'You fought like mad for him': Stories from Vince Lombardi's season coaching Washington

ASHBURN, Va. -- The punter arrived late to Washington's 1969 training camp, but with a good reason: He had spent the previous 4-5 months at Fort Polk, Louisiana, for infantry training.

From Fort Polk, Vietnam was the next stop for many. While there, Mike Bragg lived in the fields with his unit for a week. The oppressive humidity forced them to sleep under the stars rather than in their tents. They'd start moving at 6 a.m. for hourslong hikes and training. A drill sergeant berated them all day long, driving them hard.

And then Bragg arrived in Washington to play for Vince Lombardi during the legendary coach's inaugural season.

"It was good preparation," Bragg said.

Lombardi built his fame with the Green Bay Packers, winning five NFL championships -- including the first two Super Bowls -- in nine seasons. But, perhaps not as well known: Lombardi ended his career in Washington, having been coaxed out of his one-year retirement, during which he served as the Packers general manager. In his year-and-a-half with Washington, Lombardi made his presence felt -- instilling his strict attention to detail, demanding excellence, and ultimately turning the team into a winner before tragically dying of colon cancer in September of 1970 at age 57.

From the moment he arrived in Washington, Lombardi was in charge. There was Lombardi Time; there was a demanding tone, but also a rewarding one for a job well done; and there was constant preaching about him turning them into winners -- something Washington had not been for 14 years prior to his arrival.

"I remember watching film of him one time at the Welcome Home Luncheon and a reporter asked, 'How long will it take to put together a winning program?' He said, 'I hope we can have a winner in the first year,'" Bragg said. "He was very humble about that. Behind the scenes, he was demanding near perfection of everybody."

Lombardi also helped alter the direction of the franchise, which soon after went on its best two-decade run of success under George Allen and Joe Gibbs.

Ironically, Lombardi's tenure in D.C. was the second time a legendary Packers coach ended their career with Washington. Curly Lambeau, for whom the Packers' stadium is named, lasted two seasons with Washington and had a 6-5-1 record in 1953, one of two winning campaigns in a 20-year span before Lombardi arrived.

Though he was with the team for one season, Lombardi left a legacy that lasted much longer with the players and coaches whose lives he touched.

'He won't put up with any B.S.'

Because cornerback Mike Bass had spent time with Lombardi in Green Bay, many players came to him with question about their new boss.

"I'd tell them the truth: He won't put up with any B.S.; you have to toe the line," Bass said.

One player found out quickly Lombardi meant business. Running back Ray McDonald, a first-round pick by Washington in 1967, discovered Lombardi meant what he said about being on time and taking care of his body. The memories of what happened differed slightly among the players, but the ending was always the same: McDonald was cut that first camp.

Former linebacker Chris Hanburger said if a meeting started at 8 p.m., Lombardi would enter the room 15 minutes early and any player coming in after that was fined. One day in camp, the meeting had begun before McDonald entered.

"You just didn't do this," Bragg said.

Lombardi told McDonald he was late; the running back apologized. Then Lombardi asked if he had received treatment for his bad ankle earlier in the day. McDonald said he had not.

"You can report to the Roanoke Buckskins," Lombardi told him.

In other words: He was cut and if he wanted to play, it would be for a semipro team.

"Everyone's jaws just dropped," Bragg said.

'What the hell was that!?'

During one meeting before practice, Lombardi told the players he wanted them to go around the field three times. When they went out for practice, almost all of the players jogged their laps, but Hanburger walked. He didn't want to wear himself out before practice. Lombardi zipped over in his golf cart.

"He pulls up and he said, 'Mister' -- he called everyone mister because he didn't know anyone by name -- 'How come you're walking around the field?'" Hanburger said. "I said, 'Coach, in the meeting you said we had to go around, you didn't tell us how we had to go around.' He got a big grin on his face. I said 'If you want us to jog around, I'll jog around.' He just shook his head and said, 'My god, I have mellowed.'"

