Gary Martin, a 58-year-old retired policeman from Parsippany, N.J., has taken it upon himself to make the drive to Lombardis grave and regularly trims bushes and brings wood chips and flowers several times a year. / Submitted
This is a story that might make legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi roll over in his grave.
If not for the devotion of New York Jets fan Gary Martin, Lombardi’s New Jersey burial plot would be over-run with bushes and barely recognizable.
Lori Keck, who served as Lombardi’s secretary in Green Bay, made this discovery on Sunday during a visit to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown Township, N.J., where the famous coach was buried following his death in 1970. Keck coincidentally found Martin doing landscape work at the gravesite, and what she learned was both shocking and uplifting.
“I was absolutely amazed that no one (had been) taking care of the gravesite,” said Keck. “I don’t want to create any problems here, but I’m very surprised that the family wasn’t doing it. He’s an icon and the Super Bowl trophy is named after him. Somebody ought to be taking care of that gravesite.”
It’s not family members, the Packers organization or the NFL that has taken on the task. That somebody is Martin, a 58-year-old retired policeman who was born and raised in New Jersey and developed a devotion for Lombardi and the Packers when he was a little boy.
When Martin said he came upon Lombardi’s neglected gravesite nearly 25 years ago, he got over his shock and disappointment quickly and decided to make it his personal duty to spruce up the coach’s final resting place. Lombardi shares a single tombstone with his wife Marie, who died in 1982, and his parents, Harry and Matilda.
“The grave was in total disarray,” said Martin. “You couldn’t even read his name. It was totally overgrown. It took a lot of work. You can’t believe the work it takes.”
The drive from Martin’s home in Parsippany, N.J., to the cemetery takes about three hours round trip, and he tries to visit once a month. Lately a bad back has limited his trips to about four times a year.
Martin cut down four overgrown bushes in front of the tombstone, regularly trims two other bushes on either side of the gravesite, and said he often brings wood chips and flowers.
“He’s a remarkable man,” said Keck of Martin. “Who else would spend years of their life taking care of the gravesite of somebody they didn’t know, was not a family member, got no recognition and no remuneration, just because he cared and respected Vince Lombardi?”
Martin’s admiration for Lombardi runs so deep that he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“He’s the guy that really brought professional football to the table, and the Super Bowl,” said Martin. “I think he was a true leader of men, and I have to respect that. I noticed that nobody ever took care of his grave. So I felt like I was obligated to do that for all the joy he gave me.”
Visitors often leave mementos by the tombstone, but Martin is selective about what stays. “If there’s anything from any other team I always take it away,” said Martin, who loves the Jets but maintains a fondness for the Packers and their fans. “I just leave the Green Bay Packers stuff laying here. I think that’s what he would want.”
Martin’s dream is to one day place a 4-foot-high Super Bowl replica trophy made out of granite in front of the tombstone. He said he plans to serve as the unofficial gravesite caretaker till the day he dies.
“I think that time is well spent with him,” said Martin. “Vince Lombardi is a big part of things that I believe in.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.