The practice field, bounded by palms and orange trees drooping in the brutal Florida heat, lies just beyond the intersection of Jackie Robinson Avenue and Sandy Koufax Lane. The sign at the entrance to the country-club-like compound reads DODGERTOWN. WINTER HOME OF THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS. This is Vero Beach, all right, and the ghost of baseball is everywhere except on the practice field, where, in one corner, a batting-practice machine is pitching...footballs.
Football has inherited this summer now. In 28 campsites from Vero to La Jolla, Calif., NFL players are shedding gallons of sweat in two-a-days, wiping out entire herds of beef at mealtimes and toting complex playbooks to evening meetings while trying to keep one step ahead of "the Turk," who may strike at any time and turn an All-America into an Un-Employed.
Sheets of heat rise above the grunting players on the Dodgertown field while a big porky guy in shorts with a crew cut and aviator sunglasses peers down from a lofty tower. It's Bum Phillips, but you'd hardly know him without his Stetson and armadillo boots.
One player is off by himself, jogging slowly around the farthest corner of the field. It is the day before the season's first scrimmage, against the Dolphins in Miami, and afterward the Turk will pay his first call. The lone jogger looks something like Earl Campbell, the great Texas running back for whom Phillips traded four draft picks and a player in 1978—the instant pro star who made the Houston Oilers a championship contender. But the jogger lacks Campbell's hard edges. In college he ran somewhat like Campbell, gaining more than 100 yards in 22 straight games. Like Campbell, he won the Heisman Trophy and was chosen first in the NFL draft. But Phillips doesn't coach the Oilers anymore. Now he's running the New Orleans Saints—a/k/a the Aints, 1-15 last year—and the jogger is, of course, George Rogers, the 6'2", 226-pound running back whose 1,781 yards rushing last year at South Carolina won him the Heisman and also a ticket to New Orleans.
August 2, 1981
Rogers is jogging slowly because he suffered a slight hamstring pull five days into camp and has yet to carry the football in live drills. What's more, he's unhappy; Phillips is holding him out of the scrimmage with the Dolphins.
As he shuffles by the tower, Rogers calls in a loud voice, "Sure wish I could play!" He looks skyward. "Hey up there! Sure wish I could play!"
"How do you feel?" Phillips yells down to him.
"Like I could play!"
Oh my, how the Saints pray he can. To be sure, asking a running back to turn around a team that was so bad its fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads to keep from being recognized may be akin to using a chain link fence to keep out the ocean. Especially when the team gave up 30 points per game—"29th out of the 28 teams, I think," says one Saint official. For that reason, many fans as well as several of the Saints' coaches and scouts wanted the team to draft North Carolina Linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Not Phillips. He knew what Campbell had done for the Oilers. The year before he was drafted they had finished 8-6 and out of the playoffs. In Campbell's rookie season they were 10-6, then 11-5 two years in a row. They made it to the playoffs all three years and to the AFC title game twice, losing both times to the eventual Super Bowl champion, Pittsburgh. Bum had a hunch that with Rogers, history might repeat itself.
"I just thought that George Rogers would do more for our football team than, say, one guy on defense like Lawrence Taylor," says Phillips. "He's a great linebacker, but if you put him on one side, they'd just run the other way the whole game. I couldn't get him in a position 30 times a game to make the big play. I can get a good running back in position 30 times to make the big play. The best defense is holding on to the football."
Thus, Rogers was the man. He's not the straight-ahead bruiser that Campbell is, nor does he have the speed of a Tony Dorsett. "If he had everything those guys have, he'd have to be outlawed," says Phillips. "Earl's a short, low, tackle-breaking runner. George is a tall guy who runs hard. He'll break a tackle, but he'll dodge a few people Earl wouldn't bother about. This kid will make a move, but he'll do it without stopping the way Dorsett or Billy Sims does. You can't compare him with Earl. Earl has led the league all three of his years; this kid is still a college kid. It would be like comparing me with Amos Alonzo Stagg or somebody."
Still, Rogers has enormous strength for a running back, largely because he has a passion for weightlifting. "In college I could bench-press 380 pounds, and I didn't think I could get any stronger," he says. But in a month, under the tutelage of Russell Paternostro, the Saints' strength coach, Rogers has upped his bench press to 420 pounds, which is about as much as a 280-pound tackle can handle. He has added a full inch to his measurements up and down his body, and put on six pounds.
The Saints endured a few anxious weeks after the draft when Nelson Skalbania, raider of American football flesh, made a serious pass at Rogers for his Montreal Alouettes. But Rogers finally settled for a $1 million, five-year deal with New Orleans.
"Why would a great running back want to play in some league where they speak French and kick on third down, anyway?" asks Phillips. Then again, why would a great running back want to play for the NFL's worst team?
"And they talk a lot of French in New Orleans, too," says Rogers.
Nevertheless, he flew in to sign on June 17, and when he stood up in front of the cameras he snatched Phillips' golf cap, adjusted the band and put it on his own head. The cap's inscription was fitting: HELP BUM HELP THE HANDICAPPED.
