Gospel of St. Vince
Before elevating the Packers — and the world — with his wisdom, Vince Lombardi taught and coached at St. Cecilia High School in New Jersey. These are the still-vivid memories of students whose lives he touched seven decades ago.
Vince Lombardi was adrift at age 26, searching in vain for a purpose. He had already decided against being a priest, or a lawyer, or a debt collector, or a butcher like his old man. As something of a weak link on Fordham's famous offensive line, the Seven Blocks of Granite, Lombardi had no dream of making a deferred run at an NFL roster and no vision of coaching at a higher level than he had played.
So he was going to be a teacher at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., and see where that took him. His Fordham teammate -- and St. Cecilia football coach -- Andy Palau, had hired him to be an assistant, but winning wasn't everything, or the only thing, when Lombardi took the job in 1939. He thought his chemistry, physics, biology and Latin classes might serve his ambitions better than any sweep he diagrammed for Palau's Saints.
Basketball wasn't going to be his game, either, even though the school's eventual athletic director, Father Tim Moore, would pay Lombardi a couple hundred bucks to run the boys' varsity on the side. "Father Moore took a vow of poverty," Vince used to joke, "then lived up to it with me."
This would be Lombardi's first head-coaching job of any kind. In 1942, after Palau, the former quarterback at Fordham, returned to his alma mater, Lombardi took over the football program, too. And so it was at a Catholic school of fewer than 400 boys and girls, once standing 11 miles from where the Vince Lombardi Trophy will be awarded to either the Denver Broncos or Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium, that the son of a Brooklyn butcher learned something he was never given the chance of learning later at Fordham, or at West Point, or with the New York Giants.
On Jan. 28, 1959, the day he took over the 1-10-1 Green Bay Packers, Lombardi had head-coaching experience at St. Cecilia and nowhere else. As much as he demanded excellence, or at least the pursuit of it, from his students, Lombardi educated himself there as a leader and motivator, as someone who could get the best out of a sophomore hiding in the back of his chemistry class as easily as he could compel his fullback to hit his assigned hole with unmatched rage.
The teacher was ultimately teaching himself how to build the Packers into the greatest dynasty the NFL has known, and it happened by accident. Palau, a Bristol, Conn., high school legend who ended up signing with the New York Yankees out of college, rooming with Phil Rizzuto in the minors before failing to beat out Bill Dickey behind the plate, had no idea what he was hiring in Lombardi, other than a guy who couldn't take a joke.
According to Palau's son, Mark, the Fordham teammates were heading out to a big dance at the school, the two of them dressed in tuxes as they prepared to pick up their future wives, when Palau slipped green dye into Lombardi's hair gel. As soon as the lineman noticed his dark hair turning the color of lettuce, he grabbed a fire ax hanging nearby, chased the quarterback down a staircase and threw the ax in his direction, not missing by much.
Their partnership at St. Cecilia, Mark Palau would say three quarters of a century later, "was like a good-cop, bad-cop routine." At halftime, when the more reserved Palau sensed that his team needed a jolt, he gave the floor to his fire-breathing assistant, Lombardi.
"And hey, as it turned out," Mark Palau said, "my father got the best man for the job."
Lombardi, who would have turned 100 last June, has been dead 43 years and yet lives on in the hallways of high school gymnasiums and NFL practice facilities and Fortune 500 companies, his old-school quotations posted to inspire men and women to reach higher. To work harder. To play hurt.
But framed pep talks can't tell you what Lombardi's players and students can tell you, the players and students who were there when he was trying to find his own way. The surviving boys and girls of wartime St. Cecilia can tell you what it was like when Lombardi was in his 20s and 30s and burning a hole through you with that stare of his, or signaling a volcanic eruption with that rapid blinking of his eyes, or daring you to hit him with a forearm shiver on the practice field. They can tell you how he used to bang his college ring against a blackboard to get your attention in physics, and how he once chased out of the gym a basketball player who had dared to mock his habit of borrowing strategies from college teams he scouted at Madison Square Garden.
