In portraying football legend Vince Lombardi onstage, local actor Ken Moretti has more in common with the coaching great than just his New York upbringing. As a teenager, Moretti attended Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx.
On the Rose Hill campus of Fordham University — the school Lombardi had attended and later served as coach — Fordham Prep seemed to exude the driven spirit that would lead Lombardi to win five National Football League championships and the first two Super Bowls.
“I basically had opportunity to follow … in the footsteps that he walked and places that he worked and fields that he played on,” says Moretti, who balanced his time at Fordham in the mid-1960s between the theater and the gridiron as Lombardi was making history as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. “He was there in spirit everywhere. His image and his ambience was throughout that school.”
Starting Nov. 7, audiences at the Firehouse Theatre will also receive a dose of the man’s character through the play “Lombardi.” Written by Eric Simonson and based on David Maraniss’ book “When Pride Still Mattered: a Life of Vince Lombardi,” the show premiered on Broadway in 2010 with Dan Lauria of “The Wonder Years” fame as the lead.
Following him during a week of the 1965 season as he attempts to lead his Packers to the NFL championship, the play illuminates aspects of Lombardi’s life and worldview as he’s interviewed by a fictional journalist for a magazine. As the journalist tries to peel back the layers of Lombardi’s gruff exterior, he meets resistance from the coach whose name adorns the trophy given to each year’s Super Bowl winning team.
“The writer will not be bullied into turning this into some puff piece,” says Scott Wichmann, the show’s director. “He really wants to get into the marrow of the man, as it were.”
Wichmann — a die-hard New England Patriots fan who recently played nine roles in Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — says that though Lombardi made his name with football, his legacy concerns more than success in the realm of pigskin.
“He’s the most celebrated football coach of all time, but he sort of transcends football. He really knew how to manage people, and he knew how to work towards a common purpose,” Wichmann says. “[The show is] a portrait of leadership, but not a fawning portrait.”
Though known for his volatile and domineering manner, Lombardi was also an early voice against racial discrimination in the NFL, stating that he “viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green.” With zero tolerance for racism, he once warned his team that anyone who acted in a prejudiced manner towards a Packer involved in an interracial relationship would be fired from the team. He held the same standard of tolerance regarding gay football players and members of the Packers administration.
“He was a very strong proponent of equality,” Moretti says. “He picked the hotels where the players stayed, and if black players couldn’t stay there, no one stayed there.”
Warts and all, Moretti says the play gives a closer look at the makeup of an ambitious man.
“No matter what field he was in, he was going to be noticed. He had that drive,” Moretti says. “He was bigger than life, so whatever venue he appeared in, it was going to get somebody’s attention.”
For Wichmann, he says he hopes the show appeals to fans of theater and football alike.
“We’re seeing a snapshot of a man, a marriage, a football team and a career,” Wichmann says. “If you don’t really know much about football, it really is about a man facing a changing world and finding his place in it. And if you are a football fan — and maybe a theater person — you’re going to see a story that maybe you know [but] maybe you don’t know every nuance of.”
“Lombardi” plays Nov. 7-23 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, call 355-2001 or visit firehousetheatre.org.