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Packers training camp memory: Vince Lombardi's explosion cut short a tryout

Royce Whittington’s stay lasted two laps

Former Packers DL Royce Whittington
Former Packers DL Royce Whittington

Vince Lombardi's volcanic temper ended what had to be the shortest tryout in Packers history of any player who passed a physical and made it to the practice field.

Maybe it was the shortest tryout in NFL history.

In 1961, Lombardi's third training camp in Green Bay, Royce Whittington didn't even survive a full practice. In fact, he didn't survive warm-ups. One of Lombardi's routines was to have players take a short jog when they first arrived on the South Oneida Street practice field, which wasn't much bigger than a 100-yard football field back then.

Whittington was a defensive tackle from the University of Southwestern Louisiana drafted in the 18th round in 1960 when NFL teams could select futures, players who had been redshirted but had college eligibility remaining and couldn't sign until they finished their senior season.

Originally recruited by Louisiana State, Whittington started on its talent-laden, unbeaten freshman team in 1956. This was before freshmen were eligible to play varsity football, but LSU scheduled three freshman games. The Baby Bengals, as they were called, won all three with a backfield that included future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the 1960 NFL Draft, halfback Billy Cannon; the No. 3 choice in the 1960 NFL Draft and 2019 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, halfback Johnny Robinson; and second-round draft pick, quarterback Warren Rabb.

Whittington was one tackle; Mel Branch, who would be named to the all-American Football League all-pro team as a rookie in 1960 with the Dallas Texans, was the other tackle.

As juniors, Cannon, Robinson and Rabb made up three-fourths of the all-Southeastern Conference backfield as LSU won the national championship, which was then determined by the final Associated Press poll, with an 11-0 record, including a victory in the Sugar Bowl. As seniors, LSU went 9-1 in the regular-season and was ranked third in the final poll.

LSU lost in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day 1960 and immediately following the game, Cannon and Robinson signed with the rival and new American Football League, shocking the sports world.

Meanwhile, Whittington redshirted in 1957 and transferred two years later to what was then Southwestern Louisiana Institute. In 1960, the school's name was changed to the University of Southwestern Louisiana and in 1999 it was changed again to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

With Whittington enjoying an outstanding junior season as a two-way tackle in the one-platoon era of college football, the Packers selected him in what was then a 20-round draft with 12 teams and waited until after his senior season to sign him to a $7,500 contract.

When he was drafted on Nov. 30, 1959, Whittington was listed at 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds. When he checked into St. Norbert College on July 16, 1961, with 16 other rookies and six selected veterans for physicals and a 48-hour jump on full-squad workouts, Whittington tipped the scale at 319 pounds, 54 more than his listed weight.

Whittington was wearing a greased-back James Dean style haircut and street clothes when a Green Bay Press-Gazette photographer captured his weigh-in. His short-sleeved, collared shirt was unbuttoned, leaving every bit of his girth exposed and hanging over the belt of his dress slacks as assistant trainer Domenic Gentile checked the scale in St. Norbert's old Van Dyke gym.

Whittington had dinner with his teammates that night and attended a team meeting on campus, then had breakfast there the following morning before riding a bus to the Packers' locker room at the south end of what was then named Green Bay City Stadium.

He was just finishing his second lap around the field before the start of the 10 a.m. practice when Lombardi had seen enough.

"Out! You're out of here!" Lombardi bellowed across the field in Whittington's direction, according to the late Lee Remmel, then covering the practice for the Press-Gazette. "You mean me?" Whittington signaled. "Yeah, you! You're out!" Lombardi roared again.

In 1984, Whittington told the Press-Gazette's Sharon Raboin that he had played at anywhere from 260 to 280 in college, then ballooned up after his senior season.

"I got married in February and instead of conditioning I just let myself go," said Whittington.

He said Lombardi spoke to him briefly before he returned home. "Lombardi called me over and said, 'Whittington, get out of here before you have a heart attack,'" he remembered. "And that was the extent of my pro career. At that time, I was mad at him and I didn't feel like I had been given a fair chance. But now, since I've gone into coaching, I can see why he did it."

At the time of the interview, Whittington was coaching football, and teaching economics and history at Walker High School in Louisiana. He died in 2010 at age 71.

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