Vince Lombardi lived here

Four decades later, the iconic coach's home is still at the center of myth and reality

Updated: February 3, 2011, 11:22 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Lombardi HouseRoss Dettman for ESPN.comThe house on Sunset Circle looks simple. Four bedrooms. A dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a den. When Lombardi built it, because coaches weren't paid like they are today, it was what he and his wife, Marie, could afford.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A minor religion has sprung up around the modest brick house at 667 Sunset Circle. It has nothing to do with the family that's lived there for the past four decades, and little to do with the football coach who lived there before them, at least not with the actual man. That doesn't matter. Religions have always been more about faith than facts, and so pilgrims have driven past since the Gehrings first bought the house in 1969, slowing to genuflect as they approach, sometimes stopping to plead for a tour of this holy place.

Like this car, the one turning onto the street now, also slowing, also easing to a stop. Among the middle-aged women inside, a debate rages. One woman begs her friend to knock on the door, to go inside as she has thousands of times before. The woman even tries to pull her friend out of the car.

But Susan Lombardi can't bring herself to walk up to the house.

She cannot take the dozen or so steps to the porch of her childhood home. When she looks at the front door, she doesn't see the legend that's sprung up since her daddy died. She remembers what actually happened, the good and the bad, and she shudders at some memories and smiles at others. The house is just too … too real for her. Still, her friends egg her on.

"Go knock," they tell her.

"I can't," she says.

The pilgrims

Vince Lombardi's daughter is one of the few people on earth who hears his name and pictures a human being. For most, he's an idea and an ideal, a figure frozen in bronze. Sunday, fans posed for pictures with the enormous Lombardi monument outside Lambeau Field. Usually, the phrase "life-sized" denotes something special. As in: This man was so important, we made a statue in his exact image. But life-sized apparently isn't big enough for football's most celebrated and worshipped coach. The bronze Lombardi is almost three actual Lombardis tall.

Inside the stadium, others browsed the Packers Hall of Fame. On the left is the Lombardi exhibit, featuring his office, the wooden desk; his chair green, the others yellow. His famous sayings in big letters cover the walls. The story of his life can be nicely summed up by this one: Lombardi was more than a football coach; he was a man who set an example of how to live.

For many, he is all that -- and only that -- which is why they drive past his house, where they imagine his values would be most clearly on display. Lombardi preached a gospel of hard work, commitment, tradition, glory. God, family, the Green Bay Packers. He lamented that society had sympathy only for the losers, the maladjusted, the misfits. This stark simplicity draws people to him, people who long for a simpler time, which may or may not have actually existed. Which is why, on this glorious Sunday, only seven days from the Packers' fifth appearance in America's premier sporting event, a fan named Paul Manderfield, from Appleton, studied the exhibits, particularly Lombardi's lament about the changing world. It is time to stand up for the doer, the achiever, the one who sets out to do something and does it.

"It's true," he said. "Society has become so pathetic. We're catering to the criminals."

So Lombardi is an ethos now, not a flesh-and-blood man but a trophy, a museum, a rest stop off the turnpike, a framed quotation on the wall of a regional vice president of sales, a saint. Winning is the only thing, and the name Lombardi is a synonym for tough.

That he is uncanonized fazes exactly nobody. The devoted follow his ghost to St. Willebrord's, near the Packers' old office, where the man himself attended Mass every morning. Three or four months ago, a follower approached Rev. Ken De Groot and asked "Where did Lombardi sit?" De Groot pointed -- a best guess, really -- and the man asked "Will you take a picture of me sitting in that pew?"

"I don't pretend to understand it," Vince Lombardi Jr. says. "It was a long time ago. I don't understand it."

It's not so strange, really. When someone dies, we look for them. We look at the things they touched, and the places they went. We look for fathers and mothers, for lovers and friends. We forget the bad, distill the good. Sometimes, every so often, the departed become patron saints. That makes us pilgrims. Those searching for courage walk battlefields. Those looking for inspiration follow Hemingway around the globe, from Paris to Key West to Cuba. Those looking for grace stand on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And for more than four decades, people looking for traces of the faded '50s have come to 667 Sunset Circle, looking for something they believe has been lost.

They find the address on the Internet, or by asking someone around town. They head east over the Fox River from Lambeau Field before swinging around onto Riverside Drive. They follow Lombardi's own commute home at night. He usually left work close to midnight. He'd see the lights of the paper mill on the river and smile to himself, glad that he wasn't the only madman working. They see the lights, too, all these years later, the big machines spitting out toilet paper and towels. They finally turn on Sunset Circle, slowing in front of the second house on the right.

They are looking for Lombardi.

They find Katie Gehring.

Graciously sharing their home with zealots

[+] EnlargeKatie and Andy Gehring
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comAndy and Katie Gehring live in the old coach's house, and they've been good sports about it ever since they moved in. Andy made sure his mom had on lipstick, and that it was straight and blotted, before posing for this picture.

Katie is 84, with a shock of white hair she jokingly blames on her children. She's got a big smile and a sore hip. She likes the occasional Jack Daniel's with a splash of water -- "don't drown Jack" -- and she loves to tell strangers how sweet her son Andy is to her. She repeats herself, but just a little. She still remembers the Sunday night when she and her husband John visited the house, and how Lombardi took a shine to her son Guy because he was an altar boy. Marie Lombardi cooked a pork chop as the men talked. John Gehring made an offer. The coach accepted.

She understands the coach's immigrant hunger. In her living room, in Lombardi's old living room, where the fireplace is as it was when the home was built in 1959, she points to a wicker basket atop an armoire. It's a little bigger than a football helmet. That, she says, is what her grandmother brought over on the boat from France in 1870, her belongings in its tiny belly. Steerage, Katie says with pride. From that basket to this home, paid for by John, a psychiatrist who died 11 years ago.

"I can't ever remember him raising his voice to me," she says sitting at her kitchen table. "He was a peach. I lost him so fast."

Four decades have passed since she started a life here. Lots of joy and lots of sorrow. The rooms are home to her memories, not those of a long-dead football coach. The den downstairs, in her mind, isn't Lombardi's famous man cave; it's where her son, Guy, fell a year or so ago and hit his head. He died as he was born, in his mother's arms.

"I buried a husband and two sons from this house," she says.

Several days after Guy died, Brett Favre returned to Green Bay as a Minnesota Viking, to play at Lambeau Field for the first time as the enemy. Tens of thousands arrived for the game and, like clockwork, one of then drove slowly down Sunset Circle, looking at the numbers.

[+] EnlargeLombardi House
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comThe living room looks much the same, a 1950s time machine, and the Gehrings have pictures of the Lombardis in front of the fireplace.

This pilgrim stopped at a house on the street -- the wrong house, it turned out -- and asked if it was where Vince Lombardi once lived. The neighbor told him no, that was next door, and would he please not disturb the people who lived there now. They'd just had a death in the family. But the man had come on a quest, a mission almost religious in its fervor. He hurried to the Gehrings' house and, untroubled by their misfortune, rang the bell.

This worship is nothing new. The visitors started coming soon after the Gehrings moved in. One morning long ago, as Katie started the coffee, wearing a robe, she saw a man peering in through the window. After that, she always wore a robe around in the morning, just in case. Over the years, the family has gotten used to the lack of privacy. Once, a man lined up about 10 children on the porch for a picture. Another time, a bunch of college students piled out of a van, slammed beers and played football in the yard. Two different people have eaten Thanksgiving dinner with the Gehrings after stopping to pay respects.

"It's our home," Katie says, "but I have a hard time being rude to people."

Over the years, the house has changed some. The Gehrings have added a pool. The kitchen is new. When they moved in, Marie had her walls covered in thick white-and-yellow stripes with sunflowers on them.

"She had the darndest wallpaper," Katie says, laughing. "I wasn't too fond of the wallpaper."

But some of the house is exactly the same. The television room has the original wood paneling and view of the screened-in porch. This is why people come, fathers from Oklahoma and famous announcers alike.

"Andy, who was that man?" Katie asks.

"John Madden," he says.

When it comes to worshipping at the altar of Lombardi, Madden is just one of the madding crowd. When the Packers were in the Super Bowl with Favre, he came to broadcast from the house. In his wake: two semis and the Madden Cruiser. Madden told the Gehrings, "If you ever want to sell the house, call me."

Madden liked all of the house, sure, but one room called to him most insistently. He walked through the kitchen, took a left, then a quick right, and hurried down the stairs to the basement, the famous rec room, where Lombardi set up his projector, where he mixed Cutty Sark and water for friends after games.

Lombardi HouseRoss Dettman for ESPN.comThis bar was Lombardi's home. He'd light a Salem, mix a drink, mix drinks for others, put his arm on the bar, relax for a few hours before preparations for the next game began. Marie could always tell just by looking at him if he'd checked out already.

This is where the myth still lives

If you walk down the stairs, you'll feel it. Most of the room is filled with 40 years of the Gehrings. But the right corner, the first thing in view, is unchanged. The swinging saloon doors are propped open. The bar has a modern '50s slant. The air feels heavy with something. The turquoise-backed stools are the originals. The chrome handle remains on Lombardi's yellow fridge, tucked into the small closet. The lime-green beer opener is still bolted to the bar, veins of rust running along its edges. The sink, the shelves, the view, Lombardi's view, out into the rest of the room -- all as they were. You can almost see the men in ties, the women in dresses, the crowd moving in circles, everyone angling for a moment with the coach. The view itself is the only thing that's different today: a foosball table, a Beatles poster, a beautiful set of Pearl drums with the Purple Craze factory paint job, two electric guitars. The universe has a wicked sense of humor, doesn't it? These days Andy Gehring, pumping a double bass pedal, plays loud rock 'n' roll in Vince Lombardi's basement.

