Vince Lombardi's roots were spread throughout New York

Fordham University in the Bronx has memorabilia and statues dedicated to one of its alumni, Vince Lombardi, who played for their football team in the 1930's. The Super Bowl trophy is named for Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, who was born, lived, and died in the New York area. (Jan 16, 2013)

There aren't many places like Gothic Press left, and for a while it seemed there would be one less.

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through Sheepshead Bay almost a year and a half ago, it nearly demolished the old print shop on Avenue Z. It flooded the basement, caved in the cement foundation, and destroyed those old ink-oozing machines with gears and presses. They were no match for the sea water, sand and sewage that seeped into the building George Pompilio's family had lived and worked in since the 1950s.

Nearly everything had to go, especially in the basement where the only thing that kept the water from rising any higher was the ceiling. But Gothic Press survived. As did one of Pompilio's most precious possessions. Smeared with sludge and clumps of now-dried mud, those colors and logo are unmistakable. It's a Green Bay Packers helmet.

But as Pompilio holds it tight, it is so much more than just plastic and padding. It, like the store that still carries that unmistakably sweet smell of inks and pigments and solvents, is a link to the past. A time when Sheepshead Bay trailed only Green Bay in its devotion to the Packers. A time when kids would paint white lines on the streets in front of the house where a legend once lived to play football, kick wayward punts that broke windows, and hope the way kids hope with fingers crossed and eyes closed tight and prayers at night for a glimpse of the man.

This is Vince Lombardi's neighborhood. All of it.

Here in Brooklyn where he grew up, just down the block from Gothic Press on 14th Street. Up at Fordham where he played football in college. Across the river in New Jersey where he first started coaching. And down by the shore, where he is buried.

For the next week, the iconic image of the Vince Lombardi Trophy will be omnipresent in New York. It will be on stories-high murals attached to skyscrapers. It will be on street signs and T-shirts and souvenirs. And next Sunday, at MetLife Stadium, the real thing, in all its silver shining glory, will be presented to the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII.

But there are other Lombardi trophies - ones with a lower-case T - that live all around us. Monuments and remembrances that most people walk blithely past without much thought or reverence. Small plaques. Simple dedications. A rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike just about a mile from where the Super Bowl will be played.

And at Gothic Press, there is a helmet that survived. In a store that survived. In a neighborhood that survived by displaying the fighting spirit of one of its most famous sons. You just need to know where to look for them.

His neighborhood

There is a small triangle where Jerome Avenue meets East 17th Street and Sheepshead Bay Boulevard. An evergreen that gets the holiday treatment each December and a single flagpole fill most of the real estate. Across the single lane of traffic there's a grocery store named "Friendly Food" and a lingerie shop.

At the base of the flagpole, a small plaque is set in the seldom-used sidewalk. "In Memory of Vince Lombardi," it reads, adding the dates of his birth and death. It was dedicated in 1974 by the Sheepshead Bay Chamber of Commerce, an organization that no longer exists.

It is believed to be the only Lombardi monument in Brooklyn. But because it is flat to the ground in a place few people venture, hardly anyone knows it exists.

Pompilio is one of those who does. In fact his father, a hero of World War II, has a similar plaque in the same roadside patch.

"It's an honor to have him remembered next to Lombardi," he said. "Growing up, that's all we spoke about was Vince Lombardi."

The house where Lombardi grew up still stands on East 14th Street. An American flag waves next to the front door. A chain-link fence guards the entrance. In many ways it is no different from any of the others in a 10-block radius. But it is one of the few parts of the neighborhood that would still be recognizable to Lombardi.

The rest of it has changed. St. Mark's Church, where he served as an altar boy and was a daily communicant, was originally just down the street from him. It has since moved a few blocks away. The train tracks that carry people around Brooklyn and beyond are no longer at street level but on elevated platforms. It's still a place for immigrants to settle, but no longer the wave of Irish, Jewish and Italian ones that Lombardi was part of. Now, most of the residents don't even know who Lombardi was, nevermind that he came from the same neighborhood.

"The people who grew up here, who still live here, and even the people who come back from time to time, they'll always know that Vince Lombardi came from Sheepshead Bay," Pompilio said. "But if you're asking me do the people now know Vince Lombardi, probably not."

Lombardi still has family in the area. Brenman's butcher shop on Gertisen Avenue is owned by his distant relatives. And Sister Bernadette Izzo, whose father was first-cousins with Lombardi, served at St. Mark's before moving to Mary Queen of Heaven parish.

When Izzo was growing up, it meant a lot more to be linked to Lombardi. Izzo recalled rooting for the Packers then and long after Lombardi left the team in 1968.

"People would ask me 'How come you're a Packers fan? Aren't you a New Yorker?,'" she said. "I would tell them, 'Vince Lombardi was my cousin.' That was enough."

