ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After a half-season together sharing a sideline with the Broncos, Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi and Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica found themselves at Empower Field at Mile High on opposite sides of one of college football's most storied rivalries.
Kotwica's Army Black Knights ultimately upset Lombardi's Air Force Falcons, 23-3, in the Nov. 4 regular-season matchup, and Kotwica was understandably thrilled after his alma mater's convincing victory.
"It was really cool to see them pull out a victory, to beat a Top 25 team in the country in Air Force that was having a tremendous year," Kotwica told DenverBroncos.com in a recent interview. "It was really neat to be in the stadium. I don't know if Coach Lombardi feels the same way, but it was a great win for them.
"The thing about the service academy football is I would argue at that level … that when Army plays Air Force and Army plays Navy, those service academy battles, that the highest compete level is going to be on the field between those white lines. You can just feel it, and to be in the stadium to watch that victory was real cool and something that I'll remember."
Rivalry aside, Lombardi and Kotwica have plenty in common with their service academy degrees and experience serving as members of the U.S. military. Kotwica spent eight years in the U.S. Army and was nominated for the NFL's Salute to Service Award in 2022. His military career includes operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Korea and Iraq, and he flew the AH-64 Apache Longbow — the world's top attack helicopter — while commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Aviation Branch of the Army. Lombardi, meanwhile, served a four-year tour of active duty after graduating from Air Force and specialized in weapon acquisition following the end of the Cold War.
Throughout November, as the NFL honors service members with its Salute to Service campaign, both are grateful for the way their experiences in the service academies and military shaped them and for the chance to honor the men and women serving our country today. After a bye week and a road game to start the month, the Broncos will host their Salute to Service game on Sunday, recognizing veterans and those currently serving throughout the evening.
Lombardi said his experience has made him appreciate the sacrifice of those serving in the military and called the Salute to Service initiative a great step for the league.
"You kind of know what those people have gone through, what they're going through," Lombardi told DenverBroncos.com. "It's a good life, but it's a hard life and there's a lot of sacrifices that the men and women in our military make, that their families make, and you appreciate what they do for protecting our country."
Football helped both coaches chart their courses to the selective military academies, and the discipline required to thrive at both places has made an impact on their coaching careers.
Kotwica played for Army as a linebacker from 1993 to 1996 and said his time at West Point shaped his skills in a variety of areas.
"Going to West Point is a challenging experience," Kotwica said. "You're in a 48-month leadership laboratory and you're going to be challenged there, whether it's militarily, athletically or academically — those are the three prongs on the stool. There's a challenge every day there. As I look back, the days were long and they were hard, but they help make you a better person [and] a better leader when you end up graduating. I have nothing but fond memories of my time during West Point."
In Colorado Springs, Lombardi suited up for the Air Force Falcons as a tight end on the football field, along with playing lacrosse.
A two-time Salute to Service Award nominee, Lombardi said his years at Air Force instilled in him the importance of doing things the right way.
"At the academies, there's a lot of emphasis put on [that] there's an honor code," Lombardi said. "You just get exposed to it a lot more, and it's something that when you think about something or are exposed to something, it becomes more important. Doing things the right way, don't lie, steal and cheat — all those things were all drilled into us."
Lombardi added that the regimented schedule and requirements in the service academies prepared him well for life as an NFL coach. He said that under Head Coach Sean Payton, the Broncos have adopted a straightforward schedule where each coach knows what he has to do each day, which has aligned well with Lombardi's experience at Air Force.
"It's a lot similar to how Sean operates our program," Lombardi said. "I know exactly what we're doing Monday. It kind of develops that discipline and getting the job done."
Denver's "Sunday Night Football" matchup against the Minnesota Vikings will be an exciting evening on and off the field, but for these two Broncos coordinators, the chance to celebrate those who have served will make the weekend even more special.
"It resonates, even when you hear the national anthem before the game," Kotwica said. "You take a couple deep breaths and I think about how fortunate I am to be standing on the sidelines with such a great team, but also my thoughts go to those men and women who are in the service who are allowing us to do what we do. That resonates each week, and now when we get into the Salute to Service time of the year, it hits home maybe even a little bit more."