While playing one season for the Wilmington Clippers, he got his first taste of coaching at Salesianum

By Bob Yearick

Vince Lombardi was an assistant coach for the Salesianum football team during the 1937 season. 

Yes, that Vince Lombardi — the one whose name is on the trophy awarded to the Super Bowl winner.

You say you’ve never before heard that bit of history? Not surprising. 

Over the years, two Wilmington journalists — Matt Zabitka and Bill Frank — mentioned the Lombardi-Sallies connection in passing, but it seems that no one in the media has ever done a deep dive into the story. 

Zabitka specialized in doing local sports features during a Wilmington News Journal career that spanned four decades (1962 to 2002). In the early ‘60s, he wrote a 200-word piece about Lombardi having played for the Wilmington Clippers, the local semi-pro team. At the end of the story, Zabitka quoted Dim Montero, a legendary Sallies graduate who was a lineman on the 1937 team: “Lombardi stopped out at the [Sallies practice] field every chance he got.”

Frank, a News Journal columnist and Delaware media fixture for more than 60 years until his death in 1989, made a brief reference to the Lombardi connection once, characterizing it as “a legend.” Then again, Frank, who focused on politics and societal problems in his column, admitted in the same piece that he didn’t “know a fullback from a quarterback.”

So here’s the story, pieced together from various sources, sans any actual eyewitness accounts, since anyone who might have recalled seeing Lombardi on the Sallies bench is no longer alive.

Not Yet LOMBARDI

First, understand that in 1937 Lombardi was not yet LOMBARDI. He was just a tough kid from Brooklyn who had been an undersized guard on Fordham University’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” — the offensive line that led the Rams to a 5-1-2 record in 1936 under the tutelage of Jim Crowley. (Crowley himself had been immortalized as one of Grantland Rice’s “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.”) 

When Lombardi graduated from the New York City school the following spring, he was merely another young man facing an uncertain future. He had considered — and soon rejected — the idea of becoming a priest, and now his demanding father was encouraging him to enter law school.

This photo shows Lombardi (left) on the Salesianum bench, Head Coach Mike McCall (right). McCall was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. Top photo courtesy of Maribeth Di Pinto Moss (granddaughter of Mike McCall) via John Morabito.

But Lombardi loved football, and he wasn’t ready to stop playing the game quite yet. That desire brought him to Wilmington, where Lammot du Pont Jr., a sports enthusiast, had just founded the Clippers. (The team played from 1937 to 1942, took a war-time break, and came back from 1946 to 1949.)

Lombardi managed to get a tryout, and was signed as a back-up guard. At Fordham, he appeared in programs as 5-8 and 180 pounds, but on the (unvetted) Clippers roster he’s listed at a generous 5-11, 198. Wearing number 18, he played eight games, starting four, while the Clippers completed an inaugural 5-4 season, losing to two NFL teams — the Philadelphia Eagles, 14-6, and the New York Giants, 19-0.

The Clippers’ top players reportedly were paid $100 a game. Lombardi’s paycheck, without a doubt, was much less. So, even in the midst of the Great Depression, he needed to live frugally while securing another means of income. 

Ed Hynes, class of 1960, is something of a Sallies historian, and his research shows that Lombardi and Clippers teammate Bill Christopher, a quarterback out of Villanova, probably roomed together, perhaps in the St. Anthony’s neighborhood. Hynes believes Christopher and Lombardi met when they played with the Eastern All-Stars against the Eagles in Shibe Park after the 1936 season. 

Finding Work

Hynes says the Clippers practiced at UD’s Frazier Field in the evening, leaving afternoons free for players to work other jobs. 

Sources vary as to where Lombardi found employment. Wikipedia claims he was a debt collector for a local collection agency (Husky, short-tempered football player with Brooklyn accent demands payment — now! adds a colorful touch to the narrative.) 

