Broadway Tribute to Vince Lombardi Wraps Up in Wisconsin

Lombaridi photo: Dennis Behreandt

By Denise Behreandt

After the opening performance of the play Lombardi on Broadway, lead actor Dan Lauria who played legendary Green Bay Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi, explained that while he was on stage performing he witnessed former packer players Dave Robinson and Jerry Kramer crying.

Like Lombardi himself, Kramer and Robinson are legendary stars of the dominating Green Bay teams of the 1950s and 1960s. Both tough guys par excellence, what is it about a Broadway play that could make them cry?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to find out first hand. After immense success during an eight month run on Broadway, the cast and crew of the play came to the heart of Packer country in late July to share the play with green and gold faithful. Having written about coach Lombardi before, I wasted no time getting four tickets for the special reading that was to be held at the Performing Arts Center in Appleton, Wisconsin — just about 30 miles southwest of the Frozen Tundra itself. After viewing the performance on July 30, I understood why the play could provoke Kramer and Robinson to the heights of emotion, and why the play resonated with audiences while on Broadway.

Early in the play, the audience learns that Vince Lombardi, at the time an assistant coach with the New York Giants, has been offered and has accepted a coaching job with the Green Bay Packers — at the time the cellar dwellers of the NFL. Immediately, the audience gets a glimpse into just how hard it was for the Lombardi family to move to small-town Wisconsin from New Jersey. Vincent’s wife, Marie Lombardi, played by actress Henny Russell, was shocked at seeing a seemingly never-ending vista of white snow when they arrived during a February snow storm. But despite the discomfort, the audience realizes that Marie Lombardi isn’t going to let bad weather get in the way of her husband’s dream.

What did the Lombardi’s face in Wisconsin? Writing previously on Lombardi, I wrote:

On December 31, 1967, it was thirteen degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus forty-six in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Despite the weather, two football teams prepared to face each other on the frozen expanse of Lambeau Field. The team from Texas, the Dallas Cowboys, stood frigidly on the sidelines of the football field and, according to Green Bay Packers fullback Chuck Mercein, “looked like earthmen on Mars.” Unlike the team from Texas, the players on the Green Bay sideline were accustomed to the harsh Wisconsin climate. But even they were surprised by the unexpectedly brutal arctic conditions. “It’s just too cold to play,” Willie Woods, the Green Bay Packers’ safety said. “They’re gonna call this game off.”

Despite the weather, kickoff came as scheduled. From the outset, one would think that the Cowboys couldn’t stand a chance against a team that was hardened to winter weather conditions. According to David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, even Packer players proved susceptible to the cold. Bart Starr, the Packers’ quarterback, fumbled the football right before half-time due to numbness in his hands. By half time, the Packer lead was as slim 14-10. It would not be an easy victory for the Packers as many may have assumed.

When play resumed, the teams found themselves locked in a stalemate, unable to overcome neither the weather nor opposing defenses. It was brutal combat on a frozen field of battle. Fingers froze and feet were numb and injuries were an ever present danger as giant men in football armor sought to drive each other into the frozen ground of Lambeau Field. Even the referees suffered. “Bill Schliebaum, the line judge,” writes Maraniss, “had his whistle freeze to his lips and lost a layer of skin yanking it loose.”
As the icy contest drew to a close, the Packers found themselves behind. A touchdown had given the Cowboys a 17-14 lead. Nevertheless, with sixteen seconds remaining, the Green Bay Packers had something the opposing players did not have: the teachings of their head coach, Vince Lombardi, a famously stubborn perfectionist and disciplinarian. Lombardi’s uncompromising values and teachings were never so apparent as during the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game.

Under Lombardi’s tutelage, the Packers had learned to never give in. They would not give up now. As time ran down, the Packers’ offense, led by quarterback Bart Starr, confidently and methodically marched down the field, the cleats of the linemen clicking and clacking with every hard-fought step on the frozen turf. With only enough time for one last play, Bart Starr stood on the threshold of victory at the goal line. Across the line of scrimmage the grimly determined players of the Cowboys’ defense prepared to defend their territory one last time. Bending over the center, Starr took the snap, paused, then lunged forward behind his offensive line and fell into the end zone as time expired. Against the forces of nature and against a talented and determined opponent, the Packers and Vince Lombardi had prevailed.

For those watching and for the Packer players themselves, “that final drive, more than anything else, was the perfect expression of Vince Lombardi,” wrote Maraniss. “The conditions were miserable, the pressure enormous, and there were no fumbles, no dropped passes, no mistakes…. In his speeches Lombardi talked about character in action, and here it was, in real life.” So it appeared to legendary announcer Ray Scott. “Of all the games I’ve done,” said Scott, “that final drive was the greatest triumph of will over adversity I’d ever seen.”

