“The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” — Vince Lombardi
Since ancient Greece, athletes have been celebrated as demigods for demonstrating feats of strength and will beyond what the average human can achieve.
In the wide world of sports, there have been giants who set a new precedent by redefining how a sport is played. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and Vince Lombardi each changed their respective games by setting new standards of excellence never before seen.
Lombardi did so by reshaping the game of football into the modern version enjoyed by millions of fans, with a revolutionary coaching style and on-field tactics. He is still regarded as one of the greatest leaders in the coaching world.
The Savannah Repertory Theatre will stage “Lombardi,” a biography play that brings the larger-than-life character down to a human scale by telling the story of his two families: the one on the gridiron and the one at home.
The stage adaption was based on the Lombardi biography, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” but instead of focusing on the nuances of how he changed football, the play uses a fictional journalist, Michael McCormick (Tyler Gray), as the audience’s guide through a very human story.
“It focuses much more on his two families,” Savannah Repertory co-founder and Artistic Director Ken Hailey said. “It’s not a play about football statistics."
“How he carries his personal philosophy, and I think this was inadvertent on his part, because I don’t think he thought of himself as motivational so much as philosophically, people should work together,” Sandra Krass (Marie Lombardi) said. “We collectively are better than the sum of our parts. That was what he believed. He trained as a Jesuit and considered the priesthood.
“His Jesuit principles were that you sacrificed yourself for the greater good,” Krass continued. “We’re all in this together. He naturally carried that into his coaching. He didn’t let any individual on his team not consider the other individual. He didn’t tolerate any petty skirmishes or disputes. He didn’t tolerate racism or homophobia because it interfered with how we work together.”
“Both of those things were really ahead of their time,” Hailey added. “We’re talking late 1950s into the very early '60s. He was definitely on the forefront of the civil rights movement. He treated his players as family. His family had a few issues, but they were still a very strong family.”
The 90-minute play takes place over a week in 1965, with flashbacks to 1958. It was the last year of the NFL championship before the Super Bowl was formed. Lombardi, who would go on to win the championship that year, was in the midst of his storied career. He would go on to win the first two Super Bowls, bringing his tally of championships to five. After he died of cancer in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named after him.
“We have some naughty words in this one,” Hailey warned. “You can’t cut them. One of the key aspects of Lombardi’s personality was he was a devout Catholic. At mass every morning. Talked the talked and walked the walked. He coached, essentially, like a Jesuit. That was his coaching technique. He was a very devout man, yet he talked like a sailor. People are like, ‘Can you cut the language?’ No! Not for him, because you’re whining about his personality.”
The cast is a mixture of New York-based professional actors and local actors. Equity actor Skip Corris will handle Lombardi, with Tyler Gray as Michael McCormick, Christian Noble as Dave Robinson, Nolan Burke as Paul Hornung and Ryan McVey as Jim Taylor. Technical director and production design is by Erik Bishop with costumes by Tom Kleinert.