Almost forty years ago I was living on a military base in the western half of what was then a wall-divided Berlin. Because I spoke only rudimentary German my options for in-home entertainment were limited to the American Forces Network, which was in turn limited to re-runs of old comedy shows, variety "spectaculars" and sporting events from days of yore.
British-born and European-raised, I was neither attracted to, nor interested in American sports. I found baseball dull and basketball redundant. But football, which reminded me in its brutality of my native game of rugby, was a different story. Over time I came to decipher and appreciate the intricacies of the game, and nothing fascinated me more than watching films of the Sixties-era Green Bay Packers. The cool, cruel efficiency with which they dismantled their opponents was almost hypnotic. Their defense was merciless, their offense a machine of remarkable precision. I became a lifelong Packers fan on the spot.
But as intriguing as the players were, it was to the block-like figure in a drab overcoat that I was drawn. Hands thrust deep into pockets, hat jammed down on a square head that jerked back as an order was barked out, he stumped and stamped along the sideline. In a darkened room, by the blue light of the flickering television, I had my first encounter with the Lombardi legend.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s. I was living in Phoenix, and through a series of quirky circumstances, I found myself sharing a cocktail with several members of the Packers organization. Some of them had worked with Lombardi in that golden era, and what they said about the late coach reminded me of Lord Acton's dictum that "Great men are rarely good men." Their assessments of Lombardi came as a shock to me, and as the stories were poured out with the drinks I learned more than I might have wanted to about the all-too-fallible Pope of Green Bay.
Another fifteen years passed and I was living in Wisconsin when David Maraniss' incisive biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, hit the bookshelves. All those dark stories from Phoenix were confirmed as Maraniss exposed the layers of a remarkably complex man. Maraniss never shied away from anything that might tarnish Lombardi's idealized reputation, even as he illuminated what elevated his subject to iconic status in the first place. Award-winning playwright Eric Simonson took inspiration from the Maraniss book and wrote Lombardi/The Only Thing, currently playing at the Madison Repertory Theatre, which commissioned the play.
Simonson has constructed a fantasy around a series of conversations Lombardi has in his mind while suffering through a blackout caused by his ill health. (He died of intestinal cancer in 1970.) It's an intriguing device, allowing Simonson to explore the many influences that shaped Lombardi's personality and philosophy.
The play introduces us to St. Ignatius (patron saint of Fordham University, where Lombardi played offensive guard as one of the mythical Seven Blocks of Granite); Red Blaik (head coach at West Point, who gave Lombardi his first coaching job); Henry Lombardi (Vince's father, a stern Brooklyn butcher); and John F. Kennedy (a man whom Lombardi revered, both as a president and a Catholic.)
Meeting in an imaginary airport lounge, the five men play a game of cards while being served drinks by a mysterious flight attendant called Eva. During the game, the group discusses life, death, football and (of course) what it means to win. As Lombardi confronts his own mortality he achieves insight into his failings as a man who has spent his life desperately trying, as St. Ignatius puts it, to forge "perfection out of something that is always imperfect." It was a struggle that ultimately cost Lombardi his life.
And so it was that I had come full circle. Sitting in the dark once more, watching that gap-toothed genius of the playbook as film of the immortal "Packer Sweep" flickered in the background. At the play's conclusion, Lombardi's theatrical alter ego delivers a moving homily to the power of loving what is imperfect. From a man who could tolerate nothing less than perfection in anything or anyone, these are rare words. Simonson has found a way to make good on them.