An understated gravesite in New Jersey has become a shrine to football fans across the nation
MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Those who have made the pilgrimage before are eager to offer advice on how to get there. Down near the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County, past the grocery stores and fast-food restaurants on State Route 35, is the quiet, two-lane Chapel Hill Road. It runs through Mount Olivet Cemetery, where tucked among the more than 100,000 graves is football’s most famous one.
“It’s not easy to find,” cautions Cliff Christl, the Packers’ team historian.
“It’s kind of an unpretentious cemetery,” explains author David Maraniss, “with a very modest gravestone.”
Eddie Cardoza, the cemetery’s superintendent, has spent a big chunk of his more than 30 years on the job dispensing directions to “Section 30, roadside.” A hand-drawn map in the cemetery’s office marks the location with an asterisk. Many days, though, Cardoza will just hop in his pick-up truck and escort the visitors—they come daily—to Vince Lombardi’s gravesite.
“People come expecting to see the Super Bowl trophy or something elaborate,” Cardoza says. “It’s not flashy. Basic gray granite. Not even polished. Obviously he didn’t pick it out, but it reflects on him.”
A winter storm dropped about a foot-and-a-half of snow on this part of New Jersey, but by Monday morning, the area around Lombardi’s gravestone had been shoveled out and dusted off—uncovering items left by past visitors, including a small rubber football and ivory crucifix with, what else, a Cheesehead necklace draped around it.
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay the Lombardi pilgrims—particularly not during Super Bowl season, the gravesite’s most trafficked time of year. They come here for the same reason we made the stop on The MMQB’s road trip to Super Bowl 50—because Super Bowl history starts with Vince Lombardi.
When Lombardi won Super Bowls I and II, the stage wasn’t anything like it was today: The game didn’t sell out, TV ratings were less than half of what they are now, and it wasn’t even officially called the “Super Bowl.” But professional football was making the same kind of ascent in popularity that Lombardi was as a head coach—sudden, stunning, dominating. In the final years before the AFL-NFL merger, he led the Packers to five NFL titles in a seven-year span, in addition to winning those first two world championship games between the rival leagues. When he died prematurely of colon cancer on Sept. 3, 1970, at age 57, it took commissioner Pete Rozelle only seven days to rename the Super Bowl trophy in Lombardi’s name.
“Lombardi was the patron saint of the NFL, and his rise coincided with the emergence of football as America’s dominant sport,” says Maraniss, who authored the definitive biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. “That came in the 1960s, when the NFL and TV were sort of rising together, and Lombardi became the figure of all of that. The symbol of discipline, and hard work, and leadership—the attributes the NFL likes to claim that it represents, whether it really does or not.”
The trophies Lombardi won bore the phrase, “World Professional Football Championship.” It wasn’t until 1997, 26 years after the Lombardi Trophy was first awarded in Super Bowl V, that the Packers finally earned the trophy named for their iconic coach, a wait long enough that the Green Bay faithful worried it might never end. Cardoza thinks it would be appropriate for the Lombardi Trophy to one day pay a visit to its namesake’s grave, and he made that case to the NFL—but it hasn’t happened, yet. This year’s Lombardi Trophy has already left the Tiffany & Co. workshop in Rhode Island, where silversmiths take four months to handcraft it, en route to San Francisco, where it will be handed over to the care of the NFL Friday.
His grave has a meaning all its own, almost as if it’s one of the sacred Catholic shrines where the faithful come to receive credits toward heaven. “One of the stations of the cross of Lombardi’s life,” as Maraniss puts it. Christl, one of the lucky children of Green Bay in the 1960s, who watched every home game from his family’s seats behind the Packers bench, checked it off his bucket list about 10 years ago. He and his wife, while touring the East Coast, added Middletown to their itinerary.
“It is sort of fitting. Because in the end, he was a pretty simple man. There is none of the grandiosity of the Super Bowl in that gravesite.”
Fans from all corners come to pay their respects. There were the women who pulled up in a Ford Bronco after an overnight drive from Wisconsin before Brett Favre delivered the Packers their first “Lombardi Trophy” in Super Bowl XXXI. A group of friends met graveside for a pre-game toast last February—they had no allegiance to either the Patriots or the Seahawks, though they may have had money riding on the outcome. Many a local sports team has taken a field trip here before playing a big tournament or game.
The fact that, 45 years after his death, Lombardi still has this kind of draw is fascinating. There have been other coaches, in other sports, with similarly remarkable runs of success. Bear Bryant. John Wooden. Casey Stengel.
“And they’re all iconic figures, but in comparison to Lombardi, it’s almost like they’re shrinking violets, you know?” says Christl, who began covering the team in the 1970s after Lombardi’s death. “And I don’t know how to explain it. What other sports figure has had that kind of legacy where so long after he has passed people still talk about him constantly? The only one I can think of is Babe Ruth. And I’m not ever sure of that. He’s been gone a lot longer than Lombardi, and maybe that explains why, but he certainly doesn’t command the attention today that Lombardi does. I don’t think anybody does.”