They can tell you how he could gauge a student's untapped potential within a week or two of class time, and how he understood the necessity of building up any player he'd spent a stormy afternoon tearing down. So these are the stories from some of the oldest Lombardi Saints, ages 84 to 91, many of them still living within a short drive of the high school that shut down in 1986, and of the grand old Gothic church Lombardi attended every day. Some told their stories over the phone, some at a gathering at a New Jersey restaurant. The stories belong to men who played football and basketball for him, and to a woman who played six-on-six basketball for him and who still sounds ready to run through a wall on his command. They still hear him as if he were standing before them, spittle flying, his voice loud enough to be heard over the jitterbug music playing on the cafeteria jukebox at lunchtime.
Yes, Vincent Thomas Lombardi is very much alive to these oldest living Saints.
Vince Lombardi, Football Coach
Andy Palau had lost only one game over the 1940 and '41 seasons before taking an assistant's job at Fordham, and so Vince Lombardi was devastated when his first game as head football coach ended in a loss to St. Cecilia's rival, Dwight Morrow of Englewood. But the Saints would avenge that defeat in a rematch at season's end and would rip off a 32-game unbeaten streak, including 25 consecutive victories, perhaps making Lombardi the first high school coach to attract the kind of coast-to-coast interest that defines big-time scholastic sports today.
"St. Cecilia Team in Demand All Over Nation," read one newspaper headline.
Lombardi would recruit Catholic school eighth-graders from all over. The undefeated 1943 team was Lombardi's finest, shutting out eight of 11 opponents and outscoring them 267-19. One of those vanquished foes was Brooklyn Prep, which, on Oct. 3, had a 158-pound left guard listed in the game program's probable lineup as "J. Taterno," the typo misidentifying a promising teenager named Joe Paterno. The St. Cecilia programs at the time sold for a nickel and featured a sketch of a helmetless player throwing his arms wide and following through with his right leg in punting form. The plea, "Buy War Bonds," was often printed on the front and back covers.
Without a field of their own, the blue-and-gold Saints held their home games at Dwight Morrow's Winton White Stadium on Sundays, when players, coaches and fans from the tri-state area would gather to watch Lombardi's T-formation schemes run to near perfection. The Saints practiced at Englewood's Mackay Park every day. The players would walk a little more than a half-mile through town, rain or shine, in full pads and cleats, for the right to be shouted down by the best and loudest coach around.
Joe McPartland, 87, Tenafly, N.J., FB/LB, valedictorian, St. Cecilia Class of 1944: "Vince used to say, 'Don't let anybody tell you the score doesn't matter. If the score didn't matter, they wouldn't spend thousands of dollars to build scoreboards.' Vince also said, 'People will tell you it's important to be a good loser. Let the other team learn how to be a good loser. I want you to be a good winner here.'
"We were a small team, usually outweighed 10-15 pounds per man, and we all played both ways. Vince was a fanatic about getting plays right, and later in the season when it got dark at practice, he would have friends line up their cars and turn on their headlights so we could continue working. ... In games he didn't believe in water boys coming out during timeouts. We'd do jumping jacks and push-ups whenever the other team took a timeout. He said, 'You can break the heart of the other team. You can show them indestructability.' We knew that Vince Lombardi wasn't a sadist and that he was only teaching us the price of excellence."
Henry Leer, 91, Landing, N.J., left guard, St. Cecilia, 1941: "If you had a bad day, or you did something he knew that you could do better, he'd just look at you. ... He'd give you the Lombardi stare, and you'd see him chew out a player coming off the field who did something dumb. His head would shake and shake, but when [a player] walked off, he'd put an arm around his shoulder and tap him and say, 'You're doing all right, son.'
"In practice, Vin would take everyone on without pads. He had a big pair of hands, and he could turn his hand way back almost like a baseball glove. His chest and shoulders started from his waist. ... He would say, 'Hit me,' and when you hit him, if he didn't think you hit him enough, you'd really try to hit him but you'd bounce off with those two big hands."
Joe McPartland: "My brother Frank was a tough guy, and Vince was doing exactly that. He was taking the linemen aside, 'OK, come on, hit me.' So Frank went at him. 'That's not good enough.' So the next time Frank ... hit him right in the face, and the blood starts coming down out of [Lombardi's] nose, and Vince goes, 'I like that.'"
