As every keeper of the faith should know by now the coming of Vince Lombardi—out of that special purgatory he arranged for himself in Green Bay—to the Washington Redskins has had a galvanic, almost evangelical effect on the Redskins themselves. They speak of the experience in the enthusiastic way changed men describe their conversions. Center Len Hauss, for example, a five-year Redskin veteran, was vacationing on Lake Okeechobee in quest of speckled perch when the big news reached him, and his first impulse was to get to shore right away and start doing pushups. He said he sensed an urgent need to prepare himself for Coach Lombardi, who he remembered as being about eight feet tall.
This is an article from the July 28, 1969 issue
Ray McDonald, the large young fullback who had been having problems adapting to professional football, got so excited thinking about the coming of the new deal that he lost 20 pounds and was not altogether sure if it was diet or intensified worry that did it. McDonald reported to the Redskins camp at Carlisle, Pa. as fat-free as a chorus girl and full of that oldtime religion.
"I'd go right through that wall for The Man," McDonald said after the first day of practice. (Lombardi is referred to by his players as The Man only as a variation of Coach Lombardi or Mister Lombardi. He is never called Vince, except in books by former Green Bay players.) A first practice under Lombardi is always an adventure in torture, and most of the Redskins showed up early, anxious to bite the dust and to see if they could stand the pain. McDonald was one. He took everything Lombardi dished out—a generous portion—and came up smiling, as though purified.
"I'd do those grass drills all day for The Man," he said. "I'd run till I dropped. I'd do anything for him. He told us we had to love one another, to care for other players on the team if we were going to be a team. He's a genius, a genius. We had a one-hour meeting last night. You know how many plays he gave us? Two. Only two plays in one hour. But we saw those plays like we never saw plays before."
By the end of that first day the great weight of Lombardi's presence had so asserted itself that hardened veterans could not believe the yessirs and nosirs that were pouring out of their mouths. "I expect if he came into my room right now," said one, "and told me to pack my bags I'd just smile and say, 'Yessir, thank you, sir.' " By the end of the first week two star players, Pat Richter and Charley Taylor, were practicing with broken bones. But then, at Green Bay, Lew Carpenter once played four games with a broken hand.
Flankerback Bobby Mitchell, more mature in the game at 34 and able to make meaningful comparisons, saw it all as the dawning of the Age of Lombardi. a classic interlude for Washington: the famous coach cast in the role of a personal conservator who had come to save them from terrible embarrassments (mostly losses to Philadelphia and the New York Giants), and, like Jupiter hidden all those years in the cave, it was now up to Mitchell and others who had suffered longest to come out and claim their right to heaven—namely, the Eastern Conference championship. Mitchell said he remembered heaven from having been there a long time ago with the Cleveland Browns, and he had not forgotten the way.
"It is a matter of belief," he said. "You believe in the man. It was the same with Paul Brown. You knew in advance to accept his discipline, you wanted his discipline. I didn't realize until later that the things I thought Paul Brown was doing to me he was actually doing for me. A player needs discipline so that he doesn't cheat. He will cheat if he can get away with it. I've cheated, every player has, and you hate yourself for doing it, for dogging it on a pass pattern when you know you're not going to get the ball or sloughing off a block. You won't cheat with Mr. Lombardi because you know you'll be out, and you know he'll be right.
"For a black player, it's the knowledge that you will be treated the same. When Bobby Mitchell makes his cut at 13 yards instead of 14 and gets yelled at by Coach Lombardi, Bobby Mitchell knows that Jerry Smith will be yelled at, too, if he makes the same mistake. The other black players know it."
Although the Redskins will doubtless scalp a number of opponents this season, Lombardi's first scalping party was directed at his own team. "Mr. Lombardi does not like long hair," Bobby Mitchell said. "He told Jerry Smith [who is white] he could not see how he could catch a ball with all that hair in his face, and the very next day Jerry got a haircut. The word got around. The week before camp opened all the players with those far-out Afros were crammed into the Ashby brothers' barbershop getting their hair chopped off. You've never seen so much hair on the floor. Conservative Afros were suddenly the style. The Ashby brothers never had so much business.
"Mister Lombardi told us at Georgetown, 'Fellows, we will win. You believe that.' We never believed it before. We were conditioned to losing. He told us again last night. It is something we need to hear over and over. If he were a loser maybe the things he says would sound corny, but you know he's no loser. You believe it when he says it."
Nowhere was the impact of Vince Lombardi more profoundly felt—if the evidence is correct—than it was on the person of 35-year-old Christian Adolph (Sonny) Jurgensen III, the quarterback Lombardi inherited when he took the Redskins job. It is important to examine that particular impact, because it is most vital to the success of the Redskins. Football is a coach's game, more a coach's game than any other. But as Lombardi used to tell Bart Starr, and is now telling Sonny Jurgensen, the quarterback is the coach's extension on the field.