"Here, let me have that back," said Phillips. "I just want to make a mark on the back of the cap to make sure your head don't get any bigger."
Bigheadedness isn't likely to afflict Rogers, but his shyness and aversion to the press may cause him some trouble. His childhood was even more difficult than that of the stereotyped dirt poor black athlete out of a broken home—like Earl Campbell, for instance. Rogers' father abandoned the family and was eventually convicted of murder and sent to prison. George, his mother and two brothers and two sisters were continually on the move. When Rogers became famous last year, he never expected the story to be told and retold by the national media, but then he's more than a trifle naive about life in the big time.
"I hate attention, you know," he says. "I hate having reporters all around asking me questions while my teammates are off by themselves. I hate autographs. The best thing about being in the NFL is getting to meet some of the people I've always heard about, like Joe Greene and Earl. I always idolized Earl Campbell. People ask me do I want to be like him. I say I want to be better. Might as well say it, right?"
He isn't pleased with his first week in camp. There was the terrible humiliation on the very first day, when he was the only player who didn't finish the required 1½-mile run. "We did it at 5 p.m., and I hadn't eaten lunch or dinner," he says. "I was really embarrassed." The coaches pooh-poohed Rogers' failure, but the New Orleans writers, who aren't particularly happy with Rogers, made much of it. One of them imagined Phillips saying, "Well, if it's third and three-quarters of a mile, we'll go to someone else." Rogers didn't think that was funny.
But Quarterback Archie Manning has put a fraternal arm around Rogers' broad shoulders. "A No. 1 draft pick just doesn't turn a franchise around," says Manning. "I ought to know that." In his 10 years, the best the Saints ever did—the best season in their 14-year history—was 8-8 in 1979. "I won't be the one to put pressure on George, I assure you," says Manning. "If I could, I'd take all his pressure and add it to mine. I'm 10 years older than he is."
Manning thinks Phillips' relaxed manner and country humor will also help ease the pressure on Rogers. Last week Phillips demonstrated his knack for deflating an issue before it gets blown out of proportion when he was asked if Manning would call his own plays this season. "No," said Bum, "he'll call our plays. We ain't going to let him make up any."
Although Rogers was homesick and hot and itching to carry the football in live drills, he loved playing along with the routine rookie hazing. One evening at dinner the call came: "No. 1, get up!" Rogers stood on his chair. But he didn't know the words to the South Carolina fight song, so he sang something else. "I sang that song from Hee Haw" he says.
"You know, the one that goes, 'Where oh where are you tonight / Why'd you leave me here all alone....' You know. [Singing] 'I searched the world over and thought I found true love / You met another and fffttt....' "
When the Saint veterans began arriving late last week, they had a little heehaw of their own in mind for Rogers, involving "the bucket." The bucket is a gold plastic mop pail with a square cutout framed by a football face mask. On command from a veteran, a rookie is required to wear it for an entire day, whenever he is outdoors. "A veteran on the Saints is someone who has been here through at least six coaches," said one player who has yet to qualify. "One year we had two No. 1's—Larry Burton, a short black guy, and Kurt Schumacher, a big white guy—so we got two buckets and tied the two of them together with a rope. It was great."
"I kind of like the bucket idea," said Rogers. "It'll keep the sun off my head."
Rogers is surely an atypical No. 1. He says money means little to him, that he's not interested in "rich things." His clothes consist of blue jeans and T shirts—except for a pair of ostrich-skin boots Phillips gave him, the only boots he's ever owned. His first act after signing was to buy his mother a new house, and he's in the process of buying one for the aunt who helped raise him.
Next he bought a dog, a Rottweiler that he named "38," which was—and is—Rogers' number. With 38 in tow, he went to check out cars. "I took a Trans-Am for a test drive, and the dog vomited all over the front seat. I was so embarrassed, I felt I better buy a car from the guy. Not the Trans-Am. A Mazda."
He also bought himself a house—in Columbia, S.C. New Orleans was ruled out when Rogers learned it is four feet below sea level. "One hurricane and everyone'll drown," he says. And anyway, New Orleans is "too fast" for this country boy. "I heard that people stay out late there," he says. "Not just late, but till three or four in the morning. That's not for me. I don't drink or smoke or stay out late. Just snuff. It's my only vice."
He thinks for a few seconds and then laughs. "I don't know, really," he says. "I don't like nothing about it. Kind of makes me dizzy. Well, not dizzy dizzy, but kind of light-headed, like I drank beer or something. If you swallow it you get sick." He laughs and laughs.
And what about marketing himself, making commercials, cashing in at least a little bit on his star value?
"Nope," he says. "Well, maybe a little commercial or something. That wouldn't be bad. You know, like maybe for this." He opens a can of Copenhagen and takes a dip, or, as he says, "lip." "You know, like those commercials Earl Campbell makes."
Oh, like Earl Campbell.
"Skoal, baby," says Rogers.