Rocky Lombardi made his first big plays at the varsity level long before he was a high schooler.
It was a summer day in suburban Chicago. His father, Tony, then the coach at Cedar Rapids Washington, brought his team for a 7-on-7 high school football tournament in 2010. Both of his sons tagged along.
In one game, the Warriors were down two scores with an injured quarterback. Tony looked around and spotted Rocky standing on the sideline, helmet in hand. Moments later, Rocky, all of 5-foot-8 at the time with short blonde hair, a baby face and a voice full of high-pitched squeaks, jogged out to play with the varsity team.
He’ll be fine, Tony told himself, more with hope than confidence.
Rocky erased all doubt by orchestrating a brilliant comeback. He rifled passes in and around the defense, baiting players with pump fakes and poking holes in the zone. Tony stood stunned on the sidelines. The way he remembers it, “we went from down 15 to up 20” after Rocky entered the game.
One play in particular stood out that afternoon.
After getting the defense to press, Rocky uncorked a 40-yard bomb to Flynn Heald, who hauled in the pass, took three steps and dove toward the pylon for a touchdown. He then popped up and celebrated. Nearly six years removed from that afternoon, Tony still remembers the back-and-forth afterward between Heald and the defender.
“You got lucky,” the opposing defensive back told Heald, “scoring with your freshman quarterback.”
“Nah, dude,” Tony recalls Heald saying. “That guy’s in sixth grade.”
“At that point,” Tony says now, “I figured he had a chance to be pretty good.”
On a Monday in mid-September, Rocky Lombardi sat at Valley Stadium, just three days removed from a 43-point blowout victory in which he accounted for more than half of his team’s total yards. He shrugged at the thought, his mind racing with other ideas.
Instead, Lombardi spoke of his mistakes, because “there were quite a few.”
“Just small mistakes,” the senior said. “It’s not always the picks or the fumbles that are the mistakes. It’s footwork and making the wrong read. Even when I complete the ball sometimes, maybe I made the wrong read and could’ve made a better pass.
“There was a lot of small stuff that not everybody picks up on. If you look deep into the film, you can see that kind of stuff.”
He’s always seen things a little differently, and has continually chased a perfection he knows he may never obtain. That mindset — established inside the walls of a football home and nurtured by a father who’s coached longer than Lombardi’s been alive — became the foundation for Iowa’s best quarterback prospect in the last half-decade, if not longer.
“First and foremost, he’s a big, strong kid that can do everything you want as a quarterback,” said Steve Wiltfong, the National Recruiting Director at 247Sports, which assigned the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Lombardi a composite score of .8641, the highest mark for an Iowa quarterback since City High’s AJ Derby (.8895) in 2010. He now plays tight end for the New England Patriots.
“He’s a top multi-sport athlete,” Wiltfong continued on Lombardi. “We have him as the No. 4 player in Iowa in what’s a pretty good year in Iowa. He’s a guy that, in addition to his physical tools, he’s going to bring that right demeanor that you need to play the quarterback position.”
For his career, Lombardi is 26-5 as a varsity starter and has thrown for 5,280 yards and 57 touchdowns to date. Under his guidance, Valley is in possession of a 6-0 record and the top spot in this season’s Register Super 10 rankings. Yet he’s never been satisfied by any of those accolades, always looking for something to improve on, be it a strength or a weakness.
“There are certain steps you need to take if you want to be great,” Lombardi said, “and in order for me to reach my goals, I have to be the best I can be. In every snap that I take. In every read that I make. I can’t let the little things slide.”
He can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been critical of a performance, a subtle comment offering insight into how his mind is wired. He is endlessly competitive, a scratch golfer who torments his buddies in video games, yet his coaches say he revels more in the team’s accomplishments than his own. He is the product of his daily habits, both on and off the field.
Recently, Lombardi took a personality quiz for a leadership class. His top trait advantage, he said, was context, meaning he researches the past to help him improve in the future. The result both stunned and fascinated him.
“I would say he’s pretty much a perfectionist,” said Beau, his younger brother by two years. “I see it all the time. We play so many different sports, and he’s good at all of them. We can try anything new, and he’s either already good at it, or he’ll work to become good at it.”
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Tony Lombardi grew up on the sidelines with his dad, Bob, who pieced together a career worthy of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Tony then played tailback for four years at Arizona State and jumped into coaching shortly after, with stops at Wisconsin, Mankato State, Eastern Michigan and, for a year, the short-lived XFL’s Chicago Enforcers.
