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The world can seem so small sometimes. How else to explain how I got to know Vince Promuto, a starting offensive lineman for the Washington Football Team back in the 1960s and a man some consider among the toughest players in the team’s storied history.
My wife is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native, and her parents were longtime members of the Coral Ridge Yacht Club, even if the only boat they ever owned was a ship in a bottle. Promuto, who died June 1 at age 82, moved to South Florida in 1992, and was a member of that same club.
Though I had covered the NFL team in D.C. starting in 1973, I had known of Promuto only by reputation. Three years after he retired following an injury-plagued 1970 season, several of his old teammates—players like Sonny Jurgensen, Ray Schoenke, and Len Hauss—more than occasionally would talk about him, and always with some reverence. I was introduced to the man often called “Vinny” about 30 years ago at that Florida club, and we had many conversations about what he considered the true grit glory days of professional football.
In his era, you rubbed dirt on a twisted ankle and went back out and played. It was a time when you got your “bell rung” on a wicked hit to the head, but if they asked you to count to four on the sideline and you made it to two, you went back out and stayed in the fray. And so he played, 130 games in all after earning a starting spot in his rookie season as a fourth-round draft pick from the College of the Holy Cross. He was an offensive guard, a position now frequently manned by guys weighing 300 pounds. Back then, Promuto played at 245 pounds, while men lining up on the other side of the line often outweighed him by 30 to 40 pounds.
Promuto never flinched, and took great pride in his work, particularly after Jurgensen, a Hall of Fame quarterback, arrived in 1964. He was a superb pass blocker, and protected Jurgensen. He could run block, too. Ask running back Larry Brown, who arrived in 1969 and frequently benefitted from Promuto’s knack for getting potential tacklers out of his way.
Promuto was a tough guy from the get-go, growing up in the Bronx. By his own admission, he ran with a neighborhood gang back in the ’50s. He was always in trouble, especially at his unforgiving Catholic high school.
He spent as much time in detention as he did in the classroom. One day, he was asked to go out to the baseball field to do some heavy lifting maintenance work to atone for one of his countless scholastic sins. As he was working, a track athlete’s javelin landed nearby.
Promuto was not happy about the near miss. So he yanked the spear out of the ground and heaved it right back at the kid who had almost hit him. That javelin flew high and far, past the trackman’s original throw. One of the coaches noticed, and thus began Promuto’s athletic career.
He would go on to play college football at Holy Cross, then was drafted by Washington in 1960. He impressed the coaching staff in his first scrimmage and before training camp had ended, had earned a spot on the first team.
He always liked to say he relied on his quickness and smarts to survive. He also was brainy enough so that team president Edward Bennett Williams, a world class attorney, told him he ought to think about going to law school. Promuto agreed and earned a law degree from American University while he was still playing.
When George Allen arrived as head coach in 1971, Promuto was very much on his mind. He seemed a perfect candidate for a comeback as a member of Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” of graybeard veterans, many clearly on the downside of their careers but with enough left in the tank to play at a high level.
Promuto was simply out of gas. Allen did convince him to come out to the team’s training facility and to go through some drills in a tryout. Promuto told me that after about 15 minutes, both he and the coaches knew he was too far over the hill to contribute, and his football career was over.
Promuto took his law degree into government service, then went into his family’s waste disposal business in New Jersey. He made a lot of money, enough to own one of the largest boats—over 90 feet—moored at that Florida yacht club’s dock.
In recent years, he had slowed considerably. I knew just about every joint in his body—knees, hips, shoulders—had been surgically replaced. He had back and heart problems, but any time I saw him he was upbeat and said he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, despite the years of post football pain.
He often quizzed me about some of his old teammates still living in the Washington area. He had stayed in touch with a few, and said he always looked forward to team reunions. It was a chance to reminisce about so many good times more than a half-century ago. And to remember an errant javelin throw that changed his life forever.