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The practice field, bounded by palms and orange trees drooping in the brutal Florida heat, lies just beyond the intersection of Jackie Robinson Avenue and Sandy Koufax Lane. The sign at the entrance to the country-club-like compound reads DODGERTOWN. WINTER HOME OF THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS. This is Vero Beach, all right, and the ghost of baseball is everywhere except on the practice field, where, in one corner, a batting-practice machine is pitching...footballs.
Football has inherited this summer now. In 28 campsites from Vero to La Jolla, Calif., NFL players are shedding gallons of sweat in two-a-days, wiping out entire herds of beef at mealtimes and toting complex playbooks to evening meetings while trying to keep one step ahead of "the Turk," who may strike at any time and turn an All-America into an Un-Employed.
Sheets of heat rise above the grunting players on the Dodgertown field while a big porky guy in shorts with a crew cut and aviator sunglasses peers down from a lofty tower. It's Bum Phillips, but you'd hardly know him without his Stetson and armadillo boots.
One player is off by himself, jogging slowly around the farthest corner of the field. It is the day before the season's first scrimmage, against the Dolphins in Miami, and afterward the Turk will pay his first call. The lone jogger looks something like Earl Campbell, the great Texas running back for whom Phillips traded four draft picks and a player in 1978—the instant pro star who made the Houston Oilers a championship contender. But the jogger lacks Campbell's hard edges. In college he ran somewhat like Campbell, gaining more than 100 yards in 22 straight games. Like Campbell, he won the Heisman Trophy and was chosen first in the NFL draft. But Phillips doesn't coach the Oilers anymore. Now he's running the New Orleans Saints—a/k/a the Aints, 1-15 last year—and the jogger is, of course, George Rogers, the 6'2", 226-pound running back whose 1,781 yards rushing last year at South Carolina won him the Heisman and also a ticket to New Orleans.
Rogers is jogging slowly because he suffered a slight hamstring pull five days into camp and has yet to carry the football in live drills. What's more, he's unhappy; Phillips is holding him out of the scrimmage with the Dolphins.
As he shuffles by the tower, Rogers calls in a loud voice, "Sure wish I could play!" He looks skyward. "Hey up there! Sure wish I could play!"
"How do you feel?" Phillips yells down to him.
"Like I could play!"
Oh my, how the Saints pray he can. To be sure, asking a running back to turn around a team that was so bad its fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads to keep from being recognized may be akin to using a chain link fence to keep out the ocean. Especially when the team gave up 30 points per game—"29th out of the 28 teams, I think," says one Saint official. For that reason, many fans as well as several of the Saints' coaches and scouts wanted the team to draft North Carolina Linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Not Phillips. He knew what Campbell had done for the Oilers. The year before he was drafted they had finished 8-6 and out of the playoffs. In Campbell's rookie season they were 10-6, then 11-5 two years in a row. They made it to the playoffs all three years and to the AFC title game twice, losing both times to the eventual Super Bowl champion, Pittsburgh. Bum had a hunch that with Rogers, history might repeat itself.
"I just thought that George Rogers would do more for our football team than, say, one guy on defense like Lawrence Taylor," says Phillips. "He's a great linebacker, but if you put him on one side, they'd just run the other way the whole game. I couldn't get him in a position 30 times a game to make the big play. I can get a good running back in position 30 times to make the big play. The best defense is holding on to the football."