The Gospel of St. Vince

January, 23, 2014
1/23/14
2:41
PM ET
Hot Read-Vince Lombardi ESPN IllustrationVince Lombardi's work at St. Cecilia H.S. forged memories that remain vivid seven decades later.
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. ...

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.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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