Dick Vermeil made quite a career out of being a meticulous, unrelenting, attentive and soft-hearted head football coach during five different decades. Those characteristics helped earn the 85-year-old a spot on the stage in Canton, Ohio, Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
As Saturday approaches, Vermeil grows more and more consumed with the enormity of it all.
“The closer I get to the day, the more I realize what’s going on,” he told reporters recently.
Although Vermeil hasn’t coached in the NFL in 17 years, he’s been preparing for this weekend as though he was facing an old rival again. Ever since Hall of Fame Rams quarterback Kurt Warner came knocking at his old coach’s log cabin home in East Fallow, Pa. six months ago to deliver the good news, Vermeil has obsessed over what he’ll say Saturday.
The countless hours produced scores of impeccably produced hand-written notes he’s condensed into a speech of a lifetime. It’s been a challenge for Vermeil to whittle down his thoughts about an NFL coaching career featuring successful stints in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Kansas City, which produced division titles at each places and a pair of Super Bowl appearances – one loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV with the Eagles, and a championship with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Vermeil can tell you how many other Hall of Famers have been inducted before him (360) and how many other coaches preceded him (27). He can’t, however, explain how he’s going to be able to fit his football life into the eight minutes allotted for each inductee’s speech.
“I think about it every day. What to say in eight minutes,” Vermeil told the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.
Does he have time to talk about his life growing up as a auto mechanic’s son in Calistoga, where he now has his own wine business? Should he share what his two years as a quarterback at San Jose State were like, as he did with reporters recently? Vermeil noted it was rather appropriate the Spartans went 5-14-1 during his 1956-57 seasons there.
“I was a very average to below average player, but we were a below average to average team, so I fit right in,” he said.
Is there time to mention his coaching career began as an assistant at San Jose’s Delmar High in 1959? Should he share that his very first head coaching job was in 1960 at Hillsdale High in San Mateo?
And what of his time as head coach at UCLA and Napa Junior College, where he won conference coach of the year honors after winning titles?
Vermeil’s NFL record speaks for itself. He can leave those details – the 126-114 (.526) career record – for others to share. At the same time, he admits the specifics of his career “helps you feel pretty good about yourself when you’re 85 years old.”
He’ll make time to reflect on how the long, sleepless nights – and 18-20 hour workdays — finally burned him out on coaching at age 46 when he quit as the Eagles coach after seven seasons. And his return to the sidelines after 14 years, when he took a middling Rams team and turned them into “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
A notoriously loquacious man who later turned that gift into a 15-year career as a football broadcaster, Vermeil never met a tale he didn’t think worthy of expanding upon. Perhaps it’s the reason Vermeil is the final Hall of Famer scheduled to speak?
More likely, the Hall of Fame is saving what figures to be the most emotional of all the speeches for last. Long before Canton came calling, Vermeil already owned his own wing in a theoretical Hall of Fame for crying coaches. Over his career, he’s unapologetically delivered scores of speeches in locker rooms and during press conferences where his tears have flowed.
“I’ve always been an emotional guy. It used to embarrass me,” Vermeil said. “When you tear up emotionally, it’s because something touches you. The valve that turns that on for me is (for) someone I really, really, really deeply care about.”
Vermeil sobbed and shared a tear-soaked embrace with Warner when the 2017 enshrinee told the coach he’d be joining him as a Hall of Famer.
“When I think about it I tear up. I never really pictured myself sitting on that stage,” Vermeil said.
We can all expect the same reaction from Vermeil Saturday.
“They only give me six minutes to talk and two to close,” Vermeil said. “But I can probably fill it up with some tears.”