Toothbrush. Gym bag. Shoes.
The New Guy has arrived.
He looks around at the naked walls of his training camp room.
He sits down on the mattress. But he can’t seem to get comfortable. Not with the mattress, and not with the idea that he’s been traded.
Back when he was a rookie, the veterans on the Philadelphia Eagles would deliberately tell him the wrong plays in practice. They’d smirk every time Dick Vermeil, the Eagles’ head coach, would come over and scream holy hell at the mistake.
And Wilbert Montgomery stood there, frozen, looking down at his shoes, taking it.
He figured in the NFL you pay your dues quietly, you stay loyal, and you earn your spot. One jersey, one team. For as long as you can play.
So for the next eight years he did whatever the Eagles wanted: carry the ball, catch passes, return kickoffs. He played body pinball with the biggest linemen in the game, helped lead his team to a Super Bowl, and kept his mouth shut when the bruises made it nearly impossible to walk from bed to bathroom on Monday morning.
And the Eagles traded him. To the Lions.
He is the New Guy all over again.
He’d rather be in Philly
“It’s strange for me,” he admits, fingering his new room key. “I look at the numbers on the uniforms here and I don’t know who’s inside them.
“I loved Philadelphia. I wanted to finish my career there. I’ve never been traded before, never went through it. Never . . . wanted to.”
He shifts his chunky 31-year-old body back onto a pillow. There is a dark scar across the bridge of his nose — the souvenir of a thousand collisions between his helmet and everything that got in its way.
It is that scar, what it signifies, that Philadelphia will miss most, and that Detroit may yet be greatly thankful for. Don’t be fooled by his 5-foot-10 frame or the knee that required surgery.
Wilbert Montgomery plays from the heart.
He always has.
When Dick Vermeil got him, Montgomery was more of a water- bug runner, veering left and right. “Stop dancing around so much,” Vermeil said. “Just stick it in there.”
Montgomery silently obliged, even though the hits he took left pieces of him on fields from Philly to Los Angeles. He became the Eagles’ workhorse. There were games when it was hard to believe how many times he’d get the call.
He never complained. One jersey, one team.
But when the Eagles waived his friend Harold Carmichael — their star receiver for many years — a cut was opened. Then another friend, quarterback Joe Pisarcik, got a call the day before training camp. And Montgomery bled some more.
The football had suddenly gone crystal, and Montgomery could gaze into it and see his own future. He held out, he says, “for a guarantee of two more years with the Eagles, so they wouldn’t tell me they didn’t need me in 1986.”
You’d think eight bloody years in the NFL for one team might earn you that.
Instead, Montgomery was shipped here for Garry Cobb. The one-jersey, one-team dream was smashed to pieces. And the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher was suddenly a Detroit Lion.
Montgomery bows to Sims
“This is Billy Sims’s town,” says Montgomery, shifting again on the mattress. “I know that. I know people may be looking for me to replace Billy. But nobody replaces a guy like Billy Sims.”
Funny to hear this, since Montgomery has the same career yards-per-carry average as Sims — 4.5 — over more years. But he is too shy to even call himself a star runner, despite several 1,200 yard-plus seasons and two Pro Bowl selections.
“If I had to describe myself, I’d say I was, uh. . .a physical running back,” he says. But he’d rather not describe himself. Just run the ball.
Which brings us to what he can do for the Lions. It’s possible the Eagles let a gem get away here. If his knees hold up and the Lions can open even respectable holes, Montgomery could be the ground game Detroit has been lacking.
And there’s something more. Let’s face it. The Lions could have a dismal year. A guy like Montgomery, who last season kept hurling his body for inches even after the Eagles were dead in the water, sets a tone of not giving up. The Lions may need that as much as anything else.
Montgomery shrugs. It’s not his choosing, but he is here. A bit older, a bit wiser.
Helmet. Pads. Shoes.
And a blue and silver jersey.
Time for the heart. Time for the New Guy.