Most surprising about Bud Grant’s new book, “I Did It My Way,’’ written with Jim Bruton, is how much the guy knows about football. Those of us who have hunted and fished with Grant for more than three decades had no idea — because whether trekking across a South Dakota prairie for pheasants, casting flies for sockeye salmon in Alaska or sitting around a fishing camp in Costa Rica, he rarely talked sports.
Instead he seemed almost solely fascinated by nature and things nature-related.
Don’t misunderstand: Grant’s book is a good read, and one that Vikings fans will find interesting. But it has only one chapter dedicated to the retired coach’s “outdoors’’ interests — space too small by half to cover a subject that is such an important part of his life.
Herewith, then, is a sampling of hunting and fishing tales about Grant that didn’t make his book, courtesy, in part, of Norb Berg of St. Paul and retired state Sen. Bob Lessard, also of St. Paul. Like me, they’ve hunted and fished with Grant over many years.
Said Berg: “I think the reason we got along with Bud was that we treated him like just another guy. People in his profession get used to people carrying their bags for them. We didn’t do that, and we weren’t awe-struck by him. He liked that.’’
Quipped Lessard, “How many stories do you want? I could talk about that guy all day.’’
Dateline Arizona: Grant and his good friend the late Buzz Kaplan pass a day hunting javelinas before returning to Kaplan’s winter home near Phoenix, where families and friends are gathered, including Grant’s late wife, Pat. Grant walks in wearing an earring, telling his shocked wife and similarly shocked others that tradition requires hunters who kill the biggest javelina to be outfitted with at least one earring. Pat Grant rushes to a phone to report to their children in Minnesota that the old man has lost it. Later, Grant reveals the earring to be a magnetic fake.
Dateline Cloquet, Minn.: Grant, behind the wheel, and Lessard are driving north to fish when, near the Cloquet turnoff, Lessard lights up a cigarette. Grant, whose anti-smoking diatribes are legendary, immediately screeches the vehicle to a stop on the road shoulder, saying, “Put that out. No one smokes in my vehicles.’’ Lessard, wordless, snuffs out the cigarette, and the two continue on to Orr, Minn. — two hours distant — without speaking. Finally, pulling over, Grant says, “We’re friends. We’re adults. Friends work things out, they compromise. So let’s compromise about this smoking thing so we can have a good trip.’’ Lessard responds, “OK, what’s the compromise?’’ “The compromise,’’ Grant says, “is that you don’t smoke.’’
Dateline Presho, S.D.: Grant, Berg and I are eating lunch in a cheap café, taking a break from pheasant hunting. Word gets out Grant is in the small town, and soon a young boy shows up in a suit and tie — his First Communion outfit. With him is a posse of other kids, each wanting Grant’s autograph. First, the boy in the suit introduces himself. Then he stands alongside Grant to introduce each of his young friends, who stand neatly in single file. Grant carries Vikings stickers in his billfold and gives one to each boy, signing his autograph with a purple pen. But he runs out of stickers before he can give one to the youngster in the suit. So he repairs to our truck, grabs his Vikings cap, brings it inside, signs it and puts it on the boy’s head.
Dateline North Dakota: This was in 1982, the NFL’s strike-shortened season, and Grant and I are in his station wagon (this was before he drove Suburbans), headed back to the Twin Cities after hunting Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse in West River country, south of Bismarck. As usual (back then), Grant is speeding wildly, doing something north of 85 miles per hour on two-lane blacktop. “You better slow down or you’re going to get a ticket,’’ I said. “I’m not worried,’’ Grant said. “I got a ticket out here a couple weeks ago, and when I asked the policeman how much it would cost, he said, ‘$20.’ So I said, ‘Can we make it $40, I’ll be coming back through here pretty soon.’ ’’
Dateline: Near the magnetic North Pole, Canada: Berg, Grant and I are with Kaplan, a great person in all respects and one of Grant’s closest friends until his untimely death in 2002 at age 78, when on a clear morning in Owatonna he crashed his restored 1917 Jenny biplane. The chairman of Owatonna Tool Co., Kaplan’s avocation was flying the far north in his floatplanes to fish and hunt, usually with Grant. On this trip, we were in Kaplan’s single-engine Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats on a two-week trip that would take us from Owatonna to the magnetic North Pole, back over the Arctic Ocean to the Yukon, then through Alaska and home. The point was to fish every time we landed, or nearly so, and when we dropped down in late July near where Kaplan believed the magnetic North Pole was (a point that continually moves), we had to dodge ice chunks. It was there, standing in waders in a fast-moving river, that we caught Arctic char. Later, when it was time to take off, Berg grabbed a hand pump to pump out the airplane’s floats, a ritual that usually didn’t produce much water. But one baffle in the port float held a lot of water, and Berg pumped for about five minutes without making headway. Finally, Grant said, “Give me that thing,’’ and with a roll of his eyes, Berg handed him the pump. Grant is competitive, and he wasn’t about to pump for less time than Berg did. So he pumped and pumped. Finally, Kaplan walked over, took a quick look, and said, “The float’s got a hole in it. Must have been the ice.’’ So we gutted the plane of our gear, even its seats, to give Kaplan and his longtime friend and co-pilot Tony Seykora of Owatonna a chance to get the plane with its heavy float on step, into the air and to a landing strip on Victoria Island in the Canadian Artic, where they could patch the float. Left behind with nothing to do but wait, Grant, Berg and I slapped mosquitoes and caught lots of char.
Dateline western Nebraska: Kaplan, Grant and I are hunting turkeys with Dick and Jim Cabela and Dennis Highby, Minnesota native and longtime Cabela’s CEO. But there’s an ulterior motive: Kaplan wants to plant the seed with the Cabela brothers and with Highby that Cabela’s should initiate a retail expansion by building a showcase store along Interstate 35, on the edge of Owatonna. Kaplan owned a couple of miles of land there, and with Grant’s help he broached the subject at night around a campfire. Ultimately, the Cabela brothers bought in, and began their now-nationwide retail initiative in Owatonna.
Dateline Leadville, Colo: A friend of this bunch, the late Tony Andersen, longtime chairman of H.B. Fuller, for many years hosted us at his cabin in this mountain town to face off in a fly fishing competition with a group of Colorado anglers. And though the “contest’’ was lighthearted and ultimately inconsequential, on our team in a given year were at least three secret weapons: Dick Hanousek of St. Paul, a businessman and consummately skilled fly angler; Skip James, the retired harpsichordist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and similarly skilled with a fly rod; and Grant, who — though not as proficient an angler as Hanousek or James — usually found a way to help us win.
Footnote: In addition to Kaplan and Andersen, among others now gone who shared duck blinds, fishing boats or other outdoor pursuits with Grant were the late Joel Bennett of Sunfish Lake and the late Phil Bifulk of Mendota Heights. Their losses leave our annual Christmas lunch smaller, and more bittersweet.