Football vet now theater rookie

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Former Eagle Mike Boryla, backstage at Plays & Players.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Former Eagle Mike Boryla, backstage at Plays & Players.
Posted: January 07, 2014

NICK FOLES shares an NFL record, with seven touchdown passes in a single game.

Donovan McNabb holds all the most significant Eagles' quarterback records.

Randall Cunningham was billed as "The Ultimate Weapon."

Ron Jaworski led the Birds to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Mike Boryla's place in franchise history may not be nearly as auspicious as those of Foles et al, but he can claim one distinction: He is the first Eagles player to write and star in his own play.

On Jan. 16, Center City's Plays & Players Theatre will raise the curtain on the world debut of Boryla's "The Disappearing Quarterback," an autobiographical piece inspired by the author's three seasons with the Eagles. It runs through Feb. 2 (coincidentally the day of Super Bowl XLVIII).

Although not the first piece penned by the 62-year-old Boryla, who played here from 1974-76, "The Disappearing Quarterback" is his first produced play.

The production touches on the subject of concussions, and how the league downplayed their danger for decades - perhaps the hottest off-field topic in the NFL these days. But "The Disappearing Quarterback" is not a polemic. Instead, explained Boryla (who suffered three concussions during his playing days), it's primarily a combination autobiography and tribute to his generation of pro footballers, specifically several ex-teammates, including Charle Young, whom Boryla called his favorite receiver.

"It's something I wanted to write for the old guys, the guys who played back in the 1970s and '80s," he offered during a break in a recent rehearsal. "I kind of feel like I'm representing the football players who played in the NFL at that time."

The challenge, he added, was to make universally appealing a subject that, despite its huge popularity, is still ignored by a large segment of the population.

"I had to write something that was accessible not only to football fans, but accessible to someone who goes to the theater and doesn't know anything about football," he explained.

Equally important was his desire to "honor the guys I played with, and all the guys who are having the problems they're having. I know players who have had 20 football-related surgeries. I know people with CTE [concussion-based chronic traumatic encephalopathy], people who have had three artificial knees. I know a lot of people who died in their 40s and 50s.

"So I wanted to write something that was fun and lighthearted, but which becomes something more serious at the end."

Although an ex-Eagle, the Long Island native, who currently lives in Castle Rock, Colo., has had little to do with the team and city since being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 1976 season (Jaworski replaced him as starting QB). As such, he had absolutely no knowledge of the local theater scene. His partnership with Plays & Players was the result of a cyberspace equivalent of a "Hail Mary" pass, in which a quarterback heaves the ball toward the opposing end zone and prays that one of his receivers catches it.

"Nobody has any interest in a Philadelphia Eagles quarterback in Castle Rock, or even knows where Philadelphia is," he said. "So, I went on this website about Philadelphia theater and found this one company, Plays and Players. I thought, 'Maybe there's some kind of football player there.' So I emailed the artistic director."

A rather unorthodox approach, but, as it turned out, a successful one.

"I got an email from this guy, Mike Boryla, who said he was a former Eagles quarterback and wanted me to read his play," recalled Daniel Student, Plays & Players' artistic director. "I didn't grow up in Philadelphia and probably wasn't alive when Mike played, so I had to Google him just to see if he was legit.

"I decided to work with Mike even before I read a word of his script because a former football player using theater to tell his story is an unheard-of idea. Theater today is really struggling for fresh voices who can bring the rest of the world to the theater."

Not that Student, who is directing "The Disappearing Quarterback," was bowled over by the first draft of the play, the title of which was taken from a description of Boryla in a book about NFL quarterbacks. As a matter of fact, he didn't think it particularly stageworthy.

But Student did find that "there were these little paragraphs from the narrator that clearly seemed like his story that he wanted to tell. They were fascinating and funny and fresh."

From there, Student continued, the two men "got to know each other and we created a friendship and relationship that was trusting enough, where I could say what every good writer needs to hear, which is sometimes very tough to hear."

Writing a play is one thing. Being the only actor in it is quite another. But Boryla - who spent 15 post-football years as a lawyer (he was also a mortgage banker) - insisted that compared to his earlier professions, show biz is a snap.

"Half of what a quarterback does is project his voice," he noted. "We're always in huddles, we're always in meetings, we're always at the line of scrimmage, we're always talking to coaches on the sidelines, and you have to project your voice very loudly and very clearly.

"And it's a very hostile environment when you're a quarterback - when you're playing for Stanford against Michigan and you're playing in Michigan in front of 102,000 Wolverine fans."

Off the gridiron, he remembered, the going could also be tough. Being an attorney, he suggested, can put you in "a hostile environment when you're in front of a judge and when the opposing attorneys are objecting to everything you say."

On the other hand, he reasoned, acting is far more benign. "I feel very comfortable on stage," he admitted. "What I like about the stage," he added with a chuckle, "is you're three feet higher than the audience. What that means to me is, the audience can't blitz me."

This is Boryla's second post-Eagles trip to Philly. In November 2012, he appeared as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg in a Plays & Players reading of "Voices of a People's History of the United States." He couldn't find enough superlatives to describe the city.

He claimed that his bed and breakfast on Rittenhouse Square cedes nothing to the establishments that he and his wife have stayed at in London and Paris. And, he noted, "Without question, the restaurants are every bit comparable" to eateries in those two capitals.

History tells us that Boryla was the Eagles' quarterback during one of the worst stretches in team history. But, rather than being the target of Our Town's famed "boo birds," he remembered being embraced by Eagles Nation.

"I thought the people here were great," he said. "They all thought I was an Italian from South Philly. So they were always very nice."


Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey St., show times vary, $20 and $15 (students; Jan. 16-17 previews) $25 and $20 (students), 866-811-4111, playsandplayers.org.


Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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