I looked forward to seeing the play, Lombardi, at Riverside Theatre because I have read books about Coach Lombardi and saw the Packers on television (Yes, kids, back then you could only see them on broadcast TV stations!) I questioned whether anyone not a football or Packers fan would be interested – until I saw the play myself along with a full house.
Most people know Vince Lombardi’s story, from high school coach to winner of five NFL championship and the first two Super Bowls, but to me, and presumably most in the audience, we wanted to know more about how he inspired others. He took a team that suffered through ten losing seasons and transformed them into winners his first season as coach with basically the same personnel. How did he do that?
This play takes us into Lombardi’s life and his mind for answers. It is based on a biography by David Maniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, but nothing beats seeing real live performers, especially Richard Zavaglia as the legend himself, bringing the story into focus. The play was written by Eric Simonson, a Wisconsin native. Even Riverside Theatre CEO and Producing Artistic Director, Allen Cornell, came out on stage to introduce the play wearing a cheese head!
Lombardi centers on one week during the 1965 football season when a reporter for Look Magazine, Michael McCormick, goes to interview Lombardi in Green Bay, Wisconsin for a story he is writing. McCormick (played admirably by Greg Fallick) is invited to live in the Lombardi household for a week and gets to know his subject’s wife, Marie (played by Denise Cormier, so right for this role), who provides insight about her husband. We also see flashbacks to times in his career when he toyed with the idea of giving up, but stuck with the game he loved more than life itself.
One memorable scene, for those who want to know more about the “mechanics” of his success in Green Bay, he explains Play 49, to his new team (and to the audience). The play is so simple you would think anyone could figure it out, yet when properly executed, virtually guarantees a win. How did he do that?
The answer lies in how he motivates his players. The writer McCormick learns about Lombardi’s techniques from three key players, Paul Hornung (Jack Fellows), Jim Taylor (Erik Gullberg), and Dave Robinson (Terrell Wheeler). They all look like football players and contrast in size to their coach, just like they did in real life. But Lombardi proved that size doesn’t matter when one human being can transform an entire team of hardened, injury-plagued losers into joy of winning poster boys.
Yet Lombardi himself was a complex man with a fiery temper and authoritarian manner, but fiercely loyal to his players and especially his long suffering wife, Marie. Just like the players, he was inspired, suffered silently in pain and focused only on winning. A staunch Italian Catholic, Lombardi attended Mass every day. The pain would eventually become colon cancer that claimed his life in 1970 at a much too young 57.
Lombardi plays through February 18 on the Stark Stage at Riverside Theatre. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 772-231-6990 or going online at www.riversidetheatre.com.