Vermeil Had Long Reach

Vermeil

 

By GORDON GLANTZ

GORDONVILLE — When you’re born in 1965, you really can’t say you were at Woodstock hearing Jimi Hendrix play the national anthem or protesting the 1968 Democratic Convention alongside Abbie Hoffman and keep a straight face.

I am, for better or worse, a Brady Bunch-watching child of the 1970s.

As a sign of the times, my relationship with my dad – who I saw only on weekends as an interloper with his new family (the anti-Brady Bunch) — was a bit … odd.

Even though we shared the same birthday (March 23), we did not share the same wavelength.

Some of it was gender-related, as fathers and sons kept those stiff upper lips and “acted like men.” Some of it was just because, I don’t know, it was just … odd.

English was our second language. To really communicate, we had to press 1 for sports.

And if something was on my mind, or his, it was woven into a sports-related conversation.

Better than nothing, as far as conversation starters go, but there was still an issue not even a family counselor could solve.

The decade began with the Philadelphia teams we both loved so deeply were all pretty much pitiful, meaning most conversations were in the context of sub-.500 teams.

Yeah, by the middle of the decade, the Flyers were the talk of the town – and in my dad’s car when he would pick me up on Friday after school for the weekend – but he really wasn’t a hockey guy (even though it was, far and away, my best sport).

“I don’t give a damn about Rick MacLeish,” I remember him bellowing, while almost getting into an accident (a common occurrence, as he was the world’s worst driver).

The reality is that the sun rose and set with the Eagles.

For most of the 1970s, the NFL season was just 14 games (as opposed to 16 now). That was a lot of excitement for just a few Sundays of the 52 in a year.

There were some exciting moments, like when my father jumped up and banged his head on the ceiling of our den when Roman Gabriel found Don Zimmerman for a game-winning touchdown, but it was mostly as painful to watch as it was to listen to us try to talk to each like normal people (for example, that pass was the first win of a 1973 season that began 0-4).

Our relationship improved through the latter part of the 1970s and we able to connect better – not perfectly, but better – as the 70s morphed into the 1980s and beyond.

I can credit a lot of people for that, including myself for learning how to make use of defense mechanisms and to sometimes just be the bigger person.

The list of those who unknowingly helped would include Dick Vermeil, who Bridgeport’s Leonard Tose took a gamble on – pun intended – and hired in 1976 after Vermeil led UCLA to a 23-10 upset win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl (future Eagle John Sciarra was the MVP of the game, throwing two touchdown passes to another future Eagle, Wally Henry).

Vermeil’s Eagles were not better right away, going 4-10 that first season, but there was a totally different vibe.

By 1977, the Vermeil’s Birds were more competitive than their 5-9 record indicated, as they scored more total points for the season than they gave up while enduring agonizing losses to the kind of teams that used to blow them away. They made the playoffs in 1978 and won a playoff game in 1979, both firsts since the NFL championship of 1960.

And we all know – or should – about the 1980 season, when the Eagles won the NFC title (only to lose in the Super Bowl, during which I saw my father drink a beer for the first – and last — time ever).

During that stretch of glory years, we cheered more than jeered and a lot of tension was lifted. While the other Philadelphia teams matched the pace (the Phillies won it all in 1980 and the Sixers in 1983), the Eagles were the main course.

We enjoyed each other’s company, laughed and shared inside jokes.

And English – not sports – became our first language.

Being in Veterans Stadium with my father on Jan. 11, 1981 – the 20-7 dismantling of the same Dallas team we had watch annihilate us so many times (like the fist-ever game there, a 42-6 shellacking) — was one of the best father-son experiences of my lifetime.

It was 17 degrees – with a wind-chill factor of about minus-114 — that day at the Vet, but hearts were permanently warmed.

That’s the kind of ripple effect a perfectionist/workaholic football coach, who came here with no draft picks and coached who he had until he cultivated some tangible talent to coach, can have on complete strangers.

And, with all due respect to Doug Pederson, Vermeil will always be the “coach” of the Eagles in Gordonville.

A young boy – broken home or not — only has one set of formative years, and Vermeil was the coach who showed us that Sundays don’t have to be as bitter as the weather.

What brings me back here from exile to share this? Well, it just so happens Vermeil will be at Presidential Caterers Nov. 20 for the 17th Annual Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame banquet (call 610-279-9220 for tickets) as the guest speaker.

As a longtime board member and chairman of the selection committee, I may have some access to Vermeil, but not as much as one would think. I certainly won’t be able to tell him all he did for me. At best, I’ll get in a handshake and a quick selfie (and I take the world’s worst selfies, so it will probably be of our shoes).

So, I’m saying what I have to say now.

Thank you, coach.

From both of us.

This column first appeared in The Times Herald on Nov. 4.

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