Five plays about football: Is truth better drama than drama?

John Elway. Denver Post file photo.
John Elway. Denver Post file photo.

If a playwright or screenwriter had imagined the story of John Elway, would anyone have bought it? Elway was the golden boy of football who over 14 years had not yet managed to fulfill the promise and expectation that had been heaped upon him since boyhood.

Elway was the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history, but he was no lock for the NFL Hall of Fame. His teams had been drubbed in three Super Bowls by historic margins, each one worse than the last: 136-40, all added up.

We all know what happened next. For the first time, the Broncos surrounded Elway with superior talent at nearly every position, and the team rode an unstoppable running game to its first Super Bowl title, 31-24 over the heavily favored Green Bay Packers.

Everyone, of course, expected The Duke of Denver to ride off into the sunset on top of the football world. But then Elway did something only Hollywood would dare dream up: He vowed to come back for another season, and he vowed to win the title all over again.

Get real.

He did, they did and the Broncos became just the sixth team in history to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The Broncos blew out the Atlanta Falcons 34-19, this time with Elway leading the way. He threw for more than 330 yards, was named MVP and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Talk about great theatre. When it comes to the gridiron, can anything we put on stage come close to the unlikely drama of what happens in real sporting life?

There are not enough plays about football to constitute a genre. But as the Denver Broncos prepare for their record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance – with Elway back as General Manager – we thought we would take a look at five theatrical plays and musicals with football as a subject or key component.

Death of a Salesman1 PerspectivesDeath of a Salesman: You might not think Arthur Miller’s great American tragedy is fueled all that much by football, but it was the unrealized gridiron glory of eldest son Biff that helped ultimately propel Willy Loman into that death tree. You remember Biff. He’s the son Willy is really crazy about. In other words, not sad Happy. Biff was the star football player in high school and, like most jocks, he never put much energy into his schoolwork and failed math as a senior. As explained by the awesome cheat-sheet web site schmoop.com: “Willy let Biff get away with anything and never encouraged him to do well in school. Without the math credit, Biff couldn’t graduate, and therefore couldn’t take his football scholarship to college. Wow, great parenting, Willy.” Then there were the football parts where Biff admits to stealing a football, and promises to throw a pass for Willy during the game. And upon being fired, the last thing old Willy does before going for the gas is shift to a memory of Biff’s final football game. The moral: Our priorities are out of whack, and we should not care so deeply about the outcome of football games that are not Sunday’s Super Bowl 50. (Photo: M. Scott McLean, Mike Hartman and John Patrick Hayden in the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.)

2 PerspectivesGood News: This mostly forgotten musical played the Great White Gridiron Way in 1927 alongside Show Boat. As Wiki explains: “Though its plot was decidedly old-fashioned in comparison to Show Boat‘s daring storyline, it was also a hit. The story is set in the Roaring Twenties at Tait College, where football star Tom Marlowe falls in love with bookish Connie Lane, who is tutoring him so he can pass astronomy and be eligible to play in the big game. (See Fences, below.) Good News spawned two films, an unsuccessful 1974 Broadway revival, and a 1993 updated production by Music Theatre of Wichita, which added such numbers as “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”

Fences3 PerspectivesFences: In the play many consider to be August Wilson’s masterpiece, young Cory has a chance to go to college on a football scholarship, but his father, a garbage-truck driver named Troy, refuses to sign the permission paper. Troy says he doesn’t want his son to suffer from the same racial discrimination that kept Troy from being a pro baseball player. The tension comes to a head when Troy tells Cory’s high-school football coach that Cory can’t play football anymore, which destroys Cory’s hopes of going to college.  And that’s when things start to go really bad for this mismatched father and son.

Lombardi4 PerspectivesLombardi: Vince Lombardi is the legendary Green Bay Packers coach after whom the Super Bowl Trophy is named. But until Eric Simonson’s 2011 Broadway play based on David Maraniss’ best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” few knew the real story of Lombardi the man—his inspirations, his passions and ability to drive people to achieve what they never thought possible. The original cast featured Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the man many consider to be one of the best and most successful coaches in football history. Lombardi led the Packers to three straight and five total NFL championships in seven years, in addition to winning the first two Super Bowls following the 1966 and 1967 seasons.

5 PerspectivesFriday Night LightsFriday Night Lights The Musical: If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not: The team of satirists behind The Unauthorized O.C. Musical is already hitting the practice field to bring this unauthorized parody of the cult-hit NBC-TV series to the stage in 2016 with – get this – Scott Porter, who played the paralyzed quarterback Jason Street in the TV show, playing Coach Taylor. Porter got his theatrical start in the Off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz before landing FNL. No word yet on when the stage musical will bow in L.A.

What are some of your favorite plays and musicals about football, or sports in general? Leave your comment at the bottom of this story.

Note: A previous version of this story included a reference to You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown – until reader Howard Sherman pointed out that feel-good musical does not include the traumatizing Peanuts tradition of having Lucy pull that infernal football away from Charlie just before was about to kick.  

​More of our NewsCenter coverage of the Super Bowl:
Super Bet: DCPA is backing the right horse in the Super Bowl
Video: Andy Kelso of Kinky Boots: Broadway backs the Broncos
Video: Fun Home on Broadway boards the Broncos bandwagon
Video: The Denver Center is United in Orange!

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