The “Ice Bowl” was a testament to the teachings and life of Vince Lombardi. Over the preceding seasons Lombardi taught players the values he learned and embraced himself from youth to adulthood. One of the great leaders of the last century, Lombardi taught that a virtuous existence will aid in the ability to triumph over adversity both in football and in life.

At times one might forget when watching the stage performance that Dan Lauria isn’t Vince Lombardi. To Lauria’s credit, his gestures, gruff mannerisms, that occasional sly smile proved an award winning performance in capturing the true Vince Lombardi. Throughout the reading, we see a strict coach who teaches his players Paul Hornung (actor: Bill Hawes), Dave Robinson (actor: Robert Christopher Riley), and Jim Taylor (actor: Brad Schmidt) the importance of discipline.

For some, Vince’s coaching technique seems over the top. Simon Salzman’s review on Curtainup.com states, “For some strange and inexplicable reason, the Lombardi we see in this play takes charge the way that General Patton presumably did with his troops and bullies his team to a series of immortal successes. At the same time, it’s a wonder that anyone could stay in a room with him for more than two minutes.” What Salzman fails to understand is Vince’s virtue of discipline. As I noted previously:

To be successful, Lombardi knew, that it required a dedication to temperance and temperance required a disciplined mind. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi insisted on individual and team discipline. Certainly his dedication in his religious beliefs contributed to his view on the matter, but his experience as an assistant coach at West Point confirmed for him the importance of discipline in football. On the gridiron, attention to detail is of primary importance, as the sport is, as is famously said, a game of inches. Consequently, Lombardi learned and later taught that a careful, disciplined approach was a key to success. At West Point Head Coach Colonel Earl H. “Red” Blaik was fanatically insistent on analyzing plays on film, looking for ways to improve his own team while probing for weaknesses in opponents. After hiring Lombardi, he quickly convinced the enthusiastic young coach of the importance of this type of disciplined and detailed preparation. Every movement was scrutinized, how the upper body was positioned and where the feet were placed. “It’s surprising how many players tipped by the position of their feet, the angle of their body. You could tell whether it was a wedge play, pass play, dive play, sweep,” Lombardi said. “You see whether a lineman can be had to the inside. You make notes on paper and put books together on the formations and the personnel.” This kind of preparation was revolutionary at the time. “Such comprehensive analysis and adjustment would become routine among football coaches decades later, but it was rare then,” Maraniss observed.

To be successful, though, meant to make discipline and temperance a habit outside of football, in everyday life. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, bringing this kind of dedication to temperance and discipline to a hitherto very lackadaisical and undisciplined team was a major part of the Lombardi program. The great coach, for instance, insisted on strict curfews. Just how strict was brought home for star Packer players Max McGee and Paul Hornung during the team’s first training camp under Lombardi in 1959. “Vince’s rule was that you had to be in bed each night by eleven, with your lights off and your clothes off,” recalled Hornung. One night during training camp Hornung and roommate McGee decided to press their luck with regard to the curfew, returning from a night on the town to their room at St. Norbert College as the clock chimed eleven. As they walked into their room, “there was Vince, standing in our room, taking bed check,” Hornung recalled. Lombardi, famed for his temper, was not happy. “It’ll cost you a hundred and fifty each,” he told the tardy players. “What for?” Hornung asked, thinking they had made it to their rooms on time, if only just barely. “We’re in our room.” To Lombardi, though, the rule had clearly been violated. “You’re supposed to be in bed,” he admonished. “That’s a hundred and a half,” he said again before walking determinedly out of the room.

Hornung also found out, on another occasion, that Lombardi insisted on discipline and temperance in public too. The team was in Chicago the night before a game against the division rival Chicago Bears, and Hornung and a date were at the Red Carpet Restaurant for dinner. The couple intended on having a drink before dinner and the girl suggested they sit at the bar. Hornung knew that coach Lombardi had strict rules against his players sitting at bars, but the coach wasn’t there and, so, who would know? At that, the couple took their seats at the bar. As they were doing so, Hornung mentioned Lombardi’s rule, saying, ”It’d be something if Lombardi walked in here right now.” And that’s just what happened. “I got my martini and took my first sip,” Hornung recalled, “and the girl did a double-take and said, “Oh, my God, there’s Lombardi!” This time the indiscretion cost Hornung five hundred dollars.

Lombardi’s success on the field was, perhaps, exceeded by his impact on those who knew and worked with and for him. He was so respected that players would do almost anything not to disappoint him. Bart Starr, the Packers’ famous quarterback, was among those who, even when injured, continued on just so as not to disappoint the coach. “I remember I played an exhibition game against Cleveland with a shoulder separation and, I’ll admit it, I played lousy,” Starr recalled. “But, jeepers, my shoulder was killing me. And he (Lombardi) came up to me during the game and said, ‘Good God! You’re playing like you’re crippled!’ And I didn’t say a word to him about my shoulder because I had too much respect for him.” Coach Lombardi also overawed Jerry Kramer, the Packers’ all-pro offensive lineman. “I knew the emotions he aroused in me: Awe, love-hate, respect, gratitude and, certainly, fear. Very few things in life have frightened me, but Vince Lombardi did,” Kramer said. “Not physically, of course. I feared his disapproval.”

