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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Minnesota Vikings
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Minnesota Vikings History
By Steve Silverman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Steve Silverman
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
AFL OR NFL?
The Vikings entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1961, one year after the Dallas Cowboys began play.
But instead of joining the established NFL, Minnesota nearly became one of the founding teams in the American Football League. The move from one league to the other helped fuel the war between the AFL and NFL during the first half of the 1960s.
Before we get into the details, here's the back story.
During the second half of the 1950s, it was clear that professional football was a sport on the rise. It was still behind professional baseball, but the national pastime was growing stiff and stale. With each passing season, football was taking more of a hold on a growing group of fans that just couldn't get enough of it.
But there was a problem. There were 12 teams in the NFL and none of the owners were interested in expanding to cities like Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver, and Houston, which desperately wanted franchises. Chicago Bears owner George Halas and Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall were especially firm in not wanting to expand — and nothing got done in the NFL if Halas wasn't behind the idea.
Bert Bell might have been the commissioner of the NFL, but Halas was the true power in the league. Bell made sure he never got into any wars with the crusty Bears owner because he was more of a pat-you-on-the-back, "attaboy" type of guy. Bell felt he owed Halas his loyalty because the "old man" had gotten Bell the job of commissioner. Additionally, confrontation was never his style — especially with a curmudgeon like Halas.
Despite Halas's and the other owners' reluctance to change the status quo, there were plenty of inquiries made about expansion or acquiring an existing franchise. The Chicago Cardinals were struggling badly with 84 defeats and monetary losses of more than $1 million in the 1950s. Cardinals owner Vi Bidwill and her husband Walter Wolfner were considering moving out of the south side of the city, where the team was getting pounded by Halas's Bears.
Bell was hoping Bidwill and Wolfner would either sell or move their franchise, but they resisted all suitors and decided to keep the team. That didn't stop Lamar Hunt, a young businessman who was the son of oil magnate H.L. Hunt. He had been transfixed by the 1958 championship game between the Giants and the Colts, and as he watched the Colts win the overtime game in Yankee Stadium, his interest in pro football became an obsession.
He went to the Cardinals owners and made them a lucrative offer, but they wouldn't sell. Hunt then went to Bell and asked for an expansion franchise and was told that it was not going to happen.
That did not stop Hunt. On the flight back home to Dallas, he decided he was not going to be sidetracked by men like Halas, Marshall, and Bell. If he could not buy an NFL team or get an expansion team, he would start his own league. He knew that Bud Adams in Houston hungered to get into professional football, as did Max Winter, a Minnesota businessman who owned the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers.
Hunt put together eight prospective founding members of the American Football League. The franchises were to be located in Dallas, Houston, Buffalo, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, and Minneapolis. The Minnesota franchise was considered especially valuable because it would give the AFL control of the upper Midwest area. This was something that would get under the skin of Halas because he did not want to see that area go to the new league. The threat of a new league coming to the Bears' turf would eventually start to fester and push Halas into action.
Bell had no opposition to the new league. He understood that owners might not be happy about competition, but he also knew the NFL had never grown more or had earned more publicity than when it battled with All-American Football Conference in the late 1940s. He thought a new league would only improve and grow a product that the American sports fans were eating up. Bell was actually quite helpful in advising Hunt on how to set up the new league and he sent Adams a business plan to use as a blueprint.
But when Bell died in 1959 of a heart attack while attending a Philadelphia Eagles game, Hunt knew that the rules had changed. Would men like Halas and Marshall welcome the competition? Of course not.
The NFL didn't waste any time before getting ready for the battle. A few weeks after Bell's death, the NFL changed its course and announced plans to expand to Dallas and Houston, in direct competition with Hunt and Adams. The NFL immediately tried to make peace by offering the expansion franchises to Hunt and Adams, but they weren't having it. Hunt, who had dreamed up and planned the league, was not about to leave his partners in the lurch even if the NFL was offering them what they had always wanted.
The AFL had its first meeting in a Chicago hotel room in August 1959, and then met again in November in Minneapolis to conduct its first draft. The night before that draft, the owners gathered together at the Cedric Adams Hotel for a scheduled meeting. Winter was representing the Minnesota franchise and he was clearly uneasy. None of the other owners knew why, but they would learn shortly.
Harry Wismer, the owner of the New York franchise, burst through the doors of the banquet room with a newspaper in hand. He was clearly angry and upset, nearly ready to explode.
One of the other owners asked Wismer if he was ready for dinner.
Wismer hesitated for a second. He looked around the room dramatically and answered the question. "Yes, and this is the last supper," Wismer yelled. "And there's Judas."
Wismer lifted his arm and pointed a finger at Winter. He slammed his newspaper down on the table for all of the owners to see. A huge headline blared "Minneapolis to Get NFL Franchise."
