Not many people can say their last name is on the sterling silver trophy presented each year to the best team in the NFL. However, while Joe Lombardi is one of the few who can lay claim to that honor, he is not taken in by it. The Super Bowl trophy is named after his grandfather, Vince Lombardi, who, as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, won five NFL championships.
As quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2010, Joe Lombardi helped his team win the trophy named after his grandfather. Now, as offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, he hopes to win the Super Bowl again one day, but he also knows that there are more important things in life. Faith and family come before football in the Lombardi household, which prays the Angelus, the Rosary and the Diviner Mercy Chaplet on a daily basis.
Joe Lombardi, a 43-year-old father of six, spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about football and Catholic traditions in anticipation of Super Bowl XLIX, set to take place on Feb. 1 between the New England Patriots and the defending-champion Seattle Seahawks.
The Lions played the Patriots in the 2014 regular season, so you got to see them up close. What do they need to do in Super Bowl XLIX to prevent the Seahawks from repeating as Super Bowl champions?
The Patriots have an outstanding offense led by Tom Brady, but they can’t rely solely on it against the Seahawks, who have a tremendous defense. Because the Patriots won’t be able to run up the score, I think the key for them will be their own defense. They’ve got to control the running game of the Seahawks and try to force Russell Wilson to beat them with his throwing arm.
You won a Super Bowl as the quarterbacks coach with the Saints in 2010. Was there special importance for you in winning a trophy with your grandfather’s name on it?
Winning the Super Bowl was special, but not just for me. I think everyone else on the team liked it as much as I did. People on the outside looking in might see things in a different light, but, from a coach’s perspective, you get too focused on all the work involved to notice a family name on a trophy.
I guess you could say I was carrying on a family football tradition, but the specifically Catholic traditions, which were passed on through my family as well, are the ones most important to me. I wasn’t able to meet my grandfather, since he died nine months before I was born. However, his Catholicism lives on through me, so that’s what really means the most.
Did your grandfather’s football lessons get passed on to you through your father?
They did, but I don’t recall my dad sitting me and my two older brothers down every week and telling us outright that we were getting a lesson from Grandpa. It was more of something that was always there, kind of like a part of your identity. Your respect for the game is a part of a heritage you carry with you.
Somewhat paradoxically, one of the things passed on was that success is not a matter of genetics. You’re not born a winner; you have to make the effort to become one. Anyone can do something well if he has the sincere desire to do that. There has to be a commitment to getting the task done and a dedication to the fundamentals of one’s position.
I’ve been blessed, not only to have a grandfather like Vince Lombardi, but also to have been around so many other talented coaches. My high-school coach at Seattle Prep was Rollie Robbins; at the Air Force Academy, it was Fisher DeBerry; at the University of Dayton (the first place I coached), it was Mike Kelly; and with the New Orleans Saints, it was Sean Payton.
The Lions were 7-9 in 2013, but after a new coaching staff came on the scene, went 11-5 and made the playoffs. What needs to be done to get even better next year?
We want to continue to improve, have a great regular season and go further in the playoffs. We’re already going in that direction, because we’ve gotten better from 2013. We’ve played smart football by cutting down on turnovers, and our defense did extremely well. Our offense needs to be more explosive, though.
There’s a lot of talent spread in the league, so there’s a cluster of teams that, if certain things turn out right, can win the whole thing. I think we’re one of those teams, so we have a real shot at being the best next year. You start out with an overarching goal like that and then break it down into smaller goals: Right now, the players need a rest from the season; then they start working out on their own; then we have training camp, preseason etc. It’s all done one step at a time.
Besides your own work, you need to have certain things outside your control go your way. This happened with the Saints in the 2009 regular season and 2010 postseason. One example was almost losing home-field advantage for the playoffs, but, because of the Bears’ overtime victory against the Vikings in late 2009, we were able to play at home, including against the Vikings in the NFC Championship game. They say luck is the residue of design, but we had zero control over a game between two other teams. That’s where you have to be thankful to God for gifts that are handed to you.
Have you always been thankful for your Catholic faith?
I have not. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for people in my generation to have gotten lost in the catechetical haze of the 1970s and ’80s. Parents sent their children to Catholic schools under the assumption that they would receive a Catholic education, but that’s not what usually took place. Maybe part of it was my fault, by not being interested in hearing the truth, but there wasn’t great faith formation in the classroom.
I first started becoming truly interested in the greatness of the Catholic faith around the time I got married 15 years ago. My wife, Molly, and I were concerned about all the health dangers of contraceptive pills, so we looked into natural family planning [which the Church approves]. A priest we met with wanted us to listen to a talk on CD from Dr. Janet Smith called “Contraception: Why Not”; but we said we were already sold on the topic. He insisted that we listen to it anyway, and we were blown away by what Dr. Smith said. Even though we were on the path it recommended, our beliefs and motives were reinforced or augmented in many ways.
That was the first step toward becoming more fully Catholic?
Yes, we started looking into what the Church teaches, and our search has produced so many great results. Now, we love being immersed in Catholic traditions, including the extraordinary form of the Mass. We attend a parish that has this one Sunday a month, and the other Sundays they have the ordinary form in English, but with the priest facing ad orientem [“toward the east,” or in the same direction as the congregation] and with suitable music.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, so we should do everything we can to make it look and sound like that, rather than downplaying the fact. That’s why I find it worth the effort to search for a Mass that’s done well. It helps me to get a sharper sense of heavenly things and to pray better.
One thing that has helped me get a better sense of the Mass is a book called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. In it, Dr. Brant Pitre gives a historical context for the sacrifice of the Calvary, which is the same as the sacrifice of the Mass. He shows what the Passover was like at the time of Jesus, why Jesus started the Eucharist during Passover, what the Jews were looking for in the Messiah and the meaning of the manna in the desert. Overall, you’re able to see that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and practices.
Do you think that if people would look into the history and theology of the Mass they would get more out of it and attend it more frequently?
No question about it. It’s mind-boggling to learn what really takes place in each Mass. It’s not a random collection of man-made rituals; it’s something that originated with Jesus (and, in a sense, came before him, since it has its roots in the Old Testament), and it has been passed down to us. Each of its parts has deep meaning because they are reflections of Jesus.
One of the things I like to do is not only going to Sunday Mass, but making a day of it with the family. Instead of going our separate ways after church, we meet up with another family or two and enjoy a meal together, play with the kids, etc. I get to do this all-day thing now that the season is over, and it’s a great blessing.
Are there other Catholic family activities you enjoy?
Our family tries to pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet every day. Marian intercession and the mercy of God are so closely related, so we’ve even started the Angelus at 6am, noon and 6pm. The first one, that early in the morning, is a challenge, but even if we pray the Angelus at 8, it’s 6 somewhere, right? Plus, no matter what time of the day it’s done, prayer is always a good thing.
It’s a privilege to be the father of a Catholic family, where you not only pass along natural life to your sons and daughters, but supernatural life, too. That’s what matters most, what’s way more important than any Super Bowl victories, however fun those may be. I try to get this across to men’s groups I talk to through Catholic Athletes for Christ’s Speakers Bureau. The Super Bowl is the attention-grabber, but the more relevant thing is to live your life according to the teachings of Jesus, which are found in their entirety in the Catholic Church.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.