Coach Dick Vermeil on a Must-See Movie: American Underdog

22 Dec 2021

CLAY: We’ve got a guest already on the line with us. He is Super Bowl-winning coach, Dick Vermeil, who has got a movie coming out — great, fantastic movie that I’ve already watched, American Underdog, about Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams team that won the Super Bowl. Coach Vermeil, I’m excited to talk with you. We start here. Thanks for giving us this time and this close to Christmas. What’s it like to watch someone playing you in a movie?

VERMEIL: Well, when you first see it — now, I’ve seen it three times, okay, and plus I was in the Invincible movie about Vince Papale a long time ago. So, I’m sort of used to it. But it makes me nervous. It makes me nervous. And when I’m all said and done, I say, “Hell, he did me better than I do myself.”

CLAY: All right. So when I watched this movie — and full disclosures, I’m a Titans fan so I liked everything but the ending — but when I watched this movie I couldn’t help thinking, this is a perfect example of how truth is truly stranger than fiction. Because if you tried to sketch out this movie, there’s no way anyone would believe it was remotely possible that a guy who’s stocking shelves in an Iowa grocery store would end up the MVP of the league, the Rookie of the Year, and would win a Super Bowl.

When you look back on it now — I know when you’re in the middle of it, it can feel crazy and wild, but does it seem like a remarkably improbable story to you watching even yourself, as you said, you’ve seen it three times, when you watched the story of what happened in that season?

VERMEIL: Yeah. You know, I still shake myself when I walk out. Like you said, I’ve seen it three times. Each time I see it I like it better because it makes me think more about the whole process. You know, they didn’t include his very first year with us as the third quarterback coming out of the Arena League because the movie would have been too long and they did a great job of condensing it. But each time I look at it I go back and — you know, first off, it had never happened before. And secondly, it will probably never happen again. And he made it happen. But it’s more than a story about a quarterback. It’s a life story.

CLAY: Yes.

VERMEIL: Struggles, you know, both husband and wife and the whole process. And so I think it will stimulate people emotionally because they’ll be able to relate to some period in their life they went through something maybe not as drastic, but pretty close to it and they battled through it and made it or they didn’t make it and had to take a different avenue. So I think there’s something for everybody. It’s far more than a football story.

CLAY: For people out there who don’t know this story, let me give ’em a quick synopsis. You are the head coach of the St. Louis Rams in the NFL, right?

VERMEIL: Right. My second year there.

CLAY: Second year there. You’ve got Trent Green as your starting quarterback. The expectation is that Trent Green, you got a lot of talented people that are Hall of Fame caliber or Hall of Fame guys like Isaac Bruce, like Marshall Faulk on your team.


CLAY: Trent Green has a devastating knee injury in the preseason and suddenly in comes Kurt Warner ,who had been playing in the Arena Football League, who had gone to a small school in Iowa and who was in his upper twenties and it appeared maybe football had passed him by. So, that’s the background.

So, I want ask you this about Kurt Warner. How did you come to end up with Kurt Warner on your team, who convinced you to take him, and did you believe that he could be a starting quarterback in the league?

VERMEIL: Well, first off, he was recommended to me by a coach that I knew from California. He had been the coach at San Diego State. Anyway, I knew him and he had been recommended to me, Charlie Armey, our personnel director, and John Becker, our college scout director, and we brought him in for a workout.

Now, this was the year before the Super Bowl thing, ’cause he was actually there a full year coming out of the Arena League as our third quarterback. And once we signed him he worked him out like — it wasn’t a dazzling work out, but we needed depth so we signed him and sent him to Europe to play in the NFL Europe league, and he played 10 games over there and he played well. Then he came back and he became our third quarterback for 16 games. He didn’t play in a game until the last game of the season when we were getting beat, we put him in in the fourth quarter, I think he threw the ball 10, 15 times and completed four. That was it.

Then we make him our second quarterback coming into my third year at the Rams, his second year but we have signed Trent Green as a free agent to be our starting quarterback and built what we thought was gonna be a real good football team, probably a playoff team, around him. Well, he gets hurt in a preseason game and, lo and behold, we go with Kurt Warner.

We all thought Kurt could play, from having watched him as our third quarterback throw ball against our defensive team in preparation for our next opponent. You know, and he threw the ball well but you always say when you walk off the field, well, you know, it’s not game day, it’s not 80,000 people in the stands, he probably couldn’t play this well in a regular game. Wrong, we were wrong.

So, all of a sudden he’s our starter going into the first game of the season against the Ravens, and from then on he wrote his own story. He wrote his own story. No quarterback in the history of the league started out like he did. He threw three touchdowns in the first game, three touchdown passes in the second game, three touchdown passes in the third game, five touchdown passes in the fourth game, one touched on pass in the sixth game, three more in the next game. No one had ever done that. 18 touchdowns, three pass interceptions in the first six games. No one had ever done that the first time starting.

So at that time, you know, we said you know something? This guy’s special. He’s got it. And he went on and played us so well he carried us into the Super Bowl and then won it. He was the MVP in the Super Bowl. Never happened before. It will probably never happen again.

CLAY: What makes deciding whether a guy can be a good quarterback so hard?