From that point on, though, Hanburger jogged.

Bragg's first encounter with Lombardi was pleasant. During a team lunch period, Lombardi welcomed him to camp and told him, "We're going to have a great season." A few hours later Bragg heard his new drill sergeant loud and clear.

"I hear someone scream out, 'What the hell was that!?'" Bragg said. "I was warming up and I don't remember if I shanked a punt or didn't hit it good but he runs over in his golf cart, gets out and stands right beside me until I hit a few like he wanted them. He treated everyone that way. He'd get inside your head. He'd put a lot of pressure on you. He figured if you could deal with his pressure, you could deal with pressure."

'You fought like mad for him'

Former Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban, who the team acquired the previous year, caught Lombardi's wrath.

"He kept making mistakes -- in college he'd sprint out and if there was any doubt, he would run," Bragg said. "Lombardi was merciless to him right in front of everybody: 'You go [play] with the defensive backs!'"

Beban remained a backup quarterback behind Sonny Jurgensen but never attempted a pass and was cut after the season. But Beban, who went on to become the president and general manager of a global real estate company, once said playing under Lombardi helped develop his personal leadership and discipline strategy.

Lombardi's way was to know how to motivate players.

"Some responded with him yelling, some responded when he came up behind them and whispered something in their ear or ridiculed them in some way -- always in a manner where it wasn't disrespectful," Bass said. "It was to push that button in every player. You fought like mad for him to just say, 'Good job Mike.' He was that kind of guy."

'Coach, I never had any problem hearing you'

Early in camp, Lombardi asked rookie running back Larry Brown why he was late off the snap. Brown was going off the movement of the line rather than the quarterback's cadence.

"I told him I was having problems recognizing the various defenses," Brown said. "That didn't sit well with him. The next day I saw people in long white coats walking towards me and I was thinking 'what could I have done to deserve this treatment?' I was thinking it was people from St. Elizabeth's Hospital [a psychiatric hospital]. They were there to give me a hearing examination."

Turns out he was deaf in his right ear. Lombardi got permission to have Brown wear a hearing device inside his helmet so he could hear Jurgensen's snap counts. To test it out, Lombardi walked to the other side of the room and asked Brown if he could hear him.

"Coach, I never had any problem hearing you," Brown said.

Then Lombardi repositioned Brown in the huddle, shifting him from the quarterback's left side to the right. Brown earned a Pro Bowl bid that season -- the first of four in his career -- with 1,190 total yards from scrimmage.

Brown also remembered how Lombardi called him out for a fumble in practice. Brown insists to this day he didn't fumble.

"He made me carry the ball around everywhere I went, including church and grocery stores, which was embarrassing," Brown said "I knew eventually what he was doing. ... He wanted to make sure I didn't get too big-headed. He'd do things to you in front of the team; he would crucify you and that meant you were the brunt of jokes for the week from teammates. No one wanted to go through that and that's one of the ways he got us to conform and perform properly."

'We were all somewhat mesmerized'

After spending a season with Jurgensen, Lombardi told a reporter in Green Bay, "If we would have had Sonny Jurgensen in Green Bay, we'd never have lost a game."

And Jurgensen has said Lombardi "simplified the game and made it easy to play. ... It was the best passing offense I ever played in."

But, first, Jurgensen had to get in shape.

"Sonny was always criticized for being overweight, but he lost a lot of weight prior to training camp," Hanburger said. "We were all somewhat mesmerized by [Lombardi], no question about that."

Jurgensen once told his center, the late Len Hauss, how great it was to play for Lombardi because "he kicks us in the ass and makes us give 100 percent."

Years later Hauss said he replied, "You have to be kicked in the ass to give 100 percent. I don't."

Regardless, Jurgensen completed 62% of his passes -- a career high for seasons he was a full-time starter. His other numbers weren't spectacular but for Jurgensen and Lombardi, it was the future that got them excited.