Fred Clare, 90, Ridgewood, N.J., left end, St. Cecilia, 1943: "He was a rugged guy, and he loved the forearm shiver. He'd say, 'Let him have it with your forearm,' and it came in handy a lot of times. Vince would hit you in practice not to hurt you, but to show you what you could do with some big monster on the other side of the line. We had a handful of plays, all running plays, and Vince worked and drove you, worked and drove you, just trying to perfect that handful of plays. You had no choice but to get better when you played for him."
Iggy McPartland, 84, West Milford, N.J., fullback, St. Cecilia, 1948: "My two brothers and I were blessed to have such an impressive man in our lives. Vince studied for the priesthood once and was such a religious man that he influenced my decision to become a priest. I was his 150-pound fullback, and he picked me as one of his captains, but we were all devastated when he left Saints in 1947. I mean, how do you replace Vince Lombardi?"
Vince Lombardi, Boys' Basketball Coach
Lombardi taught himself the game of basketball by reading instruction manuals; by quizzing his friend Red Garrity, the coach for Dwight Morrow; and by attending college games at the Garden. Over eight seasons as St. Cecilia's head coach, Lombardi finished 105-57. In 1945, he won the only state basketball championship in school history. His best player, Charlie Bollinger, would join Bob Cousy on the 1947 Holy Cross team that won the NCAA title.
But Lombardi's claim to fame, or infamy, as a basketball coach was his triumph over a local power, Bogota High School, on Feb. 29, 1940, when he was just starting to build a program. This meeting may have marked the first time Lombardi determined the outcome of any game through the sheer force of his will.
Mickey Corcoran, 91, Dumont, N.J., guard, St. Cecilia, 1941: "It's one of the most bizarre games in the history of high school basketball in New Jersey. We'd lost to Bogota earlier in the year, and they had a state tournament game the next day. Their coach, Ev Hebel, just wanted to keep his kids fresh. We start the game off and miss a shot and go back on defense, and they just held the ball. They decided they wouldn't play against our zone. Vince realized they were better than us. We were decent in basketball, but we were a football school. I started to get antsy and move out because I wanted to press them, and Vince went off the charts screaming, 'Get back, get back.' It was 0-0 entering the fourth quarter."
Tom "Red" Cosgrove, 91, Dumont, N.J., forward, St. Cecilia, 1942: "I was sitting on the bench and couldn't get in the game because of what Bogota was doing. It was hard to watch. It was a circus, but you couldn't do anything about it."
Mickey Corcoran: "With maybe three or four minutes left, Lombardi says, 'Go get 'em.' So we pressed, grabbed the ball and scored. We ended up winning 6-1, and Vince was furious. He went screaming after Hebel pretty good after the game."
Donald Crane, 85, Ortley Beach, N.J., forward, St. Cecilia, 1946: "If Vince saw LIU [Long Island University] play a 1-3-1 zone defense at the Garden, the next day we'd play a 1-3-1 zone defense. So one night Vince cut practice early at 4:30, and he was going with Red Garrity to the Garden to see Yale play, and Yale had a star [Tony Lavelli] who was an accomplished accordion player who'd come out at halftime and play a couple of songs. So this one kid on our team, Halahan, says, 'I guess we're all going to be playing accordions tomorrow.'
"Lombardi starts blinking. ... From about 20 feet away, Lombardi threw the basketball at the kid. Halahan jumped away and said, 'Ha-ha, you missed.' Lombardi took off after him and the kid ran out of the gym. It's December or January and Halahan's out there in shorts, and Lombardi says to him, 'You've got to come back in here sometime.'"
Mickey Corcoran: "The coaches from Englewood called Vince 'High-Low.' He'd be real high if he won, and flat as a pancake if he lost. ... But I remember distinctly one day he was all over me like the itch, and I was a little down and out, and I showered and walked past his office. He says, 'Mick, come here.' He put his arm around me and says, 'Tomorrow's going to be a better day.' He was a great psychologist who knocked you down but built you right back up."
Vince Lombardi, Girls' Basketball Coach
In a world without Title IX, girls' basketball was barely an afterthought at St. Cecilia, where many of the students caught up in the boys' sports at the time had no recollection of the girls playing and no idea that Lombardi pitched in to help them out. Back then, St. Cecilia was among the many New Jersey schools playing six-on-six basketball, with designated offensive and defensive players limited to two dribbles and restricted from leaving their assigned "zones" on the court. In their blue bloomers and stockings, the Saints played a light schedule of games.
