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 Dumont, 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.