And it wasn't just Jurgensen who rounded into shape. Lombardi started each of his 90 minute practices with 15 minutes of conditioning, featuring up-downs. They'd run in place, fall on their stomachs and bounce back up -- 100 times, Brown said.

"It was tough," Brown said. "[100] might be a little exaggeration but we did a lot. Some guys who came to camp overweight, they didn't make it through those drills."

"I always thought it was ridiculous to wear us out before practice," Hanburger said. "Let us practice and then run us into the ground. He had a priest stay in camp with us. I felt like after a few days, with him being Catholic and religious and the way he would talk, that sometimes he needed a priest there."

'He was the whole city's coach'

Lombardi arrived in Washington the same year as President Richard M. Nixon, who reportedly was enthralled with the coach. In the documentary, "The Timeline: Lombardi's Redskins," former CBS news anchor Dan Rather recalled riding on Air Force One with the president, headed to the splashdown site of Apollo 11 after the moon landing in July 1969. Rather said en route that Nixon talked a lot about Lombardi and Jurgensen and Washington's prospects for the season.

Nixon and Lombardi knew one another from his days in Green Bay, though the coach was always described as a "Kennedy Democrat." But Nixon did attend a game in November 1969, watching the Dallas Cowboys beat Washington 41-28 -- and Lombardi apologized for losing in front of the president.

"Not only was he our coach," Bass said, "he was the whole city's coach, including Richard Nixon. [Lombardi] brought that city together. We became celebrities. Wherever we went in Washington we were greeted with open arms and everyone wanted to talk about Lombardi and what he was like."

'He wanted to show toughness'

Washington clinched a winning season with a 17-14 win over the New Orleans Saints; it lost the finale at Dallas. Players and coaches alike anticipated the future.

But Lombardi didn't feel well early in the summer of 1970 and was initially diagnosed with a stomach virus. But he soon needed surgery on Jun 27, which revealed a benign tumor in his colon. With players scattered around the country at that time -- most, if not all, had jobs -- they learned the same way others did.

"When it came over the wires that he had an undisclosed illness, in the back of your mind your thoughts go back to things you may have noticed, his popping pills to settle his stomach," Bass said. "He was very quiet about those things."

One day during the summer, when the players were first locked out, then went on strike from July 13-Aug. 3, the players gathered for workouts on their own at Georgetown University. The Georgetown University Hospital, where Lombardi had been admitted, overlooked the field, which meant he could see his players.

As the players worked out, a black car pulled onto the field and Lombardi emerged, wearing a hospital gown and an admittance band around his wrist.

"He said, 'I'm glad you're here working out together. I want you to stay together. I don't want you going across the picket line unless you all go,'" Bragg said. "He didn't have that twinkle in his eye. We knew something was wrong. He never got out of the hospital."

"You could see he was frail," Bass said. "He wanted to show toughness. We did some exercises he wanted us to do, but that tone in his voice wasn't the tone we were used to and it bothered all of us."

One month after the initial diagnosis, more surgery led to another discovery: The tumor was malignant.

Lombardi died Sept. 3, 1970. The team attended his funeral in New York. Washington opened its season two weeks later, losing two in a row. It did recover and was 4-3 before a five-game losing streak ruined hopes of another winning season.

"His death always lingered throughout the season and we played like it," Bass said. "All we could think about was he was the leader and he's not here and we were lost a bit. That whole season revealed just how much he meant to us in how much we missed him."

In 1971, Washington hired George Allen, another coach who would end up in the Hall of Fame. From 1971-92, the franchise played in five Super Bowls and won three. They had two losing seasons in that span. Lombardi did not stoke all that success, but he did change expectations about what could happen in Washington.

"His attitude was contagious among players and coaches and fans," Hauss once said. "He turned it around. He started changing the mindset of not only the team, but the fans."