Rosemary Maroldi Diemar, 89, Seven Lakes, N.C., forward, St. Cecilia, 1942: "Mr. Lombardi always called the girls by their last names. My mother was Irish and he'd say, 'Miss Maroldi, you don't look Italian.' He liked to say that. He had us doing layups until my legs used to want to fall off. He was big on foul shots, too. I was small, but he would say, 'That's OK because you're fast.' In those days, girls' basketball wasn't important, but Mr. Lombardi never acted like we weren't important."
Joe Diemar, 89, Seven Lakes, N.C., backup QB/forward, St. Cecilia, 1941: "I worked for the National Youth Association to help pay for school, and part of my job was to carry out a plate of orange slices to the girls after the quarters. Rosemary could shoot baskets very well and was very athletic, and I don't say that because we've been married 69 years. Rosemary played more for Lombardi than I did because I had to work to support my family, but I do remember trying to knock over Lombardi in [football] practice when he told me to, and it was embarrassing. He'd just hold you with those big hands of his. They were like hams."
Rosemary Maroldi Diemar: "I don't remember losing a game with Mr. Lombardi. It never occurred to us that we could lose for him; he wouldn't stand for it. It was unthinkable. We wanted to win for him as a person, and I can't really express why. If he said, 'Good shot,' I was ecstatic. If he had to correct or criticize us, it was never in a way that you resented. When we finished the season, he gave us all gold basketballs to wear on a chain around our necks."
Vince Lombardi, Teacher
A few years before his death in 2011, Larry Higgins, a star fullback at St. Cecilia and Fordham, told the story of a Saints teammate who fell asleep in their chemistry class, a mortal sin to the instructor, Lombardi, who immediately threw the boy out of class and off the team. But Lombardi wasn't just some overheated coach trying to fake his way through the school day; Higgins said his teacher was the reason he later scored 100 in chemistry at Fordham.
"I'm not a 100 student," Higgins said in the phone interview. "That grade stood out so much for me that it makes my transcript look phony."
Fred Clare: "In the classroom Vince Lombardi was just as rough as he was on the football field. It didn't make any difference how good of a player you were. When you were in his class, boy, you paid attention."
Rosemary Maroldi Diemar: "He demanded respect in the classroom, and not in an overpowering way. I remember him banging his Fordham ring against the blackboard, and when he did you could hear a pin drop."
Joe Diemar: "I thought he was going to break the blackboard when he did that."
Henry Leer: "I remember in chemistry class this one girl couldn't say the world 'aluminum.' Vince spent the whole period trying to get the poor girl to say 'aluminum,' and then she started to cry and he gave up. I think some of the girls were afraid of him, but he got the best out of them. After a while he talked to them like a father."
Anne Scullion, 89, Fort Lee, N.J., cheerleader, St. Cecilia, 1941: "Every Monday in class he would look at me and say, 'Miss Scullion, which one of my football players were you out with this weekend?' When I tell people I was once a cheerleader for Vince Lombardi's team, they look at you and say, 'Really?'"
Joe McPartland: "People say he occasionally threw an eraser, but I think that story is apocryphal. I had him in class for four years and never heard about it. I guess it's a good anecdote emphasizing his commitment. In the classroom, he just thought you should pursue excellence, and everything else was a sham."
Vince Lombardi, St. Cecilia Saint
Even as he was winning his five titles with the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi never forgot the first athletes he molded into champions. Over the years he would remember Joe McPartland as "the smartest football player I ever coached." He would ask friends of Mickey Corcoran, who would coach Bill Parcells at New Jersey's River Dell High School and occasionally kick the ill-tempered kid out of the gym, Lombardi style, "How's the basketball X-and-O guy doing?"
Joe Diemar, a former Yankees farmhand who would wrestle under the name of "The Masked Marvel," once ran into Lombardi at Yankee Stadium, unsure whether the coach would remember him. "Hey Vince," he yelled, before Lombardi turned and said, "Slew-Foot," his old nickname for the lumbering Saint. When Andy Palau failed to convince Yankee Stadium ushers before a Green Bay-Giants game that he should be let down near the field to see the Packers' coach -- Palau had lost touch with his former St. Cecilia aide while serving in the Navy -- he screamed out, "Vince." The coach stopped in his tracks and waved down Palau and his young son.
