In today’s comic book-crazed world of entertainment, we are inundated with superheroes. As a father of seven, I am not allowed to miss a single one of the genre’s perpetually hyped movie releases — and often, conversations at our dinner table revolve around the incredible superpowers of each character and the amazing feats they achieve.
It’s a new generation, that’s for sure. But in a sense, I’m reminded of my own adolescence. The biggest difference: My kids’ heroes wear capes, while mine wore jerseys. Every fall, I was fully captivated by those towering figures who dominated my television screen each Sunday afternoon. They captured my imagination with unique abilities and enticing backstories — and I loved to eventually see the best of the best immortalized in Canton, Ohio. My superheroes were gridiron icons, the Pro Football Hall of Famers who ultimately inspired this young kid from Iowa to believe in the impossible and chase my own dreams.
As a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2017 — and yes, I still pinch myself saying that — I look forward to returning to Canton each year to help welcome the newbies into the club. On Saturday, we’ll celebrate another great class — Tony Boselli, Cliff Branch, LeRoy Butler, Sam Mills, Richard Seymour, Bryant Young, Art McNally and Dick Vermeil — during the enshrinement ceremony at noon ET at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. These men have distinguished themselves by what they accomplished on the field, but I’m curious to learn how their pasts and personalities shaped them — and how, in turn, they used their experiences and talent to influence and impact the people around them. These traits — or, as I like to call them, superpowers — vary from player to player. Some inspire through their willingness to hone their talent or via the eloquence of their words. Others lead with the strength of their character and ability to handle adversity, raising the standard of those around them. I have yet to come across a Hall of Famer without one of these superpowers.
That said, when it comes to one member of this year’s class, I don’t really have much to learn, because I’ve already witnessed firsthand what makes him so utterly special. I’ve known Dick Vermeil for more than two decades. I’ve observed his superpower in action. I’ve experienced its impact.
Coach V’s superpower? His heart.
It might not seem like a superpower at first blush. It doesn’t make you physically imposing. It can’t design a game-winning play. But there are few things more powerful than heart. Coach Vermeil truly wanted what was best for each of his players, and that’s a rare quality that cannot be overlooked. Shoot, it completely changed the course of my life.
The first time I experienced his superpower was in 1998. Coach Vermeil pulled all of the players together at the end of a training camp practice, as he always did, to share words of wisdom and help us improve as a team. On this particular day, tears came to his eyes before he even spoke. I, like most of the guys, was surprised because we all subscribed to the idea that “There’s no crying in baseball” — OK, football in this case. We all anticipated some sort of tragedy. Instead, Coach Vermeil told us how he had to cut our fifth-string tight end, preventing the player from fulfilling his dream. Now, all of us players knew the tight end wasn’t good enough to make the team — and honestly wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL — so this move was inevitable in our eyes. However, that decision crushed Coach V, who was unable to consider the big picture in that moment. Instead he was consumed by what his action meant for the cut player.
The next instance came several weeks later when the Rams were making their final roster cuts. I was an unknown journeyman who had started one year at Northern Iowa before cutting his pro football teeth in the Arena League and NFL Europe. Not exactly the kind of résumé that demands NFL attention. And in a show-me league, very few people allow their decisions to be led by their heart. Lucky for me, Coach Vermeil was the exception to the rule. I stood in the hallway of Rams Park waiting to find out if my dream of making an NFL roster would come true, and around the corner walked Coach Vermeil. Instead of bringing me to his office in order to reveal my fate, he told me right then and there that I had made the team. And it wasn’t, as he explained, really because of my on-field exploits. Coach Vermeil said he felt there was something different about me, and he couldn’t let me go without finding out what it was.
The final example of Coach Vermeil’s superpower that I’ll share — trust me, I have a million of these … — was the day I found out I would become a starter in the NFL for the first time. This moment came a little over a year after that fateful day in the hallway of Rams Park, and it would be the single most impactful impression Coach V ever made on me.
The night after our third preseason game ahead of the 1999 regular season, Coach Vermeil was in his scheduled press conference. He had just found out that our starting quarterback — Trent Green, a free agent the Rams had just signed to a lucrative deal — had suffered a season-ending knee injury. In typical Dick Vermeil fashion, nearly every comment that day came with tears — which I believe were multifaceted and truly showed the heart of this special coach in a tough league. I often joke that his tears stemmed from the sudden realization that his own fate, and that of the organization, now lied in the hands of an unproven quarterback who, a few years earlier, was stocking shelves in a grocery store. But in reality, I know nothing could be further from the truth.
The tears started due to the pain he felt for Trent, who had journeyed long and hard to get his turn. It broke Coach Vermeil’s heart. This moment had nothing to do with the game, but everything to do with simply wishing he could alleviate Trent’s pain. At that same time, through the tears, Coach Vermeil said something in that press conference that would be the single most confidence-inducing moment of my career:
“We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.”
As much as Trent’s journey resonated with Coach V, so did mine. He thought about both of us quarterbacks in that moment, knowing each of us needed something different — and he delivered with aplomb on both fronts. To this day, I don’t know how he was able to express genuine pain and real encouragement simultaneously, and I’ve never witnessed a moment that powerful. But that’s how superheroes work. They do incredible things — things we have never seen before and may never see again — all for the good of others.
I can’t wait to see my favorite superhero be one of the stars of the show in Canton this week. I know and have felt his superpower. The best part, though, is that his enormous heart will be on full display for the entire football community to witness. You can bet that tears will flow — and not just from Coach V.
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