The drums and guitars notwithstanding, you can almost hear the clinking ice and the laughter, smell the smoke. David Maraniss, who wrote the spectacular Lombardi biography "When Pride Still Mattered," remembers the first time he walked down the stairs. "I could literally feel his ghost," he says, "laughing, drinking, trying to tell a joke after a home win."

[+] EnlargeLombardi House
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comThe details are what make this room come alive. This refrigerator, with its graceful curves and silver handle, is the same one that kept Lombardi's beer cold. It still works.

Lombardi poured drinks, cackled at anything funny, performed magic tricks. Marie would serve her famous crab dip, the cigarette smoke thick against the low ceilings. "He'd walk in with a big smile," Susan Lombardi says. "Win or lose. He never came in with a grumpy face. He'd go behind the bar. 'Well, everybody got a drink?'"

The basement was where President Kennedy called Lombardi to congratulate him after the 1961 NFL championship. This is where the coach gathered to celebrate victory and mourn defeat, the only place most people ever saw him relax, if even for just a few hours.

Maraniss recounted another moment, after Lombardi had coached his last game for the Packers, about a year before he'd move out of this house. Something, as Maraniss wrote, was ending. The NFL Films people had just shown their movie about the Ice Bowl, ending with the God-like voice of John Facenda proclaiming: "They will be remembered as the faces of victory. They will be remembered for their coach, whose iron discipline was the foundation on which they built a fortress. And, most of all, they will be remembered as a group of men who faced the greatest challenge their sport has ever produced -- and conquered."

As the film ran out, nobody moved. It was as if they knew that something would be forever lost when those lights came on. Lombardi, the very embodiment of machismo, sat there in the dark, crying. Can you imagine it?

Now Lombardi's gone. The projector is gone. Andy Gehring is standing by the bar. His drums are purple. The Gibson is shining. The Beatles poster is on the wall. John, George, Ringo and Paul. The '50s? Gone.

Lombardi HouseRoss Dettman for ESPN.comThe house is full of little reminders of their connection to the famous coach.

Nothing is ever simple

But the house is more than a rec room, and Lombardi is more than a symbol for long-gone work ethic and virtue. A man lived in this house -- a great, difficult, funny, angry man; someone who loved his family but let football take him away from them time and again; who drove his daughter to school but was so engrossed in the next practice, the next game, the next season, that he sometimes drove right past, Susan calling out the refrain of her childhood: "Don't forget me!"

In reality, the house was a dark place, with narrow halls, that felt empty when he wasn't there. When he was, it felt tense. Marie drank -- and more -- to deal with the pain. Twice, she combined booze with painkillers in this house and had to be rushed to the hospital. The inside joke about "Run to Daylight," Lombardi's bio as told to the great W.C. Heinz, was that a more accurate title would be "Shut up, Marie!"

"'Goddamnit Marie,'" says Pat Cochran, the widow of Lombardi's backfield coach, Red. "That was always her name. 'Goddamnit Marie.'"

The children felt the sting, too. Susan heard her mother call her fat in this house. Vince Jr. once punched his father outside this house. They spent tense dinners here, as Maraniss detailed, everyone waiting for Vince to open his mouth, circling for crumbs of approval, rising in anticipation when he spoke, sinking back again when he asked for more potatoes. Lombardi knew every detail about every one of his players, but he never watched his son's high school games.

"The Lombardis never should have had children," Cochran says. "He always had his mind on the damn football."

But it wasn't that simple. It never is.

"I don't know how I can explain Vince," Cochran continues. "There was more than one Vince. He had the most wonderful laugh."

[+] EnlargeVince Lombardi statue
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comThe statue of Lombardi is almost three times the size of the actual Lombardi, big enough to make people forget the towering coach was just 5-foot-8.

Yes, there are good memories here, too. Ask Vince Jr. about the rec room and a projector, and he doesn't tell you about the Ice Bowl. He recalls the time he sat with his father and they actually watched a film of one of Vince Jr.'s college games. Even years later, Vince Jr. treasures the moment. Susan still remembers the safe way to sneak back in the house past curfew and not get caught; if you put your back up against the ovens, and walked softly, you missed the board that creaked loud enough to wake Dad. She remembers how dates were afraid to pick her up. Both kids recall the parties when the folks were out of town -- especially the rager thrown by Susan and discovered by Vince and Marie. "You have no idea how busted I got," Susan says, laughing.

