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Sunday, January 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Evincing the Lombardi legend

Seattle Times staff reporter

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BELLEVUE - People see the glint and they stare. And this is what the man hates: the attention. Because attention means questions and with the questions come the old demands for stories and the stories are not about the man but something far larger and mythic, something we can't grasp, something we can't let go, something that has been gone for 30 years.

But something we expect the man to give because he wears a giant golden cube on his finger and the gold shimmers in the light.

Three sparkling diamonds in a row and the heavy block letters that spell "Green Bay Packers."

"What is that?" they ask.

"Super Bowl II ring, three diamonds for three straight championships," the man always responds abruptly as if the reply itself should be enough.

"Really? Wow! Who are you?"

"Um, Vince Lombardi."

It's a blessing and a curse, toting the most famous football name though life, opening doors and earning big sunny smiles and rock-solid handshakes. But it comes with a price - a price of self, a price of identity as if the name itself is a conduit to the old man, to the simple days of football, when a gap-toothed, black-spectacled, granite head stood as the symbol of all that was right in sports.

Vince Lombardi Jr. stares blankly forward and slowly shakes his head.

"I'm not comfortable with that," he says just days before the annual playing of the game that made his father legendary. "I've spent my whole life trying to put distance from that, trying to let people see who I am, not who Vince Lombardi thinks I should be."

Then he pauses, because the life he has finally chosen here in Bellevue at nearly 60 years old, with gray playing at the edges of his own granite skull, is one of speaking. A life of spreading the word his father once sprinkled around his players and into the hearts of millions of Americans. And the only reason people pay him handsomely to talk is because of the name.

"I wouldn't be doing what I am doing - being a professional speaker - if it wasn't for that," he says. "I guess if it bothered me that much, I shouldn't be doing it. But you know, a lot of dad's players said I have a duty to pass on what he said."

So he goes through the routine, the tie with the drawings of football players, the blue blazer and the great, golden cube on his ring finger, giving them Vince because that's what they say they all want. They want the name. They want something of the Old Man.

This afternoon, if he happens to be near a television, he might see them hand the shimmering silver trophy named for his father to the winner of today's Super Bowl. Once this was a regular event for Vince Jr., but as the years have gone on, he's found less reason to want to go. Not even this time, with the New York Giants - the team of his youth, the one for which his father was a longtime assistant coach - playing for the championship.

Strangely, no one has called to invite him to speak at a Super Bowl gathering. This strikes him as odd because the requests to talk to banks and insurance companies and high-tech user corporations could keep him busy more than 100 days a year if he so desired. And when he was younger, they often did.

But it is just as well nobody calls because enough others do to keep him away from this life he has tried to create tucked up here in the corner of the country, in a rambling home near the Lake Washington waterfront. It is a place where he can be himself, where he and his wife Jill can join a prayer group and the people know him just as "Vince" with no connection to the last name that makes grown men gasp and leaves everyone so breathless. Because sooner or later someone's going to try and pull him away and back into the past.

Last year he wrote a book. It started as something he wanted to publish and sell himself, a mixture of some of his ideas combined with some of his father's sayings. A management book, carrying the name of Vince Lombardi but told in Vince Jr.'s voice.

"People would say, `Hey I liked that poem you had' and I'd be able to say, It's in the book,' " Vince Jr. says.

Then an agent called. The agent had found a big publisher and the first thing the publisher did was look at the book and tell Vince Jr. to remove all of himself from the pages. Make it about the Old Man, it's his ideas people want to read.

The publishers and Vince Jr. fought over that. At one point, Vince even pounded out a letter that has been framed and hung on his agent's wall. In it, he vowed to pull the manuscript if the book company persisted in purging out all of his ideas. In the end, the book company won out.

So he is sitting here last week, at the University Bookstore in downtown Bellevue, and he is surrounded by stacks of his book clad in the green and yellow jacket - Packer colors - and a huge photo of his father squinting down from the cover.

Even the title, "What it Takes to be No. 1, Vince Lombardi on Leadership," smacks of the Old Man. Nothing about the son who put it together.

Vince Jr. has come here to speak, to sell the book. Yet it's hard to go out and peddle something that isn't completely his. It's almost as if this has become a contest to him, a joust to see who was right - he or the book company.

"I'm not unhappy with it," he says of the book, "but I guess in the end, the proof will be in the pudding."

He knows the burdens that come with the name. That lesson came early, back when he was a junior in high school and Vince Sr. left his longtime job as an assistant to become the coach of the Packers. At his introductory press conference in Green Bay, the third question was, "What high school is your son going to attend?"

In the Green Bay papers, Vince Jr. was a strapping 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds and an all-state athlete back in New Jersey. In reality, he stood under 6 feet and was all-county.

