Stan Hochman: Learning all about Lombardi's act

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Photo: Joan Marcus

NEW YORK - Vince Lombardi was not the first to say, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." As a matter of fact, he might have swiped it from a 1960 John Wayne movie named "Trouble Along the Way."

Wayne plays a devious football coach named Steve Williams, with an 11-year old daughter and a bitter ex-wife. Donna Reed plays the social worker investigating the family dynamics and winds up falling in love with the coach.

At a game, Reed asks, "Is winning so important?" And the tomboy daughter replies, "Like Steve says, 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' "

A make-believe sportswriter tells the Green Bay coach about the John Wayne movie and the little girl's memorable line in a Broadway play called "Lombardi" that opens at Circle in the Square on Oct. 21.

Lombardi grumbles, mutters, "It's a good line" and then amends it to say, "Winning is an attitude."

The play is based on David Maraniss' brilliant biography, "When Pride Still Mattered." The book is 504 lively pages long and I was eager to see how playwright Eric Simonson condensed the life and times of the legendary coach into a crisp 90 minutes of theatre.

You get snapshots, some of them lean and accurate, some of them daintily photo-shopped. See the play and then read the book if you really want to understand Lombardi's lust for winning and the way he went about fulfilling it.

The make-believe sportswriter, in Green Bay for a week to write a magazine story about Lombardi that never gets published, helps move the play along, narrator-style.

He spouts dazzling statistics, he tells you about Lombardi's birth, "He was born in Brooklyn. His father was a butcher. His mother was a perfectionist." He tells you about his death, from colon cancer. "He was 57."

He tries to pry a quote from the off-limits Jim Taylor and winds up bullied and humiliated at a Packers' practice. Which gives the players (Taylor, Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson) a chance to tell him that Lombardi saves that kind of harsh treatment for the people he really cares about.

"Discipline with love," is the way Lombardi once described his philosophy of coaching to me. Scream at a player on the practice field and then fondly wrap a beefy arm around him in the locker room to let him know you love him.

"What you'll get from him," Marie Lombardi warns the make-believe sportswriter early on, "is God, family and the Green Bay Packers. And not necessarily in that order."

Marie has the best lines, funny, sardonic, poignant. She seldom appears without a drink in her hand, fighting off the loneliness with alcohol. Lombardi was a passionate coach, but a harsh husband and a fumbling father.

Too many other points are blurred. Hornung talks about "a li'l bit of trouble" when he blames a 1-year suspension for betting on football games for a knee injury. Marie confesses to missing a Packer game in San Francisco to go shopping with Vince's brother, Harry. "He was different," she says. He was gay."

The one funny line attributed to Lombardi in banquet speeches involves him coming to bed and Marie yipping, "God, your feet are cold" and Lombardi says, "It's OK, around here, you can call me Vince."

In the play, he comes home from a wintry practice and reaches out to her and she says, "God, your hands are cold" and he delivers his irreverent answer.

And it makes you wonder why they felt they had to change Hornung's famous line about his daddy's advice, "Get married in the morning . . . that way, if it doesn't work out, you haven't ruined the whole day" to "Why get married in the morning when you might meet someone else that evening?"

It's a play designed to please husbands and wives, although the women's eyes might glaze over in the 6-minute explanation of the Packers' signature play, the power sweep.

Turns out there were 100 options to the play, depending on how it's defended. "Freedom within discipline" is the exultant explanation, a mantra borrowed from the Jesuits.

There's not enough football in the play and too much squawking about sportswriters and sportswriting from Lombardi. "They filmed a documentary and used the phrase 'frozen tundra'" he yelps. "That's re-dun-dant."

Steve Sabol, of NFL Films, can have some fun with that one, when he's part of a post-play talk-back with the audience on Oct. 26.

If you go to the play, get there early. They've transformed the lower lobby into a museum-like exhibition. The most meaningful item is a player's bench from the last game Lombardi coached at Lambeau Field, Dec. 31, 1967.

Simple, wooden slats. He'd have hated those soft, cushiony, heated benches they use today. You can count on that. *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@comcast.net