Joe Lombardo was not my doctor. He was my buddy.
My “sidelines” buddy.
“Doc,” which was the only way I ever addressed him, and I patrolled the sidelines at Pittston Area High School football games for more than 15 years, from the late Sixties through the early Eighties. I was the sportswriter for the Sunday Dispatch and Doc the Patriot team physician. Through all those years there could not have been more than two or three games at which we were not together.
Often times he’d see me writing on my clipboard and ask how an individual player was doing. During the “Cefalo Years,” seasons ’71, ’72 and ’73, he might say simply, “Does he have a hundred yards yet?”
“Doc,” I might answer, “he had a hundred yards in the first quarter.”
My questions to him were of the “How is he?” kind. These would come after I watched Doc sprint from the sidelines to the center of the field if a player went down with an injury. We both took our jobs seriously, it’s just that his was decidedly more serious than mine.
Doc was also one of my crowd estimators. There were no official statistics regarding how many people attended a game, yet I wanted to include it in my stories. It was all guess work, and Doc was exceptional at it. “What do you think?” I’d say as we scanned the bleachers. “4,253,” he might answer, and then quickly add, “No, make it 54 … 4,254.”
That’s a side of Dr. Joseph Lombardo not many people got to experience. The playful side. But it’s the side I knew best. And something for which I’ve always felt fortunate.
I told his son Michael just that as we stood by his dad’s coffin Monday evening at the Adonizio Funeral Home in Pittston. He knew what I meant. For a guy who spent long, long hours keeping people healthy and often saving lives, Doc Lombardo enjoyed living. This was certainly evidenced by his natty attire. At a viewing, a blanket typically covers the feet of the deceased party. Since we were talking about his dad’s playfulness, I couldn’t resist asking Mike if his dad was wearing a pair of expensive shoes under that blanket.
“What do you think?” he said, adding, “I had to make a lot of decisions the past few days but the hardest was how he should be dressed. I didn’t want any complaints when I meet him in Heaven.”
Back when I was writing sports, one of my tasks during football season was to coordinate predictions on the upcoming games. The group of prognosticators included various members of the newspaper staff and one mystery person we referred to as “The Riddler.” During the 1973 season, All American Jimmy Cefalo’s senior year, The Riddler was Doc Lombardo. I’m not sure he ever enjoyed anything more.
And, man, was he good at it. His record at the end of the season was 96-14! Yes, nearly 90 percent of the time, Doc’s predictions were correct.
With his overwhelming private practice and eight children, Doc’s time was precious, and so at first, I was hesitant to even ask him if he might be willing to predict the games, but my fears were unfounded. He said he’d be delighted and I could tell he was every Friday afternoon when, as he suggested, I called him at the office. I soon got the impression the few minutes we’d spend together on the phone were a welcomed diversion from his crazy schedule.
Over the years, he often brought up that football season and seemed to take great pleasure in knowing no prognosticator ever came close to his record.
We always kept the identity of The Riddler a secret and each season after his stint, Doc Lombardo would try to get me to reveal the name of the latest one. “Just give me a hint,” he begged on the sidelines a few years later. “Okay,” I said. “He’s at the game.”
Doc took one glance at the jam-packed Pittston Area bleachers and said without hesitation, “It’s Ace Brogna.”
Which gave Doc one more topic to bring up almost every time we met.
There were things about Doc Lombardo we all knew: his love of clothes and his love of cars (yes, that was a Rolls Royce). And things only a few of us knew: his love of music and his relationship with some of the biggest names in the business. Doc was a close friend of the late Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion DiMucci, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and others, any one of whom might show up at the Lombardo home and spend the night, all without fanfare.
The last time I saw Doc was when Dion performed at the F.M. Kirby Center last summer. It seemed the entire Aquilina family of Pittston was there. Mike Aquilina, one of the siblings, is author of the biography “Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth.” Joe Aquilina, Mike’s brother, called to me after the concert and asked if I wanted to go backstage to meet the legendary singer.
There were several of us in the party and as we made our way to the hallway leading to the dressing rooms, there holding the door for us was Doc Lombardo. Dion’s good friend was letting everybody else go in first.
It goes without saying, Doc was dressed to the nines.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.