In 1959, Vince Lombardi left his hometown of New York City and set out for tiny Green Bay, Wisc. Taking his first head coaching job with the Packers at the age of 45, Lombardi knew this was his first — and last — chance to make it big.
And make it big he did. In only nine years in Green Bay, Lombardi won enough championships, influenced enough people, and uttered enough memorable phrases to earn a place among the great icons of American sports. Even the NFL’s most coveted prize, the Super Bowl trophy, bears his name.
And now, a half-century after he left home and 40 years after his death, Lombardi returns to New York in the most intriguing and triumphant of ways — as the subject of a new Broadway play that opened Oct. 21 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
Based on the best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, “Lombardi” was written by Oscar-winner Eric Simonson and is directed by Tony nominee Thomas Kail. Dan Lauria, like Lombardi an Italian-American from Brooklyn (best known as the father on “The Wonder Years”) plays the title role, while two-time Daytime Emmy winner Judith Light (“Who’s The Boss?”) plays Lombardi’s wife, Marie.
What is it about Lombardi that makes him such an intriguing figure, as much a part of popular culture today as he was in the 1960s?
“Lombardi came to represent more than football,” Maraniss said. “He represented the pursuit of excellence at the highest level, what it takes and what it costs. He had the look, the voice and the persona of a leader. And he died relatively young, without an afterlife after football. That adds to the mythology.”
While the play has the full backing of the NFL (as a co-producer of the play, along with Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the NFL has provided vintage video and artifacts to add elements of realism to the production), everyone associated with “Lombardi” stresses that it that will appeal to sports fans and non-fans alike.
“We are telling the story of a flawed human being who lives in the world of football,” Kail said. “But he also goes home to a family. He has responsibilities as a husband and father — these are truths that many of us can identify with, even if we have never laid eyes on a football, or a Broadway theater.”
“The Marie Lombardi role is very moving,” Ponturo adds, “because as Vince’s wife, she had to be very supportive, while also managing the household and caring for their children. Many women in similar situations will relate to that feeling.”
Rest assured, Cheeseheads; the play will also appeal to those who prefer NFL Films to “Masterpiece Theatre,” guys who might find Lombardi’s description of the Packer sweep as beautiful as any of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. “This story allows the fan to spend time with a legend and pull back the curtain,” Kail said. “The reason we watch ‘Hard Knocks’ and ESPN is to see what happens before and after the games — this play offers a glimpse into that world.”
“I hope that people will leave the theater feeling that a great man was lost to the world,” Simonson said. “I also hope that people will be inspired to be better in their own lives and work. That was Lombardi’s effect on those around him.”