The reach of the Super Bowl festivities won't extend to Brooklyn. Most of the action will be in New Jersey and Manhattan. And there are no events planned to link the borough and the upcoming game. But Izzo thinks he would be proud to have the biggest football contest in the world coming to New York.

School days

Had Lombardi never coached a game in his life, he would still be remembered at Fordham University. In 1936, he was a member of the second coming of the "Seven Blocks of Granite," one of college football's foremost offensive lines. His name is etched in the stone monument to those players just outside the school's football stadium.

But when the university wanted to honor Lombardi three years ago during a renovation of its locker room, it ran into a problem. Lombardi wasn't a good enough player. When he was at Fordham, no one knew that he would go on to become the greatest coach of the 20th century, so no one gave any thought to saving his memorabilia. There is a replica number 40 jersey in maroon. Some film reels from the 1940s (by which time Lombardi was long gone). A few game programs and photos of bowl appearances that Fordham took part in, but Lombardi never did.

No matter. The message is clear. This is Lombardi's home.

The walls are decorated with murals of him and his sayings, including his famous "What it takes to be No. 1" speech. There is a bust of him in the Vincent T. Lombardi Center, which holds most of the offices for the athletic department.

Fordham isn't the only school to lay claim to Lombardi. He attended St. Francis Prep for one year and graduated in 1933 at the age of 20. At that time, the school was in downtown Brooklyn, but now it is just off the LIE in Fresh Meadows, Queens. And although he never actually roamed these exact hallways, principal Patrick McLaughlin insists "his spirit still lives within the Prep."

"Lombardi is famous throughout the school for his smile that only seems to become bigger under adverse circumstances," reads the caption under his yearbook picture. "(He) joins Joyce and a few others in the plane of universal popularity."

There are only a handful at St. Francis Prep who still have a direct link to Lombardi. Longtime football coach Vince O'Conner and baseball coach BrotherRobert Kent both got to meet him during their early days with the school. Kent recalled that Lombardi would deliver tickets whenever the Packers were in town to face the Giants.

But Lombardi is featured prominently throughout the building. He is pictured twice near the front door, once among "distinguished alumni" and again in the Alumni Hall of Fame, which also includes Joe Torre. (St. Francis Prep is the only high school in America, public or private, to have produced a Super Bowl-winning coach and a World Series-winning manager.) By the athletic department, a heavy bronze plaque is mounted on the wall to commemorate Lombardi as a "Hometown Hall of Famer."

"You see him when you enter and you see him when you leave," McLaughlin said. "There is great pride in the fact that Vince Lombardi went to St. Francis Prep . . . Having a guy like Vince Lombardi as a role model is important not only to the student-athletes but to the demeanor of the entire school and what they strive to be."

Coach Lombardi

His playing days behind him, Lombardi was uncertain about what to do with the rest of his life. He had at one time considered the priesthood, and after graduating from Fordham, he moved briefly to Delaware where he was a chemist and played some semipro football.

In 1939, his Fordham pal Andy Palau hired him to teach science and Latin at St. Cecilia's High School in Englewood, N.J. He also offered him an opportunity to do something he had never done before and had no previous interest in pursuing.

It was at St. Cecilia's that Vince Lombardi became Coach Lombardi.

Only it wasn't football.

Lombardi was Palau's assistant on the basketball team. The gym where Lombardi blew his first whistle, gave his first instructions, came up with his first gameplans still exists. St. Cecilia's closed in the 1980s, but today the building is home to Englewood on the Palisades Charter School for students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Lombardi's old classroom up on the second floor is now a computer lab for the students. His old office down in the basement, at the end of a hallway that has been painted bright pink, is a small classroom where writing skills are taught. But the gymnasium is still the gymnasium and it isn't hard to picture Lombardi stalking the sidelines, yelling for rebounds and preaching defense.

In the book "Lombardi: An Illustrated History," Palau recalled the first time he asked his young assistant to deliver a few words of encouragement to the team before a game.

"At that first pep talk of Lombardi's," Palau said, "the gymnasium shook."

In the book "Lombardi: An Illustrated History," Palau recalled the first time he asked his young assistant to deliver a few words of encouragement to the team before a game.

"At that first pep talk of Lombardi's," Palau said, "the gymnasium shook."

Once a Giant . . .

Lombardi left St. Cecilia's in 1947 for a coaching job at Fordham and then went to West Point as an assistant. In 1954, he received a call from the student manager of the team he played on at Fordham. It was Wellington Mara.

Lombardi thought Mara, the owner of the New York Giants, was calling to offer him the head coaching job. Instead, it was just an offensive assistant position. Lombardi took it, though. From 1954-58, he ran the team's offense while another young legend in the making, Tom Landry, coached the defense. In 1956, the Giants won the NFL championship. In 1958, Lombardi's last game as a Giant, the team lost to the Colts in the title game in what is called the "Greatest Game Ever Played."

