The day is close to perfect. The Rams struggle early and are down 17-14 at the half, but, sticking with the run, they roll over the Saints in the second half and win 38-24. Phillips rushes for 125 yards and three touchdowns. After the third, Vermeil goes to 13 players to offer congratulations. When the game ends he hugs an uncomfortable-looking Ditka, twice. In the locker room the coach's lip quivers again. "Pay attention!" he says, quieting the din. "You couldn't ask for a better scenario. You came back, whipped their ass physically and they just wore down....
"Gimme the ball," he says, palming the game ball. "Game ball goes to one man. I'm so proud of this guy. He's been through so much. I've been to jail with him, and we've talked about everything. Now his life's turning around. It's all looking up for him now.... Lawrence Phillips!"
The players pump their fists and yell "WOO-WOO-WOO!" All eyes are on Phillips. He takes the ball, casts his glance toward the floor and mumbles, "Can't do it without the linemen." That's it. Phillips turns and goes back to his locker. Vermeil can't believe how the kid threw a wet blanket over the moment.
Monday, Sept. 8 Earth City
Just like that, the optimism is gone. Vermeil had the team buy a center-snap machine in the off-season to help Banks, who led the NFL in fumbles in 1996, stop botching snaps, but yesterday, against the 49ers, he fumbled three times. Two other St. Louis fumbles led to all the 49ers' points in their 15-12 win. The Rams are a young team, making kids' mistakes. There will be no quick fix.
Vermeil tells the defensive players how proud he is of them and how sorry he is the team didn't win. His voice cracks. Then he leaves the facility for 45 minutes and walks aimlessly around the Earth City area. "I was feeling so emotionally drained, so overwhelmed, I had to get out," he says.
"I can see how he got burned out the first time," Farr says. "I think you have to have a certain ability to let things go in this game, or you'll kill yourself."
At times like these the mental hammer Vermeil's father held over him as a youth returns. Louis Vermeil, an auto mechanic, was a perfectionist, and no job Dick did was precise enough to please him. "My father was a wonderful man, but he invented the phrase verbal abuse," Vermeil says with a sad chuckle. "I was 16 before I realized my real first name wasn't Dumb Bastard. You don't erase those scars."
He has tried. When Vermeil left the game in 1982, after years of sleeping on the couch in his office three nights a week—there simply weren't enough hours in the football day for him—he had several sessions with a New York therapist who specialized in burnout. Years later Vermeil found himself snapping at his wife for the smallest things and thought she deserved better, so in 1993 he began seeing another therapist, in Pennsylvania, and spent a couple of years dealing with his anger and perfectionism. Eventually he learned to pat himself on the back. "I learned to accept praise as a truth, not to just blow it off," he says. "I continued the sessions even when I felt better about these things, because I just liked it. There's such a stigma in this country about seeking help like that, but I can tell you it's one of the best things I've ever done. It has really helped me in this job. Instead of trying to make this place into Vermeil's perfect world, I've learned to accept some things as they are."
He even hired a part-time team psychotherapist, Phil Towle of Topeka, Kans., who talks to players and coaches a few times a month. Towle sends Vermeil little typed missives. One reads, "Burnout is not caused by stress. Burnout is caused by resisting opportunities that stress provides." Another says, "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within."