The NFL had problems securing a stadium in Houston, so it decided to go after Minneapolis. In surreptitious meetings with Halas, the Minnesota ownership group, which included Winter,
Ole Haugsrud, Bill Boyer, Bernie Ridder, and H.P. Skoglund, took advantage of the NFL's expansion invitation and turned its back on its AFL partners.
Haugsrud's story is an interesting one. He was a Minneapolis insurance executive who owned the Duluth Eskimos in the 1920s. The NFL had given him an option contract to buy 10 percent of the franchise if the league ever decided to go back to Minnesota. He took advantage of that opportunity with Winter's group.
The negotiations to get the Minnesota group to drop its application to the AFL were like a scene out of The Twilight Zone. Halas initiated the meetings and was cordial, charming, and generally caring. Normally, Halas was irascible and demanding, but he was as shrewd an owner as there ever was in the NFL. The league would not see his type again until it merged with the AFL and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis made his presence felt.
Halas convinced the Minnesota group to change affiliations by promising a roster full of players that would come to them in the expansion draft. That idea appealed to Winter and his co-owners, who would have had to start from scratch if they had stayed with the AFL.
While not all of the owners were as visibly upset as Wismer, the group felt blindsided and betrayed by Winter's group. The AFL moved on, later adding Oakland to take Minnesota's place.
But after enduring the initial shock of their betrayed partners, the Minnesota franchise moved ahead. On January 27, 1960, they formally withdrew their application to join the AFL. The next day, Minneapolis was granted an NFL expansion franchise at the league's winter meeting in Miami.
They joined the Dallas Cowboys as the NFL's first true expansion teams. The league had absorbed three franchises from the defunct All-American Football Conference in 1950, but the Cowboys and Vikings would start from scratch. The Cowboys started play in 1960, but the Vikings had an extra year to prepare before starting in 1961.
A DEBUT TO SHOUT ABOUT
Talk about coming in with a bang. The Vikings started their initial season with a home game against George Halas and the Chicago Bears. The Vikings had lost all of their preseason games and looked dreadful in the process. The Bears were in the upper echelon with more tradition than any team in the league.
Halas expected his team to go up to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington and administer a beating to the expansion team. He had every reason to think that would happen. The NFL had admitted the Dallas Cowboys the year before and they went winless in their initial season.
The Bears might have taken the Vikings a bit lightly at first, but it was clear early on that the expansion team was primed for a grand opening. While the crowd of 32,236 disappointed general manager Bert Rose, the play of his team did not. The Vikings rolled to a 37–13 victory that shocked Halas and set a standard for expansion teams that has never been approached.
The Vikings surprised head coach Norm Van Brocklin and Rose by playing such a sharp game. They started slowly with a 12-yard field goal by place-kicker Mike Mercer in the first quarter, but the team was not responding to quarterback George Shaw. Van Brocklin looked at rookie quarterback Fran Tarkenton, turned away, and then signaled the future Hall of Famer into the game.
Tarkenton responded with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Bob Schnelker in the second quarter. That served notice that the Bears were in for a real test. The Bears answered with a 3-yard touchdown run by Rick Casares, but place-kicker Roger LeClerc missed the extra point. The Vikings took a 10–6 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Halas blew a gasket in the visitors' locker room, screaming and yelling at his players in an effort to avoid the embarrassment of losing to a team playing its first game. But the hissy fit did not do the Bears any good at all. The Vikings scored two touchdowns in the third quarter. One of them came on a spectacular 29-yard catch by end Jerry Reichow and the other was Tarkenton's third touchdown pass of the day, a 2-yarder to Hugh McElhenny.
The Vikings stretched their lead to 31–10 in the fourth quarter when Tarkenton ran two yards for a score and Tarkenton added a fourth touchdown pass later in the quarter when he hit wide receiver Dave Middleton with another two-yard scoring pass.
The Bears finally scored late in the fourth quarter, but it could not alter the fact that they had been taken apart in the season opener by an expansion team.
Tarkenton and Van Brocklin were ecstatic in the Vikings locker room; the mood was more like that of a team that had just won the championship rather than one that had just won the first game of the season. Van Brocklin had hopes that his offense would continue to be productive and the defense just might be able to hold its own.
The Bears were humiliated with the defeat. Halas kept the doors of the locker room closed for nearly half an hour after the game in order to upbraid his team and cool off before reporters came in. When he finally relented and the press entered the Bears' locker room, Halas looked like a man in shock.
"I've been with the Bears 42 years and I've never seen anything like it," Halas said. "I give the Vikings credit for capitalizing on our mistakes, but I have never seen so many things go wrong for our football team as they did in this game."
As embarrassed as Halas was, it didn't stop him from being a sportsman. He ran across the field and greeted Van Brocklin with a warm handshake and words of encouragement. "This is a big, big day for you and you'll never forget it."
