“Hey man, this hat don’t fit.”

(1971 Article)

“You were fitted this morning. It fits. It’s supposed to hurt at first. If it gives you a headache after two days, bring it back and I’ll stretch it.”

It is only 9 a.m., and it is raining outside the small field house which, in season, serves the various teams from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., and is now serving the Washington Redskins football team, as it has every summer for the past nine years. It is July 11 and, rain or no rain, it’s the first day of practice.

It is a steady rain, having blown in during the grey hours of dawn and giving no sign of early abatement. The summer day is drawn and cool, and the practice field is turning soft under the tall green grass.

“These guys are lucky,” said Tommy McVean, “usually it’s hotter than hell up here. They’re lucky, I’m not. I’m going to have to clean 60 or 70 pairs of shoes tonight. Probably have to launder the damn uniforms, too. Usually, we only launder every three days.” McVean is the Redskins’ equipment manager.

McVean is 26. While in high school he was a Washington Senators’ bat boy and, in the fall, a Redskins’ ball boy. He became the ‘Skins assistant equipment manager. “I worked my butt off, got $65 a week, and loved it. Then, after years, I got married and had to quit and find something full-time that paid.”

Two years later the organization recognized the need for a competent, professional assistant, and McVean came back. That was under head coach Otto Graham. Two years more, and Vince Lombardi became the head coach and general manager. “It was Lombardi who made me the equipment manager,” McVean says. “He said ‘McVean, you’re my equipment manager, now get to work.’ What a way to start - under coach Lombardi.”

Again, two years pass, and the new head coach and general manager is George Allen.

“When Allen came in, one of the first things he did was to call me in his office and tell me that he was thinking of bringing in his own man as equipment manager. I thought I’d die. He told me that he wanted to be honest with me, that he knew I had done the job, but that he had a good man in mind. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like my world had stopped.

“I was hurt, and angry and confused. I thought to myself, ‘Hell, if I was good enough for Lombardi, than why in the hell aren’t I good enough for any man?’ That is pretty childish I know, but it was a very emotional time for me. I told him that he would never find anyone who would work harder for him and for the team than I would, and I meant it. Then I called my wife, told her I’d be late, and went out to get drunk.”

The next day Allen called in McVean and told him the job was still his. “I dunno,” McVean wonders, “maybe he was just testing me. He’s a lot like coach Lombardi that way.”

Allen walks into the equipment room on his way to the adjoining coaches’ dressing quarters. He is wearing shorts and black low-cuts, and a burgundy-colored rain jacket. Allen’s walk is more a stride, and the body tilts slightly forward as though fighting a stiff wind. It is a posture of defiance and of determination.

“Morning coach,” McVean says.

Allen smiles acknowledgment and then, as if through McVean he can transmit the word to every nervous rookie and eager veteran now suiting up, he says, “You play in the rain, you practice in the rain.”

“Hey Tommy, these pants didn’t have any thigh pads. Where can I get some thigh pads?”

It is Jimmy Jones, young defensive end acquired in trade from the New York Jets.

“This is the worst time for me, McVean says as he goes to a long shelf against one wall, gets two foam rubber thigh pads and tosses them to Jones across the bar which separates the equipment room from the players’ dressing quarters. “We’ve got 35 rooks in camp and 20-some veterans. The vets are no problem, I know what they wear, but the rookies,” and his voice tails off and he looks to the ceiling in partially feigned exasperation.

“You heard Taylor (tackle Mike Taylor, acquired in trade from New Orleans) tell me his helmet didn’t fit? Well, he’s no rookie, but he’s new here and it took us 15 minutes this morning to get him a hat he liked. Then he puts it on two hours later and he tells me it doesn’t fit.”

Although this is the first day of camp, McVean had arrived two weeks earlier to “get things set up.” There is an enormous quantity of equipment and paraphernalia which must be in place and ready when summer camp begins. Assisting McVean are three high school students who, while only earning something near $55 a week, have doubtless landed the job of a million young men’s dreams.

Paul McArdle, son of a federal judge and a three handicap golfer at the posh Chevy Chase Country Club; Bret Simpson, son of sports announcer Jim Simpson, and Tommy Hackler, the only local boy and a standout athlete at Carlisle High School, work long and hard digging ditches for the blocking and tackling dummies, fitting face masks, picking up dirty laundry, putting belts and pads in pants, replacing cleats, folding T-shirts, sweeping out the coaches’ quarters, pumping up footballs, serving cold drinks, shagging balls, mopping showers, stacking equipment and other sundry chores which, once the season begins, McVean alone will do.

“They’re good kids,” McVean says. “They’re working their butts off. We’ll take them with us to San Diego for our preseason game out there. They’re really looking forward to it.”

The dressing room is beginning to swell with players. It’s only the first workout, but Allen wants full pads. There is very little talk. Many of these men are strangers to each other, and most of them will not be around long enough to make friends. That is simply the cruel mathematics of summer camp: 35 rookies trying to fill maybe four or five available spots on the roster. The rain is still pelting the tin roof.

“When I started, I used to feel bad every time a rook got cut. Now I just outfit ‘em and try not to look at their eyes.”

McVean will have measured and outfitted close to 100 men by the time the final 40-man squad has been determined. As he said, with the veterans it is usually easy, but the rookies can take a lot of time.

“A lot of these guys have no idea what size they wear,” McVean says. “The ones from some of the small colleges can be especially bad. You wonder why they aren’t cripples. I’ve had players with size 11 feet tell me they wore size nine, and guys be off as much as a half size on their helmets. Boy, up here a helmet can save your life and it damn sure better fit. It’s gotta be tight at first. Uncomfortable. If it feels good, it’s too big.”

Bobby Mitchell, who was an all-time great runner and receiver for Cleveland and the Redskins and is now a Washington scout, comes into the equipment room looking for a rubberized sweat suit. He looks good. “He could still be all-pro,” McVean says.

“Man, it sure is nice to work out when you want to and not have to do it when the man tells you to,” Mitchell says as he pulls on his sweats. Then he laughs, “I used to hate to run,” he says, “but now I have to do it to keep the fat off. Besides, running on that Tartan track is a gas. Didn’t have anything like that when I was in school.” Mitchell, who attending the University of Illinois, was the Big Ten hurdle champion as well as an All-American halfback. He pulls on his plastic parka, and trots out the open door into the rain and on to the track. He looks good.

“You should hear him do his Jim Brown stories,” McVean says, “they’re the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Two large rookies come into the equipment room looking for full T-shirts rather than cut-offs that were put in their locker. “Get out of here,” McVean hollers, “players aren’t allowed back here.”

Dutifully, the two rookies go back through the door and McVean walks over and closes it. Then the rookies reappear at the bar, which is where they are supposed to be when wanting anything from the equipment room. “Let one of them back here digging around,” McVean says, “and next thing you know it’s a madhouse.”

“We were told that there are soft drinks back here,” one of the two young linemen says. “Can we have one?” McVean reaches into the Coca-Cola chest, pulls out two cans of Olympade and gives them to the players. They are clearly nervous. Their thirst is from nerves. It is cool in the clubhouse.

“Are we going to practice in this rain?” one of them asks.

“You play in the rain,” McVean tells him, “and you practice in the rain.” The word has been passed.

McVean’s equipment room is ordered. It is neat. He knows where everything is. It is military. Whenever one of the boys isn’t busy, he has them “straighten up.” The helmets and shoulder pads are lined on the clean cement floor according to size, and long wood shelves stacked with pads, masks, cleats, shoes, parkas, and tools climb three of the four walls. Jerseys - long sleeved and short sleeved, burgundy and white - hang in rows, and lockers are neatly filled with socks, jocks, T-shirts, sweat pants, sweat shirts and extra equipment.

McVean spent half an hour drilling holes in helmets and affixing face masks, and as soon as he was through he cleaned up the area. The coaches’ quarters are likewise neat and orderly, with clean shorts, shirts, socks, shoes and even shoestrings provided every day. There is also a toiletry table, with a dressing mirror and shaving and grooming articles. And there is freshly brewed coffee and a tray of fresh donuts.

Boyd Dowler, who is 6-5, 225 and now a player-coach, stands in the doorway of the coaches’ quarters and says, “Tommy, who puts out the shaving gear?”

“I do,” McVean says. “Why?”

“This after-shave is hard on my face. Can’t we get a lotion of some kind. Something smooth?”

McVean stares at the tall former all-pro flanker, standing in his shorts and rubbing his face, and says nothing.

“Tommy, I have very tender skin.”

“See what I have to put up with,” McVean says as Dowler breaks into a grin and ducks back through the door.

“My biggest job is to keep the players happy. That is the biggest contribution I can make to our winning... some of ‘em are pretty fussy ‘n’ want things just so... well, it’s my job to take care of ‘em.”

While McVean is talking he is busy pumping up a dozen or so footballs and labeling them “passing” or “kicking.” He has not sat down since he unlocked the doors at 7:30 am.., and his day won’t finally end until after 10 o’clock tonight. His loose T-shirt with REDSKINS across the chest is beginning to show his perspiration.

The door from the players’ quarters which McVean had earlier closed now opens and Sonny Jurgensen walks in wearing only a helmet. He is almost a comic figure, naked, plump and florid. But the shoulders and the arms, especially behind the elbow, belie the comedy. The shoulders are thick, and the arms heavy with supple muscle. The fact that the 37-year-old quarterback is in camp this early says much about the Redskins this year.

“Hiya, Tommy. Billy (Bill Kilmer, Jurgensen’s backup quarterback acquired from New Orleans) told me to wear this hat. Said I’d like it. It feels good.”

“It feels good because it’s too damn big.”

McVean looks closely at the back of the helmet, and says, “Hell, this is a 7 3/4, you only wear a 7 1/4.”

“That’s okay, I like it. Don’t you blow it up or something?”

“Yeah. Sit down and I’ll blow it up. These new air helmets are the best things going... pretty soon everyone will be wearing them. I’ll get you one that fits you right and you can try it.”

“Okay, but I’ll wear this in practice. It feels good.”

And then the man whom many regard as the best quarterback in football goes back into the dressing room, and with only a smile and a helmet, walks past a full bench of silent and staring rookies.

“I always get nervous this time of the year,” McVean says as he rests for a moment and sits down on a wood stool near the open door where he can feel the breeze and watch the field. “But this year I’ve really got butterflies. Allen is something...you see the trades he’s made...all of a sudden we’ve got a defense, and you know we got the offense. We could win it this year. We really could. Wouldn’t that be something...?”

An air horn’s shrill blast cuts the wet air, and some 60 men, players and coaches, pour out onto the field whooping and hollering and clapping. Quickly they break off into groups and begin calisthenics. In unison they grunt and shout, “ONE...TWO...THREE...ONE TWO...THREE....”

“That Allen’s something,” McVean says again as he watches. “Look how organized they are. Only the first day, and look at ‘em.”

Then, getting up and slipping into his parka, he got ready to go out into the rain, to be available when anything was needed. “Damn,” he whispers softly, “I’m going to be up all night cleaning shoes.”


                                                                                                                                  by Lee Hutson