The Perseverance of Italian Americans in Sports BY bobby vithanage

Following the Risorgimento movement and the Italian Unification of 1861 over 20 million Italians left Italy. "Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily. Today, Americans of Italian ancestry are the nation's fifth-largest ethnic group." (PBS). Italians living in Southern Italy struggled to survive and with little to no options left in Italy, many turned to the Americas and other parts of the world for prosperity and security but only to be met with more adversity and discrimination on arrival.

Italians constantly faced discriminations when they first came to the United States even though they were classified by the Americans as "White on arrival". Italians, “[They] were so securely white, in fact, that Italians themselves rarely had to aggressively assert the point.” (Guglielmo 30). Yet italians still faced discrimination whether it was in the workplace, school or walking down the street. Many early Italian Americans did not speak of the discrimination but instead, "they got on with what had to be done, considered talk a waste of time and energy, and didn't like to admit there mistreated even though they were: they called what happened to them, when they talked about, la miseria, as if their plight were something that had happened to them rather than something that was done to them." (DeSalvo 19). Italians don't like to lose or admit defeat and that passion fueled Italians that were faced with adversity; they knew they could rely on the family unit and community to support them through any struggle they faced. The strong cohesive support unit created by the Italian community helped Italians persevere and push through the struggle to provide a better life for the next generation.

VINCE LOMBARDI (1913-1970)

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence. -Vince Lombardi

An Italian American and an all-time Hall of Fame great, Vince Lombardi, was raised by second generation Italian-American immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York. Both of Lombardi's grandparents are from Southern Italy and settled in Brooklyn, New York where his maternal grandfather started a barbershop that thrived even during the Great Depression and his father, Harry Lombardi, opened a butcher shop in the meatpacking district where Vince spent a great deal of time helping his father. It was in this butcher shop where Harry Lombardi engraved the virtue of hard work and perseverance into the young mind of Vince Lombardi. Raising five children, the Lombardi parents were extremely involved in the lives of their children. Weekly mass was mandatory for all the Lombardi's and in fact Vince planned to join the priesthood following high school but decided against it to pursue his passion for football. Lombardi accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Fordham University (O'Brien). After graduating from Fordham University in 1937, Vince was unsure what path he wanted to take in life. He spent time trying out semi-professional football, working as a debt collector, even tried out law school for a semester. But what he really wanted was to marry his girlfriend and start a family but his father did not support it because he emphasized the need for a job that could support another person let alone a whole family. (Maraniss). Even after college Vince's father continued to play an influential role in his life. His desire to start and support a family pushed Lombardi to get a job as an assistant football coach at St. Cecilia's High School in New Jersey where he spent 8 years coaching and teaching. Following his high school coaching stint he went back to coach at Fordham. That job led him to West Point which then landed him another assistant coaching job for the New York Giants. Lombardi was worried his Italian heritage would hurt his chances of getting a head coaching job. He applied to several head coaching jobs and in many cases he never received a reply, but he remained steadfast and committed. Finally in 1959, Vince Lombardi accepted a head coaching job for the Green Bay Packers; an extremely fragile franchise team that previously went 1-10-1. The future of the organization was very unclear before Lombardi's arrival but following his first year as head coach he pushed the team to a 7-5 season earning Lombardi Coach of the Year award in his first season. Lombardi went on to win 5 championships in his 7 season coaching stint with the Green Bay Packers. He is considered the greatest coach ever; Lombardi will go down as an all time great in all sports. The Super Bowl trophy, also known as the Vince Lombardi trophy represents more than just a win or a winning season but it is a symbol of persevering through adversity because, "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up." - Vince Lombardi

In a decade that saw a political spectrum from the Kennedy brothers to George Wallace, black leaders as opposite as Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Newton, Musicians as divergent as Neil Sedaka and Jimi Hendrix, movements from civil rights to revolution, women's liberation, gay liberation, and the Students for a Democratic society, LSD and events from the Summer of Love to the My Lai massacre -- when the country seemed to be falling apart, metamorphosing, or unrecognizable-- there was a constant: The Green Bay Packers. And the signature trademark of that team was as American as apple pie and guns: winning. The Green Bay Packers were Vince Lombardi (Salisbury).

