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Vince Lombardi’s former prep players share their memories of legend with ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor

Ian O'Connor (Rich Arden/ESPN Images)
Ian O’Connor (Rich Arden/ESPN Images)

On Feb. 2 in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the Super Bowl XLVIII champions will hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They’ll be celebrating just miles away from where Lombardi, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., began forging his legend as teacher and coach.

Lombardi left his mark on the New York/New Jersey area well before he won five NFL championships — including two Super Bowls — as Green Bay’s head coach in the 1960s. He was educated in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx before he began his football coaching career at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. where he also taught Latin, chemistry and physics.

ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor – a former St. Cecilia football player and Class of 1982 graduate – interviewed several of Lombardi’s former students. Now in their late 80s and early 90s, they played for Lombardi’s Saints in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The result is O’Connor’s in-depth “Hot Read” feature on the legendary coach that was published today on ESPN.com and ESPNNY.com. O’Connor shared his experiences writing the piece with Front Row.

What surprised you most about Lombardi throughout your research, interviews and writing for this piece?
I don’t think I realized just how good of a basketball coach he was, even without complete command of the Xs and Os of the sport. Lombardi shaped his teams through the force of his personality, and he did win the only boys basketball state championship in St. Cecilia history for a reason. I also didn’t realize he helped out with girls basketball. One of his players, Rosemary Maroldi Diemar, a delightful 89-year-old woman, said her team felt that losing was never an option when Lombardi was around. Of course it wasn’t.

After speaking to Lombardi’s former players and students, what was the common theme across all their stories?
Just how much they loved and respected the man, and how they understood his greatness as a coach was best defined by his ability to build up any player he’d just broken down after a mistake or three. The players I interviewed ranged from age 84 to 91, and when they spoke of Lombardi — who died in 1970 — it seemed like he was still very much alive to them. Their memories were sharp when it came to things Lombardi said or did more than 70 years ago, and they clearly applied his messages of perseverance to their lives and careers.

How did Lombardi’s legacy impact you personally?
I graduated from St. Cecilia in 1982, only a few years before the school closed down, and largely because of the Lombardi legacy I was always proud to be part of the last Saints football team to reach a state championship game (though we did lose). Decades later, you could almost hear his booming voice in the school’s hallways. If you played football at St. Cecilia, even during difficult seasons as the bigger regional Catholic schools cut into enrollment, you felt like you were representing something greater than that particular team. My childhood home in Englewood was all of nine houses away from Lombardi’s on Mountain View Road, so it was hard not to be impacted by his titanic career.

Ian O’Connor (Photo courtesy of Ian O’Connor)
In the 1980s, ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor played football for St. Cecilia High School — where Vince Lombardi once taught and coached. (Photo courtesy of Ian O’Connor)

Editor’s note: Find extensive Super Bowl XLVIII coverage on ESPN.com and ESPNNY.com.