matty day | blood on the stage | july 2016
Seventy-some years ago in downtown Green Bay, one John McNally regaled a small crowd, reciting John Dunne beneath a street light at the corner of Adams and Pine.
Today — and don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan — we've got Eddie Lacy tweeting about “China food.”
It's probably too much to ask a man to possess both world-class athleticism and a passion for poetry, but the man known as Johnny Blood always did things differently. Add to the street corner serenade that McNally was out past the curfew imposed by head coach Curly Lambeau — hardly a rarity — and you get a little closer to understanding the lasting legend of this Packers great.
“He was a poet, a vagrant, a philosopher, a lady's man and a drunk. He was also one of the greatest Green Bay Packers who ever lived.”
So reads the synopsis of “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” the 2006 biography co-written by Frankly Green Bay's resident Packer historian, Denis Gullickson.
Writing about our city's pro football team is certainly Gullickson's wheelhouse; he also co-wrote 2004's “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay's Town Team Days.” He took on a different, darker part of local history with 2009's “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men” — “quite a departure,” says Gullickson, “but it needed to be done.” (The book drew massive public attention to the case, as well as the professional, pro bono attention of a top Minneapolis law firm.)
While Denis has maintained a fascinating football-centric column in this magazine, two summers ago he was again inspired to create outside of his comfort zone: he decided to adapt his book on McNally into a live-action stage play.
Even for someone with Gullickson's incredible work ethic — he also works full-time at Oneida High School and raises horses — turning Blood's life into a historically-accurate, two-act play was tougher than he anticipated. But thanks to a lot of cooperation, including the newly founded Green Bay Theatre Company, “The Vagabond Halfback” makes its debut run August 5-7 at Green Bay East High School — chosen for its location a mere “Hail Mary” from the Packers' original home field.
Why Johnny Blood?
It's pretty easy to be a fan of the Green Bay Packers right now, annual championship contenders that they are. But what makes the franchise different from, say, that of the New England Patriots (founded 40 years after the Packers), is its incredibly rich history. If you don't know a thing about the pre-Favre/Holmgren, let alone pre-Starr/Lombardi Packers, John McNally's as interesting of a starting point as any. As it is, you might already be familiar with the man, having seen his name in the Lambeau Field Ring of Honor, or having consumed a lovely pint of Titletown Brewing Company's Johnny Blood Red ale.
McNally's remembered foremost for his prowess on the gridiron. Don Hutson, acknowledged as the greatest wide receiver of the early era, claimed that “no one could change a football game like Johnny Blood,” relates Gullickson, adding that the double-coverage McNally required very well could have paved the way for Hutson's success. John's leadership skills, though, may have impacted games even more than his athleticism.
“He'd come into the huddle, and everybody's confidence level would go 'boom,'” says Gullickson. “He was held in amazing esteem by the other guys.” (He'd later be among the first 17 Professional Football Hall of Fame inductees, along with Lambeau and Hutson.)
McNally struggled, however, with the notion that he'd greatly disappointed his father, whom, like the rest of the family, had been wildly successful. But if John didn't pursue a more stable career, it certainly wasn't because he lacked intelligence.
“A damn genius,” is how Gullickson describes Blood. “That's why I was so intrigued by him. He graduated high school at age 14.”
Nor did he lack opportunities, whimsically declining promising job offers as a newspaper publisher and an attorney — “even though he probably would've been masterful at it,” suggests Gullickson.
That sense of whimsy can possibly be attributed to John's mother's urging him to cultivate his interest in the arts, encouraging him to study literature and pushing him to play the violin. Whether it was innate or a result of this early nurturing, Blood consciously pursued an uncommon path.
In college, McNally's aversion to conformity led him — perhaps unexpectedly by today's standards — to becoming an athlete, which in turn steered him toward professional football. At the time this was “akin to telling your folks you were running off to be a circus freak,” explains Gullickson. And in terms of career prospects, back then the National Football League was “as shaky as an outhouse in a tornado.”
John enigmatically explained that he got his “emotional income” playing football. Furthermore, the game required an inherently transient lifestyle that fit perfectly with McNally's kinetic personality. From city to city, by day, he found success on the football field, and by night, he found women were blown away with his poetry, good looks and sophistication.
Genevieve Frechette, however, was not so impressed.
In Genevieve, McNally met his intellectual equal, and her resistance of his charms provided John with perhaps his life's greatest challenge.
