Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: An actor and Vince Lombardi on a fateful anniversary


PHOTO: Actor John Pinero plays Vince Lombardi in a one-man play and makes motivational appearances in Lombardi’s persona.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – Today, Tuesday, Dec. 31, is an important anniversary surrounding Vince Lombardi. If you’re thinking Ice Bowl, think again. The Ice Bowl was Dec. 31, 1967. Dial back six years to Dec. 31, 1961, and New City Stadium at 1265 Highland Avenue in Green Bay. The Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants for the National Football League Championship. It was the first championship for Packers coach Vince Lombardi. His Packers took the hide off the team he had come from as offensive coordinator. The Packers beat the Giants, 37-0. Lombardi and the Packers of that era started to become welded into the American consciousness. Today, the Packers and Lombardi have identities far and wide. Tell just about anybody anywhere in the United States that you are from Green Bay, and eyes light up and you’ll hear comments such as, “Green Bay sure has a good thing going,” as I did this year in Charleston, South Carolina.

“The thing about the Packers is they’re an aberration. Here’s a team that’s owned by the fans, and that’s what they live for.”

That’s a quote from John Pinero, an actor who is extremely familiar with Lombardi’s legacy. Born in Brooklyn and today residing in California, Pinero has performed as Lombardi for 17 years.

I interviewed Pinero in early fall when he had returned to Green Bay to perform in the one-man play, “The Life and Times of Vince Lombardi,” and to appear in the persona of Lombardi in the fateful place of 1961 – today known as Lambeau Field at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. I saved the bulk of the interview to run on a convenient day. First, I stumbled on the anniversary of the first Lombardi championship. Then – surprise – along came the playoff game Sunday, Jan. 5, at Lambeau Field. Thank you, Green Bay Packers. From experience, I know people are hungry to read anything and everything when the Packers are in the hunt, and the jaunty John Pinero fits the bill.

Pinero doesn’t dress up as Lombardi as some kind of toss-off gambit to be noticeable at Lambeau Field on game day – though he has done that. His personification runs much deeper. While Pinero has put on his play multiple times in Wisconsin over the years, he doesn’t always preach to the choir, so to speak. For instance, Pinero has performances of “The Life and Times of Vince Lombardi” coming up this year in Prescott, Arizona, and ShreveportLouisiana.

In the interview, Pinero said, “I go into places and people think, ‘Oh, it’s just a sports play,’ and it’s not. It’s a story about a man’s life, a man who lived the American dream. He came from a poor family in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn, and he grew up to be this representative of a time. He really did. Lombardi represented the other side of the ’60s when all this turmoil was going on, the Vietnam War and ‘tune out,’ and he represented the steadfast guard. It was a different time.”

Pinero can wax philosophically about Lombardi at length. He can stick to sports stories, too. Pinero has a unique perspective of performing in the look and manner of Lombardi in front of Packers who played for Lombardi.

“First of all, you’re shaking a little before you go out there. You have to go back to your roots as an actor and realize that you’ve got to focus. I always try to fill myself up with air. That’s what I was taught. And then I come out, and everything comes out fine. Once that first breath is out, it just rolls because I’ve done so much work on the play that it’s part of me. And I think that’s what it’s all about. But the first time I played the role of Lombardi, it wasn’t this play. It was a 20-minute piece from another play that I was first introduced to the whole Lombardi character.

“I never forget when I walked out in the middle of the room and, may he rest in peace, Ray Nitschke looked at me because I was a surprise guest, and he said, ‘The s-- of a b---- is still alive.’ (Pinero chuckled). There’s a scene where I talk about Max McGee, and I looked at him – he was out there that time also – and I said, ‘McGee, you missed curfew two nights ago. That will cost you $500. Missed curfew again last night. That will cost you another $500. If you miss curfew again tonight, it’ll cost you $1,000. If you know any gal worth a thousand for one night let me know because I’m coming with you.’ And Max McGee yells out, ‘I did, and you did come with me.’ (Pinero laughed a big laugh). So we added that to the play, by the way. And then I say, ‘Well, that’s not really me.’

“A lot of stuff I picked up. The scene with Jerry Kramer he basically wrote in a hotel lobby in Milwaukee. I was talking to him. He told me the story about him and Vince, how Vince would get him into his three-point stance and Kramer would always get it wrong. ‘Dammit, Kramer, your foot has to be on the line, on the line. Kramer, the concentration period of a college student is 30 minutes, maybe less. In high school, 15 minutes, maybe less. In elementary school, five minutes. And in kindergarten it’s one minute. And you can’t even remember anything for one minute. Where does that put you?’ We do the scene, and then I play Kramer. I play other characters in the play. Then it really picks up from there. Kramer says, (Pinero, drawling), ‘I always thought Coach Lombardi was born at the age of 46 grinnin’ and shoutin’ “Kramer! You’re a fat cow!’ (Pinero laughs heartily). And then the scene goes on where Coach Lombardi has a high threshold of pain. (In Kramer’s voice): ‘None of our injuries hurt him.’”

