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Vince Lombardi of Broadway: Dan Lauria reflects on NFL icon

Dan Lauria, 66, is an actor best known for his role as Jack Arnold in the hit television series "The Wonder Years." Lauria recently played legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in the Broadway production of "Lombardi,") based on the David Maraniss book "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," and co-produced by the National Football League.

As we celebrate what would have been Lombardi's 100th birthday on Tuesday, June 11, here is Lauria's recollection of playing the iconic coach:

My name was mentioned for the lead in the play "Lombardi" from the outset, in part because I looked a little bit like him and had played football in high school and college. Some, however, did not think I was a big enough name. It also was noted that this would be my first Broadway play. But I'm a theater rat. It was my 58th play. I hadn't gone a year without doing a play in quite some time.

I knew the young director, Tommy Kail, and he wanted me for the role. The producer, Tony Ponturo, was concerned that theater owners wouldn't accept me. But when I read for the writers, they also wanted me. So the producer said, "What do we do next?" Tommy suggested I read for the NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell. I did, and afterward, they said if I wasn't cast in the role of Lombardi, they wouldn't support the play. I owe a lot to Roger Goodell.

I have never had an easier time preparing for a role, because of the help provided by the NFL. Whomever I needed to talk to, within 10 minutes, the NFL provided me the phone number: Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, everyone except Bart Starr. They all said Starr won't talk about the coach. The Hall of Fame quarterback's secretary said it was too difficult for him to talk about Lombardi, too emotional for him.

My conversations with former Packers greats -- Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg, all of them -- were pretty consistent. They'd go into a humorous story, but eventually they'd all be in tears. Willie Wood could not go one minute without crying. They all had great stories.

I'd ask them what they would want to see in the show. More than one emphasized the coach's sense of humor. He had a great laugh and liked to kid around, especially the Saturday before a game. The work had been done and the game plan was in place. He liked the players to stay loose.

A couple of players told me that whenever the coach and his wife (Marie) were out in public and he would get upset, she would raise her pinkie and they'd lock pinkies. It was a signal, like her saying, "You're being an ass." When I met Sonny Jurgensen, he got very emotional when it came to this subject.

"Well, Dan," Jurgensen said, "it was a lot more than that. I would take Marie to the hospital to see him when he had cancer, and as soon as they saw each other, they'd lock pinkies."

I told Judith Light (who played the role of Marie) about that. We put the pinky locking in the play, then we put it in a second time. We never explained it to the audience. Judith and I agreed: Let's just leave it between them. I didn't know how much of a barometer Marie was until I heard that story.

Everyone knows the story about Henry Jordan, when he was asked whether coach Lombardi treated him differently. "No," he said, "he treated us all the same -- like dogs." It's a very funny line. And, as I understand it, probably the most misleading line about Lombardi. For instance, he always yelled at Kramer, but he never once yelled at some other guys. He played each player like a fiddle. He knew which buttons to press.

It was an extreme honor to have played this role, because of what the man did for black players in the NFL. There was an unwritten rule at the time that no more than 11 black players were allowed on a team. No team had ever drafted a black collegiate player in the first round until Lombardi selected Dave Robinson in 1963.

At the time, Robinson said, most people didn't realize that there were no black linebackers -- people ridiculously thought that black linebackers didn't know enough to check off plays. Big Dave was an All-American defensive end at Penn State. Lombardi screamed at him every day. And after three weeks, Lombardi went to the defense and said, from now on, Dave Robinson will be an outside linebacker. He said, "I didn't draft a black linebacker. I drafted a linebacker."

Lionel Aldridge was Robinson's roommate. Aldridge, also a black man, wanted to marry a white woman. There was another player, Cookie Gilchrist, who was said to have been blackballed from the league for marrying a white woman. Aldridge went to Lombardi and said, "Coach, I don't not want to play football, but I want to marry this woman." Lombardi responded, "You marry her. You're a good man. And I'll handle Pete Rozelle and the NFL. Don't you worry about it." Aldridge just started crying. Then Lombardi said, "And I'd better get an invitation to that wedding, or you'll regret it the rest of your life."

After Aldridge finished playing, he was very much involved with the civil rights movement, and he had this big afro. He was in Washington, D.C., with Jim Brown one day, when Lombardi was coaching the Washington Redskins. Aldridge said to Brown, "Let's go over and talk to the coach." As Aldridge was walking down the tunnel with Brown, he heard this booming voice: "Lionel, what the hell are you doing with hair like that? Lionel, get your hair cut."

"Coach, I don't even play for you anymore," Lionel responded.

"Lionel," Lombardi replied, "don't you understand you'll always play for me?"

Aldridge got his hair cut.

For a man who has been gone for more than 40 years, Vince Lombardi's lasting effect is incredible. That's why it was such an honor for me to embody his persona.

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