There are some strange coincidences in this business. I’ve offered up the one that concerns seeing “When We Were Kings,’’ then meeting Muhammad Ali the next day through a Harvey Mackay book signing too often to repeat.
There was one to a lesser degree but with what I found to be a fine twist on Tuesday.
It started last week when watching the 30 for 30 film, “Seau,’’ and being reminded dramatically of the toll this brutal game can take on great athletes. I wrote about this on Sunday, with a mention that it seems that linebackers such as Junior Seau are extra-vulnerable.
Vikings of yore were offered as examples: Wally Hilgenberg and Fred McNeill, both deceased after winding up with brain disease, and Matt Blair and Roy Winston, both dealing with the effects of having long careers at that position of many collisions.
While writing that, I started wondering if Scott Studwell still was strong of body and mind as a 64-year-old? He was credited with 1,981 tackles in 14 regular seasons as a Vikings’ middle linebacker – the most in franchise history by more than 500.
Studwell’s career ended in 1990, the same season in which Seau debuted as the No. 5 overall draft choice for the San Diego Chargers. Studwell was not the fly-around, helmet-first superstar that was Seau, but way over 2,000 NFL tackles when you count playoffs and exhibitions … I was wondering.
Then came Tuesday.
Throughout this decade, I’ve had a fine time making light of Rick Spielman’s draft preview news conference, without ever actually attending one. Reading the articles and seeing the TV clips -- it was a big bag of zero that was attended by every Vikings reporter and two-person teams from every local TV station.
This time, it was a nice day for a drive, so I headed to Eagan to listen to Spielman’s nothingness for myself. When he entered the room, I was surprised to note that Studwell – a scout, then Director of College Scouting, then a scout again in 28 years in the team’s football department – was in the small group accompanying the general manager.
It is at this point in the action that we must go back to the second half of Studwell’s playing career, say from 1984 to 1990, when he was a veteran leader. He assumed the role of primary protectorate of the locker room against media members not considered to be full supporters of the squad.
And the standard for full support was high, meaning many of us didn’t qualify. Studwell aimed a few adjectives in those years that indicated I had a lofty place among the non-qualifiers.
I responded to this in less-than-classy fashion right down to his last game on Dec. 30, 1990. Studwell had announced his retirement three weeks earlier and received a pregame salute from the Metrodome crowd (which was far from a full house for the end of a 6-10 season).
I went with a smart-alecky column lauding another Vikings’ retiree on that Sunday: Hub Meeds, the original Vikings mascot. It was my contention in print that the ovation for Meeds after the first quarter lasted longer than Studwell’s before the game, with this as the punchline: “No surprise there. Hub had a better year.’’
And thus it was left, as Studwell found a new career in the Vikings’ scouting department, largely out of view of the local media.
Four years later, I was standing 10 yards from a practice field in Mankato on a summer day and Jerry Reichow walked up. Reichow and Frank Gilliam were running the Vikings’ personnel and scouting, and as an aside: no better guys than that pair.
Studwell was nearby, but out of earshot. Reichow started telling me what a prize the Vikings’ football department had found in Studwell: the tireless work, the ability to identify players, the trust he developed with co-workers and coaches.
“Hmm,’’ I said.
This was a week after Vikings coaching legend Bud Grant had been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 1994. Sportswriter Sid Hartman made the induction speech for his pal Bud. Sid gripped the podium so tight you thought it might turn to kindling, and then delivered a fine introduction in Grant’s behalf.
Studwell still was standing there after Reichow left. I meandered over, nudged Scott very slightly, and said: “I was watching Sid’s speech for Bud, and it was so emotional … I just want you to know, if you get voted into Canton, I’m available to make your introduction.’’
Studwell smiled like a middle linebacker who knows the play and said: “I’ll keep that in mind.’’
And now, 25 years later, Spielman finished equivocating on draft-related questions, and he turned quickly emotional and made the announcement:
Studwell, 64, was going to retire fully from the Vikings’ football department. This comes five years after Studwell stepped down as the director of college scouting, reducing his oversight duties but not his commitment to finding players.
Spielman choked up as he talked about Studwell’s impact on the organization, and their friendship, and then Studwell – dressed informally as should a scout -- made some remarks.
He talked about his wife Jenny, and his three children and his three grandkids, and eventually he made mention of those long ago days vs. the media in the locker room.
“I know we didn’t all get along real well at times, but I’ve buried the hatchet with the media, unless you ….’’
Well, irritate him today, as he said, pointing at me.
Most of the reporters in this room knew nothing of those days, but I thought this was outstanding – right up there with me offering to introduce Studwell at Canton. (Note: He had to settle for the Vikings’ Ring of Honor.)
The most-important thing that I heard Tuesday from Studwell came when I asked this question: “Considering all the tackles you made, do you feel lucky to have gotten out of the game in one piece?’’
This was Studwell’s response: “Yeah, I mean everything is still real. There aren’t any artificial parts. To play as long as I played and to have the production, I guess, that I had, I was very lucky to stay healthy.
“I was blessed with some pretty good genes from two wonderful parents. It’s been sad to see how some of these guys have struggled mentally, physically. I’ve lost some good friends. I’ve lost some great teammates.
“Right now, knock on wood, I can keep going at a good, steady pace and not fall ill to some of the problems that these guys have had.’’
Best of luck with that, Mr. Studwell. Enjoy those grandkids.