When the players took the field for warmups, most of them kept their hands tucked inside their pants. Every deep breath was an arrow shooting into their lungs. Donny Anderson, a Texan, had never played in weather like this before, but he had no choice because Elijah Pitts, the other halfback, was out for the year. Pitts had been enjoying his best season until the game in Baltimore, when he suffered a severe ankle injury. Jim Grabowski had been hurt during that same game when Bobby Boyd smacked him in the right knee. Grabo was making his way back and thought he might play against the Cowboys; the knee had felt good all week in practice. Then, during warmups, he went out on a pass pattern, a little fullback hook, and he planted his right foot and felt something pop, and his comeback was over before it started. Chuck Mercein would get most of the action at fullback.
Of all the major characters in this game, Mercein was the unlikeliest. The former Yale star had begun the year feeling "humiliated, embarrassed" when Allie Sherman, coach of the New York Giants, had cut him from his squad. He practiced several weeks with the semipro Westchester Bulls, then was recalled by the Giants and cut again. After a tryout in Washington, Redskins coach Otto Graham agreed to sign him, and Mercein returned to Scarsdale and told his wife to start packing for Washington. Then, as they were loading the car that Sunday night, Giants owner Wellington Mara called. "Listen, Chuck, if you haven't signed yet, I've been on the phone with Vince Lombardi and he inquired about your availability," Mara said. Mara and Lombardi talked every Sunday night during the season; they'd been doing it for seven years. "I've recommended you to Lombardi, Chuck. Stay by the phone."
A few seconds later Lombardi rang him. "Chuck, I understand you're available," Lombardi said, according to Mercein's recollection. "I want you to come out here and play for me. I don't want you to play for the Redskins. We're going to the Super Bowl, Chuck. You're going to help us get the world championship. You're going to be part of this team. We need you. We want you. If you want to be part of a championship, come out here and play for us." That was it. "Absolutely, instinctively and intuitively I knew this was where I was going to play," Mercein recounted. "I said, 'Yes, sir. I'll be on the next flight.' I hung up the phone and turned to my wife and said, 'Unpack the car.' She said, 'What?' 'Yeah, I'm going to the Packers.' It was great. I was thrilled. Playing for the great Vince Lombardi!" He took the flight of the Blue Goose to Green Bay that Monday, and personnel man Pat Peppler picked him up at the airport. And now, with Grabowski hurting again, here he was starting in the NFL Championship Game.
When the team returned to the locker room after warmups, the reality finally hit Willie Wood. "Well, it looks like we are going to play this game," he said to Bob Jeter. Then came another thought. If we're gonna play, we gotta make sure we're gonna win. We don't want to come out in these kinds of conditions and lose a damn ball game. Lombardi was of a similar mind, of course. He never wanted to lose any game, but especially not a game to Landry and the Cowboys. He had a thing about the Cowboys, according to Willie Davis. "Even in preseason he didn't want Dallas to beat us." Lombardi had always stayed one step ahead of his old Giants colleague and rival. He became a head coach in 1959, Landry in 1960. He turned a losing team around in one year, it took Landry six years before he could get his expansion Cowboys to a winning record. But now the Cowboys were being cited as the team of the future, with the flex and the Doomsday Defense and multiple offense, their flashy uniforms and speedy receivers.
In his heart of hearts, Max McGee thought Dallas had the better team. "Not that they could beat us," McGee said. "We had their number. Lombardi had the hex on Landry."
Copyright © 1999 by David Maraniss. Published with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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