Another sign that my fellow baby boomers are getting older is that this past September marked the 40th anniversary of the passing of the most famous head coach in NFL history, Vince Lombardi. This milestone has not gone unnoticed. HBO Sports and NFL Films have been working on a documentary that will air on the cable network this December. The NFL has also been instrumental in getting Lombardi’s story on Broadway as it is a major financial backer of the new play, “Lombardi,” that is based on David Maraniss’s bio, “When Pride Still Mattered” (Simon & Schuster).
“Lombardi” cleverly examines a random autumn week in the coach’s life as his Green Bay Packers are preparing to take on the San Francisco 49ers. Look Magazine has dispatched a young sports reporter, Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs), to spend the week with Vince (Dan Lauria) and his wife Marie (Judith Light) for a profile article.
What McCormick does not know is that his editor and Lombardi are old friends and he is there for a puff piece. Even worse, Look is willing to give the Packers coach having final edit control on the piece. It turns out that the gruff Lombardi was sensitive to a harsh article about him that had been published a few weeks earlier in Esquire.
Michael McCormick represents the public and he does a great job probing Vince Lombardi by not only interviewing him, but also his better half, Marie, and a trio of Packers legends, Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes) and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan). The supporting characters hold our interest as much as the title protagonist does.
Marie Lombardi is no shrinking violet and can go toe-to-toe with her boisterous husband if necessary. Their love was clearly deep and the play makes it clear that she was Vince’s rock when he was thinking of dropping football for a career in banking when he grew tired of being an assistant coach with the Giants. He couldn’t understand why he had been overlooked by every major college and NFL team until the lowly Green Bay Packers came calling in 1959.
While she encouraged her husband to take the job in Green Bay, it is clear that life in the NFL’s smallest outpost did not suit her. She tells McCormick that she desperately misses Manhattan and wiles away too much of the time by hitting the liquor cabinet.
“Lombardi” does not shy away from key social and economic issues. Lombardi was never a big fan of individualism and preferred a marine corps-style thinking of putting the best interests of the group first. The positive side of this was that the Packers were remarkably free of prejudice. Louisiana good ole boy Jim Taylor did not think twice about socializing with black linebacker Dave Robinson.
The negative side of that philosophy was that Vince, who was also the Packers general manager, had trouble dealing with his players when it came to their economic welfare. He goes ballistic when Jim Taylor lets it be known that he has an agent who will negotiate his next contract for him (he would soon be traded to the expansion New Orleans Saints) while Dave Robinson is team’s first union rep and relishes the idea of getting better benefits for the rank-and-file.
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing!” is the quotation most associated with Vince Lombardi. The play takes pains to talk about how it has been misinterpreted over the years. Lombardi was only trying to emphasize the cultivation of a winning attitude and not that one should commit harakiri if you are on the losing side.
Dan Lauria, best known for his role as the dad on “The Wonder Years,” bears a strong physical resemblance to Lombardi and sounds like him as well. He is so credible in this role that you have a feeling that some NFL teams may want to hire him as their next head coach. Judith Light, best remembered for the ABC sitcom “Who’s the Boss?”, makes Marie a sympathetic character. Keith Nobbs reminds one of a young Tom Cruise.
“Lombardi” comes in at a sprite 95 minutes and does not have an intermission. While it helps to be a football fan, even those who have little interest in the gridiron will enjoy this play. If you know little about Vince Lombardi except that his name adorns the Super Bowl trophy and a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, then you owe it to yourself to get to the Circle In The Square Theater ASAP.