There's a striking, brutish defiance in the name: the Green Bay Packers. Big-time professional sports teams always bear the names of big cities. They're linked to the titles of noble or adventurous professions, colossal forces of nature, fearsome animals, or birds of prey. Green Bay is a wee town amid the nation's Goliaths, proud to sport the label of workers who transform slaughtered meat into canned goods.
Matching the pugnacity of the Pack is its most notorious coach. This week, we take a look into the heart and soul of Packer greatness as Lombardi opens at CAST for a five-week run through Sept. 29. Adapted by playwright Eric Simonson from When Pride Still Mattered —— A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss, the drama is concentrated into a week of preparation prior to a huge but forgotten game in Packer history.
This game will determine whether the Pack will make the playoffs, whether Lombardi will begin his unsurpassed string of three consecutive NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
After triumphing in recent years in roles ranging from the Marquis de Sade to Willy Loman, Charles LaBorde certainly has the range to play the famously temperamental and dictatorial leader of the Packers. And thanks to the meticulous Michael Simmons, artistic director at CAST, he'll also have Vince's signature teeth and eyeglass frames.
"Those teeth are fun," LaBorde deadpans. "I have to pry them out of my mouth at the end of the night. Quite a few times in the play, I have to drink. Like scotch and stuff. There's one scene where Vince is drinking Pepto-Bismol. Boy, is that fun! And then the stuff gets caught around the teeth."
LaBorde's an actor , so he can use his discomfort to channel the orneriness of the famed football coach. He can also use his past experience as a teacher and a high school principal. Even fans who remember Lombardi may not be aware of his gifts as a teacher.
"He spent years and years as a high school teacher," LaBorde points out. "He taught, of all things, chemistry, physics, and Latin! He also spoke French. Now how's that for your basic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill football coach? He brought that skill in teaching to the Packers. Talk about back to basics: The play opens with him saying, 'Gentlemen, this is a football.' He did that every season. Starting at square one. He'd reteach every thing."
The fictional reporter of Lombardi journeys to the Frozen Tundra on assignment from Look magazine, unaware that his editor and Vince are close buds. So Vince has final approval on what the article will say about him. Checkmate for the controlling SOB.
On the other hand, our narrator gets to spend a week in the home of Vince and Marie Lombardi. He gets to shoot the breeze with football's Golden Boy, halfback Paul Hornung, and his partner in the devastating Green Bay Sweep, fullback Jim Taylor. And so — vicariously — do we. In the process, the cub reporter becomes like a surrogate son.
"Paul, along with Bart Starr, really were Vince's surrogate sons," says LaBorde, "because his relationship with his own son was so difficult."
It was also pretty tough on Marie, who hardly has a sober moment all evening long. She loves her husband, loves being a celebrated coach's wife, but Vince's previous job, before his breakthrough opportunity in Green Bay, was as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Poor Marie must pull out an atlas to figure out where they're going.
Players and family both loved and hated the legendary coach.
"Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay , which was about Lombardi's last year, uses the words 'we loved him' and 'we hated him,'" LaBorde stresses. "When you read Kramer's book, you realize he means both those things. They really did absolutely hate him at times, but because he was driving them toward something they wanted, which was success in football, they loved him. They can't stand him, but they wouldn't work for anyone else."
The tough, sometimes abusive Lombardi style of coaching is a relic, blown away by the advent of the NFL Players Association. A glimmer of that new era in Lombardi occurs when Jim Taylor declares that he's sending an agent to negotiate his next contract. LaBorde can tell you how virulently Vince hated that, citing the tale of lineman Jim Ringo. His lawyer marched into Lombardi's office — since he was Green Bay's GM as well as head coach — and said he was there to represent his client.
Leaving his office, Lombardi returned within 20 minutes, telling the lawyer that he was in the wrong office.
"He traded him!" laughs LaBorde. "He went into another room, traded the player, and then basically told the lawyer to get the hell out of his office. So that's how he felt about lawyers and the NFL Players Association."
(Lombardi runs through Sept. 29 at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, 2424 N. Davidson St. For reservations or more info, call 704-455-8542 or go to www.nccast.com.)