Football legend Vince Lombardi was always there in playwright Eric Simonson's life.

How could he not be - Simonson grew up in Wisconsin, where Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, leading the team to five league championships and two Super Bowl wins?

"He was kind of ever-present," said Simonson, 52, whose play "Lombardi" opens in previews Saturday at Arizona Theatre Company. The play is a co-production with the Cleveland Play House.

Simonson was too young to be hooked into football when Lombardi was with the team. But he was very aware of him.

When he was in grade school, classes were marched to the auditorium to watch NFL films of the Packers. Not because there was a lesson in the games, but because, well, it was the Packers.

"It was a part of the culture in the same way the Bolshoi Ballet is part of the culture of Moscow."

When Simonson read the book "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, it became clear that there was another kind of play in the man the Super Bowl trophy is named after, and Simonson wanted to write it.

"He was obsessive" says Simonson.

"His single-mindedness was his fatal flaw. ... He's the poster child for success, and he exemplifies the cost of that success - that you can't get one thing without giving up something else. For him, he gave up family life."

Maraniss' book became his source material for the play. But the book is 544 pages - Simonson knew he couldn't fit that all into a two-hour play.

"It was a challenge," admits Simonson, who has won an Academy Award for his short documentary "A Note of Triumph," and has also directed films, plays and opera.

"I've learned that the best way to get the most out of your play is to pick a moment in time and put the subject under a microscope."

So rather than trying to squeeze Lombardi's life onto the stage, he concentrated on the week after the Packers had lost two games in a row.

The premise is a cub magazine reporter who has been assigned to do a story on Lombardi. The coach isn't particularly forthcoming, nor are the players. So the reporter turns to Lombardi's wife, Marie.

"I was writing this for a theater audience, but also for an audience that had never been to the theater before," says Simonson.

And the play, which ran on Broadway for seven months and has played the regional circuits, did attract new audiences, particularly football fans who would show up in Packers jerseys.

"I spoke to people who had never been to a play before. Never," says Simonson.

He remembers one fan who came to the Broadway production in a Packers jersey and football helmet and sat in the center of the front row.

"He just sat there," recalls Simonson with a bit of glee at the football fanatic-turned-theater fan. "It made me very happy."

Actor Bob Ari has taken on the herculean task of playing Lombardi. But he is used to such tasks - he's recently portrayed the artist Rothko in "Red" at the Cleveland Play House. He just closed "Lombardi" at that theater, as well.

He found a similarity between Rothko and Lombardi.

"They had the same sort of unwillingness to settle for mediocrity," Ari says.

With Lombardi, "I just turned up the volume. ... He lived life at a certain decimal level."

The key to his character, says Ari, was in Lombardi's religion.

"For me, his Catholicism was the root of the character - and the feeling he couldn't give his family enough because his life was wrapped up in football. Those are the things that humanize him for me."

Football is central of "Lombardi," but it is about much more, says Ari.

"It has a lot to say about striving for perfection. ... I think what that character embodies is the dedication that's involved in truly excelling at what they do."

He's found himself a Lombardi fan.

But not a Green Bay Packers fan. He's a Pittsburgh Steelers man.

"I went to school at Carnegie Mellon, and my senior year was Terry Bradshaw's first year with the Steelers," he says.

"That team in the '70s really turned me on to football."

If you go

• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Lombardi."

• Playwright: Eric Simonson, based on the book "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," by David Maraniss.

• Director: Casey Stangl

• When: Previews are 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; opening is 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Continues through Nov. 10.

• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Reservations/information: 622-2823

• Tickets: $32-$89.

• Cast: Bob Ari, Branton Box, David Hardie; DeeDee Rescher; Nick Mills and William Oliver Watkins.

• Running time: 110 minutes, with one intermission.