'Lombardi' star shines in return to Lehigh

'Lombardi' star shines in return to Lehigh

Broadway Rob Riley actor meets with theater students at his alma mater.

By Irene Kraft of The Morning Call

Sitting in a circle of Lehigh University theater students on Monday, Rob Riley, star of the Broadway play "Lombardi," felt very much at home. It was there, in an Intro to Acting class at Zoellner Art Center's Black Box Theatre, that Riley got his start.

He remembers lying on the theater's concrete floor in the beginning of each class, as instructor Kashi Johnson encouraged students to "release defenses," letting go of all the issues they faced before class — a practice Riley thought was "poppycock" back then, but has come to use before each performance.

Now, only seven years after earning his bachelor's degree in theater from Lehigh, he's acting in eight shows a week in a play that is often selling out and earning standing ovations.

"It feels amazing," Riley said. "It feels like people get it. They can appreciate the messages delivered."

Acting is about telling a story and telling it well, Riley, 30, told the Lehigh students. He was invited to return to the Bethlehem campus to offer theater students insight into what it takes to succeed in the competitive field. He talked about the challenges of live theater and the importance of never forgetting lines, and shared a story of once working with an actress who did forget.

And he talked about the steps he took to shape his career — extending his education four more years to earn a master's degree, which he said helped him improve his acting skills.

Riley never intended to be an actor when he was recruited to play football for Lehigh in 1998. He was an accounting major who loved the game. He took Intro to Acting on a whim, thinking it might be a fun course. It was Johnson who saw his potential and encouraged him to sign up for a play.

The more he acted, the more he loved it, eventually giving up football. He found a way to blend his love for football and acting by becoming Waveman, an unofficial school mascot.

When he left, he was asked if he'd be training a new Waveman. "I couldn't do that. It was just me. That's what I do," he said. Still, it helped develop his acting skills. "Shouting into the crowd helped me work on my theater voice. It trained me to project," he said.

Now, he's playing football again — on stage. "Lombardi," a 90-minute, six-person drama, is about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls. The National Football League named its championship trophy after him in 1970, after he died of cancer.

Riley plays former Penn State and Green Bay Packers lineman Dave Robinson, who develops a father/son-type relationship with Lombardi, a relentless perfectionist whose personal life suffered for the game. Having been raised without a father, Riley said he can relate because he had a similar relationship with his high school football coach.

Acting with Dan Lauria, who plays Lombardi, and Judith Light, who plays Lombardi's wife Marie, is like being part of a family, Riley said. He calls Lauria "Coach" and Light "Mom."

Since he's always been into sports and fitness, his knowledge of how muscles work has allowed him to help Lauria with recent back problems. Light and Lauria, in turn, have been tremendously supportive, he said.

Among his greatest thrills is meeting many NFL players after shows, particularly Dave Robinson himself, who, Riley said, was teary-eyed after seeing Riley's portrayal. "That he liked it meant the world to me." The NFL is a producing partner, marking its first foray on Broadway. Patrons often wear football jerseys to the show, something you don't normally see on Broadway, Riley noted.

And Riley, wearing a Packers belt buckle, is still a football fan. After his afternoon show Sunday, he and other cast members will cheer for the Packers in the Super Bowl in a sports bar across the street from Broadway's Circle in the Square Theater.

There are similarities between football and acting, Riley says. Both require practice and commitment. And both require you to stay in good shape and healthy, he said, because "you always have to be there for your team."


Kashi Johnson