"WOO-WOO-WOO!" the players howl.
He introduces the captains for the year—Bruce, Keith Crawford and Roman Phifer—and then launches into a 12-minute talk. "We are fortunate to be here, men," he says, his self-assurance growing, his voice now staccato. "This is going to be the best organization in football, it won't happen tomorrow, or in six weeks. But we're way ahead of where I thought we'd be. We're going to be a winning football team, but I can't guarantee it'll be this year. You want guarantees? Join a union. Get tenure. There's no tenure in the NFL. Here you're challenged every day.
"You know, I just left the television business. In that business some people who don't work very hard are stars. That's not for me. I had to come back to the most demanding way to make a living in America, in a business that forces us to be at our absolute best every single day.
"You will experience adversity tomorrow. But when something goes wrong, this is what you think about the guy across from you: I'm going to kick your ass the next play and on every play till the end of the game.
"The finest coach who ever lived, John Wooden, once told his team that the only way to be great is to keep the pressure on your opponent every second you're out there. Put the pressure on them tomorrow right from the start. But be smart. We must play like winners before we become winners. Remember that."
You can see the emotion swelling in Vermeil. He adjusts his glasses. "And I want to tell you guys I appreciate what you've done for me. I appreciate the acceptance...." He chokes up. He says that's it and hands the meeting over to special teams coach Frank Gansz for some of the fire and brimstone at which Gansz excels.
The players are desperate to believe in Vermeil, to think he'll take them to the promised land. "We love him," safety Keith Lyle says, but they just don't know what their prospects really are. They're in the same division with NFC powers Carolina and San Francisco. They play Green Bay, Denver and Kansas City.
"He's getting respect from the players," Bruce says, "because he's earned it. But he's a little rusty with the game, with all the new wrinkles. We hope his way works, because we've only seen the downside to NFL life in St. Louis."
Sunday, Aug. 31
The Trans World Dome is pitch black, except for a lone spotlight on the tunnel through which the Rams have taken the Field. The team has been introduced, to thunderous response, by Michael Buffer, the let's-get-ready-to-rumble guy. One man remains in the tunnel. Buffer calls, "The coach of your St. Louis Rams...Diiiiick Verrrrrmeil!" He sprints from the tunnel as though shot out of a cannon, pumping his fist and leaping into the arms of tackle Fred Miller. He head-butts defensive end Kevin Carter, who is wearing a helmet.