The two, Lombardi and Jurgensen (see cover), are as unmatched a pair of seraphim as you will ever see. Lombardi is an uncomplicated man of carefully developed tastes and incredible organization. One thing he said he saw—and corrected—right away in the Redskin front office was the absence of organization. Lombardi, by nature, comes prepared for all contingencies. In packing for Carlisle he included a Catholic missal, a large volume of synonyms, a case of tape-recorded golf tips from Julius Boros and an ample supply of Titralac, a stomach soother. By arrangement, he also brought in a priest to conduct daily Mass for him and the team. Lombardi is an obdurate, driving, outrageously successful man and, for all that, a very shy one. Sonny Jurgensen, in capsule, is the perfect antidote for most of those things.
Almost every fan remembers Sonny from past adventures: orange hair, puckish good humor, saloonkeeper's profile, a reputation for being the best natural passer in the NFL and, at the same time, one of its more active epicureans. Sonny would seem at a glance to be as relaxed as Lombardi is rigid and as irreverent as Lombardi is proper.
Allowed to have its way by the owner, the Jurgensen potbelly was long a substantive part of his image. When anyone with an eye on that bulge jokingly referred to his "delicate condition," Sonny replied, "You pass with your arm, not your stomach."
Stories about flip, funny Sonny have always been lavishly garnished. Girls were supposed to be a cinch for Sonny Jurgensen. In all of Washington only Adam Clayton Powell was believed to set more hearts aflutter. Speed was big in Sonny Jurgensen's world, too—on his motorcycle or in his $6,000 Mercedes-Benz. And when a tire went flat he was said to be the first to grab the instruction booklet while his friends wrestled with the jack.
Naturally Jurgensen resented the exaggerations—"you have one drink and 10 people see you, and it gets around that you had 10 drinks"—but he did not make a serious effort to change because it was a mostly harmless reputation, and he really did have this fondness for Scotch. Until his second marriage, and the birth of a son he hates to leave, he did not think in terms of limiting himself.
The Jurgensen everybody loves is captured in this episode. On the plane ride home after last year's opening-game victory over the Bears in Chicago, Jurgensen stationed himself in the back with a teammate and a columnist for the Washington Star, Morris Siegel. Coach Otto Graham came down the aisle to congratulate him (Jurgensen had had one of his brilliant days) and to inquire about his passing arm, which had been operated on in May and had been paining him.
"Hurts like hell," said Sonny.
"Well, what do you think you should do about it?" asked Graham soothingly.
"I guess I'll have to drink with my left hand," said Sonny.
It is only the bright side of the Jurgensen moon that you see. There is a dark side. Last winter on a trip to Grand Bahama Island with his wife, the dark side of Sonny Jurgensen lay on the white-sand beach and considered his past and his future. "I saw myself as a man who had applied himself diligently to professional football for 12 years," he said, "and never really got the most out of it. I saw them as frustrating years. I was up to here with records. What did they mean? Nothing. One year I threw 508 passes. One year I threw 32 touchdown passes. But we never won anything.
"It seemed all I could look forward to year after year was drop back and throw, drop back and throw, much of the time in sheer fright, but usually because there was no other way. Not winning, just throwing. I always felt I had my back to the wall. It was always second and eight. We were always disorganized. We were always making up plays in the huddle.
"I can recite to you now what Coach Lombardi says about that. 'You come off the field and the first thing you ask yourself is: Did we win? If you can say yes, then you can think about your individual accomplishments.' And I certainly see the logic in that. I wanted to win so bad. I didn't want to throw 40 touchdown passes a year and lose, I wanted to throw 10 and win."
Jurgensen said when he talked it all out he had, privately, decided to quit this year. "We talked about other goals I could pursue—I had a television show and was in business, and there were other things. They had become as exciting to me as anything else. It had become a drudgery to go to camp, a drudgery because you knew you were going in the wrong direction. I didn't say anything, but I had made up my mind I would quit. Then the word came about Mister Lombardi."
The first thing Jurgensen did when he heard the news was call Paul Hornung long distance. Hornung had been a favorite of Lombardi's at Green Bay, one of his biggest stars, but he was more than that to Jurgensen. He was a kindred spirit. If anything, Hornung had been an even more relentless pleasure-seeker than Jurgensen.