Perhaps the greatest testament to the man that was Vince Lombardi came from legendary NFL player and long-time Monday Night Football announcer Frank Gifford. “Vinny believes in the Spartan life,” Gifford once noted. He believed in total dedication, in getting the job done no matter the time and effort needed. “I saw the movie, Patton,” said Gifford, “and it was Vince Lombardi. The situation was different, but the thought was the same: We’re here to do a job, and each and every one of us will put everything we’ve got into getting the job done. That was Vince. Patton believed in reincarnation. Who knows? Maybe it was Patton who coached the Packers.”

The beginning of the play shows, according to Salzman, “Lombardi’s instinctively combative nature, a trait that made him automatically vulnerable to the press, media and fans.” I don’t think that I would use the word “vulnerable” in the same sentence with Vince Lombardi. In fact,

Vince Lombardi was a thoroughgoing individualist, unafraid of criticism, willing to stand up for what was right, and, if he found himself out of tune with the prevailing culture, willing to courageously defend his apparent anachronisms. He certainly did this on the field. But off the field, too, he let his opinions be known. Wrapped up in football, Vince hardly noticed the growing radicalism of the culture in the 1960’s. “As he acknowledged later,” author Maraniss notes, “he had been ‘so wrapped up’ in his own world, in his God and family and especially the Green Bay Packers, that he had not seen it coming, and then ‘all of a sudden there it was’ ⎯ all around him.” Vince Lombardi was a standing rebuke to the hippies, protestors, the Communists, and all the other radicals of the time. “All of this was deplored by Lombardi as a dangerous disregard for authority and an abuse of liberty,” writes Maraniss. Importantly, Vince Lombardi had the courage to speak out: “I am sure,” he said in a speech to business leaders,
you are disturbed like I am by what seems to be a complete breakdown of law and order and the moral code which is almost beyond belief. Unhappily, our youth, the most gifted segment of our population, the heirs to scientific advances and freedom’s breath, the beneficiaries of their elders’ sacrifices and achievements, seem, in too large numbers, to have disregard for the law’s authority, for its meaning, for its indispensability to their enjoyment of the fullness of life, and have conjoined with certain of their elders, who should know better, to seek a development of a new right, the right to violate the law with impunity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be if you don’t like the rule, break it.

Having this courage to take a stand on important issues in public, Lombardi would probably say, stemmed from the practice of the very same virtue on the field. After all, football is a dangerous sport. Each player on each play must face an opponent who, within the rules of the game, will do anything physically possible to obstruct his progress. It takes courage on each and every play. It also takes courage to continue forward in the face of adversity. Thus, Vince’s insistence on winning was, in fact, an insistence on having the courage to have the will to win. As a result, Lombardi emphasized the point that he didn’t want “good losers.” “I don’t want any good losers around here, Joe McPartland remembered him telling the squad every year. If you think it’s good to be a loser, give the other guy the opportunity. Good losing, he said, was just a way to live with yourself. It’s a way to live with defeat.”

According to the actors, visiting Wisconsin and performing for a crowd that treasures the Green Bay Packers and its history was a wonderful experience. When actor Michael Hobbs described Vince’s cancer and death on the stage in Wisconsin, he explained that he could just feel the despair and the connection that his audience projected. Some people were almost moved to tears while others like Dave Robinson and Jerry Kramer were overwhelmed with emotion during the performance. Here again, Saltzman is incorrect when claiming that “… Lombardi wasn’t a very nice guy. It’s hard for us to care about him….”  In addition, Robert Christopher Riley chuckled and was in disbelief when he witnessed Green Bay Packer fans tailgating during a shareholders meeting. And when asked what they thought of Lambeau field, Riley explained that the best word to describe it is “Awesome.”

And that’s an appropriate word for Lombardi, the play. The actors, the writers, the directors, and everyone involved with the production obviously respect the central character of the play. And they likewise brought out details of Lombardi’s family life as well, particularly the devotion between Vince and Marie.

After a long and successful run, Lombardi has come to the end of the line as a Broadway production. In holding its final performances first at Lambeau Field itself and then at the leading performing arts center in the heart of Packer country, those responsible for the play have shown that they not only respect and love the Lombardis but also the fans and people of Wisconsin who still look back on the the Lombardi era with a special fondness.

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Dennis Behreandt is the managing editor of the American Daily Herald.