50 years after his death, Vince Lombardi remains a mythic figure

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Every now and again, the kids on Fordham’s touch football team would notice the man in thick glasses standing by himself, watching their lunch-hour practices. He seemed odd, lonely, aloof, and awfully interested in what they were doing.

Only a few years earlier, Rose Hill was home to a proud varsity, good enough to make a Cotton Bowl and a Sugar Bowl in back-to-back years, popular enough to fill Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. But that ended in 1954. Now, this was as good as it got for football season in The Bronx.

One sloppy day, as the offense regrouped, they noticed they’d been joined by someone: the man in the thick glasses. And suddenly he was shouting at them. And suddenly they noticed the gap in his teeth and the fire in his eyes as he squatted and put his hands out and told them the proper way to block. When he was done, he stormed away.

“Who was that?” one of the stunned players asked.

“Believe it or not,” one of his teammates replied, “that guy is the offensive coordinator for the Giants.”

Frank McLaughlin laughs as he tells that story about Vince Lombardi, one proud son of Fordham remembering another. McLaughlin played basketball there, coached there, was the longtime athletic director. Nobody better understands what Vince Lombardi meant to Fordham — or what Fordham meant to Lombardi.

vince lombardi packers death anniversary
Green Bay Packers players give coach Vince Lombardi the traditional victory ride after the Packers clinched the Western Division titleBettmann/CORBIS

“The one job he ever wanted,” McLaughlin says, “was to be football coach at Fordham. I really believe if he had gotten that job he never would have left it. But it just never worked out that way for him. Or for us.”

Fifty years ago, Thursday, Sept. 3, 1970, Vince Lombardi died far too young at 57, inside a room at the Georgetown University Hospital. His decline had been stunningly rapid, a particularly virulent form of cancer, and he was gone less than three months after he was diagnosed. It hit a turbulent country square in the solar plexus.

But it hit home — his spiritual homes — harder still.

That included Sheepshead Bay, where he was born, and Cathedral Prep. It included Fordham, where Lombardi was one of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite, where he later returned as an assistant. It included West Point, where he assisted Red Blaik, and the Giants, where he and Tom Landry were Jim Lee Howell’s coordinators.

He found fame in Green Bay, and probably would’ve become an even larger mythic figure if he’d gotten more than a year in Washington. But New York shaped him, and would forever inspire him.

John Mara remembers a day when he was 11, playing baseball with his friends in his father’s backyard. He put a good swing on a pitch, knocked the ball over the neighbor’s fence, and before he took his tour of the bases he looked behind him. Staring through the window from the living room was his father, Wellington, the Giants’ owner. And beside him was Well’s old friend from Fordham, Vince Lombardi.

“Son,” Lombardi roared, “you’ve got a hell of a swing with that bat!”

“If that doesn’t make a kid feel like he’s Mickey Mantle,” says Mara, “what will?”

“He was always coaching,” McLaughlin says, laughing.

The image of Lombardi is of an unbending martinet, one that might not seem relevant 50 years later. But the true Lombardi was a man who recognized changing times. He made certain life in his locker room was a square deal for his players of color — but also for players that, he knew, were of a different sexual orientation. His brother was gay. He knew at least one of his players was, too. He stood for no slurs of any kind.

But also suffered no fools.

The day after he passed, The Post’s Larry Merchant wrote: “Lombardi did not invent a new religion, but he did improve on an old one. The religion is called winning.”

It was a gospel he perfected early. Dave Anderson, the longtime sports columnist, was the student manager for Xavier High School when Frank McGuire — later a towering figure himself coaching St. John’s, North Carolina and in the NBA — wandered to the scorer’s table one night and pointed to the opposing coach that night for St. Cecilia’s.

“Keep your eyes and ears open,” McGuire said. “Word is, this guy will do anything in his power to win.”

vince lombardi fordham football
Vince Lombardi (40), a guard on the Fordham University football team, poses in 1935.AP Photo

Lombardi learned to preach winning and discipline at the small Catholic school in Englewood, N.J., and he never stopped. He wouldn’t get his first big break until he was 45, when Well Mara saw his old pal seize the chance to revive the Packers at the same time Landry went off to invent the Cowboys.

“Dad,” John told his father often, “if you’d just kept one of them I would have had a much happier childhood.”

Lombardi never did coach the Giants. But he stayed true to Fordham forever, attending almost every “Block-F” fundraising dinner, and four months before he died he agreed to chair a committee to help build a 10,000-seat basketball field house on campus.

“I have no doubt we would have seen that building,” McLaughlin says with a sigh. “But there wasn’t enough time.”

Fifty years later, the name, and the legacy, remains larger than any 50 lives. In Green Bay, sure, and across the NFL. But in his hometown most of all. This will be eternally Lombardi Land.

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