"Paul said, 'Sonny, don't worry about a thing. You'll love him. Forget everything else you've ever heard. You'll love Vince Lombardi. He'll be fair, and it'll be a whole new deal for you. Look, I played for him, didn't I?' "
Jurgensen and Lombardi got together for the first time last February. "We met in his office, and the first thing he said was, 'Sonny, I want just one thing from you. I want you to be yourself. I'm not interested in all the rest, I just want you to be yourself.' Wasn't that a great thing to say to a guy? He was telling me he had heard the stories and that it didn't matter. He knew I wasn't Bart Starr and that I didn't want to be. He was man to man with me from the start.
"I can't tell you how good I felt. I know now I've always wanted to play for a coach like him. I wish it had happened long ago, when I had my career in front of me. I felt—well, I felt I'd been playing under a handicap, a cripple for 12 years. I loved talking football with him. Such knowledge. I've played the game all my life. I'm a student of it, and I can tell right now he's the best."
In June, Lombardi invited Sonny and a number of other Redskins to a four-day meeting at Georgetown. "I'd never had anything like it," Sonny says. "His passing game amazes me, the science of it. The consistency of it. It doesn't matter who the quarterback is, it is always the same. Every team I've ever been on, when a new quarterback went in the character of the game always changed. He doesn't leave anything to chance. You're never surprised with Mister Lombardi. Hell, I've been surprised every week in the past. You never force the action with Lombardi, you do what the defense shows you to do, allows you to do. I remember so many times having to force the play, throwing to Bobby Mitchell when I knew he was double-covered. With Lombardi you pick your spots. Every coach tries to, but with Lombardi you know exactly what spot to pick. He promised me more second-and-two situations this year. It won't be second and eight all the time.
"I knew, after those four days, that I wasn't on my own anymore. That I wouldn't have my back to the wall all the time. That we'd be a team. In 1967 we lost six games, most of them on mental errors in the last minutes, all close games, and we could have won the championship. This won't happen with Mister Lombardi. We'll be a team. I don't know of anybody else who could do it—nobody could. And something else I know: there'll only be one sonofabitch on the field running things.
"For the first time in a long time I was excited about football. I honestly could hardly wait to get to camp."
The changes in Jurgensen are visible to everybody. A friend points out that even in private conversation he almost always refers to Lombardi as Mister. "Isn't Mister his first name?" says Jurgensen with a grin.
When Jurgensen reported to Carlisle for practice this month his muttonchop sideburns were down to nothing. His hair was shorter. And something else was missing. Something else was obviously missing. Bob Pellegrini, a former teammate, saw it immediately. "Hey, Sonny," he yelled, "what the hell happened to your gut?" Jurgensen was practically flat-bellied.
Vince Lombardi talked of the Jurgensen phenomenon the next day and said he was not surprised by it. He said from the beginning he had found Jurgensen to be of superior intelligence, of superior ability, and there was no reason to expect otherwise. And then Lombardi said, "The thing about Jurgensen is that he always wanted to win so fiercely. All the great ones have that. Sonny Jurgensen can throw a football as well or better than anyone, but he has not won. He has missed out on that glory, and that is something all the great ones have: the hunger for glory. Hornung had it. Inside the 20, Paul Hornung was the greatest player around. Taylor had it. Y. A. Tittle had it. Bart Starr, in his quiet, unassuming way, he has the hunger.
"And Jurgensen has it, too, but there has been no glory, so he has compensated. He has signed his name to articles about booze and broads. He has done things he might not otherwise have done. They were emphasized, the bad things, because the good had gone unnoticed. The good had gone unrewarded."
It remains to be seen, of course, whether there will be a reward this year for Jurgensen and the Redskins. Lombardi himself says too much has been expected of them. He has looked at the movies and he has seen his players, and he knows some are lacking, but he does not yet know how much. "Movies don't tell you the pressure a man is under," he said. "How much he has absorbed, how far you can push him. Movies tell you the strengths but seldom show the weaknesses."
He said the pressure to win in Washington has been great, that he has tried to tell people he does not really walk on water, but they have not listened. He also knows that he imposed that pressure on himself by coming out of the hermetically sealed booth he made for himself in Green Bay, back into the coaching that he found he missed so much. And that if he has to listen to voices, they might as well be his own.
At the end of that first day in Carlisle, sitting with coaches and some of the writers from Washington at a little house across the street from Dickinson College, Lombardi suddenly held up his arm to reveal a copper bracelet. "Ever seen one of these things before?" he said. No one had. "It's my voodoo bracelet," he said. "It prevents joint diseases—you know, bursitis, neuritis, arthritis. I had some bursitis in my left hip. I'd been taking cortisone. Very painful, cortisone. I got one of these bracelets from a doctor in New York. For two months I haven't felt a twinge. Not one.
"Actually thousands of people wear them," he said, "but they don't work for everyone."
"You have to be a believer."