“He's very smitten; he's in territory he's not familiar with,” says Gullickson of the courtship. But when he asks Genevieve to marry him, she wants to know whom she's marrying: the person (John McNally) or the persona (Johnny Blood).
It's not lost on Gullickson that McNally's ego, carousing and lack of discipline may paint a less than noble picture of his protagonist. Such is the challenge of the portrayal.
“I worry sometimes that people will walk away with a taste in their mouth like, 'I'm not sure if I like this guy or not,'” Denis admits, but his goal remains. “I hope people walk away with an appreciation for this guy who was different. I think at the end of the day, John felt alone because of the choices he made, even in a crowd.”
Why a Stage Play?
Among the timeless themes that McNally's story bears, add the “David vs. Goliath” matchup of his Green Bay Packers vs. the New York Giants for the 1929 NFL Championship.
“This is when teams would join the league for a year or two, maybe play a couple of games, and go out of business,” explains Denis. “And this damn town hangs on to its team. How did little Green Bay, which at the time had 37,000 people, hang onto its franchise?
“If David's getting kicked all over the football field by Goliath, then football doesn't exist here.”
The '20s/'30s version of the city seems to be a character of its own in “The Vagabond Halfback,” and Gullickson's taken pains to see to its historically accurate depiction. But will today's citizens come to take interest? Ideally theater fans will be drawn to a complex protagonist, time period costumes, veteran director/set designer Jim Johnson and the maiden voyage of the Green Bay Theatre Company — a group trying to provide opportunities for aspiring young talent, curbing some of the automatic migration of area high school graduates.
The three-day run strategically coincides with Packers training camp, but will football fans — particularly those who never, or rarely attend plays — feel welcome?
“I don't want it to be intimidating to them; I want it to be inviting. People can have this mistake about plays, that they're highfalutin. I hope they all walk out and go 'that was awesome,'” says Denis. “It's sort of iconic of Lambeau Field: at the end of the day there's room enough in there for all of us.”
If there's one aspect of the play that will especially appeal to both theater and football fans it will be the groundbreaking live-action football scenes. No play has ever attempted this, says Gullickson, and in fact, until “Rocky” recently hit Broadway, no one had tried live sports on stage at all. He likens it to having a live animal on stage.
“We'll be working with a stage combat expert. There's tackling,” Denis explains, acknowledging the difficulty. “I understand why nobody's done this before. Some people should come just to see if we can pull it off!”
Fans of other football teams will be able to appreciate the play as well; such is the universality of the project. After all, Gullickson's goal is for it to run in other cities.
“Our plan is to take this on the road — anywhere there's a Packer fan. But it's as much a celebration of the league and certainly this town,” he says. “What is a team without competition and great stories?”
As a writer and an educator, for Gullickson, that's where it all comes back to.
“I like stories, ya know? And the past is filled with stories. And there's always something to drag into the present … there's a lot of commentary to draw on.
“I think there is a bit of a hurdle for us here, to encourage the modern fan to embrace the history here,” says Gullickson. “Who were these guys? What was that David and Goliath story?”
“The Vagabond Halfback” runs August 5-7 at Green Bay East High School. Visit GreenBayTheatre.org for more information.
Bonus: Live Music in July!
Heck, even esteemed FGB contributor and long-time Chicago Bears fan Tom Smith would proudly don a Johnny Blood jersey. Perhaps you'll buy him one for his birthday party at the Lyric Room, July 23, with a stacked bill featuring The Crosses, Rev. Norb & the Onions, Holy Shit!, Deathwish and Razor Fist.
Rock'n'roll singer J.D. McPherson comes to town July 16th, christening Badger State Brewing Company's brand new 1,000-capacity room; the 4onthefloor and J-Council open.
And Sturgeon Bay's Burning Cow Festival goes down July 21-23, complete with camping and yes, the burning of a giant wooden cow. Sons of Kong play on the 22.
There are a ton of good rock and punk shows in Green Bay this month; check FranklyGreenBay.com/calendar for all the latest local happenings.
Matty's co-hosted the DIY Packers show “Live from Stadium Drive” since 2014, available at YouTube.com/CheddarMob. He usually writes about local music and performs in J-Council, The Foamers?, The Priggs, Muddy Udders and The Gung Hoes. Twitter: @PollutedMindset | E- mail: Events@FranklyGreenBay.com