By Kelly O’Day
One of the most intriguing members in the storied history of the Green Bay Packers will have his story brought to stage in the very city where he reached his highest heights.
Johnny Blood may have been a running back for the Packers, but his off-field exploits could be considered more legendary than his prodigious on-field accomplishments.
Born John Victor McNally in New Richmond, Wis., Blood actually changed his name so he could collect semi-pro money while still playing college ball.
According to Packers historian Cliff Christl, “Some 40 years ago, Blood cooperated with author Ralph Hickok on a well-done but unpublished biography, and told him he had signed every one of his pro contracts as Johnny Blood and the name McNally had never appeared in print during his time with the Packers.
“Further research confirms he was listed only as Johnny Blood in the Packers’ annual press books back then, and also in team programs. On NFL play-by-plays and in its first official guide in 1935, he was listed as Blood, and he was always referred to as Blood in game stories and summaries in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and other newspapers as well.”
The full story of the famous back – nicknamed the Vagabond Halfback for his wandering ways – was detailed in a book under that nickname by Green Bay author and football historian Denis Gullickson, published in 2006.
Now Gullickson has turned it into a two-act drama, still called The Vagabond Halfback. It opens at Green Bay East High School on Friday, August 5. A full-run of shows is set for that weekend: 7 p.m. Friday, August 5; 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 6; and 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 7.
The play centers on the antics of Blood and his role on the 1929 Packers team. In their ninth NFL season that year, the Packers’ took an undefeated record on the road to big cities like Chicago and New York, earning the first of their record 13 NFL titles.
“It’s the story of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties,” said Gullickson. “It was an exciting time in the U.S. and, certainly, for football and football in Green Bay.”
“You’ve got the early NFL, teams joining and disbanding, big city gangsters, breakthroughs on every front including science and technology, Prohibition and speakeasies, flappers, you name it. What’s not to like?” said Gullickson. “Everything was changing.”
“Meanwhile,” Gullickson added, “the Packers were barely hanging on – surviving by playing good football and garnering fan support, including stock sales and other financial support from Green Bay residents.”
The play is directed by Jim Johnson, a veteran of over thirty plays and musical theater productions, primarily in the Sheboygan area. It is being produced by the newly-formed Green Bay Theatre Company.
“This is a compelling play about a compelling character,” said Johnson. “And his important role on the 1929 Packers.”
Acting and production team talent comes from several sources in the Northeastern Wisconsin area including other theater groups and the St. Norbert and UWGB theater departments. The lovable gadfly, Johnny Blood, is played by Michael O’Malley, a graduate of the St. Norbert stage.
The female lead is played by Rachel Brooks, a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Gullickson’s daughter, who portrays Genevieve Frechette, Johnny Blood’s love interest and intellectual equal.
“There’s something here for everyone,” said Brooks. “Fans of local theater, of Green Bay and Packers history, of a great love story, of the Roaring Twenties and the early NFL.”
The play includes scenes from 1929 Green Bay, including the Northland Hotel and East High School. Replicated in Act II is the Packers’ crucial showdown with the New York Giants at the legendary Polo Grounds.
Is the play working out as well as Gullickson hoped it would?
The experience has been amazing so far. Though I certainly have given my director more than a few grey hairs. What was I to know about the limitations of theater?
Live football on the stage for the first-time anywhere? That didn’t seem like much to me.
“No one has done this anywhere before,” director Jim Johnson said to me at one point. “Why do you think that is?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “The rest just weren’t that adventurous?”
I think that caused him to tilt his head down and look over his glasses at me.
But, yes, Jim, the cast, and the production team have been amazing. Doing this is a lot like making maple syrup. The amazing amount of “behind the scenes” stuff that gets “boiled down” to an hour-and-a-half stage play is staggering.
What do you think of the actors’ abilities?
Well, of course, one of those actors is my daughter, Rachel Brooks. And an added joy is working with her. She’s amazing. And so is the rest of the cast.
Michael O’Malley (Johnny Blood), Cory Estreen (Benny Friedman), CJ (Curly Lambeau) and the rest are all so talented and hard-working at their craft.
Heck, I even reconnected with a high school friend, Lee Kerwin, through this. Lee plays George Calhoun.
And I hate to mention anyone individually, because everyone is so great. This is one of the best aspects of the show. The nuances, the little things that these performers do that tells you they are damned good at this passion of theirs. Same with the production team.
It’s actually pretty humbling to think that these folks are bringing to life in a very big way some words you put to paper in some private moments at your writing table at your cottage in Northern Wisconsin.
What has your director brought to the play?
Patience? He should have wrung my neck when we started rehearsing the football scene where the Packers play the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The Packers had a dozen injuries going into the game and I think I could have been added to that list. I stayed away from the rehearsals those first few nights.
But seriously, Jim Johnson is one of those rare people who is both left and right-brained and functioning at full capacity on both sides. Meticulous, yet creative. Demanding, yet flexible. Focused, yet visionary.
Really, he gets all the credit here. I handed him a script and he put it on the stage. I suppose you might say I’m the guy who designed the pass play on paper in the playbook and he’s the quarterback who actually made it work.