Lombardi loved to sit in the television room, in his big chair, and watch "McHale's Navy." He'd roar, his cackling filling the house with joy just as his stern gaze filled it with anxiety.

"I have a million funny stories about my dad in that house that nobody knows about," Susan says. "Everybody thought he was this grumpy old man who did nothing but yell and scream -- and don't misunderstand me, I have heard the wrath, more times than I'd like to remember. Until after he died, I didn't think my father knew anything. Then my mother spilt the beans. 'He knew everything you did.' I went, 'What?' 'He knew where you went drinking. He knew you always pushed the clock.'"

Every morning, in the master bedroom at the front of the house, Lombardi offered a prayer before statues of the patron saints of loss and of hopeless causes. This was a window into the man who supposedly said winning is the only thing: The fear of losing drove him. A good Catholic, indeed. Fear and guilt. His daily attendance at Mass, like his prayers, seemed to be an attempt to atone not for a particular sin but for being himself, for doing the things it took to win. If his office at the Packers Hall of Fame is a shrine to his greatest successes, an astonishing five titles in nine years, then 667 Sunset Circle is, ironically, a shrine to his greatest failure. He worked himself to death in this house, passing away just 11 years after becoming a head coach. He failed as a husband and a father in this house, even as he seemed to realize it as it was happening. He once, Maraniss wrote, confided to a friend, "You know what? I was a terrible father."

In 1968, the Lombardis moved to Washington, D.C. They sold the house, loaded everything into moving vans. Susan wept as the movers went about their business.

"I kept asking, 'Why?'" she says.

They headed back east. Soon, Lombardi was dead. Marie moved to Florida, to a beautiful penthouse condo with panoramic views of the sea. She'd finally escaped the house on Sunset Circle, yet she hadn't escaped at all.

"She was lonely," Cochran says. "[When I visited], all we did was sit around and she'd talk about Vince. She was in this beautiful place they'd always wanted and she was alone. It wasn't fun. I felt so bad."

Back in Green Bay, the Gehrings moved in. Katie unscrewed the tiny plaque on the front door that read "Vince Lombardi." She and John raised a family, three sons and a daughter. They added a pool. They redid the kitchen. They lived an entire life, with its joys and tragedies. Every so often, someone would stop to take a picture. A few would knock and the Gehrings would smile and let them inside. Today, the surviving Gehrings wake up and go about their lives in the house they happened to buy from Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi HouseRoss Dettman for ESPN.comHow many beers has this opened? It's been bolted here for decades, opening beers for Lombardi, then for the Gehrings. It is faded, rusted, but still good.

In the end, more than just a coach

Snow has piled up in the front yard of 667 Sunset Circle. There's a Green Bay Packers banner out front. The Fox River is frozen not far from the yard. Right now the street is quiet, but the searchers will be here soon, driving past, looking for something. They might come this week, inspired by the Super Bowl. They might wait until the offseason, or before a game next fall. They will stop for pictures, and a few will knock, and Katie and Andy Gehring will answer with good humor. A lucky few, drawn by the myth, will walk down the stairs into the rec room and try to feel the spirit of Lombardi.

And what of the reality? There are two people who have never come back inside: Vince Lombardi Jr. and Susan Lombardi. Not long ago, Vince Jr. actually cruised past the house with an old friend from Green Bay. So much has changed. "Without his help," Vince Jr. says, "I might have had a tough time finding it."

Susan has driven past, too, reluctantly, mostly to please various friends. "Twice, I stopped," she says. "I said, 'I can't do it.' I think I don't want to. Going downstairs to the basement, it would do me in. I don't think I could handle it. I lived there for so long. I lived a life, at the time, that I hated. Now I'm turning 64 and a long time ago, I realized that I lived the most wonderful life any young girl could have lived."

To fans, the house represents something that will never change, never go away. To Susan, it represents the coach-sized hole in her life. She sees the outside and goes away someplace, remembering the light and the dark. She understands her father now, and the things that drove him. She wishes she'd understood then.

"I guess that's why I don't go in," she says. "When the Packers went to the Super Bowl with Brett and John Madden, doing his whole show out of the basement, I barely could watch it. I said, 'You can't be there. I'm supposed to be there.'"

She's quiet now.

Finally, she says, "I wish my daddy was alive.

"And I don't mean Vince Lombardi," she says, crying.

She's talking fast now through her tears. The sentences run together.

"People forget that he was my dad," she says. "He wasn't just a coach. He was my father."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Lombardi HouseRoss Dettman for ESPN.comPeople have driven past the home since the Gehrings first bought it in 1969.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.