Vincent was one of the first widely venerated non-Biblical martyrs. Around 420, St. Augustine claimed that Vincent was famous “wherever the name of Christ is known.”
By 1206, English boys were being named Vincent. People with the surnames Vincent and Vinson had medieval Vincents as ancestors.
In continental Europe, the name’s popularity was reinforced by St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), a French priest noted for his ability to get the powerful and wealthy to help the poor and ill. Canonized a saint in 1737, he became patron of all Catholic charities.
The most famous of these, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, was founded in 1833 by 20-year-old Frederic Ozanam. Its lay Catholic members offer hands-on service to the needy around the world.
Vincent’s association with Catholicism led to its decline among Protestants in both England and America. In the 1850 United States census, fewer than 3,000 men and boys were named Vincent.
After 1880, Catholic immigrants from continental Europe brought their love of the name with them. In the 1930 census, 16 percent of the 106,813 Vincents were born in Italy and 4.3 percent in Poland, though only 1.7 percent and 1.1 percent of all American men were born in those countries.
In 1880, when Social Security’s year-by-year baby name lists start, Vincent ranked 266th. Catholic immigration pushed the name up to a peak at 61st place in 1914 — the year after Vince Lombardi was born to Enrico and Matilda Lombardi, themselves children of Italian immigrants.
Vincent slowly drifted down in use until 1944 (at 113th) and then just as slowly rose again. For six out of seven years between 1955 and 1961, it ranked exactly 98th.
Lombardi’s fame gave his name a sudden boost. In 1961, his Green Bay Packers won their first NFL championship, and in 1962, the name Vincent jumped to 66th from 98th. The name’s all-time high point at 58th came in 1966, the second year in a three-year string of NFL titles for the Packers, an unprecedented event.
Vincent then ebbed until it fell below the top 100 in the 1970s — but never below 110th. It rose a bit again in the 1980s (peaking at 78th in 1990), perhaps helped by the fame of country singer Vince Gill.
In 2002, Vincent had receded to 123rd, its lowest rank since 1902. But instead of falling further, it slowly inched up again.
Actor Vince Vaughn, born in 1970, the same year Lombardi died, had his breakout role in “Old School” in 2003. His career may have helped stabilize the name. In 2012, the 3,705 Vincents born ranked 104th.
It would be an artistic crime not to mention two other Vincents who affect the name’s image — Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and American film actor Vincent Price (1911-1993).
Like many visual artists, Van Gogh became much more famous after his death than before. Though he sold only one painting during his lifetime, Van Gogh is second only to Picasso in the number of his individual paintings that sold for more than $60 million.
Van Gogh is almost as famous for having cut off much of his left ear as for the beauty of his paintings. Psychiatrists still debate just what mental illness, if any, led to that dramatic act.
The hit song “Vincent” (or “Starry, Starry Night”) by Don McLean helped Van Gogh’s fame with average Americans when it topped the charts in 1972. Its haunting refrain, “They would not listen/they’re not listening still/perhaps they never will” still makes a lot of baby boomers wistful.
Vincent Price successfully played many villains, often sophisticated but dangerous millionaires or mad scientists in horror films, from the 1940s through the 1970s. Later he was a fixture on the game show “Hollywood Squares” and introduced episodes of the PBS series “Mystery!”
Price, from a wealthy St. Louis family, was a prominent art collector whose distinctive voice is still recognized by legions of appreciative horror fans.
Though Price’s image was suave and sophisticated and Vaughn’s is more rowdy and rude, they both contribute to a tall, dark, handsome but dangerous ambiance for Vincent, which seems to appeal to some parents while putting off others. Perhaps this explains the name’s long steady rate of use for over a century.
Lombardi, though, was the Vince who inspired the most namesakes during his career. He had a reputation as a tough, uncompromising, blunt and loud taskmaster who nevertheless was always fair and supportive to his players, inspiring great loyalty.
Vince Lombardi also was a champion for minority rights before that was common. He wouldn’t let his Packers stay in any hotel that didn’t treat blacks and whites equally, and supported interracial marriage.
He was also one of the first coaches ever to champion the rights of gay players, refusing to put up with anti-gay remarks in his locker room.
Both for his coaching accomplishments and his example of human decency, Vince Lombardi richly deserved his name’s meaning of “conqueror.”