MINNEAPOLIS — We are reminded constantly there is stuff in life you just can’t plan for. This fall I thought about breaking the piggy bank to pay for a trip to the 2020 Rose Bowl. Instead, I am shelling out a couple grand for a root canal.
To make me feel better I am offering memories and observations about the Minnesota Vikings past and present because the NFL is celebrating its 100th season this fall. The Vikings organized as an expansion franchise in 1960 and took the field in 1961. As a schoolboy I witnessed the beginning years both from the stadium stands and the TV screen.
Lordy, the league was different back then, including at the box office. The Vikings first took the field Aug. 5, 1961 in a preseason game in Sioux Falls, S.D., before an announced crowd of 4,954.
Neither the Vikings nor the NFL was that big of a deal in 1961. Lead owner Max Winter once told me team marketers held a promotional event in St. Paul to sell tickets, and hardly anyone (maybe zero) made a purchase.
Before buying into the Vikings, Winter was owner of the five-time world champion Minneapolis Lakers.
It took awhile for Minnesota to completely warm to the Vikings. The first rosters were filled with castaways from established NFL clubs. Sprinkled into the talent pool were a few players new to the league, including a 1961 rookie quarterback named Francis Asbury Tarkenton.
What a pro debut he made in front of me and 32,325 other fans at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota’s first regular season game Sept. 17, 1961. Fran came off the bench to replace starter George Shaw and led the Vikings to a shocking 37-13 win over the legendary Chicago Bears franchise.
As a journalist I started covering the Vikings in the 1970s. I remember one particular encounter with head coach Bud Grant. Bud had his way of drawing lines with players and journalists. He could be intimidating. “Are you going to offer your hand every time we meet?” Grant once asked me.
The “Iceman” caught me off guard. I don’t think I was scared, more annoyed is how I recall things. I am not sure I recall shaking hands with Grant since that time, but don’t misunderstand. I like Bud and he has interviewed with me over the years including a scoop he offered not long ago about a frightening airplane landing he experienced.
Bud’s teams of the 1970s were the only ones in team history to reach the Super Bowl, playing four times in the big game and losing everyone. They were a talented and tough bunch. They also had characters capable of mischief.
Former Viking Doug Kingsriter told me about a prank before the 1975 Super Bowl involving his team and the Steelers. Sportscaster Howard Cosell was interviewing Tarkenton at the Vikings hotel when Wally Hilgenberg and Alan Page interrupted by dosing Cosell with water.
Kingsriter wasn’t involved, but observed the shenanigans. “They hit Cosell square (with the water),” Kingsriter said. “When I say square they knocked his toupee off, not totally off, but it was off to the side. He quickly grabbed it and put it back on before he turned around. They got him in the back, in the head, and really soaked him.”
Cosell spotted an amused Page, but not Hilgenberg who had run away. Known for his arrogance, Cosell vowed revenge on Page. He got it in an odd way, and with a scoop. The next fall the Vikings and Bears were playing on national TV but Page was sidelined. Cosell told his ABC Monday night viewers that Page wasn’t playing because he had hemorrhoids.
I flirted with being interviewed by the Vikings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Max Winter liked me and I let it be known to general manager Mike Lynn I was interested in the team’s PR job. Lynn was kind of a different cat and I recall him calling me at home on a Sunday morning and say something like, “What’s happening Shama?”
Lynn was a slick operator and thought highly of himself. By chance I once encountered him at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He was wearing a blazer similar to those worn by Northwest Airlines personnel. An airline customer, an older lady, thought Lynn was an NWA employee and asked for assistance. Probably a humbling experience for the Vikings executive.
There have always been plenty of egos dressed in purple. To this day I can hear former owner Red McCombs bellowing, “Purple Pride, Purple Pride, Purple Pride!”
What a cast of Purple characters from 1961 through today. I remember being around Randy Moss from his early days with the team. You didn’t stand in his path when he was exiting the locker room. What was the sometimes food critic and downtown traffic cop target so angry about?
Approaching interviews with some Vikings players over the years has been interesting. Not to say, though, there aren’t guys who appreciate and understand the role of journalists, even if most of them protect information like Coca-Cola guards its secret formula.
Certain players I avoid, while others I welcome a conversation with. A favorites list from the last 20 years includes Matt Birk, Kirk Cousins, Kyle Rudolph, Ryan Longwell, Terence Newman, Harrison Smith and Adam Thielen, plus assistant coaches Dean Dalton and George Stewart, and college scout Scott Studwell.
Thielen has missed several games with an injured hamstring. I can commiserate in my own way. Earlier this fall I shared with him my back pain misery including painful spasms I was experiencing. As we talked, I could tell he had a genuine interest in my ordeal. Thielen is authentic and that characteristic will stay in my memory longer than any play he will ever make on the field.
With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.