The son wasn't even sure he really wanted to play football, but what could he do? His name was Vince Lombardi and being Vince Lombardi and not playing football? Well, it just wouldn't look right.

He marched on through high school and college, playing the game as his father's legend grew larger and larger. He wound up at a small school in St. Paul, Minn., called the College of St. Thomas, and there he played in relative anonymity, met the woman who would become his wife and tried to settle into life as the man with Vince Lombardi's name.

It became a nomadic quest, taking him from law school to law firms in Washington, D.C., and Minnesota and eventually to a stint in the Minnesota state legislature. The strange thing was this was all more Vince Sr.'s idea than Vince Jr's. The son actually wanted to be around football - even if he didn't necessarily want to play it when he was younger.

Grudgingly, Vince Jr. went along.

"I was accepted in football," he says. "In the other fields, it was, `Oh, he's Vince Lombardi's son.' But in football the name was already accepted. People would say, `Vince Lombardi? Oh, yeah, that makes sense that you'd be in football.'

"For me, it was the path of least resistance."

Lombardi Jr. was an original Seahawk, a front-office executive when Seattle's NFL expansion team sprang to life in 1976. Eventually, he left the Seahawks to become a negotiator for the owners in the 1982 NFL strike, winning one of the few victories a sports league has ever had over a group of athletes. He left to become an executive in the USFL, helping to run the Michigan and Oakland teams until the reckless nature in which people were losing jobs in the struggling league bothered him so much that he left.

He came back to Bellevue, where he came to learn he could mix the words of his father with his own experiences and become a motivational speaker.

"I think you learn to deal with all that stuff eventually," he says, sitting in a row of chairs set up for his book signing. "Most of (the Vince Lombardi) stuff is self-generated. You get a little older and then have kids and it doesn't seem that important.

"You know people are interested in what you say when they meet you."

His face brightens and he thrusts out his hand. "If you say, `HI, I'M VINCE LOMBARDI!' they'll say, `Oh, he's full of himself.' "

Now he drops his head, holds his hand over his mouth and mumbles. "If you go like this and say, `Hi, I'm Vince Lombardi,' people are going to say, `Oh, he's nothing like his old man.' "

Vince throws up his arms.

"You can't win."

After more than half a lifetime of trying to lower his voice and hide in the background, Vince Jr. has learned the futility of ducking the great identity.

In recent years, he's done things that he might not have done before. He granted several interviews to David Maraniss, the renowned biographer who was working on a book on Vince Sr. In those conversations he painted his childhood family as a dysfunctional one - led by a man whose consumption with football and winning left the others struggling for his attention and approval.

Looking back, Vince Jr. calls the interviews a "cathartic" experience. "It was good to get that stuff out," he says. "Whatever my father had, I had in spades. Sometimes you feel better letting it out."

The fact is, before a group, as himself, Vince Jr. is terrific. The gathering this night at the bookstore is small - just Jill, their son also named Vincent and Vincent's children (one of whom is coincidentally named Vincent), a couple of friends and a man with a scrapbook of old New York Giants photos. Vince Jr. sees no need to talk for more than a few minutes.

But in the brief time he speaks about leadership and commitment, spilling out the old man's mantras about giving yourself fully to a task, he is captivating. Booming his words for emphasis and moving his hands to illustrate his words. Strangely, he refers to his father in the third person as in "Lombardi is 100-percent effort 100 percent of the time," in a sense detaching himself from the name he carries and has come to represent.

"People have told me, `Put more of your father in your speeches,' " he says later. "You have to give them what they want. In an hour speech I will talk about my dad for 5 or 10 minutes. Basically it's how it is. It's my lot in life. I'll do the best I can. You know, I still feel a duty to define my dad to some people.

"Hey, I'm not changing lives, but I'm doing some good. If I can give some ideas that people can take away, so be it. That's fine."

When the talk is over, the group breaks up. Vince Jr.'s grandchildren are tugging him away, begging him to look at some books on trains. His eyes sparkle, his voice comes alive. "Let's go!" he says, and off they ramble to the other side of the store - the three direct heirs of the Vince Lombardi legacy standing together in the children's section of the bookstore like a football House of Stuart.

Jill watches them and sighs.

"I think it's hard for a lot of other people to understand, but when his father was famous and coaching, we were just us," she says. "It was just our little family."

Not the carriers of the great name.

Just a few moments before, the man with the New York Giants scrapbook had a question. And it was the question Vince Jr. gets every day. The question everybody wants to ask the person who grew up as Vince Lombardi.

What was it like?

Vince Jr. speaks for a moment about the struggle, about the fight to find an identity, then he smiles.

"I'm 58," he says. "So if I haven't figured it out, well. ... "

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