Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly said that "Lombardi," a Broadway play about NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi, is being produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The play was written by Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Eric Simonson, but the producers are Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser. The column also incorrectly said that the play focuses on five characters; it focuses on six.

Still in a league of his own

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By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vince Lombardi was buried 40 years ago this week, and yet he's still alive, haunting NFL locker rooms in photographs and sayings on the walls, a fedora covering his square-cut bristles, blunt teeth bared in a grin-grimace, shouting epigrams in that big steel drum of a voice: "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." He is everywhere. His name is engraved on the Super Bowl trophy, and this fall he's about to star on Broadway.

"The remarkable thing is how present he is," says stage director Thomas Kail. "This is a man who is spoken about almost in the present tense."

Lombardi has never quite died, though he was memorialized on Sept. 7, 1970 with a requiem mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral after succumbing to colon cancer at the age of just 57 at Georgetown Hospital. He is continually revived via highlights and memorialized in bronze, frozen in his priest's overcoat and thick-framed glasses, until he's become almost the high cleric of football. Now the Steppenwolf Theatre is making Lombardi come alive on the stage, in a portrait drawn less from priestly legend than the complex reality of the man. What makes Lombardi worthwhile theater is "the drive to perfection of a very imperfect man," says Washington Post associated editor David Maraniss, author of "When Pride Still Mattered," the authoritative biography on which playwright Eric Simonson and director Kail have based their play, which opens in previews at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Sept. 23.

The play, like the biography, tries to get beyond the Lombardi of speechy epigrams such as "run to daylight," or "fatigue makes cowards of us all," or "winning is the only thing."

The living Lombardi was conflicted about his excesses, and he came to regret his association with the reductive phrase: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." He wasn't even the first to say it; he merely paraphrased another coach named Red Saunders. Still, it stuck to him like gum to his shoe, and he repented of it. "I wished I'd never said the thing," he said, almost desperately. "I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality."

The play focuses on that tension in Lombardi, using five characters: the coach, played by Dan Lauria; his wife Marie, played by Judith Light; two of his players, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung; and a reporter who follows the Green Bay Packers and observes the price of Lombardi's ambition, the human exchange rate as he won five championships in nine years. Using the physical structure of the Circle in the Square theatre, director Kail aims to give the audience a sense of what it was to play for Lombardi, to be the subject of his electric focus, and incessant demands. When actor Lauria, who played linebacker at Southern Connecticut State, first stood on the stage and looked around, he said, "Oh, we're back in the locker room."

The Lombardi worth remembering was a fascinating study in emotional contrasts and competing qualities, both tough and bookish, a sometimes neglectful family man yet capable of bonding a roomful of unrelated men into a family. As an undersized player at Fordham he was viciously physical - he weighed 180 but it was said that when he hit you it felt like 250. Once an assistant coach named Frank Leahy caught him with a blind-side block. "Try that again," Lombardi snarled, and next time he laid Leahy out. Leahy picked himself up. "Okay, kid," he said, "you'll do." But Lombardi was also unapologetically intellectual, and immensely proud of his Jesuit education, to the point that he sometimes exaggerated his credential. Still, he was learned enough that in his early stint as a high school teacher in New Jersey he taught Latin, algebra, physics, and chemistry.

He was both guilty, and dutiful."I don't think Vince was ever a child," Marie Lombardi told Time magazine back in 1963. "I think he was born conscientious."

Yet his conscientiousness didn't make him an attentive husband. From Monday through Wednesday, when he game-planned for the Packers, "We don't talk," Marie said. On Thursday, when practice wound down, "We say hello." On Friday "he is civil," and on Saturday "downright pleasant," Marie said. By then he had had time to talk to his wife.

According to Kail, a main theme of the stage play is that Lombardi was, at times, closer to his teams than to his own relations. In re-reading old Lombardi stories and listening to his voice again, what survives is his deep understanding of and buried sympathy for his best players. There is no other term for it than intimacy. Packer greats Bart Starr and Paul Hornung were among his honorary pallbearers, and two of the last people to visit him in the hospital were two of the Redskins who gave him his last winning season, Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff. Jurgensen considered him the finest coach he ever had, and never forgot what Lombardi said to him. "I don't want you to be anybody else but you," he told Jurgensen. "I need you to be the best version of who you are."

It was that Lombardi, a demanding and yet feeling man, who was such an incalculable loss to the coaching profession. The real Lombardi certainly did not believe that winning was everything. He understood that the scoreboard was just a façade, a small surface reflection beneath which was the real action, the tangle of relationships, the push and pull, and the cycle of work that was a form of mutual giving. Lombardi said this about the men who played for him, and it should apply to every professional regardless of the field. "Every time a football player goes to ply his trade he's got to play from the ground up - from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's okay. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second."

Or take this Lombardi reflection on mental toughness, a phrase we so often use without really defining it. It's made up of "many things," he said.

"It is humility because it behooves all of us to remember that simplicity is the sign of greatness and meekness is the sign of true strength. Mental toughness is spartanism with qualities of sacrifice, self-denial, dedication. It is fearlessness, and it is love."

The man who said that was the Lombardi really worth admiring, memorializing and bronzing - and the Lombardi who hopefully survives. As Maraniss observes, what was truly great about Lombardi was his grasp of "a timeless idea that is as applicable in jazz and dance and writing and other art forms as in football - freedom through discipline."

Lombardi had a supreme gift for teaching that central competitive equation. He enunciated and conciliated the dueling qualities and principles required to succeed, freedom and discipline, pride and punishment, what it takes and what it costs. Which was why his best quotes were far longer than a sentence, and why he is deserving of 90 minutes of theater.

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