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Vince Lombardi relished the chance to test his players mentally, whether on the field or during meetings. It was part of his modus operandi. The legendary coach was true to form on Feb. 3, 1970, when he played a mind game with Donald Ware, a rookie defensive back.
It happened in Lombardi's office at Redskins headquarters at Connecticut and L Streets, N.W. Ware, who had starred at safety at nearby Howard University, went undrafted. But the Redskins saw potential and wanted to sign him as a free agent.
Upon entering Lombardi's office, Ware saw the coach seated at his desk. Bobby Mitchell, then a Redskins scout, sat across from the desk, and Redskins receiver Charley Taylor, arguably the best pass-catcher in the game, was elsewhere in the room stirring a cup of coffee. Ware would come to realize that Taylor was there as part of the coach's mental test.
Lombardi told Ware that with his quickness and ability to close on the ball, the Redskins were positioning him at cornerback. Ware said he was fine with that. The coach also asked him if the Redskins, who went 7-5-2 in 1969 in Lombardi's first season in D.C., were going to beat the Cowboys in 1970. Dallas had topped the Redskins four straight times, including twice in 1969.
Yes sir, we're definitely going to beat the Cowboys and stop Bob Hayes and Don Meredith and that group," Ware recalled. "If we don't do anything else, we're going to beat the Cowboys.' "
Lombardi had one other question.
"He said to me, `Do you think you can check Charley Taylor?' " Ware said. "I noticed when that happened, I didn't hear the stirring of the spoon against Charley's coffee cup. But I could feel Charley's eye's burning down on the left side of my body. I noticed Bobby squirming in his seat. He appeared to be a bit nervous on what type of response I would make, one that would make or break me.
"So I thought about it a while. Lombardi was looking straight at me. He had his glasses on, no smile whatsoever. He was looking dead serious. So I'm thinking to myself,
What am I going to do now?' Bobby's sitting over to my right and nervous. Charley's staring down at me, his eyes burning down on me. I felt like Charley was saying,Rookie, you cannot check me.' So I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to say,
No, coach, I can't check him.' Then what's the use of signing with the Redskins if you can't check Charley Taylor? He's the best. Somehow, I mumbled out,No one can.' "
Lombardi liked that answer.
"This smile came on his face," Ware said. "You could see the gap in his teeth. I saw him push a paper toward me. It was the standard professional football contract. They signed me for $12,500. At that time, incoming rookie free agents made $12,000. I think I got an additional $500 because I was from the D.C. area, and maybe I could fill up RFK with people in the area. So I signed the contract."
Ware shook hands with Lombardi and Mitchell, but not with Taylor.
"But I nodded to him," Ware said. "I guess we were both saying, `I'll see you on the field.' "
Ware participated in a Redskins mini-camp at Georgetown University in June and appeared for training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. But he aggravated an injury from college, stretching ligaments in the tarsal bone in his left foot. Redskins and local doctors suggested he quit training camp, saying that continuing to play would be "devastating" to his health.
Ware never played in 1970, nor did he get to impress Lombardi, who died of cancer right before that season started. Ware worked out, stayed in shape and was invited to attend a Redskins rookie mini-camp in June 1971, the first season of another iconic Redskins coach, George Allen. Feeling that he'd already proven himself to Lombardi, Ware turned down the offer. He never played in the NFL.
But his football career didn't end there. He officiated college games for 31 years in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and retired in 2014. Still, he regrets his decision not to attend the Redskins' 1971 mini-camp.
"That was a tough decision," he said. "Every kid dreams of playing for their home team in professional ball against the elite and the best of the best. You're always second-guessing yourself."