VERMEIL: Well, you know, sometimes it’s observation, with me. I always go on what I see, not so much what I think other people think and sometimes what other people see. I’ve been very, very fortunate in my long coaching career both in high school, junior college, college, and pro football, of always having a quarterback who could really play, from an All-American, you know, to all pro, to NFC player of the year in Jaworski, to the most valuable player in the league in — you know, in Kurt Warner.

I’ve just been lucky, and I’ve gone on what I see and my hunches and my gut feelings about watching people when they compete and they compare. So I would say he just — first off, I’m not bright enough to say I could predict he was gonna do what he did. But I thought he would play, and I thought he would play well.

CLAY: This movie is coming out for Christmas. There have been early previews that are already out, American Underdog. You’ve watched it three times. I’ve watched it as well. It’s a tremendous family movie. Kurt and his wife, Brenda, have a tremendous relationship between the two of them. For people out there — I know you’ve got kids and grandkids yourself — what do you think families can take from the story of Kurt and Brenda Warner and the rise to a Super Bowl championship? There’s football in the story, but it’s about a lot more than football.

VERMEIL: Oh, yeah. You know, it’s a story of persistence, a story of deep belief and faith in yourself, a story, a commitment to meet a life’s dream and, you know, a tremendously deep belief in what you thought you could do. And he would not allow, Kurt would not allow anybody to write him off.

They tried to write him off in college. He didn’t start until part of the season his fifth year I think it was or senior year, you know, in Iowa, Northern Iowa. And then of course he had to go — he goes to Green Bay, he gets a blink there, he didn’t get drafted, and they cut him right off the bat. He knew he wasn’t ready, but they saw he wasn’t ready. He was very conscientious, and he didn’t want to do things he didn’t do well. Anyway, he didn’t impress them, they let him go, he ends up in the Arena League, and he takes them all the way to the championship game in the Arena League, the Iowa Barnstormers. And all this is included in the buildup to ending up with the St. Louis Rams.

But the fans, nonfootball fans and football fans are gonna enjoy it because, like I said earlier, it’s more a life story, you know, and people are going to be able to identify with it.

CLAY: Talking to coach Dick Vermeil who won a Super Bowl with Kurt Warner in an amazing story a little over 20 years ago. Coach, I heard a great story about you and how committed you were to the time that it takes to be an excellent coach. I want to find out if it’s true, that you and your wife were flying one time and you were watching on the screen there inside of the plane a television show, and you were watching it, and you were really laughing, and you eventually turned to your wife and you’re like, “Man, this show is really good,” and your wife said, “Yeah, Coach, it’s Seinfeld. It’s one of the most famous shows ever,” and you had never heard or seen the television show Seinfeld. Is that a true story?

VERMEIL:  That’s true.

CLAY: So, you are committed so much — ’cause I think a lot of people out there who don’t spend a lot of time around coaches, the amount of hours and the amount of effort and focus that it requires to be really good with your team, you almost have to have blinders on in terms of the larger cultural landscape.

VERMEIL: Well, you almost hit it right on the nail. I said I was blindly committed to being the best football coach I could be, blindly committed. And what my problem was I allowed the passion to become an obsession. And then I had to leave the game.

I didn’t anticipate leaving it for 14 years, but I was so fortunate that John Shaw and Georgia Frontiere and Jay Zygmunt, the Rams organization wanted me to coach their football team so I went back after 14 seasons. The best decision — second best decision I probably ever made in my life.

CLAY: So, Coach, what burned you out the first time? ‘Cause I think it’s such a fascinating question. What burned you out the first time, and had you learned by the second time that allowed you to achieve a different level, almost, of success? What occurred that made you a better coach the second time that you didn’t know the first time?

VERMEIL: Well, the first time I allowed losing to affect me so much, I spent too much time after the loss evaluating why I lost, which interfered from my preparation to prepare my team to play for the next win. And in my own personal evaluation, I could see I wasn’t doing a good job after I lost the next one or maybe squeaked out a win. And it just kept snowballing on me. I just couldn’t, you know, handle all that kind of stuff after seven years as a head coach of the Eagles. And people told me I wasn’t pushing myself too hard. And — but I wouldn’t listen.

When I came back, obviously, after 14 years out, I couldn’t be my own offensive coordinator, I couldn’t be my quarterback coach and call all the plays on game day. I was the head coach. But what I had learned is decide one of the most important things for a leader in an organization to do and then surround yourself with people could do these other things that you don’t do because you’re the leader of the organization and then back ’em — provide them in the football you provide ’em with an organization that supports ’em properly, that gives ’em the right kind of personnel, that gives a player a sense of discipline and a sense of process — and excitement about being in the environment he’s playing in. And you go from there.

See, I tried to do all that in one shell all the way through, you know, high school, junior college, college, and then on into the pro football, and I ran out of gas doing that in pro football. When I went back, I was a better overall leader of the total process and building the culture, from the ownership right on through the organization to the fourth-string player on your football team.

CLAY: He’s Dick Vermeil. The movie is American Underdog. It is fantastic. Coach, have a great Christmas. We appreciate you taking some time with us this morning.

VERMEIL: Well, I sure hope the fans take the time to go see it. It’s gonna be the best Christmas present they buy themselves.

CLAY: Outstanding stuff. Thanks, Coach.

VERMEIL: Thank you.

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