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October 19, 2012

Commitment pays for Lombard

Christian Lombard’s first football helmet gave him away.

Growing up in South Carolina, Lombard picked up the sport as a grade school kid so oversized that was he banished to the lines by his equipment. Because he exceeded the youth league’s weight limit, Lombard wore a helmet with two stripes down each side.

The marks weren’t badges of honor. They were simply symbols of heft. If Lombard ever had dreams of playing quarterback or running back, they didn’t last a single practice.

“I never got to touch the ball,” Lombard said. “I was a double striper.”

For the next four years, which included his family’s relocation to Palatine, Ill., just outside Chicago, being huge always translated into being good.

Helmets changed. Lombard’s position never did.

But during his sophomore season at Fremd High School, Notre Dame’s starting right tackle, who’s grown into a 6-foot-5, 309-pound mauler, realized the difference between being big and being big time. The Irish offense has reaped the benefits of that awakening this fall.

After getting his first taste of varsity football as a prep sophomore, Lombard linked with a private training company outside Chicago, WCS Gattone Sports Performance, that started him on a strength and conditioning path that Paul Longo has continued at Notre Dame.

Lombard trained with the two-time coach of the U.S. men’s weight lifting team at a gym run by Mike Gattone, who now works for Gatorade and counts Notre Dame as a client. Lombard worked on the side with Gattone for two days a week at first, eventually bumping up to four days before heading to South Bend.

“I could single-handedly attribute him to where I am today,” Lombard said. “I was a bigger, out of shape guy when I first started playing. He loosened me up, I was tight. He built my core up and I think having a strong core is really big for playing offensive line.”

In those years Lombard developed himself into a regional four-star recruit, Notre Dame’s first commitment in the junior class, a U.S. Army All-American and overcame mono that rolled back some of his extra training.

“What still stands out to me is he appears to be a quiet person, but I really think there’s a focus there,” Gattone said. “He doesn’t jack around a lot. In a gym full of young athletes, you find yourself having to tell them, ‘Lets go, turn down the music.’ Christian constantly came in to train, very rarely missed days.”

That work ethic continued at Notre Dame as Lombard’s steady build into a starting tackle took three seasons. He earned his first start against Navy in Dublin. He earned the right to break down the team after walkthrough at Soldier Field the day before the Miami game, a moment that figures to stick with the junior after his Irish career ends.

During his senior year at Fremd, Lombard drove to Soldier Field for a U.S. Army All-American Bowl ceremony alongside another Chicagoland prospect, Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. At that event former Chicago Bears chairman Mike McCaskey told Lombard that he hoped the Irish commit would work for him some day.

Lombard’s roots, even after transplanting to Chicago in middle school, made the Soldier Field experience a continuation of his surreal first season in the lineup.

“Honestly, I was a mess a couple days before,” Lombard said. “It was a special moment. To play like we played, it’s something I’ll remember forever. After warm-ups, I got my blood pressure down, it was just like playing another game. But when those fireworks went off when we got on the field, that was awesome.”

Lombard’s family attended the game, as did a couple high school friends now at the University of Iowa. That cheering section didn’t include Lombard’s younger brother Dominic, now a 6-foot-5, 270-pound sophomore lineman at Fremd. Even though he didn’t see his older brother help power Notre Dame to that historic rushing night, Lombard’s experiences have already trickled down the family tree.

As the younger Lombard pushes through the same prep season that convinced his brother to commit to football, Notre Dame’s tackle is helping him find his own path.

“What I told him and what I always tell him is it’s up to him,” Lombard said. “Obviously with me being (at Notre Dame) you’re going to have a lot of pressure to do the same things that I’ve done. But at the end of the day, if you want to do it, you’ve gotta do it.”

Lombard did.

Picking up that double-striped helmet back in South Carolina might have been the start of his football career, but committing to the sport almost four years later put Lombard on the track to Notre Dame’s starting lineup.

“It's been a constant step for him, the progress has been positive,” said Brian Kelly.
“He’s far from where we would consider him a finished product, but he's making the right steps.”

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