Iowa Football

'I've had this game circled': Rocky Lombardi returns to Iowa as Michigan State's starting QB

Hawkeyes recruited West Des Moines Valley all-stater, but couldn't promise him QB position

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) scrambles during the second half of an NCAA college football game against
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) scrambles during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — To answer the question surely on your mind, yes, the Iowa Hawkeyes did recruit Rocky Lombardi. Absolutely they did.

The Michigan State quarterback makes a return home for Saturday’s Iowa-MSU game at Kinnick Stadium fresh off back-to-back 300-yard passing performances.

The redshirt junior and former West Des Moines Valley all-stater led the Spartans to a 27-24 upset win last week against 13th-ranked Michigan at the Big House, throwing for a career-high 323 yards and three touchdowns.

In attendance at that game was Tony Lombardi, Rocky’s dad, and former Cedar Rapids Washington football and baseball coach. Rocky Lombardi actually was Wash’s starting baseball shortstop as an eighth grader and was to be its starting varsity quarterback as a freshman until the family moved to the Des Moines suburbs.

“I have to admit when you walk into (Michigan Stadium) that day, the butterflies are going and your heart’s in your throat,” Tony Lombardi said. “But he had a certain look to him. I was there, I was live, I could see him, and you just know ‘They’re going to win.’ He just had this look to him, and I just thought ‘He’s going to be good today.’ And sure enough …”

“For me, as soon as the game was over, you celebrated that night,” Rocky Lombardi said. “Once you wake up Sunday morning, it’s Iowa week, or whoever it is. It’s that next game. For me, turning the page was easy.”

Now back to the recruitment of Rocky Lombardi. According to Tony Lombardi, Iowa wanted his son, and the family enjoyed their visits with the coaching staff.

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But Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz and then offensive coordinator Greg Davis were up front with the Lombardis that Rocky probably wasn’t going to be the only QB in that recruiting class. Davis wasn’t certain he was a quarterback at the college level, thinking perhaps a position on defense was his future.

Michigan State offered him, as a quarterback, and Rocky took it.

“To this day, I have a lot of respect for Coach Ferentz,” Tony Lombardi said. “Coach Ferentz sat Rocky and I and his mom down in his office and said we want you, you’re exactly what we’re looking for, we love your toughness. His kids were wrestlers, too, and everything.

“Then he said ‘But I have to be honest with you and tell you we are not going to guarantee you that you’re the only quarterback we’re going to take in your class.’ At the same time, Greg Davis was not convinced he was a quarterback. Again, that took a lot of character and integrity, because he had to know at that point that if Rocky really wanted to be a quarterback, he might look elsewhere.”

Rocky Lombardi ended up getting three starts as a redshirt freshman at MSU because of an injury to Brian Lewerke, then got some reserve duty last season. He came into this season in a full-scale battle for the starting job and won.

In a season-opening loss to Rutgers, he threw for 319 yards and three TDs, though he also was intercepted twice.

“I definitely feel like I have improved so much in the last two years,” Rocky said. “I talked about it a little bit postgame at Michigan, but watching myself play my freshman year, sometimes you just sit there and you cringe at some of the plays. It’s like man, I could have done this so much better, I could have done that so much better. And I’m still improving. From Game 1 to Game 2, there were some things I did better. From Game 2 to Game 3, there will be some things I’ll do better. So I’m just going to continue to improve, continue to show my worth for this football team and continue to lead.”

“Rocky is a tremendous young player, tremendous young person,” Ferentz said. “(He) was an outstanding competitor in a couple of sports in high school. We knew about him and tried to recruit him, and he’s done a great job up there. Played pretty extensively a couple of years ago when his starter was hurt, and, like most players, he’s a better player (now) than he was two years ago.”

Tony Lombardi said he’s unsure if he’ll be in attendance Saturday at Kinnick, though Rocky’s mom, Kari, and three sisters are expected to be there to watch him. Rocky’s younger brother, Beau, also a former Valley QB, is now a center for Army.

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“It’ll be really good,” Rocky said. “My mom doesn’t get to come to a lot of games because I’ve got four other siblings that are all busy, in sports. My sisters have state volleyball this week, and they’ve been at state volleyball every year I’ve been in college. So she’s been very busy (with that). It’ll be nice to have her and my sisters come to the game and see me play.

“It’ll be emotional for me. This is a real homecoming, I’ve had this game circled since I committed here my junior year of high school. But like you said, it is just another game. I’ve got to prepare like I do every other game and just go out and play the best I can.”

Michigan State Coach Mel Tucker has sensed his QB has the right mindset for this week. It’s about the team and not himself.

“Obviously, for Rocky, he’s excited, but he’s up for meetings, he’s up for practices, he loves football,” Tucker said. “I have heard him express to our team that he knows that this game is going to be a physical game and we’ve got to get better in practice. He has verbalized that to our football team, and that’s what leaders do.”

“This is just my opinion, but I feel like attitude alone is so much of life in general but football also,” Rocky said. “What kind of attitude are you coming out with? How are you going to overcome challenges? How are you going to react to failures? How are you going to react to success? It’s really just about what kind of attitude you possess and how hard you are going to work and how you are going to stay motivated.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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