By Dan Curran   Published Sep 25, 2008 at 5:45 PM
Vince Lombardi was not a cardboard cutout.

The folks at Next Act Theatre want you to know that the man whose former players at times regarded him with dread, whose style was honed by five seasons at West Point, was more than the caricature of a ranting, drill sergeant-type of coach.

Next Act's production of "Lombardi: The Only Thing" portrays the legendary coach as someone who also dealt with doubts and frustration. That might come as a surprise to some, says David Cecsarini, who plays the Brooklyn-born Lombardi.

"He's so consumed by this need to win, and it's what's killing the team," Cecsarini says. "Nobody's having any fun even in winning."

By 1964, Lombardi had inquired about other jobs, Cecsarini notes, and it was a low point in his time in Green Bay.

The play consists of what Cecsarini calls a "fantasy intervention" that takes place as Lombardi waits out a snow storm at the Milwaukee airport following the 1964 season.

President John F. Kennedy and Saint Ignatius of Loyola are among the figures who reach out to the man Cecsarini describes as "the pope of our state religion, the Packers." The play is inspired by the 1999 Lombardi biography "When Pride Still Mattered," by Wisconsin author David Maraniss.

Cecsarini points to several factors that created these doubts for Lombardi in 1964: his team's failure to make the championship in several years (in part due to the loss of star Paul Hornung to a gambling suspension); their drubbing in a meaningless play-off runner-up game, which Lombardi called "the Toilet Bowl" and his frustrations as the Packer's general manager in dealing with the changing business environment of the NFL, shaped by competition with the budding AFL.

"He hated agents getting between him and his players," says Cecsarini.

In Next Act's telling of St. Vince's tale, during his airport layover Lombardi finds the motivation he needs to embark on the run to three consecutive NFL Championships, and wins in the first two Super Bowls. In the process the Lombardi character reflects the detachment which the real Lombardi was said to have for his best known quote: winning isn't every thing; it's the only thing.

"He does say it's not that winning is the most important thing, it is the attitude of winning that's important, because without that you won't win," says Cecsarini.

Cecsarini prepared for his role by watching films of the Lombardi-era Packers, including "Run to Daylight," a documentary produced by broadcaster Howard Cosell.
Cecsarini was amused by Lombardi's behavior during games, when the coach reportedly felt somewhat helpless.

"He had done all the preparation. But everything was in the hands of (quarterback) Bart Starr running the offense and (assistant coach) Phil Bengtson running the defense. So all he could do was pick at people for execution," says Cecsarini. "He'd talk to people on the sidelines, kibitzing about what was going on in the game. And if you were like the second-string player of the guy that was messing up, well you could get it just as much as the guy out on the field."

Playing a character so familiar to much of the audience is a challenge says Cecsarini, who also serves as Next Act's producing artistic director. Though there is a responsibility to bring some accurate representation to his role as Lombardi says Cecsarini, there are limitations.

"I only have a certain amount of equipment that is similar to Vince and other stuff that isn't," he says. "You do the best you can and an audience will bring its willing suspension of belief."

Two highly acclaimed Wisconsin natives are linked to the "Lombardi" production: it was written by Eric Simonson, an ensemble member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre who won an Oscar in 2005 for a documentary; and of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maraniss.