Jim Valvano (1946-1993)

My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me. - Jim Valvano

The Legacy of Jimmy V

Don't give up, don't ever give up. -Jimmy V

At 22 years old, Jim Valvano graduated from Rutgers University and began his head coaching career at Rutgers University for the men’s freshman basketball team. Before his first preseason game as head coach, the opportunistic Valvano entered the locker room high on life as he sees the opportunity that awaits. The young 22 year coach began his pregame speech: "Gentlemen, we will be successful this year if you can focus on three things, and three things only: Your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers." Those words originally came from the great Vince Lombardi. Jim Valvano looked up to Lombardi his whole life; he was a role model to Valvano (Erik). So much that Valvano slipped the same words Lombardi used for his pregame speech with his Green Bay Packers team. Both men were raised by middle class Italian American families that instilled a strong sense of Italian pride and a recurring theme and Lombardi helped pave a path for the next generation. Lombardi, a highly qualified coach was never welcomed by many teams but at the one opportunity he received he took full advantage of it; paving a path for future Italian American athletes and coaches to follow. After 10 seasons of coaching at NC State, Jim Valvano won a national championship, 4 ACC titles and led the team to 7 NCAA basketball tournament appearances. Two years after retiring JIm Valvano was diagnosed with bone cancer and after a year long hard fought battle Jim passed away in 1993 (Thomas). During Jim's famous ESPY speech he told the world and everyone else fighting the disease that, "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever." During this speech Jim introduced his foundation for cancer research. The Jimmy V Foundation has sinced raised 150 million dollars (Jimmy V Foundation). Jim's uplifting attitude and passion for life touched everyone around him. His wife, “Pam Valvano says her husband's influence remains so strong a decade after he died of cancer, ‘It's like he's still living.’ " (USA Today). His battle against cancer defined the way Jim Valvano lived his life and it was to the fullest. Jim followed the path led by Vince Lombardi and he further cemented that path for future Italian Americans.

If it isn't Jim Valvano coaching North Carolina State to the college basketball championship, for example, it is Joe Paterno coaching Penn State to a national title in college football, or Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin managing World Series teams. If it isn't a new movie by Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, it is a new interpretation of architecture by the architect Robert Venturi, the ''father of postmodernism.'' If it isn't a new Broadway musical by Michael Bennett (''Dreamgirls''), it is a new shopping mall built by Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., the Youngstown, Ohio, businessman and sports magnate who is probably the wealthiest Italian-American in the country - reportedly worth more than $500 million (Hall).

Joe Paterno (1926-2012)

Joe Paterno was born in Brooklyn, New York to second generation Italian immigrant parents. He was raised to be a devout Catholic, curb prejudice and stand up for what is right. His Italian parents wanted all 3 of their children to strive in America and they set them up for that success by instilling the value of hard work, perseverance, a strong family bond and knowing right from wrong (IItaly). Joe Paterno attended Brown University where he decided to join the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, only to be turned away because he was, "just a little Italian kid" (O'Brien). The fraternity eventually accepted Joe and most people loved him for the exception of a few bad apples. Joe eventually became Vice President of the fraternity and, "During the rushing period, when members pushed their favorite candidates, Joe objected strenuously if the discussion displayed prejudice against Jews or any ethnic group." (O'Brien). Joe dealt with discrimination growing up and his mother talked him through it, explaining the ignorance and arrogance behind. Paterno's made tremendous decisions and sacrifices in order for her children to live a better life in America. While, she probably would have loved if her children could have spoken Italian and carry on the traditions for future next generation but she, "did not encourage her children to learn Italian, fearing that non-Italian outsiders would consider the Paternos merely a family of wops." (O'Brien). The power of discrimination does not only affect the morale or human rights of people but it cuts deeper than that. In the case of Italian Americans, many families stopped teaching their children Italian in order for them to avoid discrimination which led to a rapid assimilation to the American society and a new generation of Italian Americans that has lost the Italian language.

Joe Paterno coached the Penn State Nittany Lions for 46 years where he amassed 409 wins and is all time most winning coach in NCAA history (Layden).

There were many other great Italian athletes and coaches that came before Lombardi, Paterno and Valvano but I chose these three figures because they resonate deeply with the American people. people of that helped pave a path for him. Throughout the several Italian American athletes and coaches researched, there was a parallel theme of a strong family support system that instills value in hardwork and perseverance. The family remains connected and influential throughout their life. Italian Americans thrived in America because the Italian American family created an atmosphere that bred competition and hard work bound by Catholic values.


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Guglielmo, Jennifer, and Salvatore Salerno. Are Italians white?: how race is made in America. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Erik, Brady. "Channeling Lombardi." USA Today, n.d. EBSCOhost

"Remembering an Italian-American Legend: Joe Paterno." N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

Maraniss, David (1999). When Pride Still Mattered, A Life of Vince Lombardi. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-618-90499-0.

O'Brien, Michael. Vince: a personal biography of Vince Lombardi. New York: Perennial, 2003. Print.

Thomas Jr., Robert McG. "Jim Valvano, Colorful College Basketball Coach, Is Dead at 47." New York Times, vol. 142, no. 49316, 29 Apr. 1993, p. B16. EBSCOhost,

Layden, Tim. "Joe Paterno." Sports Illustrated, vol. 116, no. 4, 30 Jan. 2012, pp. 56-62. EBSCOhost,

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Hall, Stephen S. "ITALIAN-AMERICANS COMING INTO THEIR OWN." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 May 1983. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

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PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.


Created with images by Phil Roeder - "Little Italy - Day" • dbking - "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow"

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