Another story has him working at Pusey and Jones Corp., a major shipbuilder and industrial-equipment manufacturer based in Wilmington from 1848 to 1959. The company built more than 500 ships, from large cargo vessels to small warships and yachts, including Volunteer, the winner of the 1887 America’s Cup.

In the Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, author David Maraniss mentions DuPont as a possible employer while dismissing his subject’s time in Wilmington in less than two sentences: “. . . he made one brief and futile effort to get away [from his parents’ home] by venturing down to Delaware to play for the Wilmington Clippers . . He apparently worked temporarily in a research lab for DuPont during his time in Wilmington, though the company has no personnel records establishing employment there.” Maraniss does not mention Salesianum.

Lombardi working at DuPont seems plausible, since a du Pont family member owned the Clippers, and Mike McCall worked at DuPont.

Ah, yes, Mike McCall — the Salesianum connection.

Francis J. “Mike” McCall played football and basketball at Sallies from 1921-24, and went on to star in those sports while earning a degree in chemistry at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. In 1932, he returned to Sallies as head football coach. The first non-teacher to hold that job, McCall worked the midnight-to-eight shift at the DuPont Experimental Station during football seasons.

Winning with 13 Players

McCall enjoyed a stellar 40-year career at DuPont, retiring in 1971. He died in 1975, and was elected to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. He coached Sallies for seven years, compiling a record of 41 wins, 18 losses and 4 ties against the much larger schools in the Philadelphia Catholic league. During the 1935 season, his team of 13 players was co-champion of the league.  

Hynes says Sallies practiced at Rockford Park and played most of their home games at Pennsy Field, which was located roughly where I-95 it crosses Concord Pike. Wilmington High also played there, and CYO track meets were held there. 

It seems natural for Lombardi, a devout Roman Catholic, to gravitate to the local Catholic school that was also a football juggernaut. And one can only imagine that McCall would readily accept coaching assistance from the young, bespectacled former member of the Seven Blocks of Granite.  

Oddly, the 1938 yearbook, which would have chronicled the ’37 football season, is missing from Salesianum archives. Director of Alumni Affairs Joe Rapposelli says he has all the other yearbooks dating back to 1923. It would have been interesting to see if the Clippers back-up guard was mentioned as a member of the coaching staff. 

Lombardi lasted just one season with the Clippers, and with Sallies. In Zabitka’s story, a Clippers teammate, Ted Godwin, said: “Lombardi was a fierce competitor but nothing really outstanding. He couldn’t beat out his competition, a couple of ex-Giants — Pottsville Jones and Bernie Kaplan.”

Lombardi left Wilmington, and the next year, acceding to his father’s wishes, enrolled in Fordham law school. But he dropped out after one semester, got married, and answered the siren call of the gridiron, becoming an assistant football coach and teacher of Latin, chemistry and physics at St. Cecilia’s High School in Englewood, N. J.

In 1942, he became head coach at the school. The following year, St. Cecilia’s beat Brooklyn Prep, a highly touted program that happened to be quarterbacked by Joe Paterno. In six years as head coach, Lombardi won 32 straight games and six private school championships.

His career of course took off from there, eventually landing him in the NFL, first as an assistant with the Giants, then as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, where he won five league championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in seven years. He succumbed to intestinal cancer in 1970, at 57.

The Lombardi legend may have blossomed in Green Bay, but the seeds were planted in Wilmington, at Salesianum.

— Special thanks to John Morabito for his assistance in researching this story.

Bob Yearick
The copy editor of Out & About, Bob Yearick retired from DuPont in 2000 after 34 years as an editor and writer. Since “retiring,” Bob has written articles for Delaware Today, Main Line Today and other publications. His sports/suspense novel, Sawyer, was published in 2007. His grammar column, “The War on Words,” is one of the most popular features in O&A. A compilation of the columns was published in 2011. He has won the Out & About short story contest as well as many awards in the annual Delaware Press Association writing contest.

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