When “Lombardi” opens Friday at Theatre Baton Rouge, the audience is sure to include plenty of football fans who remember the legendary football coach.
And one patron who knew him better than most.
Jimmy Taylor had already been a football star at Baton Rouge High and LSU and spent one year with the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers when Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959 to coach a team down on its luck. Together, they became part of one of football’s greatest eras of success — four NFL titles (and a fifth for the Packers the year after Taylor left), two Coach of the Year Awards for Lombardi, an NFL Most Valuable Player Award for Taylor, who still holds Packer records for touchdowns in a season and career, and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions for both.
“I was so fortunate to come along when I did,” Taylor said.
By all accounts, the feeling was mutual, as Lombardi relished Taylor’s toughness and work ethic. They parted company when Taylor left to be part of the inaugural season of the New Orleans Saints in 1967. Lombardi coached the Washington Redskins in 1969 and died of colon cancer in 1970 at age 57.
Lombardi’s success and how he achieved it led to David Maraniss’ biography, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” which Eric Simonson turned into a play. The fictional account is set in 1965 as a magazine reporter, Michael McCormick, visits Lombardi to write a story about his success.
Taylor and his wife, Helen, were in the audience at Circle in the Square Theatre when the play opened on Oct. 21, 2010, starring Dan Lauria in the title role and Judith Light as his wife, Marie.
“Coach Lombardi’s daughter, Susan, was sitting right behind us,” Helen Taylor said, “and Judith Light was so good she said, ‘That’s my mom. She was my mom.’ She was that good.”
Taylor is portrayed in “Lombardi” seeking a better contract from the coach, who also was the team’s general manager.
“It doesn’t show Jimmy in his best light, I’ll tell you that, but it shows it as it was,” Helen Taylor said. “He was one of the few that would stand up to Lombardi to negotiate that contract. They didn’t have agents in those days, and Lombardi hated agents.”
“He wasn’t an easy touch,” Jimmy Taylor said. “He wasn’t giving away anything.”
Not Lombardi’s style. Taylor, who was a rookie when the Packers went 1-10-1, said Lombardi made an impression from the start.
“He was very serious,” Taylor said. “He’d come in and talk to you like a man and say this is what we’re going to do, and I’m going to continuously be on you and be on you and chew you out when you don’t do the right things. I’m going to condition you and run you and prepare you to be on that field with that opponent. You will be prepared.”
That preparation was critical, because Lombardi didn’t try to trick opponents. The Packers relied on perfect execution to grind out first downs and grind up a defense’s will.
Lombardi’s genius, Taylor said, was his ability to motivate players to prepare for their role, and to give maximum effort. Although a football game lasts roughly three hours, there are only about 12 minutes of actual play — the total time of all plays from the center snap until the official’s whistle, Taylor said. Lombardi got the most from his team in those 12 minutes.
“Lombardi” hasn’t been as successful as its namesake, but it was still on Broadway when the Taylors returned to New York the following spring. The NFL invited a former player from each team to the player draft, and Taylor was there to welcome Randall Cobb as the Packers’ second-round selection. When the theater learned he was in town, the Taylors were invited to attend again, and this time, Jimmy Taylor was invited to participate in a post-play Q&A with the audience.
“That went over great,” Helen Taylor said. “I don’t think anybody left after the play. I was amazed.”
The Taylors also have seen the play in Wisconsin, where it was part of a fundraiser for the Lombardi Cancer Center, and at the Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans. They’re looking forward to Theatre Baton Rouge’s production.
“They portrayed him very well, the different actors that played him,” Taylor said. “He was a very religious and hard-working and sincere and dedicated man.”