Part of the mystique is that Lombardi left this earth too early. The greatest American myths, Maraniss observes, surround the people who die young: JFK. Elvis. Marilyn Monroe. Lombardi wasn’t as young, but he was only 57 when he passed. He had only been a head coach in the NFL for a decade, brief by today’s standards, but distinguished by this flurry of success. He died when he was still a coach, at his peak, taken away before the decline we often see legends endure.
And then there is the fact that Lombardi worked his way up to greatness, something that resonates in American culture. Much of his climb took place while he was living in New Jersey, which (despite him being a Brooklyn native) makes it appropriate that he was laid to rest here. His first coaching job was at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, where he taught chemistry, physics and Latin, and coached football and even basketball, which he had never played—anything to support his wife, Marie, and their two kids. One of his star basketball players was Mickey Corcoran, who would later coach Bill Parcells, who would mentor Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin—all of whom won his eponymous trophy with teams built just like his, on a bedrock of discipline.
When Lombardi was an assistant coach with the Giants, living in Fair Haven, N.J., that’s when he and Marie made the decision that they would be laid to rest in this Catholic cemetery in nearby Middletown. Lombardi held the coaching position equivalent to today’s offensive coordinator job with the Giants for five seasons, into his mid-40s. He was frustrated during that time, almost quitting to work as a banker, Maraniss says, because he felt he was being passed over for head coaching jobs based of the stereotype that he was an “emotional Italian.” By the time he got the Packers job in 1959, he’d been smoldering for the opportunity for so long that he was completely ready—but the rest of the NFL was not.
He didn’t know that he was working on borrowed time, against the cancer that would claim his life, but he sure coached like it. When he died, at the beginning of his favorite season, football season, legend has it that mourners lined Fifth Avenue in New York after his funeral at St. Patrick’s, and down the New Jersey Turnpike for the procession to the cemetery, and that kids were hanging in the trees all down Chapel Hill Road. Marie Lombardi purchased four plots that year, for $460—Vince’s father joined him in the cemetery the following year, then his mother the year after that, then Marie in 1982.
And from that point on, everyone laid to rest in Mount Olivet Cemetery since 1849 is said to be buried “near Lombardi”—whether they are really near his grave or not.
A few years ago, Lombardi’s daughter, Susan, was in talks with the cemetery to erect a trio of black granite monuments, at a triangle in the road just up the hill from Section 30—one with his image, one with a synopsis of his ties to New Jersey and one with some of his most famous quotes. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. But the family didn’t see the plans through. And in a way, maybe that’s the way it should be.
For all his brilliance as a coach, Lombardi wasn’t about the frills. He’d run the power sweep over, and over, if he knew he’d beat you with it.
“Your first question, ‘Why there?’ I sort of ask that myself,” says Maraniss, who visited the grave twice while researching his biography. “Because he is such a huge figure. And you’d think he’d be in some more accessible place that had some closer connection to who he was, either Green Bay, or maybe Arlington Cemetery because he died in Washington.”
“But I think it is sort of fitting. Both times I was moved when I was there and the simplicity was part of that. Because in the end, he was a pretty simple man. There is none of the grandiosity of the Super Bowl in that gravesite.”
During the next two weeks, Cardoza expects to see Panthers and Broncos insignia laid at the gravesite. It happens every Super Bowl. And on Monday, Cardoza even sought some of the Lombardi magic himself. He laid on top of the tombstone his 12-year-old son’s basketball jersey, in the hopes that St. James can win like Lombardi did in the upcoming parochial league playoffs.
“Everyone wants that little bit of luck,” he says with a shrug.
Life on the Road
Compiled by Kalyn Kahler, John DePetro and Gary Gramling
After paying our respects to Vince Lombardi, we headed west 400 or so miles to Pittsburgh—with a brief detour off the TURN-PIKE (as the signs say) for a Panera that GPS could not track down (and one with the following note: “Unfortunately due to the blizzard we have limited bread and bagel options. We apologize for any inconvenience”). After an evening arrival in Pittsburgh, dinner was a no-brainer.
Our server Kelly (who’s usually behind the bar at the Clairton Blvd. location) became the first person to ask why we were constantly photographing a bobblehead at our table. We got her to share something of a Super Bowl prediction.
“Well, I don’t watch a lot of football. I really like Peyton Manning. But I like the Panthers too, I think they’re good people… Wait, is this going to end up all over the internet?”
All over the internet? No. On the internet? Yes.
A different kind of fare was on the menu for a rainy Tuesday morning, as we met up with a Steelers great who is in a different line of work before bidding adieu to the ’Burgh. Kalyn Kahler will have that story up on Wednesday.