Joe Lombardi, 39, never met his legendary grandfather. So, last February, when the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints first held the NFL championship trophy named in honor of Vince Lombardi Sr., the moment was all the more special.
The Saints had just defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl in Miami and, as Joe left the stadium on a team bus, he finally got to cradle the real, full-size version of a miniature Lombardi Trophy displayed in his childhood home in Seattle.
Holding the Super Bowl trophy was a full-circle moment for a coach with football in his bloodline, thanks to the iconic patriarch who, as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, won five NFL championships in seven years during the 1960s. Vince Lombardi exemplified football success, winning the first two Super Bowls in history and becoming the face of the NFL as the league grew in popularity through expanded TV coverage.
“I hope he’d be proud of me,” says Joe, who was born nine months after his grandfather died in 1970.
“And I hope he’d be proud of me for more than just being a football coach and one that was part of a successful season. Hopefully, he’d be proud of the family I’ve got,” adds Joe, the father of five children ages 1 to 8.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Vince Lombardi was the oldest of five children and went on to become professional football’s most famous coach. He was known for demanding excellence both on and off the field, running grueling training camps, and delivering motivational mantras, including sayings that “leaders are made, they are not born” and “winning is not everything, but wanting to win is.”
Joe’s favorite Lombardi message to his players was that faith, family and football—in that order—should be their top priorities. “He was a regular churchgoer, and I try to take my faith seriously as well,” says Joe, who is Roman Catholic.
His grandfather’s life and philosophy will be reintroduced to the world this fall with the opening of a Broadway play based on his life, and in 2012 when a feature film starring Robert DeNiro as the larger-than-life coach is scheduled for release.
Despite his coaching success, the elder Lombardi encouraged Joe’s father, Vince Jr., to pursue an occupation outside of football. Vince Jr. became a lawyer and, while his career included a stint as general manager of the Seattle Seahawks and other football-related work, he passed down the same advice to Joe.
“I told him don’t do it unless you can’t live without it,” recalls Vince Jr., 68.
After playing tight end for the U.S. Air Force Academy, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1994 and served four years in the military. During his service, he became a volunteer defensive line coach at the University of Dayton, leading to a string of college coaching assignments that required four moves in five years for him and his wife, Molly.
In 2006, Joe landed a job as defensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, then joined the Saints’ coaching staff in 2007. He became the team’s quarterbacks coach last season, working with Drew Brees, MVP of Super Bowl XLIV.
Brees says Joe wears the family name with dignity and humility. “Anytime you meet someone in football with the name Lombardi, it automatically triggers that thought in your head that he’s from a special family,” says Brees, 31. “My first impressions of Joe were that he’s a hard-working coach who, much like the rest of our coaches, is willing to put in the long hours of work it takes to win in this league.”
Those long hours require Joe to bunk in his office a couple of nights a week during football season, but the young coach can’t fathom another lifestyle. He brings to his job the same enthusiasm for football that he showed as a youngster in the 1970s, when he re-enacted pro games in his backyard after watching them on television.
Joe says the business of football has changed since his grandfather’s day, because of the increased influence of money, media saturation and multiple formations on the playing field. But good football still comes down to blocking and tackling, says Joe, hoping one day to plot X’s and O’s as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.
The aspiration is worthy of the Lombardi name, says Saints head coach Sean Payton, 46. “Joe is a football lifer, and that’s clear in working with him,” Payton says. “This is a business that rewards talented people who work hard, and Joe is definitely in that group.”