- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

On this steamy July day in 1969, famous people stood around the practice field at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Washington Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams was there, of course, along with pals Art Buchwald and Ben Bradlee, among others. So was Sam Huff, the fearsome old New York Giants middle linebacker, who came out of retirement to be a player-coach.

It was the Redskins' seventh summer in Carlisle, and this one was very different. Gone as training camp opened was the usual air of indecision and defeat. St. Vince was in charge now, so things had to go right.

On the field, coach Vince Lombardi smiled even as he yelled at players and chased unwelcome visitors from the field. After a restless year in executive exile at Green Bay, the most successful coach in NFL history was in charge of a team again. His team. His players. His season.

Nearby, Howard Cosell was interviewing Sonny Jurgensen for an ABC-TV special on Lombardi. The star quarterback earned a reputation as a free spirit with previous teams, and there was speculation whether he and the rock-rumped Lombardi could coexist. But Jurgensen wanted to be a winner after years of pitching for poor teams. His answers to Cosell were peppered with references to "Mister Lombardi."

"Wait a minute, Sonny," Cosell brayed in his distinctive voice. "What's this 'Mister' business? I never heard you call anybody 'Mister' before."

Jurgensen smiled. "I thought 'Mister' was the coach's first name."

As the players grunted and sweated through the first workout, two seemingly irreconcilable forces were colliding. At Green Bay from 1959 through 1967, Lombardi went 98-30-4 while winning five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. The Redskins, meanwhile, had not visited the postseason since 1945, nearly a quarter-century earlier. Hamstrung for most of those years by founder George Preston Marshall's refusal to sign black players, they became a league laughingstock after winning two NFL and five divisional titles their first nine years in Washington. Local wits long since had paraphrased their famous fight song as "Hail to the Deadskins."

Nine head coaches tried and failed to revive the franchise. The most recent, former Cleveland Browns star quarterback Otto Graham, went 17-22-3 over three seasons. His players made fun of him at practices and on the sidelines, calling him "Toot" a nasty parody of "Otto." Graham never caught on.

But in the late winter and spring of 1969, Washington's dreary sports scene was transformed into something potentially magical. Ted Williams, baseball's last .400 hitter, was lured away from his fishing gear to manage the Senators. Maryland hired flamboyant Lefty Driesell from Davidson to coach its basketball team. And, suddenly, here came Vince Lombardi, striding from the Midwest like a colossus although, as he said at his introductory news conference, "it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac, not even when it is frozen."

Everybody laughed at that as Lombardi beamed his gap-toothed grin. But when it came time for football, the laughter ended quickly. Jurgensen was one of the Redskins' few players of championship caliber. As he watched film one night, Lombardi muttered into the darkness, "My God, if we'd had him in Green Bay … "

On June 16, Lombardi convened his troops for a four-day minicamp at Georgetown University. Defensive back Tom Brown, a former three-sport star at Maryland, had played on Lombardi's great teams in Green Bay and said the players who managed to survive Lombardi's brutal regimen soon would feel "on top of the world." As the athletes went through basic drills, the coach himself told reporters, "I missed it more than I can say. It feels good to be back."

That night Lombardi and his assistants discussed how to get the best out of powerful and speedy tailback Ray McDonald, a huge disappointment since being drafted No. 1 in 1967. It so happened that McDonald was gay, much more of a public stigma 32 years ago than it is now. Surprisingly, this did not bother the straitlaced Lombardi; his own brother, Harold, was gay.

"George, I want you to get on McDonald and work on him," Lombardi told running backs coach George Dickson. "And if I hear one of you people make a reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."

After the team opened camp at Carlisle on July 9, however, a skinny rookie from Kansas State named Larry Brown soon eclipsed McDonald and the other running backs. Brown was quick, durable and fearless, but his mental mistakes worried Lombardi he had a tendency to jump too soon or too late on the snap count.

"Does he hear?" Lombardi asked Dickson.

"I don't know he always turns his head one way when I'm talking," Dickson replied.

Lombardi scowled. "Damn it, he must be deaf."

The Redskins put an earpiece in Brown's helmet, the errors stopped and he went on to become one of the NFL's best runners.

In their first preseason game, the Redskins by now as tough and determined, if not as talented, as Lombardi wanted defeated the Chicago Bears 13-7. They finished the exhibitions with a 2-4 record, then beat the New Orleans Saints 26-20 in the season opener before 73,000 in the Sugar Bowl.

As midseason approached, the Redskins stood 4-1-1 after winning three straight games, and Lombardi was hailed anew as a genius. But the team was only average at best, and a slump was inevitable. Not until Dec. 14, did Washington assure a winning season by again defeating the Saints 17-14.

A 20-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys dropped the Redskins' final record to 7-5-2. But it was their first winning season since 1955, and fans rejoiced. Surely the 1970s would bring victories and championships untold.

After all, Lombardi would be the coach for a long time to come, and everybody knew that nothing nothing was too much for St. Vince to overcome.

The optimism lasted exactly 185 days. On June 24, 1970, about a month before his second training camp began, Lombardi entered Georgetown University Hospital after feeling poorly for weeks. An examination the next day revealed massive colon cancer, and surgery was performed. He turned up in the Redskins' locker room for an August rookie scrimmage, and his diminished appearance brought tears to the eyes of his players.

On Sept. 3, astonishingly to many, Vincent Thomas Lombardi died in his 58th year. The Coach was gone almost as quickly as he had come, and the Redskins' great days remained locked away in a distant and uncertain future.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide