It was 40 years ago today that Vince Lombardi had the first practice of his only training camp with the Redskins. It ushered in an era of hope that came to a crushing end when Lombardi died of cancer before he could conduct his second training camp. He brought the team its first winning season in 25 years.
We often think that Lombardi was relatively old by the time he came here but the man accomplished a lot in a hurry. He was 57 when he dies; Jim Zorn just turned 56
You can read an account of every game of Lombardi's Redskins career in my new book The Redskins Chronicle, now on sale.
July 10, was the day that the 1969 Redskins were to start training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. For months, the Redskins players looked towards that date with a mix of hope and fear. The hope was that Vince Lombardi, who had been hired as head coach in February of that year, could lift the moribund Washington franchise to glory. The fear came from what they had heard of the methods he would use to do so. As cornerback Pat Fischer said, "Lombardi was preceded by his reputation."
That reputation came from comments such as those made by Henry Jordan, a player for Lombardi in Green Bay.
"He treats us all the same," said Jordan of his coach. "Like dogs."
Especially notorious was the grass drill. The players would run in place, knees pumping up high and then, on Lombardi's command, flop onto the ground. Failure to spring back up immediately and resume the fervent churning of the legs would usually result in a public tongue-lashing by the coach. In Carlisle he ran the grass drill unmercifully, cursing at the n on-performers so loudly that Dickinson secretaries working near the field complained to the dean of the college.
"There are two ways of motivation," said Sam Huff, who had come out of retirement to become a player-coach under Lombardi. "One is through fear and the other is through group motivation. Lombardi motivated through fear."
A big fear that players had was for their jobs. Being cut was always a clear and present danger for those who did not do things Lombardi's way. Even being a recent first-round draft pick didn't grant any immunity. When fullback Ray McDonald showed up late for the team's first meeting in Carlisle, Lombardi stopped speaking and asked the third-year player what his name was. "Ray McDonald," the player said. Those were his last words as a Redskin as Lombardi announced to the team right then and there that McDonald had been cut. From then on, job security dictated that one keep one's watch set to Lombardi Time, which was ten minutes faster than Eastern Time.
One player whose job appeared to be safe was quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Not only did he have Hall of Fame talent, but also he fully bought in to Lombardi's methods. The signal caller who NFL Films' John Facenda once described as possessing "a=2 0hairline going north and a belt line going south" had once blown off his head coach's suggestion that he improve his conditioning, telling Otto Graham, "I don't throw the ball with my stomach." Now, however, he was flopping on the Carlisle turf with the rest of them.
Nobody was spared the wrath of Lombardi, not even his own flesh and blood. His brother Joe had recently been hired by a sporting goods company and thought he would take advantage of his family connection to bring a couple of the company's executives out onto the practice field. Lombardi ejected all three of them, using more of that language that made the secretaries blush.
As players such as McDonald and some rookies who packed up and bolted in the middle of the night fell by the wayside, replacements had to be found. Vince Lombardi wasn't a mere raving tyrant; he had an uncanny knack for finding talent. The coach was chatting with Jurgensen after the first practice when Lombardi pointed to a rookie running back out of Kansas State. "See that [rookie] over there in the overalls?" said the coach of the eighth-round draft pick. "When the rest of these guys are gone, he'll still be here." Lombardi was pointing at Larry Brown.
As camp wore on Brown continued to impress the coach with his ability, but the back always seemed to be a half step slow getting off the ball. "Does that Brown hear," Lombardi asked one night at a coaches' meeting. They decided to find out and, sure enough, a test revealed that Brown was quite deaf in one ear.
The team fitted Brown's helmet with a hearing aid that transferred sound from the side of his head with the bad ear into the good ear and the results were immediate and impressive. A couple of days later Brown scored two touchdowns in the exhibition season opener at RFK Stadium. A few days after that, assistant coach George Dickson saw Lombardi with his arm draped around Brown's shoulders. Later on, knowing that Lombardi doesn't show such affection to just anyone, Dickson went up to Brown and said, "Son, you've got this ball club made." Brown went on to rush for 888 yards in his rookie season and 5,875 in his seven-year career.
With Brown and a fit Jurgensen in starring roles, Lombardi led the Redskins to a 7-5-2 record, their first winning record since 1955.