He accepted a head coaching job with the Packers, but with the understanding that if Giants coach Jim Lee Howell were to leave, he would be able to return. When Howell left after the 1960 season, Lombardi was prepared to take over the Giants. Mara called the Packers to set it up. But the Packers reneged on the deal.

During the 1961 season, the Giants visited Green Bay and Lombardi ran into Frank Gifford and other Giants players in town the night before the game.

"He started crying," said Ernie Palladino, author of the book "Lombardi and Landry." "'Dammit,' Lombardi said through his tears, 'I should be the one coaching you guys.'"

Lombardi did OK for himself with the Packers. He won five NFL championships in Green Bay, including the first two Super Bowls. But, Palladino said, his dream was always to coach the Giants.

"He always had a sense that 'I shouldn't be here, I should be in New York,'" the author said. "I don't know if Lombardi ever became entrenched spiritually in Green Bay. In his heart, he was a New Yorker through and through. I don't think it ever left him."

Lombardi never did return to the Giants. Heretired as Packers coach after the 1967 season (staying on as general manager), then left to coach the Redskins in 1969. As he prepared for the 1970 season he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died on Sept. 3, 1970, at the age of 57.

In a way, though, he's still a big part of his beloved Giants. In the lobby of the team's headquarters are the four Super Bowl trophies that bear his name.

Eternal rest

At least once a day, someone asks Ed Cardoza for directions to Vince Lombardi's grave. Usually they come back to get them again.

"It's just a plain gray stone right on the road, but they drive right past it because they're looking for a Super Bowl trophy or a Packer helmet," Cardoza, superintendent of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown, N.J., said. "It reflects on him being a normal, non-flashy person."

Besides being the only gravesite on the property with no grass - there are so many visitors walking up to it that the ground is worn away - it is completely non-descript. A gray granite rectangle with the name "Lombardi" stretched across it. Below are the names of Vincent and Marie, his wife. On the back are the names of his parents, Henry and Matilda. They're buried there too.

There have been efforts to improve the headstone, make it more fitting a man of Lombardi's stature. There has even been a push to erect three marble monuments nearby engraved with Lombardi's image and words. Those plans are never honored.

"It's like going to someone else's house and painting it a different color because you don't like that color," Cardoza said. "People think that he deserves more or it should look a certain way, when really the family wants it to look this way."

The plainness does not stop the pilgrims. Every once in a while, a carload of Wisconsin 20-somethings will show up early in the morning, Cardoza said, having decided at some point the night before to just take a drive and see Lombardi's grave. During the football season, fans pay their respects to the coach by leaving tokens of their favorite teams. Once the Super Bowl teams have been decided, the grave area starts to fill with memorabilia from each side as fans hope that offering a sacrifice to Lombardi will bestow some luck onto their squad.

Cardoza has been working at the cemetery for 30 years, so he's not one to believe in supernatural happenings. But earlier this month, when the Packers were in the NFC wild card game against the 49ers, he pulled up next to the Lombardi grave at night with a cup of coffee and put the game on the radio. The Packers were trailing most of the game but kept coming back and eventually tied the score at 20 in the fourth quarter. They wound up losing on a last-second field goal.

"It was a weird feeling like, maybe there is something to it," Cardoza admitted. "They didn't win, but if they did I definitely would be 100 percent on board with that."

Sometimes there are tailgaters at the cemetery the morning of a Super Bowl. Sometimes there are fights between fans. With the game being held just up the Garden State Parkway, Cardoza said this year figures to be the most active at Grave 4, Lot 375A, Section 30.

"I'm sure once people come in for the Super Bowl that weekend, they'll come down and see Vince," he said. "This year we might have to have a cop out there because you don't know the magnitude [or it]. Normally the game is in California or Miami, not 30 minutes from here. I'm kind of curious to see what's about to happen.

"It has a life of its own over there."

A champion crowned

Much like his old neighborhood, his transplanted school, his fake jersey and the computers in his old classroom, Lombardi would not be able to recognize the Broncos or the Seahawks as the two best teams in the NFL. One was playing in the inferior AFL during most of his coaching career. The other wasn't even formed until six years after his death.

But next Sunday, those two franchises will play for the NFL's championship. One of them will hoist the iconic silver trophy at the end of that game, an emblem of winning being the only thing, as Lombardi might have said. His name has come to symbolize a combination of greatness and gruffness, of striving for perfection and impatience for those who settle for mediocrity. And not only on the football field but in the neighborhoods and classrooms and yes, perhaps, even the highway rest stops of the New York area.

A champion will be given the Lombardi Trophy here, in his town, where he was born, raised, coached, somewhat forgotten and eventually buried. What better tribute could there be to a man like Lombardi, who was so proud of his New York roots?

Welcome home, Coach.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

NFL videos

@BobGlauber

advertisement | advertise on newsday