Now the man whom locals call the Bear pushes open the back door of his house, brushing past the painting that says WELCOME TO VERMEIL'S NEST. It has been 50 years that Louie and his wife, Alice, have been chirping and scolding each other here like a pair of blue jays.
Alice—a woman with a round, friendly face, white-rimmed glasses and blond hair arranged in a small bun—is searching her kitchen for a lost item. "What'd you lose, Mom?" grunts Louie, "your mind?" Then, in an aside, "Don't ever compliment 'em. They'll stay in a rut."
Alice laughs and calls him a knot-headed Frenchman. It is a kind of thing their son Dick never dared say. "I'd come home and tell him I threw three touchdown passes," Dick remembers, "and he'd say, 'Good, go change a flat.' I started working with him the first day after I graduated from grammar school. His automatic response was always to jump your ass. I never saw him sit and relax. I do remember seeing him once, in swimming trunks, at a picnic on the Russian River. Hell, I didn't know if he'd float."
Louie and Alice sit at the kitchen table and laugh, recalling the time that Dick quarter-backed Calistoga High to a 14-7 loss in the championship game with St. Helena's. In punt formation, he had chased down a bad snap in a driving rain, run with the ball and failed to make the first down. "Shoulda punted—you had the time," growled Louie afterward, and Dick burst into tears. While the rest of the team and half the town held a season-ending party in his house, Dick stayed in his room and cried. He didn't know until years later that the man who would not hug or praise him listened on the radio to all of his games as a quarterback at San Jose State, sitting in his car in a rainstorm on the nearest hill when reception was poor.
"I was a critic," Louie says. "I didn't want him to think life was easy. I'd praise him behind his back to everybody. I never realized how much he wanted me to praise him. Hell, my dad worked until he was 86 years old, and whenever I worked for him I'd bust a gut.
"Dick's a little too softhearted. I'd a chewed those players' asses out in Philadelphia. There are three tough nuts in that league—Shula, Grant and Landry. I don't think that Dick could hold a candle to 'em."
"But he'll be back," interjects Alice. "Don't you go getting too excited about all this. I've got a bet with his father: Dick will be back coaching within a year. I know I'm right."
"I just bet to be ornery," grumps Louie. "Hell, I can't agree with her. He'll be back. It'd be like me leaving the garage. Yeah, he'll be back."
THERE IS A DRIVING RAIN IN CULIACAN. VERMEIL wades through lagoon mud up to his knees and then turns his face to the rain to watch and wait for the flutter across the western Mexico sky. There it is. He jerks with the kick of the Browning automatic, again and again, and birds drop like thick precipitation. The other hunters in his party finally stop, sore and tired, but when Vermeil is happy with the hurt in his right shoulder, he switches the shotgun to his left and goes on and on. "This is the first time I've ever gone hunting and thought only about hunting," he says.
He is relaxed and talkative, and all the natural charm has returned. Yet every sunrise still calls forth a new referendum on life without football. He hopes he can live without it. He hopes he becomes so good a commentator for CBS on Sundays that he can bear, perhaps even enjoy, all the relaxation in between. His demon has been staggered, not slain.