Thursday, Dec. 18 Earth City
For the second time this year, Banks's rottweiler torments Vermeil. Felony runs out of Banks's house in St. Louis and is struck by a car. She suffers a broken hip and other injuries. A distraught Banks rushes to be with her. As the Rams' offense installs new goal line and short-yardage pass plays for this week's game against Carolina, the quarterback skips practice to be with his dog.
Saturday, Dec. 20 Charlotte
Sitting on a couch just off the hotel lobby, Vermeil looks fresh. He smiles. Winter Wonderland wafts from the P.A. system, and Vermeil thinks about how happy he'll be to return to his Pennsylvania ranch for Christmas after 11 months of his return to the NFL. He is asked if he's glad he came back to coaching.
"I'm not sorry I did," he says. "But I'm not sure I'd do it again. What it's done to my wife—she's not happy—has been tough." Yet he quickly adds, "I'm happy. I needed this fulfillment in my life, and I really like our chances to turn this thing around. We've been asked to put Band-Aids on some cancers, but I'm very confident we'll win. I'm excited, really excited."
In the afternoon against Carolina, the Rams play with the same spirit they showed in the season opener. Banks is error-free. Moore is a steamroller. The defense smothers Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins. Midway through the third quarter the Rams lead 23-0. They win 30-18.
In his first year with the Rams, Vermeil finishes 5-11. (His rookie season in Philadelphia, 1976, the Eagles were 4-10.) The players are giddy. They want to go again next week, to prove they're better than their record. "Coach Vermeil has put together the infrastructure of a championship organization," says cornerback Ryan McNeil, who, after leading the NFL with nine interceptions in 1997, will be a big-money free agent. "If everything on the market is equal, I'm staying. Coach Vermeil has made me love it here."
Vermeil's eyes are already moist when he gets the surprise of the day: Two Eagles special-teamers from the '70s, Dennis Franks and Vince Papale, burst into the visiting coaches' office at Ericsson Stadium. The former players and their old coach share a back-breaking three-man hug and exchange hearty claps on the back. "Coach, you got 'em up today!" Franks screams. "You kicked their ass! We loved it!"
"In 1978," Vermeil says, "I had to cut Vince. I got to the stadium early that day, about 6 a.m., and just walked the parking lot, crying and wondering how I was going to do this. I loved the kid."
Vermeil tells Franks and Papale how it's going with the new job, how he just needs to get every guy in the locker room to trust him. "Coach," says Papale, "nothing's changed. All they have to do is look in your eyes, and they'll trust you."
When the Rams' coach walks out of the locker room for the final time in 1997, his wife is waiting for him. They hug. "Oh, fix your tie," she says, straightening his NFL Throwbacks neckpiece. Then Dick and Carol Vermeil walk arm in arm into the off-season.