Local retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo was one of four 100-year-old World War Ii veterans recognized at the Super Bowl earlier this month as part of the National Football League’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. Lombardo and the other veterans participated in the coin toss for Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — Even at the Super Bowl, on the field at the 50-yard-line, retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo felt, and responded, to the call of military duty.
Lombardo, a resident of Meridian at Westwood in Fort Walton Beach, was one of four 100-year-old World War II veterans chosen to participate in the coin toss for Super Bowl LIV, held Feb. 2 at Hard Rock Stadium. The National Football League, working with its military partners, chose the four centenarian veterans to help mark this year’s 75 anniversary of the end of World War II.
In addition to Lombardo, the group included Army Staff Sgt. Odon Cardenas, who spent time as a prisoner of war, retired Air Froce Brig. Gen. Charles McGee of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and Army Cpl. Sidney Walton, who fought in the China-Burma-India theater.
RELATED: On Flag Day, World War II vet recalls homemade American flag
The men were being taken to midfield in golf carts for the coin toss when Lombardo became worried that Cardenas, who is blind and also is dealing with some health challenges, might fall off of the vehicle.
And so it was that Lombardo remained with Cardenas in their golf cart at midfield, physically supporting his fellow soldier, protecting him from possible harm. Photographs of the coin toss clearly show Lombardo keeping a hold on Cardenas.
"I felt compelled to hold him," Lombardo said Friday, recounting his experience at the game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
RELATED: FWB man celebrates 88th anniversary of arriving in U.S.
Lombardo did more than hold Cardenas during the coin toss. Sensitive to his fellow veteran’s blindness as they took their seats in National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s box in Hard Rock Stadium, Lombardo became his eyes and ears for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"I kept him aware of what was going on the whole game," Lombardo said.
The decision to keep Cardenas safe during the coin toss came at some slight cost to Lombardo, who admits he was caught up in the spirit of the moment as the crowd cheered when images of him and his fellow veterans appeared on the stadium’s giant video screens.
RELATED: Florida 100-year-old WWII veteran takes part in Super Bowl coin flip
"The only disappointment was, I couldn’t wave or throw a kiss at them," Lombardo said.
But in truth, as Lombardo’s friends and acquaintances will appreciate, there was another disappointment for him as he made his way with his fellow veterans from a waiting room inside the stadium to the middle of the playing field.
Along the way, he said, the veterans and their escorts in the golf carts passed groups of cheerleaders getting ready to take to the sidelines.
PHOTOS: Sam Lombardo in the Battle of the Bulge and the flag that was made
"They wouldn’t let us stop by them," Lombardo said, an impish grin crossing his face. "They kept going. I said ’Why don’t you stop for a minute? I just want to shake some hands.’"
"I was disappointed," Lombardo said — only half joking.
Even nearly two weeks after the Super Bowl — Kansas City beat San Franciso by a score of 31-20, a result that satisfied Lombardo — the centenarian World War II veteran struggled to describe the feeling of being at the center of the event.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "It was too much for me."
"It’s hard to explain," he continued, "because I’d never been to one."
But then, Lombardo’s military bearing broke through, and he said, "I wanted to represent the Army. I hope I did some good representing the Army."
The four veterans spent four days in Miami with all expenses paid, including having a limousine at their disposal. They spent considerable time together, but barely talked about their World War II experiences. Lombardo said that, outside of a brief conversation with McGee, he didn’t talk about the war at all.
He might have had a chance to do so with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a fellow World War II veteran whom he met while at the Super Bowl, but he opted not to broach the subject with Dole.
"I know what he went through," Lombardo said, recalling that Dole was shot in the back by a German machine gun in Italy while attempting to rescue an injured radioman, and spent years recovering from his injuries.
And although Lombardo and his fellow veterans didn’t do much talking about the war, everywhere they went, people took time to thank them for their service.
"Everybody you met, you shook hands with," Lombardo said, recounting his walk along the corridors of the Miami airport as he arrived in town for the game, and again as he departed for home.
His appearance at the Super Bowl has also brought some new people into his life, Lombardo said. In the days since his return to Fort Walton Beach, four Navy historians have written to ask for photos and autographs, he said.
Outside of the fun of being at the Super Bowl, and the privilege of representing other veterans, Lombardo has seen it as an opportunity to remind people about the historical importance of World War II, and to ensure that upcoming generations remember and understand the conflict.
"We’re slipping," Lombardo said, in terms of people’s knowledge of World War II.
"World War II saved the world," he said.