In the afternoon players hit the field at 3:45 for a 3½-hour practice. They perform calisthenics, stretch and go immediately into a hard workout. The defensive players begin with 30 "up-downs." The up-down is the oldest, most punishing football drill; Vermeil might be the last coach to run it to this extent. In full pads players sprint in place and, at the whistle, fall to the ground and thump the earth with their chests. Then they rise quickly and resume the sprint. Thirty times the Rams defenders do this. Later, shell-shocked players say they had never done 30 up-downs in a row at any level of football.
One day into the Vermeil era, veteran pass rusher Leslie O'Neal is ready to quit the game. He's 33. He has played in the league for 11 years and made more than $18 million, and he's thinking, Why am I doing 30 up-downs? Why is this man trying to break us mentally as well as physically on the first day?
The intensity of the workouts stuns the players. "Surprised isn't the word," defensive tackle D'Marco Farr says. "Try shocked. Horrified. I looked around at guys who were wavering or couldn't make it, and I said to myself, This one's dead. That one over there's dead. They'll never make it through this camp."
Most days the players will work in full pads for six hours under the sun in temperatures above 90°. Reporters who come to Macomb shake their heads. Most teams that do two-a-day practices aren't out in the heat of summer for more than 4½ hours a day. Few have double sessions in full pads more than occasionally, and Vermeil has them almost every day. But the coach knows the Rams were outscored by 83 points after halftime in 1996, and the reason wasn't just lack of talent. He won't allow poor conditioning or weak wills to be an excuse in '97.
At night in a team meeting Vermeil lays down the law. He discusses team rules and reviews the previous season, the Rams' last under coach Rich Brooks, who was fired last December. "The Rams gave up 57 sacks in 1996, placing the team last in the NFL," reads a Vermeil handout. "Tough to win doing this!" Then, just so no one ignores the "Philosophy and Goals" section in the new team handbook, the coach reiterates its points.
"Don't take anything for granted," Vermeil tells the players. "Nothing in life gets better by accident. It will take a degree of concentration you've never experienced as a Ram to succeed. Winning is not complicated. People complicate it. Consistent winning motivation comes from within. As I build this team, I will eliminate those who aren't motivated enough to win on a weekly basis and replace them with the people who have a deeper desire to excel—a desire that was implemented long before I ever came in contact with them.
"The true winner celebrates exhaustion as a measure of his complete effort. The players who do the most complaining are normally those who have invested the least amount of time preparing. Don't come complaining to me. It might get you fired." He goes on. No one nods off. Finally Vermeil says, "This is the last time we'll talk about last year."
There will be no stories of drinking and debauchery at this camp. The players meet in position groups until 10:50 or so every night. Curfew is at 11, but that will soon be moved back to 11:30, because some meetings last past 11. Coaches meet until 12:15.
Exhausted but content, Vermeil turns in. "it's a very good feeling." he says, "to be the leader again."
Sunday, July 20