Lou “The Battler” Rymkus: Storybook Beginnings
Well beyond his role as the first coach in Oilers franchise history, Lou Rymkus will forever be entrenched in football lore.
Long before he was etched in the AFL’s history books for winning its first championship as a hard-nosed coach, Rymkus was forced to tackle adversity early in his life.
The son of a Lithuanian immigrant coal miner who owned a small grocery store in Royalton, Ill., Rymkus’ father was shot and killed outside the store when he was a small boy, forcing his family to relocate to Chicago’s South Side.
As a standout high school lineman at Tilden Tech, Rymkus later stated that one of his fondest memories throughout his football career was when he blocked a field goal and scored a touchdown against rival Austen High.
Rymkus earned seven letters at Tilden for football, track, and wrestling.
This incredible athletic success earned him a football scholarship to Notre Dame where he continued to display his football abilities.
While playing under Fighting Irish Head Coach Frank Leahy, he quickly earned respect by anchoring the offensive line at tackle, earning All-American honors and team MVP.
When Rymkus’ college career was over, he sought the advice of Leahy and asked him for guidance on entering the coaching ranks.
Leahy responded, “Lou, get strong, mean defensive linemen who want to tackle the quarterback, and all of your coaching prayers will be answered.”
However, Rymkus chose to postpone his pursuits of a coaching career, signing a $2,000 contract to play for the Washington Redskins in 1943. He was drafted in the 7th round with the 60th overall pick.
After the 1943 season, Rymkus joined the U.S. Marines and trained Navy recruits at Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago in 1944 and 1945 before serving at Pearl Harbor toward the end of World War II.
After Rymkus’ military service was over, Paul Brown offered him a $4,000 contract to play for the Cleveland Browns in the new All-American Football Conference (AAFC) when the league started in 1946.
Rymkus told Redskins owner George Marshall of Brown’s offer in hopes of the Washington franchise matching Brown’s proposed salary, but Marshall scoffed that the league would not last and only offered Rymkus his previous salary, retorting, “Why would you want to play with those renegades?”
However, Rymkus decided to gamble on the upstart AAFC, hitchhiking over 130 miles from Nappanee, Ind., to the Browns’ inaugural training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Despite a debilitating knee injury in the early part of the season, Rymkus played through it while keeping it a secret from his coaches and training staff. “In those days, if you didn’t play on Sunday, you weren’t there on Monday.”
With a reputaiton as an iron-man athlete, he never missed a game nor practice due to injury, but this tough, gritty playing style ate away his longevity.
After the 1951 season, Rymkus retired at age 32, concluding an accomplished playing career with four All-Pro selections, four AAFC championships, and one NFL championship.
Brown praised him as “the best pass protector I’ve ever seen.”
Shortly after his retirement, Rymkus began his coaching career.
Before he joined the Oilers, he coached for the University of Indiana, the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, the Green Bay Packers, and the Los Angeles Rams in various assistant coach roles.
As the AFL began to form, Rymkus was linked to the head coaching job of the Los Angeles Chargers because his former collegiate coach, Frank Leahy, was the Chargers’ general manager.
However, Leahy hired Sid Gillman, and Oilers owner Bud Adams quickly jumped at the opportunity to hire Rymkus, signing him to a three-year contract at $15,500 per year.
Rymkus’ coaching style was strict, hard-nosed, and by the book.
He would threaten to whip his players, verbally abuse them, and force them through brutal practices.
Nevertheless, his game-planning strategies worked extremely well, as Houston never lost consecutive games on their way to a 10-4 inaugural campaign.
As fate would have it, the Oilers met the Chargers for the first AFL championship in a much anticipated rematch after the teams had split their two regular-season tilts, as well as a burgeoning feud between Rymkus and Gillman.
Enduring a see-saw battle with the Chargers, the Oilers prevailed, 24-16.
To celebrate the victory, Rymkus ordered a large shipment of drinking glasses with his picture placarded on them and handed them out to friends.
Determined to carry the celebration over into the next preseason, Adams sent the Oilers to Hawaii for the first two weeks of training camp.
Rymkus bitterly disagreed with Adams’ decision, stating, “We found it hard to think football around the palm trees.”
Rymkus raved, “We’re just last year’s champions, but when a tropical moon is out, and the palm trees are swaying, and you can hear the surf crashing against the beach, and you know that the restaurants and bars are full of horny school teachers from Iowa, and it’s 10:30 p.m., how in the hell can I convince the players that they ought to go to bed?”
“A preseason camp has to be hard, and you have to work hard. You can’t do it in a place like Hawaii.”
Unfortunately, the Oilers realized Rymkus’ fears, starting the 1961 season like molasses in wintertime, due in no small part to the brutal, physical nature of his preseason camp, not to mention his verbal lambasting of the team’s opening performance after they had shellacked the Oakland Raiders, 55-0.
Houston then dropped its next three games.
After a tie on October 13 with the Boston Patriots, Adams fired Rymkus and replaced him with Wally Lemm, an assistant on Rymkus’ staff from the previous season.
Adams stated that his decision was “based on the conclusion the material on hand has not been used to its fullest potential.”
The Oilers promptly proceeded to make Adams look like a pigskin prophet, reeling off 10 straight victories, including the championship, and setting the all-time AFL record for points scored in a season with 513 (36.6 points per game).
Houston also set another AFL record with a +271 point differential, allowing only 242 points to opponents and became the only team in AFL or NFL history to date to score 45 points or more six times in a single season.
Although he went on to work both outside football and inside it in various assistant and head-coach roles (including an ironic stint as the Oilers’ offensive line coach in 1965), Rymkus never again served as a head coach in the AFL or NFL.
When ex-Oilers’ linebacker Al Witcher was asked about his old coach 35 years after their championship season, Witcher replied, “No one ever understood or coached the game of football any better than Lou Rymkus.”
Dillon Holloway is a native Mississippian currently residing in central Oklahoma. He is a rabid football fan and a historian of the sport. He is a husband, a military officer, volunteer teacher and football coach, and emerging guest speaker. He graduated from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s in English and a minor in aerospace studies. He played football from pee-wee through high school, winning the 2A Midsouth Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) state championship and was named first-team all-district guard in 2011. Since his first football practice, he has always made the sport a part of his life in some fashion, and writing for Miss Ya Blue! allows him to continue to do so.
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