How Rocky Lombardi used 4 sports to build the fire for Michigan State's QB battle
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Rocky Lombardi knew he had to find a way.
He was in a playoff game his senior year of high school in West Des Moines, Iowa. His team was behind and time was running out.
The two-time all-state quarterback dropped back and felt pressure on his back, but Lombardi dodged the sack, scrambled and sped up and away from other defenders to keep the drive alive.
His sideline was hollering. A belief had returned to Valley High School. All eyes turned back to the leader under center.
Then Lombardi dropped back again, and this time, he threw a ball that right into a defender’s hands. The game was over. And after 36 starts, so was a high school career where he had passed for nearly 6,000 yards and 66 touchdowns.
Now, the wait would begin.
'I've always felt like I've been good enough'
Lombardi’s rise to this moment, as the clear favorite to start at quarterback for Michigan State as the season opens against Rutgers on Saturday, can be dissected in plenty of different ways. He is a quarterback, after all. The trajectory is not linear.
There was the time many thought he had arrived. It was 2018 and Michigan State, fresh off a brutal home loss to Michigan and playing without its injured starting quarterback, was playing Purdue. A redshirt freshman held the keys.
Lombardi stepped in and started doing all the little things, from roll-outs to play-action strikes to sneaks as he’d plunge forward for first downs. He jumped up, flexed his arms and yelled to the crowd that he was here as they chanted his name.
After a 318-yard passing debut and a victory, the next game came and Lombardi wasn't starting. Brian Lewerke was back in the lineup. The page flipped back to the quarterback he was chasing.
In some ways, a race was lost.
Flash forward two calendar years, and Lombardi is either at the beginning or at the redemption stage of his career. He’s a redshirt junior, and thanks to this year’s unique modifications, he’ll be a redshirt junior again next season. He’s technically in the middle of his career, though it doesn’t feel that way to anyone.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been the quarterback here,” Lombardi said a month ago. “I’ve always felt like I’ve been good enough to play at this level.”
Ask Michigan State coaches in a Zoom press conference who the quarterback is and they might bring up four names: Lombardi, redshirt sophomore Theo Day, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne and even true freshman Noah Kim. They declined to make Lombardi available to speak to the media this week.
But the tea leaves setting up Lombardi as the favorite for the starting job have not been hard to read. Coaches have said they value game experience in a year without a spring game or a nonconference schedule, and Lombardi is the only one on the roster with that. He’s been in the program for four years, so his chemistry with the receivers next in line exists in some form. At 6 feet, 4 inches and 225 pounds, with a track background, he fits the prototype offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has worked with and recruited for years now.
What comes next is what Lombardi does with the opportunity. It will be the culmination of playing multiple sports for years and then channeling that energy and focus into a single one.
But it's also going to be about how he holds up if the surroundings fall apart. That is becoming the test in 2020. It's always the test of a quarterback.
So take it back to how Lombardi grew up and what got him to that final drive of his senior year. He put a team on his back and then threw one wrong pass and the season was over.
Well, one season was over.
Days later, he's on a wrestling mat in the sweltering heat, shedding pounds, transforming again. He’d been committed to play quarterback at Michigan State since before football season even started, but this wasn't a kid built to wait around.
"He got bored with things that weren't competitive," Valley High School football coach Gary Swenson said. "The offseason in high school, he didn't want any of that."
Lombardi played quarterback each fall, starting for three seasons and collecting school records for completions, yards and touchdown passes; he wrestled each winter, finishing 38-2 as a senior; and he ran track in the spring and played shortstop in the summer.
On the side, he was a scratch golfer.
This was the path a father laid out for his kids after a career in football. Tony Lombardi played running back at Arizona State and has coached essentially ever since, including now as a defensive backs coach at Wisconsin-Stout. Tony's father is in the Illinois High School Coaches Hall of Fame.
Football has always been a slice of their worldview. It was never meant to be the full story.
“I believe what kids, especially quarterbacks, need to learn how to do is compete and win,” Tony Lombardi said. “There’s 8 million guys who can stand on the sideline and throw a spiral and they look great and they have a great release and great form and they can’t beat anybody because they don’t know how to compete.”
He sees a value in the losses, too. Success is about moving on. When Rocky's younger brother, Beau, followed him as the Valley High School quarterback but didn't see the same college offers, his father advised he switch positions. In three years, he went from fullback to quarterback to center, and he now plays the latter for Army at 280 pounds.
A couple months after Rocky threw that interception in the playoffs, he was in the wrestling state championship meet at 220 pounds. He’d often pinned kids in 20 seconds, including one in just 3 seconds, but this one was a fight. Lombardi lost by a hair, falling on the wrong side of a controversial call. He finished second in the state, the winner of a medal but short of the gold.
"He'd always seen himself as a state champ," said his wrestling coach, Travis Young. "Probably the best thing he said was, 'Don't put yourself in a position where the refs can decide a match.' He left it as a one-point match, so he knew if he got another takedown here, it wouldn't have mattered with that call."
It was agony, like that game-ending interception. Once again, he was itching for the next chance.
Lombardi has spent the past year and a half in a territory he isn't built to understand.
After that dazzling debut in 2018, he started two other games but struggled, and Lewerke took the job back full-time for his final year of college. Lombardi's next shot was supposed to come in the spring, but then a pandemic wiped away that and, for the time being, the entire 2020 season.
A kid who played four sports suddenly couldn't practice any.
Lombardi has spent a week each offseason training with Dan Manucci, a friend of his father who works with QBs around the country. They have worked with his timing and ball placement in hopes of helping a former four-sport athlete master one.
With the season back on and a free year of eligibility, Lombardi has a chance to hold down the most important position for three years. He can help define what the next wave of Michigan State football will be all about.
“For me now, it’s more about doing,” Lombardi said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to think as much out there. I have a couple things in my head and then boom.
"You’ve just gotta go out there and ball.”
Contact Nate Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.