Back in 1966-67, as Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, I regularly heard a quote attributed to him: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” He sounded to me like a George Patton-style martinet with no use for folks who gave their all and finished second.
But apparently he never said it. Of the dozens of quotes at the official Vince Lombardi website, the closest I see is “Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.” That guy I can understand. He may be driven, but he asks that you perform to the limit of your ability, heart and mind – as he was always willing to do.
The coach in “Lombardi,” Eric Simonson’s biographical play, comes across as a combination of those two figures: obsessive, angry, inspirational, driven and unable to accept that anything was beyond his control – including his body, which he doctored with Pepto-Bismol until he finally let a doctor tell him he had colon cancer. (He died in 1970 at 57.)
Simonson based his depiction on “When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss. The Lombardi we see is strangely sympathetic, because we learn just enough about him to understand his pained intensity: His mother frequently gave him “the back of her hand” for supposed disappointments, so he did the same to his own son.
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The play begins when a fictional reporter for Look magazine, Mike McCormick (Daniel O’Sullivan) gets permission to spend a week with the coach (Charles LaBorde) during the 1965 season. (Is the character’s name symbolic? Thomas Mike McCormick was Lombardi’s assistant coach on the Super Bowl-winning Packers.)
He and we have to accept the coach’s self-estimation at face value, except for slight amendments by his unhappy but loyal wife, Marie Lombardi (the wryly agitated Paula Baldwin).
The only other three characters are Packer players, included as plot devices. Jim Taylor (J.R. Adduci) is on hand to show us Lombardi as a tough but loving surrogate dad; Dave Robinson (Jermaine Gamble) is there to remind us that Lombardi treated whites and blacks as equals; Paul Hornung (Joshua Wayne Gardner) shows up to let us know Lombardi tolerated undisciplined, carefree players as long as they delivered on the field. (Simonson suggests late in the game that he’s an alter ego for the coach but doesn’t take that further.)
Like a magazine profile, the play gives us enough snapshots of Lombardi in different settings to help us draw solid conclusions about him. Michael Simmons lets the actors turn up the volume a lot of the time, but that suits the subject material and doesn’t wear us out: The play runs just 105 minutes.
LaBorde is transformed by his topcoat and hat, his glasses and dental inserts. This armor-plated Lombardi swaggers with self-assurance and seems an unfair foe for the slender, quiet reporter, but O’Sullivan rises to their verbal battles: He can’t be bullied or blustered out of what he feels is right. We end up thinking that Lombardi might have respected another force as immovable as himself, except in an NFL underling.
It’s hard to believe, in this era of unconscionable salaries and engorged ticket prices, that pro football was once played for pride almost as much as money, and a town – even one as small as Green Bay, Wisc. – could have derived its entire identity from a sports team. (The Packers remain the only non-profit, community-owned major league pro sports team in the United States).
Lombardi died before he saw that era come fully to an end. To hear about him, even in this fragmentary play, is to travel back to a more innocent America we can never regain.