If Super Bowls carried subtitles, then the line beneath this first Big Game of the Millennium would surely be: “What-Are-These-Guys Doing Here?”
You would say it about the Tennessee Titans, a movable franchise with four homes in the past four years. What are they doing here? You would say it about Kurt Warner, the St. Louis quarterback who came out of arena football to be this year’s MVP. What is he doing here?
Mostly you would say it about the trim and grinning man now standing at a podium inside the Georgia Dome, about to receive a crystal award. His shoulders are square. His jaw is granite. His hair, as someone once wrote,
“agreed many years ago to lie perfectly in place for the rest of his life.” It does so now. His smooth face suggests a man at least 20 years younger than his driver’s license indicates.
His name is Dick Vermeil.
He is 63 years old.
He is being named Coach of the Year.
What is he doing here?
Wasn’t Dick Vermeil the symbol of 1970s overwork and 1980s burnout? Wasn’t he the coach so obsessed with organization, discipline and achievement that he slept at the stadium, ate meals on the toilet, started meetings at 6 a.m., and finished meetings at 1 a.m.?
Wasn’t he the man who once posted a sign in the Philadelphia locker room, “The best way to kill time is to work it to death”? Wasn’t he the guy who thought two-a-days were only half of four-a-days, who demanded chin straps on and buckled, all the time, a guy who took an overachieving group of Eagles to Super Bowl XV in January 1981, getting there through tireless work and dedication, only to lose to the Oakland Raiders and see the defeat blamed on
— what else? — too much tireless work and dedication?
Wasn’t he the guy who walked away from football in 1982 a broken man, prone to self-doubt and inner torture? Didn’t he become synonymous with workaholics’ crash? “Careful, buddy, you don’t wanna be another Dick Vermeil.”
Wasn’t he gone from football for 14 years?
Coach of the Year? At age 63?
What is he doing here?
He needed a break — 14 years
“The last time I was at a Super Bowl,” he is saying now, “I was much younger and much more intense. I was much more …narrow.”
He pauses, setting his jaw. Narrow. A good word. Some coaches think it’s a compliment, suggestive of focus. Not always. A reporter asks Vermeil if it’s true that in the week before the 1981 Super Bowl, he didn’t tell his players there were free cars available for their use because he didn’t want them going anywhere.
“I never said that,” Vermeil says. “I didn’t even know there were cars available.”
What’s that line from “Amazing Grace,” “Was blind, but now I see”? Dick Vermeil admits to being blind — to himself and his family. He admits to missing the value of balance, love and leisure. He took 14 years to get his priorities straight.
Not that he’s joining Cheech and Chong. This is, after all, Dick Vermeil, the NFL’s first-ever full-time special-teams coach, the man who went 15-5-3 in two years at UCLA, upset Woody Hayes’ No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, then jumped to the NFL and took Philly to its only Super Bowl four years later.
He’s never going to join the Pro Tanning Tour. But he didn’t leave coaching for a year or two, either, as Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells did in their previous “retirements.” Vermeil was gone for a long time. A lonnnng time. When his return was announced, three years ago, there were some people who actually said, “Dick Vermeil? I thought he was dead.”
Bringing the Rams back to life
Perhaps they had him confused with the franchise. The St. Louis Rams were indeed dismal — as were the Eagles when Vermeil took the reins. The temptation to bury himself in the rebuilding was juicy.
He didn’t bite. He built a staff. He trusted other people. He lightened his touch, and he saw that today’s players are different than players 20 years ago
— and he was too demanding on the ones 20 years ago.
“Why did you come back?” I ask him simply.
“Why?” he says. “I didn’t like how I left. I allowed the game to consume me. Because I loved it so much, it blinded me to my health, my wife, my kids.
“And I wasn’t the kind of football coach I wanted to be when I left.”
He is now. His Rams are the story of the year. His offense is high-flying. Vermeil himself has broken down in tears of joy so often, Kleenex is considering an endorsement deal.
And though his iron fist may have pounded the energy out of the Eagles during Super Bowl week in 1981, this time around “There are no bed checks. No team meals, except brunch in the morning.”
Vermeil then laughs and says that, if the Rams lose, critics will say, “You should have had a curfew.”
At least he’s laughing. During his press conference, someone asks about the ring he wears from the 1981 Super Bowl appearance. The coach admits he never takes it off.
“But,” he says, “if we win Sunday, this ring will be retired.”
Replaced by a happier version.
Like the man himself.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM