NFL Coach Dick Vermeil: Super Bowl, Rams and American Underdog
Fresh of his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rams winning the Super Bowl, NFL Coach Dick Vermeil talks about football, coaching, the actors who play him on-screen! He also shares about his relationship with Kurt Warner and American Underdog as the biopic becomes available to watch at home.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: First orders, congratulations on being elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Such an exciting time!
Coach Dick Vermeil: Oh, it’s very exciting. Beyond exciting. I don’t know what the term is beyond exciting, but I’m experiencing it. Believe me.
RM: Especially with the Rams just winning the Super Bowl… the only other time that happened, as you know very well, was when you brought home that trophy in 2000. So I’m curious, how did you watch the game, or how do you watch football? Can you be a spectator or does your mind race the entire time?
DV: No, I’m a fan. But we were together, the Hall of Famers sat together in a field suite at the stadium. We were to the left of the Cincinnati Bengals bench and we watched a game from there. And actually, at that low level, we ended up watching the game on the big monitor screens up the top of the stadium. So we left there with a kink in our neck looking up. But no, it was a great experience. It was a great experience to see the Rams win it, my old team. And some of the people in the organization, I still know, including the owner, Stan Kroenke. And also, I felt, because we could see Cincinnati team walk off to the right of us into their locker room after the game. And I’ve experienced that feeling, I’ve walked off the field after losing a Super Bowl, I know what it feels like. So I had great empathy for them and great excitement for the Rams.
RM: Your career has been incredible, I’m just going to brag here a little bit for you — you led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1980, twenty years later, you win a super bowl with the Rams. Movies have been made, including you with your time with both organizations, with Invincible and then of course, American Underdog. So some people think, I wonder who would play me if a movie was ever made? But of course, you’ve had Greg Kinnear, you’ve had Dennis Quaid, is it a little bit surreal when you reflect?
DV: It is, really. My wife wanted Brad Pitt to play me, but I think both of those guys did a wonderful job of being me, probably a better job of being me than I am, but they did a good job. And I really appreciated American Underdog and that they actually used some statements that I had made personally to Kurt Warner in the movie. So it added credibility and authenticity to the value of the movie to me.
RM: Let’s talk about that. I think that’s fantastic that they used your actual conversations. What kind of conversations then did you have before with the filmmakers in order for them to get that? Was it just, they pulled from a bunch of time spent with you or did you say, it’d be really fantastic because these seemed like pivotal times when we were experiencing them?
DV: Well, the first one was when we stated and announced that we were going to go with Kurt and I made the statement to national media, “We will go with Kurt Warner as our starting quarterback and we will play good football,” and they used that in the movie. The other one was when I told Kurt, I said, “Kurt, there’s something I really like about you and I can’t wait to find out what it is.” Well, he showed me what it was and way beyond what I thought it was going to be. Believe me, I’m not that smart. If I’d have been that smart, I’d have been playing him in his first year there when he was in training camp, okay.
RM: When you think of Kurt from his arena football days, this guy working in the supermarket versus the Kurt that we know now… the Super Bowl champ, he has his own biopic, you’ve known him the entire time. What are your thoughts on him as a man and a player?
DV: Well, he’s authentic, he is what he is. When you meet Kurt Warner and you’re around him, you know what he’s all about. He has a deep faith, which helped him work through the adversity that he experienced and made him more persistent in trying to be what he wanted to be when he didn’t get the opportunities, in his personal life with his wife and his family. He is what he is, there’s not a phony bone in his body, you know? Now he’s very successful, I’m sure he is made a lot of money and he’s spending in it a way to help other people, always has. I can remember when he first made our football team at about $325,000 a year, he would go out for dinner and he’d see another couple sitting over there with three kids and he’d pick up their check because all of a sudden he had money. He couldn’t wait to show other people how much he cared about other people, and that’s Kurt Warner. And that’s why he and I have a great relationship, we have a lot of similar beliefs in how you treat people.
RM: As a coach, you’re big on relationship building. So you know your players well, and that’s why you still have contact and community with them this many years later. Having Vince Papale and Kurt Warner’s stories told, what’s it like for you to see their stories dramatized and then of course you’re part of it too?
DV: Well, I appreciate the fact that they earned the right to have their story dramatized. And sometimes they go overboard, there was a lot of things in the Invincible movie that there were not true. And when I read the script, I told the director and writer, there was a lot of things in there and he said, coach, we’re, we’re not doing a documentary, we’re telling a story. And they told the story real well. And I can’t tell you, I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve had people stop me and say, we really enjoyed Invincible. I was sitting in a restaurant in Paris once, no, actually Nice, and a Frenchman came up in English, with a French accent, and told me he saw the movie and loved it. So, it touched the world and it still does.
And, I think the American Underdog will even go to another level because there’s more of the story that starts with relationships of people, and perseverance, and disappointments, and attacking problems, and hanging in there tough, and building a family, and all these things. And then add football to it, you know. There’s so much to the story, I know, form the reaction I’ve gotten, everybody that has seen it, has told me they loved the movie. I’ve had people say, we walked out in tears. That wasn’t the intent of the movie, the intent of the movie was tell a story that actually happened and the way it happened. And they did a very good job of doing that.
RM: It just so happened at a time that the Rams had the best offense in the history of football, it was literally deemed “The Greatest Show on Turf.” You have this great ability to recognize something in someone when the majority of the time other people don’t initially see that, sometimes they don’t even see it in themselves. How do you assemble such great teams?
DV: Well, fortunately I came up through high school coaching, junior college coaching at two different colleges, assistant at Stanford and head coach at UCLA, and I saw how kids mature. And when I came into the National Football League, George Allen brought me in 1969, as the very first special team coach. And I think all that background helped me realize how kids grow from high school kids to 35 year old NFL players, and I appreciated that. And they humbled me, really. I enjoyed and learned so much from the Roman Gabriels and all these kind of guys that had to the opportunity to coach prior to the St. Louis Rams. In college with John Shire and all these guys and I really learned a lot about people. And when I got in the NFL, I looked at myself as a free agent.
I didn’t play in the NFL, I played in San Jose State and was lucky to play. I wasn’t a Hall of Famer, I wasn’t an All-Pro, I was just a high school football coach. And it made me better appreciate the value of these great football players and what they were as kids that became men that took advantage of gifts. And also it made me appreciate, a lot of these a lot of these kids didn’t come from perfect environments and perfect situations. And there was a role for me to play as a head coach, beyond just being an X and O football coach and I enjoyed that role. And so I looked for free agents, I looked for kids that came up the hard way and no one gave a chance. I would look for things purposely.
And I had such great luck, my staff and I. London Fletcher is a great example. He played 16 years and never missed a game, but he was a college free agent, no one knew he really was. Herman Edwards was a college free agent, now he’s the NFL coach. Now he’s coaching Arizona State. I look for those qualities that drive people to be something that they end up being because they have a drive to prove other people wrong and they have a deep faith and a belief in themselves. And this movie and Kurt Warner is a life story, more than a football story. Football is a tool they use to tell the story.
RM: I love that because sometimes just a smallest, little bit of encouragement and the belief that somebody else has in you, can ignite something that’s so fantastic. So one of the things that I have to ask you, being a broadcaster myself, you coached and then you took this 15 year hiatus, you became a sports broadcaster. What made you return to coaching? Did you miss what you’re talking about right here —
DV: Well, first off, I was always disappointed I had to leave the game. And I had opportunities, the 14 years I was out there was only one year that someone didn’t ask me if I was in interested in would being head coach again. And the Rams had offered me that job before, I knew the people, I knew John Shaw, I knew Jay Zygmunt, I knew Georgia Rosenbloom, and I knew their interest in me was sincere. And it got down to where I said, if I don’t go back now, I never will, so let’s go back and give it another show. And, the first year was a shock back in. So much football, yes, but just the work ethic, and it was so much different than broadcasting 16 games a year. We’re stealing for a living, in contrast to coaching 12 months a year, every day.
But I’m so grateful for the opportunities the Rams people gave me. So grateful for faith in me and I’m still having a good relationship with the people in that building, Stan Kroenke and then was John Shaw, Jason. I care about those people and they care about me, and I really care about the players that made me look a lot better than I really am. You talked about the Greatest Show on Turf, that’s Mike Martz, that’s Mike Martz. That’s Al Saunders, that’s Jim Henderson, that Sean Ramsey, that’s Gilbert Montgomery, that’s all these guys coaching that football team. That’s Frank Gansz senior, one of the finest coaches I’ve ever been around, all making a contribution to build that in to an organization that again, is that kind of organization today.
RM: You’ve left quite a football legacy. Your family legacy is amazing too. Been married more than 60 plus years, raising kids, blessed with grandkids, but many may not know about your wine legacy, which I was very excited to find out about. Share a little bit about Vermeil Wines, in Napa the valley, no less.
DV: Well, I was born Calistoga, in the north end of the Napa Valley and my great-grandfather, on the Italian side of my family’s second home. He was very successful in business coming over Italy and he bought properties in Napa valley with his extra money because it reminded him of Tuscany, where he came from. And he was involved with a vineyard, which I’m still involved with that same vineyard, he owned a portion of it. And then my grandfather, Vermeil made all Vermeil Wines with the Fredonia grapes. So I grew up involved in helping my grandfather through the process of making wine, and I never lost the interest or the respect for the whole process and the appreciation for the process. Wine is not an alcohol for me, it’s part of a meal and that’s how I was raised. And I started a hobby with Paul Smith of On The Edge Winery, of making friends of mine in Calistoga, making 150-200 cases a year of just Vermeil Cabernet, for fun, and he was selling it as his Cabernet.
And, then my partners came in and said, let’s buy him out and turn the whole thing into a Vermeil Wine business, which we did. And so we’ve been in business for 13 years. This is the first year in 13 years, we’re in the black, we’re in the playoffs. And our wines are very good, Thomas Brown is our wine consultant, who I say is the Bill Belichick of the Napa Valley. And Andy Jones is our wine maker, they work together. The wine is made at Mending Wall Winery, and it’s excellent wine. We get ’95, ’96, ’94 grapes with our wines but we don’t have a lot of it. We don’t have a lot of it. So anyway, that’s what we do, that keeps me busy. And it keeps me connected to my history.
You can find AMERICAN UNDERDOG on digital and available on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray and Digital), Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus DVD and Digital), DVD, and On Demand February 22 from Lionsgate.
American Underdog tells the inspirational true story of Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi), who went from a stockboy at a grocery store to a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback. The film centers on Warner’s unique story and years of challenges and setbacks that could have derailed his aspirations to become an NFL player – but just when his dreams seemed all but out of reach, it is only with the support of his wife, Brenda (Anna Paquin) and the encouragement of his family, coaches, and teammates that Warner perseveres and finds the strength to show the world the champion that he already is. American Underdog is an uplifting story that demonstrates that anything is possible when you have faith, family and determination.
Based on the Book “All Things Possible” by Kurt Warner with Michael Silver. Screenplay by Jon Erwin & David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn. Directed by The Erwin Brothers.