Tony hoped his kids would take to football the same way he did. The names of his first four children all carry a football-related story. The inspiration behind his oldest son’s name comes from Rocky Bleier, a Notre Dame grad who lost part of his right foot in the Vietnam War. He returned and fought through rehab to become a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and helped them win four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
Rocky appeared well on his way — he said his first word was “ball.” But one Sunday, while coaching for the Enforcers, Tony hugged Rocky in the doorway of their home and told him he’d see him on Friday.
“Why are you leaving again?” Tony remembers him asking, and he explained it was because of football. They’d grown used to this talk because Tony often traveled for recruiting purposes at each college gig. But on this day, a 4-year-old Rocky was in tears.
“I hate football,” Tony remembers him crying out.
Tony said he dropped his head and walked to his car. As he drove to work, he thought about his father and the memories that helped foster his love for football. The image of Rocky crying in the doorway was a nightmare come true. He decided he needed to change.
“I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to grow up with your father as the head coach,” Tony says now. “I loved everything about football, loved everything about my dad, loved everything about being around his players. But I hadn’t put two and two together.
“My dad was a high school coach, so he never recruited, never left town and was home after practice. I kind of realized that I was creating a negative association for football with him. I did not want my son to grow up hating this sport.”
The XFL folded after just one season in 2001, and Tony soon earned his teaching certificate. He took a coaching job at Homewood-Flossmoor in the Chicago suburbs, the same school where Bob coached when Tony walked the sidelines at the age of 5. In 2002, he led the Vikings to a 5-5 record and a playoff appearance, with Rocky by his side for all 10 games.
Growing up with a football coach for a parent sounds like pop quizzes on the weekends. As Rocky Lombardi and Tony watched football on Saturdays and Sundays, Tony would ask his son questions after plays unfolded in an attempt to pick his brain.
“We’d watch a play, and I’d turn to him and ask, ‘You know why that guy was open, don’t you?’” Tony said. “At first, he was like, ‘No,’ but now, he’ll come back with, ‘Yeah, because the safety jumped the shallow route, and that left a seam behind him for the immediate crossing route, so the quarterback just read the safety.’
“We watch the game from an analytical standpoint. We just like to watch good football or good schemes or good coaching or good techniques. It’s a different way to watch the game. People have a hard time understanding it.”
Tony began these conversations with Rocky in third grade, when he started playing tackle football. The tactic proved vital, a powerful force that shaped how Rocky consumed and digested the sport. He grew up not rooting for teams but reading Xs and Os.
Once he entered high school, he took his dad’s lessons and began studying specific quarterbacks, mining their film for the tendencies that make them great. He loves Tom Brady’s knack for reading defenses, Aaron Rodgers’ quick feet and Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays.
Watching games that way allowed Rocky to pick up football concepts faster. He took to the quarterback position naturally, Tony said, which allowed his strongest personality trait to shine through.
“I remember a pick I threw against Waukee my sophomore year on a smash concept,” Rocky said. “The corner baited me into throwing the hitch. I dropped back, and ended up throwing a pick in the red zone. This year, we ran that same concept. Complete pass.
“There’s some stuff you remember more vividly than others. I like to remember my mistakes. You don’t want to make the same mistake twice. That’s something that’s constant throughout my whole life.”
His preparation has been a dream for Valley coach Gary Swenson, but it’s irritated nearly everybody else. It’s partly why opposing coaches have so much trouble scheming against him. His five career losses have come to just three teams — Waukee and Dowling Catholic each twice, and then once to Ankeny Centennial last season.
“He’s got great athleticism and he’s got a lot of tools,” said Waukee coach Scott Carlson. “But I really like his competitiveness and his toughness. It’s one thing to have athletic ability, but it’s another thing to have that mental toughness and focus. You’ve really seen that emerge this year.
“Take that Dowling game for example. Just finding a way to make the play to win that game. That speaks volumes of where he’s at as a competitor, and that’s what’s going to make him so tough over these next few weeks, too.”
Rocky remembers those good plays, too, whether it’s the game-winning drive against Dowling this season, or any one of his 24 career multi-touchdown games. He can recite his stats from the few games he played in the 7-on-7 tournament near Chicago years ago: 35-for-50, eight touchdowns, one interception.
“I was just playing and having fun,” he said, “then my dad told me (the numbers), and I was like, ‘Huh, I guess I was doing better than I thought.’”
The older he got, the more important the small details became. When he reviews film, he watches himself almost as much as opposing defenses, making sure his footwork and arm technique are top-notch. When he runs sprints at the end of practices, he’ll often look toward his teammates as he crosses the finish line to see how far he was ahead. When he throws to warm up, he picks a target on his receivers’ face — nose, ear, eye — and tries to hit it each time.
“They don’t know I’m doing it,” he said and smiled.
A couple years ago, Lombardi and Braeden Heald — Flynn’s younger brother — were hanging out in Lombardi’s basement. After a couple of games of ping pong, Heald lined up in a receiver’s stance and challenged Lombardi to a quick one-on-one coverage battle.
