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Dick Vermeil
A vintage coach channels his passion into wine making
By Chuck Darrow

These days, beloved former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil devotes a good deal of his time and energy into promoting Vermeil Wines, a Northern California-based winery on the land his family has tended for generations. But imagine the heights he’d hit if he could bottle whatever it is that allows the 82-year-old Philly sports legend to maintain a lifestyle that would challenge a person half his age.

The man who led the Birds to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance against the Oakland Raiders 38 years ago can take several minutes to describe what he terms a “normal day.”

Home is a hand-built log cabin in Chester County with a hunting-lodge vibe that he shares with Carol, his wife of 63 years. There, Vermeil rises early and begins the day with the newspaper, concentrating, not surprisingly, on the sports section.

He checks emails before stepping away for an hour-long workout. Then it’s back to the home office whose walls are covered with photos and other mementos of an illustrious career that also includes leading the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams to a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans in 2000. There, he attends to his work as front man and minority partner of the wine business as well as his efforts on behalf of several charitable and nonprofit entities, including The Ronald McDonald House and Boy Scouts.

There are days when he heads to Egg Harbor City to meet with his partners in wine. And others when he delivers motivational speeches to corporate types and anyone else interested in what he has to say about succeeding in the business world – often comparing coaching to running a company.

There is the annual September sojourn to the Vermeil label vineyards in his native Calif. He spends time there not shuffling paperwork in an air-conditioned office, but driving a tractor, making deliveries and performing lots of other hands-on tasks. He takes time out every November for hunting trips to Montana.

Reading the sports pages for him is not just pleasure. Like in the days when football was his world, he delves deep in football-related studies on his own because, he reasons, “When someone asks me a question, I’d like to give an intelligent answer that’s not based on just an opinion.” And they do ask.

He also manages to find a significant amount of time for what may be his greatest passion: Heading to the garage located steps from the house and restoring the racing car originally built in the 1920s by his father, Jean Louis (a mechanic and for whom several of his company’s wines are named).

All of which begs the questions, how does he maintain such a pace and, perhaps more important, why?

“Well,” he says, “I’m 82, but I feel like I’m 52. And I made my living all my life in the physical side of things. People talk about investments. To me, the greatest investment you can make is in your own personal health. There’s no question that exercise helps you. So that’s why I’m an exercise guy.”

As for the why, the father of three and grandfather of 11 insists he doesn’t “want to end up being a ‘diminishing value.’”

“A lot of people sort of just end up fading away, especially old coaches,” he says. “And I don’t want to do that. I want to try to keep making a contribution, and I want to keep trying to improve any talents I have left to improve.”

Vermeil first came to the attention of the football world in 1974 as the new head coach at UCLA. He was hired by the Eagles in 1976 but left the job after the 1982 season, famously citing “burnout” (a term that hadn’t yet entered the vernacular). He stayed away from the sidelines for 15 years, spending much of that time as a TV analyst. It was during the latter years of his self-imposed exile that he began the process that ultimately led to the founding of Vermeil Wines.

The Rams lured him back to the NFL in 1997 and, in 2001, he moved across Missouri to take the helm of the Kansas City Chiefs. He stayed there until officially retiring in 2005.

While his Eagles success and decades as a popular celebrity endorser in the Delaware Valley have long made him a local hero, it likely wasn’t until 2006 that the world at large got to know Vermeil. That’s when Greg Kinnear portrayed him in “Invincible,” the cinematic version of longtime Cherry Hill resident Vince Papale’s improbable story of becoming a 30-year-old Eagles rookie.

Vermeil was not exactly star-struck by the experience. He admits he’s only seen the film once because, “I just have never gotten into reading articles where I’m the subject or looking at videos where I’m the subject. I have stayed away from most of that, really. I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl win here in the house for two years.”

He says he never visited the “Invincible” set, nor was he particularly impressed with the script when he first read it.

“They sent me the manuscript,” he recalls, “I read it, I called up the producer or whoever it was and said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of things in the script that aren’t true.’

“And he said, ‘Well Coach, we’re not doing a documentary. We’re telling the story.’ They glorified the story a little bit, but not out of proportion to what was actually accomplished by Vince,” he concedes.

Despite his decades of success in and out of football, Vermeil has little interest in having that be his legacy. Instead, he offers, “I’d like to be remembered as somebody who had great integrity and was a loyal friend.”

July 2019
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