In 1955, Fordham dropped football. I was the quarterback on the freshman football team and likely would have been a three-year starter had they not ended the sport.
Vince Lombardi, a Fordham graduate, had just finished his first year as the backfield coach of the New York Giants after serving as an assistant coach to Colonel Earl “Red” Blaik at West Point.
The Saturday after the announcement of Fordham discontinuing football, Lombardi asked me to go with him to West Point to look it over and mingle with the cadets to see if I’d like to go there.
Vince assured me he’d have no trouble securing a Congressional appointment for me, something all aspirants must procure prior to being admitted.
Everything about Coach Lombardi that day exuded confidence and leadership.
I spent the day touring the campus, the stadium, the mess hall during lunch when 2,000 cadets were all eating together, and going to a hockey game.
I was escorted by assistant coach Paul Dietzel who four years later would lead LSU and their “Chinese Bandits,” as they were called, to the national championship.
Coach Dietzel spoke of having seen the Fordham-Army freshman football game a few months before. He remarked that if I chose to come to the Academy, I’d be playing with some of the best players in the country.
There was a noticeable singleness of purpose all over the grounds. Military drilling was taking place with extreme coordination the goal. I was not new to this regimen as I had spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania after high school. Nonetheless, the entire aura of West Point was present everywhere.
We went to meet Coach Blaik in his office and I couldn’t get over his resemblance in manner and speech to his idol, General Douglas MacArthur, a true American hero of WW II.
So loyal was Blaik to MacArthur, the coach had his offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, make the round trip each Sunday from West Point to the General’s residence at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan to narrate the previous day’s game film to MacArthur.
On our drive home, Vince asked, “Well, Jim, what do you think?”
One of the few who ever said no to Coach Lombardi, I told him after having attended military school, I wanted a traditional campus experience.
With Vince’s help, within a week, I left for the University of Minnesota, a move I’ve never regretted, where a group of great receivers enabled us to break the Gopher single game passing record at the time.
Graduation from West Point required a five year commitment on active duty as a Second Lieutenant. That stint would have landed me in the middle of the Vietnam war, leading a platoon into battle.
According to Department of Defense records, half of the men holding the rank of Second Lieutenant were killed in action serving in Vietnam.
Over the decades, I’ve often thought, but for a single word to Lombardi, I too might have joined that long list of heroic West Point graduates who so honorably served our country in battle and truly gave their last ounce of courage for our country’s well being. I have seen the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington. I will never forget the feeling of sorrow I felt standing and staring at those engraved names.