Vince Lombardi Takes The Stage With A New Play

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi has inspired millions of athletes, coaches, salesmen , politicians and sports fans. Now he has inspired a Broadway play. With help from the NFL, Lombardi: A New American Play, has debuted, and its backers hope it will attract a new crowd to theaters.

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Vince Lombardi has inspired millions of athletes, coaches, salesmen, politicians and sports fans. And now, Coach Lombardi has inspired a Broadway play - with considerable assistance from the National Football League. Lombardi is trying to draw an atypical audience to the theater.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Every Catholic knows that Saint Peter was the first pope, just as every football fan knows that the first Super Bowl - the first two, in fact -were won by Vince Lombardi. The very name, some say, still contains some sort of - I dont know, magic.

Unidentified Man: Lombardi.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: A certain magic still lingers in the very name.

PESCA: Here's the Lombardi fans got to know for years through NFL films.

Unidentified Man: It speaks of duels in the snow and cold November mud.

PESCA: Hagiography would not be too strong a word to describe how the NFL has marketed the man and the myth of Vince Lombardi up until now. He was a task master and a genius, so inspirational that he became one of those figures - like Churchill or Mark Twain - who are often said to have uttered every pithy aphorism that ever led off a banquet speech.

And while the Broadway shows directive is to flesh out the myth, it still has to include some of the great mans greatest lines: Fatigue makes cowards of us all; this is a football; and this one...

(Soundbite of play, Lombardi)

Mr. DAN LAURIA (Actor): (as Vince Lombardi) We will create a seal here, and a seal here. Paul Horning or Jim Taylor, as soon as you get the ball, you will follow the blocker and run in the alley. Run to daylight, wherever it shows -inside the defensive end, inside the defensive tackle, outside the defensive linebacker. Run to daylight.

PESCA: Dan Lauria, who plays Lombardi, explains that for all the bombast and tactics, the coach's success lay in the fact that he was able to make emotional connections with his players. Lauria, best remembered as the dad from "The Wonder Years," talked to many of Lombardi's former players. In fact, on Tuesdays, the theater invites NFL experts to give talk-backs, and the audiences are frequently populated with gridiron luminaries.

This week, Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff, who both played for Lombardi during the one year he coached the Washington Redskins, were in the audience. They were just two football greats who've shared their remembrances with Lauria.

Mr. LAURIA: I'll tell you one thing about his players: Every one one of them, the first five minutes, I'm on the floor laughing. And within five minutes, every one of them had a tear in their eye. Did you see Sonny Jurgensen last night? He had tears in his eyes. They really love this guy. He made them better. He made them better.

(Soundbite of play, Lombardi)

Ms. JUDITH LIGHT (Actress): (as Marie Lombardi) He loves his players. And I don't mean he just likes them an awful lot; he truly, actually loves them.

PESCA: That is Judith Light, playing Vince's wife, Marie. Marie's influence on her husband is the centerpiece of the play. He is explained through her. And the fact that they honored and respected each other - in Light's words - was key to understanding Vince.

The NFL has marketed the play equally to men and women. And the fact that most scenes take place not on that cold November mud but in a well-appointed Green Bay living room helps broaden the plays appeal.

And while Light is most widely known from her run on the TV show "Who's the Boss?" she's a Broadway veteran. She can't help but notice the crowd at "Lombardi" is a little different from - say, the crowd at "Cats."

Ms. LIGHT: Sometimes, we look out into the audience, and we see people in Packer shirts and holding football helmets. The other night, there was some sweet guy in the front row, just - he didn't ask us afterwards to sign the helmet, nothing. He was just sitting there. It was his devotional time. It was his time to come to worship.

PESCA: The NFL is promoting the show heavily at New York Giants home games. NFL shows like "Football Night in America" and "Inside the NFL" have featured the show, and the Jets quarterback, Mark Sanchez, has tweeted his love of "Lombardi" to his 200,000 followers. Lauria is feeling the momentum.

Mr. LAURIA: We will sink or swim based on this new audience, which I think we're going to get. And I think it's very important - not so much for us but for regional theaters. 'Cause if this play's successful and some regional theater out in Akron, Ohio, does a production of "Lombardi," they're going to bring in a new audience.

PESCA: Tom Matthews was at a performance this week dressed in a Packers jersey. He lives in Orlando, Florida, now, and the only other Broadway play he's seen was the revival of "The Sound of Music." So I asked Matthews to list a few of his favorite things.

Mr. TOM MATTHEWS: Horning and Taylor and Starr were the guys, and they were my heroes. And so we built our trip to New York, really, around this play.

PESCA: Matthews is exactly the kind of theatergoer - which is to say, usually a non-theatergoer - who will make or break this production. Merril Hoge speaks for them.

Mr. MERRIL HOGE (Former Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers): I wouldn't say that I'm a connoisseur of theater.

PESCA: Hoge is a former Pittsburgh Steeler running back. Last Tuesday, he - along with Steve Sabol of NFL Films - led a talk, the highlight of which was when the 76-year-old Hall-of-Famer Sam Huff stood up in the audience and jokingly threatened to run over Hoge, a man 31 years his junior.

Hoge was pretty charitable in his description of Huff's desire to engage in the sport's toughest blocking drill.

Mr. HOGE: Yeah, he wanted to do a little nine-on-seven. And now, you can tell Sam Huff was a talker.

PESCA: Yeah, maybe Huff's just a talker. Or it could be that be that 40 years after his death, Vince Lombardi still has the ability to infuse his players with zeal and passion, ready to run through anyone.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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