We were both college boys back then. He was a running back going into his senior year for the Florida Gators, and I was a struggling young sports writer trying to get his degree at Florida who very much was in love with Joan Sharp of North Miami.
But I could not afford a car that would get me 650 miles round-trip.
Lindy Infante, who had been a star at Miami High, became my ticket to south Florida for my visits with Joan. Sometimes we would talk a little football, but mostly it was about life or pure college nonsense. He was a hell of a wheelman.
Later, Infante would become semi-famous for a touchdown he scored in Florida’s upset of No. 10 Georgia Tech in 1960. And then he became my friend. For the next 30-plus years, we worked on opposite sides of the aisle: writer and coach. I got a lot more than I gave. He was, quite frankly, one of my all-time favorite people, and he just happened to be a coach with a boundless sense of humor.
Oh, the stories
I was deeply saddened by the news that Infante, a former NFL Coach of the Year with the Green Bay Packers and also coach of the Indianapolis Colts, died Thursday of complications from pneumonia. Lindy and his wife, Stephanie, lived in Crescent Beach, Fla., and I would come across them from time to time. The last time I saw him was about three years ago and I noticed then that he was on the frail side. But still laughing, smiling.
I think back on the stories he had shared with me, like the time when he was parking cars for a summer job in Fort Lauderdale in 1960 when Ray Graves, the new coach at Florida, pulled up. Infante took his keys and said to Graves: “Hi, coach. I’m your tailback next year.” Indeed he was and he became part of one of the most famous play sequences in Gator history.
That Oct. 2 in the Gators’ third game, with 33 seconds left at Florida Field in an epic game between Graves and his mentor, Bobby Dodd, No. 33 (Infante) scored a touchdown to cut Tech’s lead to 17-16. In what is now a classic photo from UF history, Graves held up two fingers signifying a two-point conversion. Larry Libertore hit fullback Jon MacBeth with a short pass and a new day was born for the Gators in the Ray Graves era.
Later, Infante would become a member of Graves’ staff as backfield coach.
It was one night after a party when Infante and fellow assistant Fred Pancoast pushed me in the pool of a Gainesville motel that became the make-or-break moment of our friendship. I was wearing a spiffy khaki-colored suit and a brand new $15 tie as I hit the water, my glasses flying off and landing at the bottom as Infante and Pancoast cackled at my fate. The rest of that story is that Pancoast jumped in fully clothed to retrieve my glasses and Stephanie took the tie home and restored it to brand new. And our friendship was restored as well. We laughed about it for years to come. Infante was a bit of a prankster and always loved a good laugh.
Moving on to the NFL
I lost track of Infante as I moved on to other newspapers and he wound up in the NFL after short stints as a college assistant. It was one day at New York Giants camp in 1978 when I was sports editor of the New York Daily News that we crossed paths again. You could tell he was a coach on the way up, which proved to be the case as he earned a stellar reputation as a play-caller in Cleveland and Cincinnati. And then came the head-coaching stints with the Packers (1988-91) and Colts (1996-97).
This says as much about Infante’s career as anything: In Green Bay history, there were only two Packers coaches to become coach of the year, Vince Lombardi in 1959 and Lindy Infante in 1989.
Infante was one of those coaches who had brushes with greatness but sometimes was denied proper credit by a lack of timing. He helped set up programs that eventually became big winners in Green Bay and Indianapolis. While he wound up with losing records at both places, that doesn’t begin to tell the story of Infante as a coach.
At 57, he called it quits and built several homes in Crescent Beach. He once told the Florida Times-Union he had many chances to return to coaching after his last stint at Indy.
“The money was tempting, but I made a commitment to get on with the rest of my life,” Infante said. “I was a workaholic for a long time. It’s nice to look out my window, see the ocean and beach, and just be with your wife and family when you want to.”
In the end, his priorities were in proper order as he passed on to the next life at age 75. And I have no doubt he tried to pull a prank on St. Peter at the pearly gates.