BERKELEY, CALIF. — As the youngest of Chuck Mercein’s four children, the actress Jenny Mercein had at least two things going for her. She received constant reminders — an indoctrination, really — that the children of anyone who had played football for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would never, ever quit at anything. And she was Daddy’s little girl.

Still, none of that quite prepared Ms. Mercein two years ago when she and her collaborator, the playwright KJ Sanchez, sat down at the Yale Club to pitch a theater project to her father, an N.F.L. running back in the 1960s. They wanted his help, and his blessing, in writing a play about how the increased awareness of players’ brain injuries was changing the way Americans viewed football.

“He said, ‘I think this sounds like a wonderful idea,’ ” Ms. Mercein said. “ ‘I want nothing to do with it.’ ”

Mr. Mercein eventually came around, though, in part after a reunion with some of his former teammates that left him more melancholy than nostalgic. But that gathering was a reminder to Ms. Mercein and Ms. Sanchez that the subject matter they were working with was rife with conflict, contradictions and deep emotions.

Their play, “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story),” which on Jan. 16 opened a six-week run at Berkeley Repertory Theater, is not the only recent theatrical examination of the country’s more and more complicated relationship with its most popular sport. “Colossal,” written by Andrew Hinderaker, centers on a gay football player who sustained a severe spinal injury. It is scheduled to run in Dallas in the spring after performances in Minneapolis and suburban Washington.

The N.F.L.’s capacity for providing broad cultural talking points does not appear to be abating. Last year, Michael Sam’s decision to try to forge a career as an openly gay player and Ray Rice’s cold-cocking of his future wife in an elevator resonated far beyond the sports world. And the recent hullabaloo over whether the New England Patriots deliberately used deflated footballs in the American Football Conference title game became a national news story.

If it seems difficult to conjure up material like this, the playwrights didn’t have to.

In “X’s and O’s,” the connection to the sport is deep — not only through Ms. Mercein, who is in the six-member cast, but also through another of the actors, Dwight Hicks, a former Pro Bowl safety for the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. When one of his characters, an engaging former player now in his 60s, explains what the game has meant to him, it is easy to wonder how much he is acting.

The dialogue of the football-playing characters has been plucked verbatim from interviews with former players, including Mr. Mercein. The dialogue of other characters — wives, children, doctors, soldiers, fans — were heavily influenced by interviews. Ms. Mercein, who conducted almost all of the more than 30 interviews, and Ms. Sanchez, who wrote the script, said that telling the story in the words of former players allowed for a truer portrait.

“I have no interest in my own opinions or agenda, and I don’t have any interest in agitprop theater,” Ms. Sanchez said. “The documentary process is really a great way for me to work as a photographer rather than a novelist.”

The genesis of “X’s and O’s” was serendipitous. Nearly three years ago, Ms. Mercein and Ms. Sanchez, who had worked on a play together in Seattle more than a decade ago, ran into each other at a Cinco de Mayo party in Brooklyn. Three days before, the former N.F.L. star linebacker Junior Seau had committed suicide. But he shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be examined for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has been increasingly found, post mortem, in former N.F.L. players. Mr. Seau’s death came up in conversation, and the two of them realized they were both football fans.

“So we found this common ground, and we started talking, and we kind of simultaneously came up with the idea that somebody should make a play about this — there’s something there,” Ms. Mercein said. “I’m just thinking it’s cocktail party talk, but a month and a half later, the phone rings and it’s KJ. She says, ‘I got us a commission.’ ”

Once Ms. Sanchez had a draft, she contacted Tony Taccone, the Berkeley Repertory artistic director whom she had worked with before. Mr. Taccone suggested broadening the play, which he thought would make it livelier. The characters cut across generations and sexes, an N.F.L. historical timeline is sprinkled throughout, and video montages and music, like the “Monday Night Football” theme song, add context.

Read more: The Lasting Impacts of Football

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