Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Packer legend Vince Lombardi's saga begins in Brooklyn and ends in N.J.

Filip Bondy
New York Daily News
Wednesday, January 16th 2008, 9:38 AM

Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who was once a Giant assistant, rides on the shoulders of tackle Forrest Gregg (l.) and guard Jerry Kramer after defeating the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II.

There are miniature Green Bay mugs sitting atop Vince Lombardi's modest gravestone at Mount Olivet cemetery in Middletown, N.J. On the ground there is a contemplative photo of the great coach in his salad days, forever victorious, eternally a Packer.

He is laid out here alongside a narrow roadway in Section 30, across from some cherry trees, next to his wife Marie.

Somebody has contributed a Super Bowl XXXI flag to commemorate the latest Green Bay championship, over New England. And then there is a recent addition, placed neatly between the evergreen bushes: A $74.27 ticket stub from the Packer game at Giants Stadium last September.

If he were alive, Lombardi would no doubt be shocked by the price of that seat, while approving of the Packers' impressive victory that day. But then he also was an offensive coordinator for the Giants, and might have had mixed emotions about the upcoming NFC title game on Sunday.

Lombardi might even have given the Giants one of his more famous pep adages: "It's not whether you get kicked down, it's whether you get up."

You travel up and down New Jersey's biggest highways these days to find the heart and inspiration of the old-style Packers.

The great Lombardi quite literally rests not far from the Garden State Parkway and is a rest stop on the Turnpike.

And it is here that his legacy is both cherished and vaguely threatened.

M. Roberts for News
Buried at Mount Olivet in Middletown, Lombardi is a part of Garden State lore.

He lived among us once, when he wasn't quite bigger than life, long before his death at 57 of intestinal cancer in 1970. Lombardi was raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and flirted for years with the notion of becoming a priest. But then he became a teacher and football coach at St. Cecilia in Englewood, and the rest is the stuff of celebrity biography.

Lombardi captured five NFL titles, including the first two Super Bowls. He was rumpled and dignified at the same time, somehow. He became the personification of the American professional football coach, the first icon of his kind. He was more than a man. He became the embodiment of an entire profession.

"It's just a small gravestone, but we get a lot of people coming here, looking for it," said JoAnn Christopher, an office worker at the cemetery. "A lot of high school football coaches come to touch it. I don't know if it really helps, but they think it does."

It isn't just here in Middletown. There are little memories of Lombardi scattered all over the metropolitan area. Here at Fordham is where Lombardi studied so diligently for years. Outside Camp Alvernia on Long Island, a small metal sign marks where Lombardi practiced his own high school football.

And then there is the famous rest stop on the Turnpike, the ultimate, kitschy honor for a coach who might have smiled through those gap teeth at the silliness of it all. The area is north of Exit 18E/W, about four miles from Giants Stadium, and Lombardi now shares his service oasis with Burger King, Nathan's, Cinnabon, TCBY and Sunoco - $3.21 per gallon of Ultra 93, another shocker for the ghost of Lombardi.

It is at this unassuming rest stop where Lombardi is potentially under siege. At present, his name sits alone atop the main building - the same honor afforded native New Jerseyans Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Clara Barton, James Fenimore Cooper and Grover Cleveland at other stops. But just a few months ago, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) tentatively suggested that the state should sell the naming rights of these landmarks to the highest corporate bidder.

Lombardi, Barton and Edison could become PNC Bank, Prudential and Izod.

"It's a lot easier than raising tolls," Lesniak said.

That might not quite be true, from a public-relations standpoint. There is considerable resistance afoot already, when it comes to erasing these famous New Jersey monikers from the roadsides of the Turnpike. Rest-stop diners yesterday were fairly unanimous in their disapproval of such a development.

"Lombardi is important to football," said Bill Ripley of New Milford, Conn., a Jets fan. "I wouldn't want them to change it."

Vincent Ferrara of Bayonne suggested a compromise.

"It's fine if they split it, like the Lombardi/Citibank rest area," Ferrara said. "You've got to keep the founding fathers of New Jersey along with any corporate name."

What would Lombardi himself think? A framed biography and quotes from the late coach hang on a small wall inside the dining area of the rest stop. You read those quotes, and start believing Lombardi wouldn't give up his rest stop without a fight.

"Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit," he once said.

You lose the rest stop, who knows what's next?

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