Pinero wrote the one-man drama-with-comedy with Richard Clayman, who is his director. In the play, Pinero not only portrays Lombardi but Packers greats, Lombardi’s mother and so on. This play is not to be confused with “Lombardi,” the play that ran on Broadway. But there are connections. In the Broadway play, portraying Lombardi was Dan Lauria of TV’s “The Wonder Years.” Pinero said, “The irony of it is Dan Lauria and I have known each other for years. Both of us are from Brooklyn (as was Lombardi). On top of that, we moved out to Hollywood together. We were living in the same house on Wilton Place1750 Wilton Place. And he ends up playing Lombardi. The irony is that I’ve been playing it for years.”

Pinero doesn’t like “Lombardi,” which continues to be performed by community and professional companies around the country. That play by Wisconsinite Eric Simonson is based on book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” by another Wisconsinite, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss.

Pinero said, “I took that whole Broadway play as a little insulting. I’m sorry, that’s the way I feel about it.”

Pinero’s perspective is that of someone whose appearances as Lombardi sometimes take him into the thick of Packers fans at Lambeau Field.

“This is one part of the whole thing I really enjoy because all the fans are there. And on top of that, they love Vince. And they show it. I mean, they really express it. They really welcome me. I’ve walked into places I’m not supposed to be in and the guy running it will come over and thank me, ‘Thank you for coming.’ The whole experience is a good feeling of being welcomed back home. And I get protective. I really do. I get protective of Lombardi.”

The Broadway play takes the audience into an imaginary situation of a magazine writer having access to Vince and Marie Lombardi at home, at times in unguarded moments. Marie Lombardi has cocktails.

Pinero said, “I don’t like people that harp on things that had nothing to do with Lombardi. If his wife was an alcoholic, you know, these are common problems in America. Because in 1960 if you had three drinks you weren’t an alcoholic. Today, if you have one or two, you’re an alcoholic, you know. Things change, and they represent the times. And I just think that Lombardi had a lot more to offer than that…

“In a lot of ways after doing this play for 17 years, I feel like I need to protect the man sometimes. I didn’t write a play to be negative. I admire the man. I grew up during a time when he would come into New York and beat the Giants constantly. And, as you know, he used to coach the Giants. (Pinero had a different attitude about Lombardi in the 37-0 days). Yes, I did, (laughing heartily), of course. Well, I’ve grown to admire him. I’ve become a Green Bay Packer fan… I’ve grown to love him. I love coming to Green Bay. And if my wife would agree with it, I’d move here. (He laughed). Green Bay reminds me of where I grew up in Brooklyn – neighborhood, you know, sort of. A small place – that’s all it was. It was part of a borough. It was a small place in a big place. And when you think about it, New York is not that big a place. It’s walkable distance everywhere. It’s alive 24 hours a day, but you can walk anywhere.”

In the persona of Lombardi, Pinero has done motivational presentations in Sweden, Australia and Canada. Lombardi’s tenets – “courage, stamina, leadership” – connect everywhere, Pinero said.

“Lombardi never considered himself a great coach, he considered himself a teacher. And the other key to Lombardi is he’s a master psychologist. He knew each player as an individual, not as a player. He knew how to motivate each player.”

Who motivates John Pinero?

“I guess Vince Lombardi.”

Pinero spoke of growing up in Brooklyn, working for a loan shark, learning economics and business, struggling with a speech impediment.

“I’m going to tell you what Lombardi really did for me. He reinforced a lot of the stuff that I believe. And when he did that, he just made me believe that he was stronger. It makes me passionate about a lot of things.”

Rich experiences come from being a shadow of Lombardi.

“I’ve done things I never thought I would ever do. I was the keynote speaker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. I’ve done videos with Arnold Palmer – people I never dreamt I would ever meet. I’ve been in board rooms. I do the motivational program titled, ‘Vince’s Keys to Success.’ I’ve done this for as little as eight people to 7,000 people for a Honda national sales meeting in Chicago. That was fun because the national sales manager comes out and he begins to try to quote Lombardi and he stutters and everything else, and all of a sudden, smoke comes out of the back and I come walking out and I tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘I’ll take care of it. You can go sit down.’ It was a lot of fun. By the way, the entertainment that night was Bill Cosby, and it was just a lot of fun meeting Bill.”

Pinero is 63, and he plans to continue to perform as Lombardi, who died of colon cancer at 57.

“At the age of 57, I began to worry. I said, ‘I’ve done this for so long. It’s become such a part of me.’ I was worried I’m going to die at 57.”

Pinero has children ages 6 and 8 years old.

“I started late in life. I have something to live for. I take good care of myself. I work out every morning for two hours. And furthermore, this play, because it’s a one-man play, requires that kind of energy and dedication.”

A major motion picture is in the works on Lombardi. The plays about him will continue. For his play, Pinero finds some people in his audience “want to re-live their past. And the people who have no past to be lived just want to be introduced to it.”

We’re at that time of the year where Vince Lombardi’s name looms large.

“When I do the play in California, I always run a little blurb like, ‘Have you ever wondered why it’s called the Vince Lombardi Trophy?’ That’s the pinnacle of the NFL.”

Each year after the Super Bowl game is over, the Vince Lombardi Trophy is carried through a lineup of the winning team. Players touch the trophy. Players kiss the trophy. It does not matter what city the team is from, the players respond to the shiny metal object that carries the name Vince Lombardi.

Millions upon millions of people watch, and they know the name Vince Lombardi.

“He’ll always be alive.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)    

More Stories

Don't Miss

  • Movie Listings
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • High School Sports Xtra
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Local 5 Fish Fry Guide
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Latest News

Video Center