Bears players were sheepish as they spoke with reporters, but they also credited the Vikings with an excellent effort. "I thought something like this could happen," said Casares, sensing the overconfidence that the Bears took with them when they left Chicago. "The Vikings threw a bold challenge right at us in the first quarter and we never answered it."
After Halas had made his comments to the press, he turned his attention back to his team. He continued to seethe as they prepared to leave Metropolitan Stadium and board a flight back to Chicago. He was so angry and so vindictive that he refused to allow his players to have any drinks on the plane. We're not talking about alcoholic beverages — he wouldn't even allow them to have a soft drink or water.
Tarkenton was clearly the star of the game. He connected on 17-of-23 passes for 250 yards in addition to his four touchdowns and he did not throw an interception. The 21-year-old Tarkenton wore a huge smile for days after the game and there was talk that the Vikings might be able to play competitive football that first season.
That idea turned out to be unrealistic. The Vikings lost their next seven games before they beat the Baltimore Colts 28–20 at the Met in November. They would add a December win over the Los Angeles Rams and finish with a 3–11 record.
While the Vikings were not winners, they did play an exciting brand of offense with Tarkenton starting the rest of the year at quarterback. His scrambling style not only produced excitement and several big plays, it also kept him upright as he avoided big hits that most likely would have knocked other quarterbacks out of action.
"I remember there was a lot of running that season and most of the time I was running for my life," Tarkenton said. "But in that first game, everything went right. It was just one of those things where it turned out to be our day and I will never forget it."
STADIUM STORIES: OUTDOOR CHARM, INDOOR HARM
Have you ever noticed how time romanticizes everything? This is particularly true in sports.
In Boston, they talk about the good old days when the Celtics and Bruins played in the "good old" Boston Garden — even though there were rats running around the arena.
In New York, the old timers talk about the days of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. "Those were the good, old days, when there were intimate stadiums and you knew the name of the usher," even if the seats were 18 inches wide and the bathrooms reeked of urine on hot summer days.
Tiger Stadium was the home of both the Lions and the Tigers. Ernie Harwell broadcast baseball games there and Alex Karras sacked quarterbacks there. Yet how could the fans in the stands enjoy what they were seeing when they were sitting behind huge metal posts that kept the stadium standing?
Sports fans tend to look down on newer stadiums after a while because they often lack the intimacy of the older stadiums. However, they have all the modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more enjoyable to nearly everyone.
In the case of the Vikings, however, the change in stadiums from open-air Metropolitan Stadium to the Metrodome had a huge impact. When the team played at the old Met, the open-air stadium was a huge advantage. When the Vikings hosted games in November and December, they had the advantage of playing in the elements. Visiting teams clearly did not enjoy playing when the weather turned wintry, but the Vikings and their fans loved it.
They knew how to bear it. Playing outside gave the Vikings a tougher, more macho image. They were an outdoor, cold-weather team and nothing bothered them. Bud Grant built his team to be sturdier in the conditions. He wanted his team to relish playing outdoors in wintry conditions and would not allow heaters on the sidelines unless conditions were considered dangerous.
Grant said the image of a frozen Metropolitan Stadium may have been true for a few playoff games and at other times as well, but the weather was good for the majority of the games.
"You get the cold games with the winter conditions, but what about the games in September and October?" Grant asked. "It's beautiful at that time of year here. November isn't bad either. The cold weather is somewhat overblown."
But there was no question about what visiting teams were going to get when they visited the Met. They would come face-to-face with a tough, physical, punishing defense and an offense that came at you any number of different ways. In short, the team was aggressive and sharp.
That was never more apparent than it was in the 1969 NFL championship game between the Vikings and the Browns at the Met. Cleveland was a hard team that had embarrassed the Cowboys 38–14 on the road and came into the Met with a full head of steam. Head coach Blanton Collier had a varied attack with Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly running the ball and a solid quarterback in Bill Nelsen throwing the ball to receivers Paul Warfield and Gary Collins.
The defense combined intelligence and aggressiveness. The Browns could not bring the same kind of athleticism and killer instinct that the Vikings had, but Collier thought he had a team that could win the game in the fourth quarter if it could stay close.
That may have been a nice idea, but the physical Vikings just pounded the Browns from the start and walked away with a 27–7 victory.
In the locker room of the cold and drafty Met, Carl Eller and Joe Kapp celebrated the victory with hugs and cigars. "You are my brother," Eller said to Kapp. "You and me, we are the same."
The two were extremely close friends even though Eller was an African American from South Carolina and Kapp was a Mexican American from California.
Jim Klobuchar, a columnist with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune for 30 years, observed the moment first hand and easily recalled it with eloquence and poignancy.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Minnesota Vikings by Steve Silverman. Copyright © 2007 Steve Silverman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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