Lombardi accepted, and he jammed Heald shoulder-first into a nearby wall. The drywall caved, and Heald careened straight through to the other side. Lombardi said the hole was so big that a picture frame wouldn’t have covered it.
“I said to him, ‘I bet you can’t cover me,’” Heald recalled. “Next thing you know, I’m inside the wall and we’re just looking at each other, like, ‘Oh God, what do we do?’ You could literally see through the wall.”
His insatiable desire to win is astounding. Lombardi started growing out his striking blonde hair three years ago, and only cuts it when the football team loses (or when wrestling season rolls around). But none of the stories are as intense as him throwing his favorite receiver through a wall.
“It was his own fault,” Lombardi said and laughed.
His friends say he has the uncanny ability to identify the best angle for victory and pursue it relentlessly. The contest matters not. When Lombardi plays the “NCAA Football” video game, he reads the virtual defenses the same way he does live ones. He and Heald played a few weeks ago. Lombardi won in a rout.
“I quit by half,” Heald said.
His will to win has long been visible. Lombardi used to attend Tony’s high school workouts over the summer, and always won the team-building games at the end. In elementary school, Lombardi entered the third period of a wrestling match down four points. He started on bottom, and on the whistle, he reversed his opponent to his back for the pin.
For all the success he’s had, Lombardi rarely accepts the credit publicly, often redirecting it to his teammates. His sophomore year, he compiled 196 total yards and four scores in a 56-0 win over Council Bluffs Lincoln. He returned home and sang the praises of then-senior Austin Hronich because “he caught his first touchdown pass (that night),” Tony said.
One of the biggest thrills he’s ever experienced, his coaches say, was in last year’s state wrestling duals. Lombardi spoke with coach Travis Young before the Class 3A finals, featuring Valley against national powerhouse Southeast Polk. For Valley to have the best chance at winning, Lombardi needed to win at heavyweight, rather than at his usual 220-pound class.
Without hesitation, Lombardi bumped up to wrestle second-ranked Daniel Ramirez. He won, 3-2, helping Valley to a state dual team title.
“He understood that it would happen, and was excited for the opportunity,” Young says. “He was taking on something that was harder, that’s for sure, but, you know, he hates to lose. When the lights are on, he’s as competitive as anybody we have.”
Perhaps most impressive is Lombardi’s ability as a scratch golfer. He learned the game when he still lived near Chicago and started playing it religiously when he moved to Iowa. (His family initially lived in Cedar Rapids, but then moved to West Des Moines before Lombardi’s freshman year after Tony resigned as the coach at Washington in 2013 amid verbal abuse allegations.)
He was a natural on the course, applying his attention to detail to a game that demands it. Beau, his brother, said he could golf all day — and there are times, in fact, when he does. Last summer, Lombardi bought a summer pass to a local course and said he golfed at least every other day. He once devoted an entire summer to putting.
“Now, I’m a pretty decent putter,” Lombardi said.
His competitive spirit surfaced again when he looked at colleges. After his junior year, Lombardi told Tony he wanted to play professionally, so he scanned all the NFL rosters to see where the majority of quarterbacks came from. He came away most impressed with Michigan State, and gave his verbal commitment to coach Mark Dantonio on April 3.
“They play in a pro-style offense, they have a great culture, and they have great coaches,” Wiltfong said. “What they ask their kids to do, it translates really well to the next level, from the offense to the terminology to the things they have to do and know pre-snap.
“Rocky will have to beat out some good players, but he’s plenty capable. We think he’s going to be a multi-year starter at Michigan State, and their last two multi-year starters were drafted. He fits that program. Just a hard-nosed, blue-collar type kid that they covet in East Lansing.”
About an hour before the varsity kickoff between Johnston and Valley last month, Lombardi and his teammates stood behind the south end zone and loosely warmed up. He threw passes to Beau and Jevon Mason, the latter of whom threw back and said, “Rocky,” in the same way someone might say “Kobe” when they throw a crumbled piece of paper into a trash can.
A slew of youth football teams lined up around the field, and a group of fifth-graders got front-row seats to watch Lombardi warm up. They all huddled together and marveled at his hair, his size and his throwing motion. To them, he was a celebrity standing just a few feet away. One kid asked his mom for her phone.
He took the phone and approached Lombardi, asking for a selfie. Lombardi smiled, and called his friends to gather in close. He snapped a few pictures and handed the phone back.
The kids bounced back to their spot in line, their smiles present the rest of the night.
Cody Goodwin covers high school sports and college basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at (515) 783-4458, email him at email@example.com , or send him a Tweet at @codygoodwin .