A Pro Player's Passion for Playing Pigskin

PRO football's Cleveland Browns pay Tommy Vardell to run the ball. He often starts each weekday, though, with a "run" to the donut shop, where he picks up a box of fresh-baked goods on his way to the Browns' 10-acre suburban practice facility.

First-year players in the National Football League (NFL) are a bit like younger brothers who must pay their "dues" because of their junior status. Thus it is that Cleveland's veteran players expect the club's rookies to provide breakfast before a long day of workouts and strategy sessions.

Obviously, any public status associated with being the Browns' first selection in last spring's NFL draft means little to Vardell's older teammates.

"Basically, you have no rights as a rookie," Tommy says. "A veteran can tell you what to do and you pretty much have to do it."

During preseason training camp, that meant having to sing college football fight songs at mealtime in front of the rest of the players. "If you take it well, it's kind of fun," Vardell says, adding that since his arrival with the Browns hardly anyone's called him Tommy. "Rook," short for rookie, is what he and his fellow first-year players answer to.

But how do they know who is being addressed?

"We all turn and pay our respects," Vardell says of the act-now-ask-questions-later approach required.

Before meeting Tommy in person during Cleveland's midseason trip to Boston (to play the New England Patriots), the Monitor arranged a telephone interview with him. As set up through the team's public relations department, Tommy called one night from his Ohio residence. It was 10 o'clock, and though baseball's World Series was on TV, he had just taken a bath and seemed in no hurry to watch the game.

Football is his sport. He's been playing it since age eight. "I didn't know anything else," he says. "When it got to be late summer and early fall it was time to strap on the pads and go out and play."

He began by playing Pop Warner youth-league ball in El Cajon, Calif., a San Diego suburb he still calls home. When he reached ninth grade, he decided to sit out a season. The experience was instructive. "I didn't realize how much I would miss it," he says now.

Picking up where he left off, he went on to become an all-league offensive player of the year at Granite Hills High School, averaging nearly eight yards a carry his senior season.

Because he was an honor-roll student, Ivy League schools and the military academies recruited him, as did the major West Coast universities. He settled on Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a strong academic institution with a big-time football program.

As much as he loved the game, he didn't give a possible career in pro football much thought until before his junior season. That's when Stanford head coach Dennis Green, who had once been an assistant with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and is now head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, told Vardell during spring practice that he had good potential as a pro.

Tommy was only Stanford's third-string fullback at the time, but Green proved prophetic. As a junior, Vardell rushed for 14 touchdowns, including four in an upset of then No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. As a senior he turned up his performance another notch, scoring 20 more touchdowns.

Last spring Sports Illustrated ran an article on "Touchdown Tommy," in which the running back coach at Stanford, Tyrone Willingham, had this to say of his star pupil: "I don't know what triggered him to fulfill his potential. But I do know an athlete has to have a vision of success. Suddenly, Tommy looked in the mirror, saw this vision, and it was filled with No. 44."

Not surprisingly, NFL scouts began taking a serious look at Vardell, and liked what they saw: good size (6 ft. 1 in., 238 pounds); speed (4.48 seconds for 40 yards); outstanding attitude; and obvious concentration. In college he carried the ball 416 times and never fumbled, nor did he ever have a penalty called on him.

Playing, he's so totally focused he doesn't hear the crowd. "You're thinking about your assignments," he says. "And even when you make a good play you're thinking of the next assignment."

This concentration is so intense that there's little room left to feel the excitement of a big game. In fact, Tommy says it's more exciting to watch the weekly Monday night NFL game, carried on national television, than to play in it. This observation comes from having played in the Monday night "showcase" in only his second regular-season game, a mid-September contest in which he gained 84 yards against the Miami Dolphins.

That was his best game, yardage-wise, during a season in which his role is hard to gauge from week to week. Often he stands on the sideline, waiting to be called. The game plan may require him to block more than run. Three weeks ago he carried the ball just once - for minus one yard - and only five times has he had more than six rushing attempts in the team's first 12 games.

He still contributes, though, and considers a largely overlooked block a personal season highlight. In one game, an opposing linebacker "was doing a lot of talking," trying to intimidate Vardell with in-your-face taunts. "Welcome to the NFL, rook," he said after a jarring encounter. On the next play, however, Tommy quieted the veteran with a textbook block as the player attempted to blitz the Cleveland quarterback.

Those things can easily get lost in the swirl of 22 colliding bodies, but it is satisfying when replayed later - in Tommy's mind and also in the next week's film sessions.

"I enjoy football in retrospect more than when it's actually happening," Vardell says. "I have images floating around in my head for the next couple of days."

And if they're good ones - of a block, a proper running cut, a well-executed fake handoff - they can be enjoyed and admired by his teammates during film reviews. "If you had a really good play, everybody gets to see it," Vardell says.

Through the ups and downs, Tommy tries to remain accommodating to the fans. He responds to as much mail as he can and walks slowly to his car after home games in order to sign as many autographs as possible.

Not wanting to let fame and fortune affect him, he says he had to give himself a "character check" earlier this season after he found himself showing "a little hardness to people who did things for me." Such sensitivity comes naturally for the player Sports Illustrated says retired the trophy for Nicest Guy in Football.

Since turning pro, Vardell has observed that there is a more businesslike attitude among the players. This is, after all, a full-time job. The pros play 20 preseason and regular-season games (even more if the team makes the playoffs) compared with 11 in college. They also spend most of the day at the football "office."

The Browns watch films and hold strategy meetings from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., then come back for a three-hour afternoon practice. By the time he's lifted weights, showered, and watched more films, Vardell says it's often 6 o'clock before he gets home.

Despite this grind, and maybe because of it, the athletes still retain a playfulness in the locker room. The rah-rah spirit of school football may be missing, but Vardell has observed that "the same things that go on in the high school locker room happen here."

And he also finds that the best players are often those who don't take simply a workaday attitude but really enjoy what they're doing. Vardell takes a similar approach. "This is a wonderful opportunity to be employed in a hobby," he says.

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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