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As every keeper of the faith should know by now the coming of Vince Lombardi—out of that special purgatory he arranged for himself in Green Bay—to the Washington Redskins has had a galvanic, almost evangelical effect on the Redskins themselves. They speak of the experience in the enthusiastic way changed men describe their conversions. Center Len Hauss, for example, a five-year Redskin veteran, was vacationing on Lake Okeechobee in quest of speckled perch when the big news reached him, and his first impulse was to get to shore right away and start doing pushups. He said he sensed an urgent need to prepare himself for Coach Lombardi, who he remembered as being about eight feet tall.
Ray McDonald, the large young fullback who had been having problems adapting to professional football, got so excited thinking about the coming of the new deal that he lost 20 pounds and was not altogether sure if it was diet or intensified worry that did it. McDonald reported to the Redskins camp at Carlisle, Pa. as fat-free as a chorus girl and full of that oldtime religion.
"I'd go right through that wall for The Man," McDonald said after the first day of practice. ( Lombardi is referred to by his players as The Man only as a variation of Coach Lombardi or Mister Lombardi. He is never called Vince, except in books by former Green Bay players.) A first practice under Lombardi is always an adventure in torture, and most of the Redskins showed up early, anxious to bite the dust and to see if they could stand the pain. McDonald was one. He took everything Lombardi dished out—a generous portion—and came up smiling, as though purified.
"I'd do those grass drills all day for The Man," he said. "I'd run till I dropped. I'd do anything for him. He told us we had to love one another, to care for other players on the team if we were going to be a team. He's a genius, a genius. We had a one-hour meeting last night. You know how many plays he gave us? Two. Only two plays in one hour. But we saw those plays like we never saw plays before."
By the end of that first day the great weight of Lombardi's presence had so asserted itself that hardened veterans could not believe the yessirs and nosirs that were pouring out of their mouths. "I expect if he came into my room right now," said one, "and told me to pack my bags I'd just smile and say, 'Yessir, thank you, sir.' " By the end of the first week two star players, Pat Richter and Charley Taylor, were practicing with broken bones. But then, at Green Bay, Lew Carpenter once played four games with a broken hand.
Flankerback Bobby Mitchell, more mature in the game at 34 and able to make meaningful comparisons, saw it all as the dawning of the Age of Lombardi. a classic interlude for Washington: the famous coach cast in the role of a personal conservator who had come to save them from terrible embarrassments (mostly losses to Philadelphia and the New York Giants), and, like Jupiter hidden all those years in the cave, it was now up to Mitchell and others who had suffered longest to come out and claim their right to heaven—namely, the Eastern Conference championship. Mitchell said he remembered heaven from having been there a long time ago with the Cleveland Browns, and he had not forgotten the way.
"It is a matter of belief," he said. "You believe in the man. It was the same with Paul Brown. You knew in advance to accept his discipline, you wanted his discipline. I didn't realize until later that the things I thought Paul Brown was doing to me he was actually doing for me. A player needs discipline so that he doesn't cheat. He will cheat if he can get away with it. I've cheated, every player has, and you hate yourself for doing it, for dogging it on a pass pattern when you know you're not going to get the ball or sloughing off a block. You won't cheat with Mr. Lombardi because you know you'll be out, and you know he'll be right.
"For a black player, it's the knowledge that you will be treated the same. When Bobby Mitchell makes his cut at 13 yards instead of 14 and gets yelled at by Coach Lombardi, Bobby Mitchell knows that Jerry Smith will be yelled at, too, if he makes the same mistake. The other black players know it."
Although the Redskins will doubtless scalp a number of opponents this season, Lombardi's first scalping party was directed at his own team. " Mr. Lombardi does not like long hair," Bobby Mitchell said. "He told Jerry Smith [who is white] he could not see how he could catch a ball with all that hair in his face, and the very next day Jerry got a haircut. The word got around. The week before camp opened all the players with those far-out Afros were crammed into the Ashby brothers' barbershop getting their hair chopped off. You've never seen so much hair on the floor. Conservative Afros were suddenly the style. The Ashby brothers never had so much business.
" Mister Lombardi told us at Georgetown, 'Fellows, we will win. You believe that.' We never believed it before. We were conditioned to losing. He told us again last night. It is something we need to hear over and over. If he were a loser maybe the things he says would sound corny, but you know he's no loser. You believe it when he says it."