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‘Vagabond Halfback’ brings 1920s Packers to life

By Ben Rodgers
Staff Writer

ASHWAUBENON – A new local theater company will take people back to 1929, the early days of NFL and one of the most unique characters of that time, Johnny “Blood” McNally.

“The Vagabond Halfback,” presented by the Green Bay Theatre Company takes the stage at the Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center this weekend.

“John is such a character that he almost literally lept off the pages of the book and onto the theater stage,” said Dennis Gullicken, writer of the play and the book “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally.” “There are so many colorful stories about his antics, especially off the field, that a book just doesn’t do justice, so we certainly wanted to bring it to life in the theater.”

McNally was a halfback for the Green Bay Packers. Along with his stellar production on the field, he was also known for his off-field antics.

Some of the notable McNally antics brought to life in this production include riding atop a moving train car, stealing whiskey from coach Curly Lambeau, and even renting out an entire house of ill-repute to have the ladies there perform Shakespeare.

As a football player, NcNally is remembered historically as an all-time great.

“A thing people sometimes lose track of was John was also a phenomenal football player,” Gullicken said. “Certainly a star of the NFL. In fact to the point where he was one of the first 17 men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

The play rips some of its characters from history, McNally is joined by Coach Curly Lambeau and sports reporter George “Cal” Calhoun.

“We follow the Packers through the ’29 season and in that regard, being a football historian, one of my challenges was certainly to create a dramatic thread while still staying accurate,” Gullicken said. “So we follow the team and of course the primary characters are all real.”

The Packers travel to the famed Polo Grounds of New York to take on a Giants team that is atop the standings with the Packers.

The NFL had no championship back then and no Super Bowl. The team with the best winning percentage took the title.

“There’s some romance, there’s some football, there’s some drama, certainly it’s also light hearted, I guess in a lot of ways it defies being categorized and certainly the fact that we are doing live tackle football, believe it or not breaks a lot of boundaries as well,” Gullicken said. “We actually replicate, as best you can in theater, a key game from the 1929 season that occurred at the Polo Grounds.”

The real NcNally married the heiress of the Leinenkugel Brewing Company, a woman many at the time thought could keep him in check.

Gullicken created a charecter, Genevieve Frechette, who represents the woman that tries to tame NcNally.

“Of course John was also very capable with women, and certainly knew many women, but the challenge was to introduce a female character who would be a challenge to John,” Gullicken said.

Michael O’Malley, plays McNally. The West De Pere graduate said portraying a man who is a legend can be difficult at times.

“If he’s not drinking and he’s not bringing up his father, he’s probably playing football,” O’Malley said. “Trying to show off that he’s also witty and a great mind is really tough when he’s bringing up Lawrence of Arabia and getting in fights with his teammates over going out drinking.”

Being able to walk to same streets as McNally and be where they practiced, played and watched film (literally) also helps him with the role.

“Being in the town where he became famous is less daunting and actually more helpful than anything,” O’Malley said.

“The Vagabond Halfback,” is at 7 p.m., on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $23 for adults and $16 for seniors. Tickets are available at the door or online at ticketstar.com.

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