John Pinero is Vince Lombardi in a One Man Play and Motivational Presentations
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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Chasing Vince

A one-man play uncannily captures the legendary coach 

By Michael Ventre

Special to the Journal Sentinel

It is a tiny theater space in Studio City, Calif., but it might as well be a locker room.  There he is, Vince Lombardi, or so it seems.  The hat.  The overcoat.  The distinctive set of choppers with a crack in the middle. The temper that could frighten a lion one minute, the tender concern that melts all skeptics the next.

The message.

This is the stage incarnation of Vince Lombardi, brought to you with impeccable care by actor John Pinero.

He is performing “Vince: The Life and Times of Vince Lombardi,” which is coming to Wisconsin after Labor Day, and if you’re not fully cognizant that this is a theatrical experience, you might feel obligated to perform 20 squat thrusts at your seat.

“I was struck the first time I saw it,” said Willie Davis, former Packer great who lives in Southern California and who has seen Pinero perform as Lombardi three times. “It was clear to me that someone, in researching it, had spent a lot of time and indeed had uncovered a lot of what Coach Lombardi was like.”

In fact Pinero, 47, has done so much work on the character that Mike Holmgren might want to touch base with his agent on the subject of job security.

Pinero first tackled Lombardi in a play called “Coaches,” which told the stories of three coaches: Lombardi, Bear Bryant and Knute Rockne. That was more than five years ago.

Shortly after that, Pinero decided to break his character out into a one-man play.  So he wrote an 80-page script about Lombardi and brought it to his friend, Richard Clayman, a director and playwright.

“To get up there as Vince Lombardi,” Clayman said, “is the single most courageous thing I’ve ever seen an actor do.”

Clayman added structure and humor to Pinero’s effort, and the result is a glorious guided tour of Lombardi’s life, with stops along the way to meet a bevy of characters integral to his legend: his father, mother, priest, brother, son, wife, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Max McGee, et al.  All played by Pinero.

“I’ve become a Green Bay Packers fan,” admitted Pinero, a native of Brooklyn who grew up rooting for the Giants. And before this?

“Lombardi was just another guy I disliked. He used to come into New York and beat the heck out of the Giants.”

Pinero has built upon that memory with thousands of other facts, figures, quotes and anecdotes. The Library of Congress doesn’t have as much on Lombardi as Pinero.

In his computer, he keeps a file of Lombardi-isms, culled from his travels and conversations with fellow devotees who have approached him while he was wearing his Vince hat.

“I read every book by any player who ever played for Lombardi,” Pinero said. “I read books about people he admired. If I see a picture of him in a book, I buy the book.”

The result of this personal odyssey is a richly textured performance.

As opposed to the farcical approach by Jerry Stiller in recent Nike commercials, Pinero has become the embodiment of the man.

When the lights cue and Pinero steps onto the cozy stage at the Two Roads Theater, it takes only a moment to feel what is was like to have been touched not by the coach, but by the person.

“The biggest test for me," Clayman said, “is not how the football coach stuff was received, but the human elements.  To see non-football fans, women who would come up to me and say, 'I didn’t want to come here tonight.'  And for them to say they loved it more than their boyfriends is the greatest tribute.” 

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of  the show is Pinero and Clayman’s emphasis on Lombardi’s message, which the actor summed up in three words: “Character, integrity and God.”

At one point in the play, Pinero gives a motivational speech in which he recites parts of a treatise that casts a sobering pall over the audience. One part goes like this: 

“Corrupt the young people. Get them interested in sex.  Destroy their ruggedness.  Divide the people into hostile groups.  Cause a breakdown in overall virtues of honesty, sobriety, self-respect and faith in the pledged word.”

That comes from the Communist Rules of Revolution, circa 1919, and when the Lombardi character reminds onlookers of this ominous plan in the strife-torn 1960s, it resonates still in the 1990s.

When Pinero and Clayman took the play to Eau Claire earlier this year for a one-week stopover, it was that passage that brought patrons to the edges of their seats.

“That is one of the things that he brought out extremely well and extremely accurately,” Davis said. “Lombardi was always preaching the gospel. Many times, in my opinion, it was like he was preaching to us, but the real message was meant for his country and for young people.

"He was always talking about being responsible as human beings and as football players. He was very strong on that.”

Pinero hears the same kinds of things about Lombardi from the public.

He has carried the Lombardi persona outside the theater's confines.

One of those times came two years ago, when he was invited to perform as Lombardi before 700 people - including many of Lombardi's ex-players - at the Vince Lombardi Memorial Classic celebrity golf tournament in Menomonee Falls. A letter from Davis paved the way.

During his visit, he wound up having a two-hour conversation with Jerry Kramer in the lobby of his hotel.

He was approached by Hornung and McGee, and Hornung paid tribute to the performance by kissing Pinero’s ring. The memory of a Lombardi tirade caused Ray Nitschke to tell a friend in mock horror, “The son of a bitch is alive!”

At this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans, when a travel agent couldn’t come through with a promise that the current Packers would hold an autograph session during a boat party in New Orleans, Pinero showed up in Lombardi garb and saved the day with his presence.

One night, after Pinero did his show, a woman came up to him and said, “You don’t have my favorite Lombardi line in your show.  'Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.'”

Partly as a result of that, Pinero and Clayman keep tinkering with the script and the show.  “It’s taught me that even though perfection can never be attained, you still have to strive for it,” he said. “The play is never finished.”

As a work-in-progress, though, Pinero is as pleased as Lombardi would be after his team gained 25 yards on a power sweep.

“I believe this play is blessed,” he said, “because there’s such a good message here.”

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