"My dad sat me on the fence near the dugout," Mark Palau said, "and here I am talking to Vince Lombardi. I'll never forget that."
Lombardi loved to be in the company of former Saints. He cried when Iggy McPartland was ordained a priest, and when Father McPartland visited him at Washington Redskins camp a year before the coach's death, Lombardi introduced him as "my fullback." After one Washington assistant looked the smallish priest up and down and said, "You've got to be kidding me?" Lombardi shot back, "And he was a good one, too."
As the freshman football coach at Fordham in 1947, Lombardi had Larry Higgins and two other former Saints -- Dick Doheny and Billy White -- in his backfield. White was the best friend of Vince's younger brother Joe, whom Vince tormented on the St. Cecilia practice field and in the classroom, demanding more from him than any other player.
Billy went to war after Fordham; he was a second lieutenant in the Marines in Korea. Another vet, Andy Lukac, a Pennsylvania high school star recruited to Notre Dame before World War II, and later lured to Fordham by Lombardi, put White on the train taking him into the service. "Andy," Billy said that day, "I'll probably never see you again."
According to the Military Times, White was killed by hostile mortar fire on March 29, 1953, after he "repeatedly moved from position to position, shouting words of encouragement to his men," and was awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his valor. Lukac had received White's last letter from Korea. Billy's sister Eileen said her family received a letter from a medic who revealed he'd teamed up with Billy on Christmas Eve, moving through the battlefield to sing "Silent Night" with every Marine in harm's way.
"And Vince Lombardi carried around Billy's Mass card after he died," said Billy's brother Jack, "and that meant a lot to us. The Mass was at St. Cecilia, and Vince cried afterward when everyone marched down to the American Legion. He really loved Billy. Vince loved everyone who played for him at Saints."
Some of Vince Lombardi's oldest living players arrived at a restaurant a few miles from St. Cecilia, the Hungry Peddler in Cresskill, N.J., gathering on the site of an old World War I camp to share their stories about an enduring American icon. Corcoran and Cosgrove. McPartland and Leer. Lukac and Crane. They brought programs and yearbooks and newspaper clippings, but mostly they brought memories of a man who died long before he was ready to go.
"I'm not afraid to die," a 57-year-old Lombardi told Father Tim Moore inside Georgetown University Hospital, an hour before the colon cancer claimed him on Sept. 3, 1970. "It's just that I had so much left to do in this world."
It was no surprise that Lombardi was surrounded by longtime St. Cecilia friends in the end. Father McPartland visited him a couple of days before his death, and Lombardi pulled himself out of bed for a blessing. "He was down to 150 pounds at the time," McPartland recalled. "His last words to me were, 'Pray for me, Father.'"
Father Moore would be one of the readers at the funeral Mass. "The number of people at St. Patrick's Cathedral that day was incredible," Moore recalled in a phone interview five years before his death in 2001. "The two biggest funerals ever held there were Bobby Kennedy's and Vince Lombardi's. ... I remember the 30 limousines going down the Garden State Parkway to the cemetery in Middletown [N.J.]. We exited and got on Route 35, and there were all these kids lined up and down the road, wearing football jerseys, some of them crying. At the cemetery, people placed footballs near his grave. I did the ceremony. ... I'll never forget the emotion I felt the day I buried him."
Back at the Hungry Peddler in Jersey, more than four decades after that burial, Lombardi's old players were keeping the coach alive one more time. Lukac recalled how Billy White once drew the coach's wrath by missing the Fordham train to Buffalo because he couldn't properly knot his Windsor tie ("You always wanted us to look like gentlemen," the back had explained to Lombardi). Lukac, a member of Fordham's Hall of Fame, said he still fusses over his Windsor ties because of Lombardi and White.
Henry Leer remembered how his aches and pains were met with the Lombardi order to "run it off." Joe McPartland remembered how the Saints used to gather at Lombardi's Englewood home for big dinners, and how the coach delivered to his players a slight variation of his most famous line.
"Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing," McPartland said. "That's what he said to us."
Lombardi's oldest players still hear him like it was yesterday, and still very much live by his rules. And the truth is, the greatest coach of all time would have it no other way.
Ian O'Connor, a 1982 graduate of St. Cecilia, is a columnist for ESPN New York. Follow him at @Ian_OConnor.
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