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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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The Madison Rep dramatizes the Green Bay Packers' legendary coach
The play invents a hallucinatory fantasy.
The play invents a hallucinatory fantasy.
Credit:Brent Nicastro for Madison Repertory Theatre

Vince Lombardi called it his "bread and butter." Paul Hornung called it "the best play in football."

Bart Starr called it this way: "Fire, brown right, 49 sweep, zone blocking, on two." At the snap, guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer would pull back, arcing their way to one side of the line, and Starr would hand off as the team swept into motion.

In the 1960s, fans around the country called it the Packer Sweep, the play that helped turn Vince Lombardi's Green Bay team from a 1-10-1 laughingstock to the proud residents of Titletown, USA.

Eric Simonson remembers the Packer Sweep. He grew up in Wisconsin, and his uncle was on the Packer board of directors. He was only seven when the Packers won their first Super Bowl, but he remembers the legacy.

Simonson has been thinking a lot about the Packer Sweep these days, but not just to relive the original Packer glory days.

"The Packer Sweep is like America," he says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "Individuals working as a unit. That's what Lombardi and the Packers were all about. And that's what we all aspire to - all of America, all of humanity. Think of any great experience you've had in your life, and it's usually when a number of people, all of a single mind, accomplish something that's good."

Simonson's fascination with Lombardi and the Packers has led him to a curious place for a football fan: a theater stage. His new play, Lombardi: The Only Thing, runs at the Madison Repertory Theatre Nov. 9-Dec. 2.

But it's not an unusual place for Simonson. A longtime member of Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Ensemble (which includes actors like Gary Sinise and John Mahoney), he has written and directed plays all over the country, including Broadway. He's also a filmmaker, and his movies and plays often betray a fascination with the impact of a lone individual on the collective consciousness of America. He won an Academy Award in 2005 for his short documentary about the radio pioneer Norman Corwin. And his most produced play to date, Work Song, is a free-spirited examination of the life of Wisconsin's most famous iconoclast, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Interestingly enough, Lombardi: The Only Thing exhibited its own brand of teamwork, one where the two major players were working toward the same goal without even realizing it.

Simonson remained obsessed about Lombardi and the Packers long after he left Wisconsin. "I knew all his quotes and I was intrigued by his philosophy about winning," he says. "I was amazed at his ability to win, and amazed how he was revered all over the country."

But it wasn't until the success of Work Song that Simonson began to think of putting Lombardi on stage. The lives of Wright and Lombardi posed the same sorts of questions: "What about them captured the imagination of a great cross-section of people?" According to Simonson, Lombardi's fans included "not just guys who worked at the beer factory, but intellectuals and business leaders as well."

Simonson developed a treatment of the story but put it on the shelf as other projects came up.

Cut to Richard Corley, the Madison Repertory Theatre's artistic director. When Corley moved to Madison in 2001, he set about reading "essential" Wisconsin books to help him learn about his new Midwestern home. One of them was David Maraniss' Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered.

"I thought it was one of the best sports books I've ever read," recalls Corley. "It really put Lombardi in context - in terms of his influences, faults, and the way he was both an icon of American manhood and also a living embodiment of what was wrong with American manhood. It was really a complex portrayal of this man."

Corley eventually had lunch with Maraniss and discussed the possibility of turning the Lombardi story into a play.

"He said he loved the theater," recalls Corley, "and wanted the complexity of the book to come through on stage. In other words, he was completely in synch with what I wanted."

Corley initially approached Jeffrey Hatcher, the Minneapolis-based playwright who had written for the Rep and for Corley's former theater, the Acting Company. Hatcher didn't think a football play was his thing, but he connected Corley with his friend Simonson, who he knew was interested in a Lombardi play. With Hatcher as matchmaker, Simonson and Corley had a contract in a matter of weeks, and Corley had a draft of the play on his desk in three months.

Simonson also knew Maraniss' book, which heavily influenced his approach to the play from the beginning. What fascinated him was Maraniss' focus on Lombardi's Jesuit and Catholic upbringing, as well as his relationship with a few significant mentors. Two of these were his father and Colonel Red Blaik, the head coach at Army, where Lombardi spent four years as an assistant.

But dramatizing these ideas was no simple task. "It was challenging to find an incident that would say something about who the man was," says Simonson. "Unlike a lot of famous men, Lombardi had no transforming event that altered or formed his character. He seems to have been born Vince Lombardi, and it was up to the world to catch up to him."

So Simonson struggled to find a theatrical form that would fit his subject. He found it in George Bernard Shaw's "drama of ideas."

It's not the first time the playwright has experimented with form. For Work Song, Simonson sensed three different phases in Frank Lloyd Wright's life. So rather than a straight biographical narrative, he captured the man with a trilogy of one-act plays of distinct styles, each one illustrating a different period in Wright's life.

For Lombardi as well, Simonson knew that a simple narrative wouldn't do the trick. Dealing with the ideas in Maraniss' book would require something different. So he invented a hallucinatory fantasy not unlike the one found in Shaw's Don Juan in Hell - several characters from different places and times coming together in a spirited conversation. Here, they play a game of sheepshead while waiting for their flight at a snowed-in airport.

The conversations reflect the myriad parts of Lombardi's personality: his Brooklyn working-class roots, his Catholic upbringing, and his immersion in the philosophy of the Jesuits (he played football at Fordham University, where he was part of that school's legendary "Seven Blocks of Granite" offensive line).

Lombardi's Jesuit ideas speak strongly to why the coach became an American icon. "Jesuits believe in coming closer to God through perfection in work," Simonson explains. "That idea was commandeered by America; or the American character and Jesuit philosophy arrived at the same place by coincidence. That's what I came to understand in writing the play: The reason we're attracted to Lombardi is that he reflects everything that we aspire to as a culture."

Of course, along with that quest for perfection came Lombardi's reputation for stubbornness and a hot-tempered obsession with victory: Winning is the only thing. But by fleshing out the legend, the play reveals the human being behind the icon.

"People who don't know him might think, 'Well, this is the story of a man with a personality of a butcher,'" says Corley. "But his religion and his sense of brotherhood among men makes him much more interesting. He had both an obsession with the power of violence and a commitment to the concept of love. These two things did not exist in opposition in him. They were part of the same matrix."

That sense of brotherhood, says Simonson, also stemmed from Jesuit ideas. "Out of many, one," he explains. "We're all individuals, but the way we triumph is by succeeding as one."

Which brings us back to the Packer Sweep, a play that illustrates a lot about Lombardi's coaching philosophy.

"All the teams they played against knew the Packers would run it," says Simonson. "They just didn't know how to defend against it because there were all these options. It wasn't just a play where players mechanically went here and did this. Your players had to be smart. They had to read the defense and react."

So despite Lombardi's reputation as demanding and controlling, Simonson says, the Packers were "a team that ran itself."

"Once they got to the game," he says, "Lombardi was the most useless person on the sidelines. He didn't call the plays, Starr did."

And there's the paradox of Lombardi. He was strong-willed and iconoclastic, an American individualist in one respect. But in the end, that forceful personality was aimed at the creation of a perfect team, an egoless collective.

That's the stuff of which legends are made.

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