Asked if he has any early regrets about returning to coaching, he says, "One—that I didn't do it sooner."
Tuesday, July 15 Macomb, Ill.
It's Day One of training camp for rookies, free agents, quarterbacks and some veterans; and three hours north of St. Louis, in the middle of America's corn and soybean belt, the Dick Vermeil Rams begin to take shape. Ninety-three-degree heat bakes the asphalt on the campus of Western Illinois University, and already Vermeil has his first controversy. Quarterback Tony Banks has brought his six-month-old rottweiler, Felony, to camp. "She's like my daughter," Banks says, beaming. The coaches do not beam. Dogs are not allowed in dormitories at training camp. Banks has committed only a training-camp misdemeanor, but Felony must go. Two of Banks's cousins drive up from St. Louis, and the quarterback bids his dog farewell. He is bitter.
Banks, 24, could be a problem for Vermeil. His response to the hiring of the coach and his elderly assistants was, "Why are they bringing the dinosaurs back?" A second-round pick in 1996, Banks won the starting job in his rookie year and performed so well that the Rams decided not to chase free-agent quarterback Jeff George in the 1997 off-season. But Vermeil is concerned that football isn't as important to Banks as it should be. Exhibit A: Banks blew a $25,000 bonus (his base salary is $300,000, lowest among NFL full-season starting quarterbacks) by not attending at least 50% of the Rams' off-season workouts. The weightlifting, he said, was messing up his basketball game. "Nobody's gonna stop me from playing basketball," he says. "Nobody."
Coaches are usually intense at training-camp practices, setting a serious tone for the season to come. Vermeil, in contrast, is a happy crusader, moving from group to group and effusively praising even the smallest success. In a blocking drill for the running backs, Phillips knocks a rookie almost to the cornfield beyond the players' dorm. Vermeil yells, "Super play! First day of camp, and that's a super play!"
After the two-hour workout he gathers the players together and gives them a high school pep talk. "Men," he says, "that was your first taste of contact. Good job! Good things happened out here today, big guys!"
In the locker room he makes a point of going up to the tired Phillips. During the off-season Vermeil has kept close tabs on the troubled running back, going so far as to pick Phillips up and fly with him back to St. Louis after he was released from jail in Nebraska on April 12. (The running back had pleaded no contest to a June 1996 drunk-driving charge in California, violating his probation on an earlier assault conviction in Nebraska, and had served 23 days.)
The coach has organized a large support system for Phillips: front-office people, a psychotherapist, lawyers and peers. Rams vice president Lynn Stiles devoted much of the off-season to helping Phillips resolve his myriad legal problems and schedule his community service. Kevin Warren, another Rams vice president, has just joined the team and is also on the Phillips watch.
Now, in the locker room, Vermeil talks to Phillips as a proud father would talk to a mischievous but promising son. "Here's the man," he says to everyone within earshot, "who's going to be one of the best running backs in the NFL this year! Good job out there today! How you feeling?"
"Crampin' up, Coach," Phillips says.