Tuesday was a day to make purple and gold history, and Bill Keech wasn’t going to miss out.
So hours before dawn, the lifelong Vikings fan from Le Center, Minn., pulled on his long johns and favorite team jersey and hit the road with his son, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend for the 80-minute drive north to the Metrodome.
By the time Keech reached downtown Minneapolis, he was first in line for one of about 100 freebie tickets allowing a front-row seat at the 10 a.m. ceremonial groundbreaking for his team’s bold and glassy $1 billion stadium.
“Took a day of vacation,” the 51-year-old welder said as he shivered in the raw chill of a damp morning. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be here, and I made it.”
Keech got his ticket, and then some.
After VIPs from Gov. Mark Dayton to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson shoveled the first scoops of ceremonial dirt from the Dome’s back parking lot, Keech and other fans got a chance to pick up a gold shovel and fling some earth, too.
“Awesome,” Keech said afterward, sporting a broad grin.
A year and a half after lawmakers signed off on $498 million in public financing for the project, construction crews finally broke ground, signaling the start of an intense push to erect a multipurpose stadium that will replace the Dome and reshape the downtown skyline for a generation to come.
“I’m so excited to be here,” Peterson said moments after he received a standing ovation from the audience of about 500 people, all but 100 of whom were VIPs or invited to attend. “This is a special day that will definitely go down in Minnesota history.”
Tuesday’s festivities came two months later than originally planned and capped a tumultuous year for a project dogged by questions and controversy. Construction financing through electronic pull-tabs failed. The team’s plan for hefty seat license fees angered Dayton to the point where he threatened to undo the deal. When a New Jersey judge this fall ordered team owners Zygi, Mark and Leonard Wilf to pay nearly $85 million in damages to former business partners who sued them over a 1980s real estate deal, critics lashed out again, questioning the state’s due diligence of the Wilfs when the deal was cut in 2012.
But for a morning, anyway, most of those concerns took a back seat as dignitaries and fans gathered inside a heated tent to congratulate and celebrate.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said retired Vikings defensive lineman Carl Eller, a Hall of Fame player who was seated at a table with Bud Grant, the team’s retired Hall of Fame coach.
“There’s a great tradition here,” Eller added, speaking to the Vikings’ rich history, which dates back to 1961, when the team played at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. “And for former Vikings and old guys like me, it’s great to see the tradition continue on.”
The morning’s loudest ovation came before groundbreaking when Mark Wilf introduced Peterson to chants of “AP! AP! AP!”
The best line came when Dayton, the driving political force behind the stadium, joked that he felt a bit like Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier last Sunday after the team’s roller-coaster victory over the Chicago Bears. Dayton compared the challenge of getting the stadium project off the ground to the Vikings’ overtime comeback.
“I can’t believe it’s over, and I can’t believe we won,” he said to much laughter.
Dayton called the day “historic” and praised members of the Minneapolis City Council who, he said, put their political careers on the line by voting to commit city finances to the project.
“It’s easy to demagogue against a project like this,” he said. “But demagoguery doesn’t put people to work.”
Stadium officials have said the project could employ as many as 7,500 workers, most from Minnesota, by the time the building opens in July 2016.
When the speeches came to an end, the crowd rose and headed outside to a rectangular pile of dirt for the official groundbreaking.
Against the backdrop of two excavators and a bulldozer, the Wilfs, Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak donned Vikings hard hats, grabbed gold shovels and scooped the first symbolic shovels of dirt.
“Hey, dig it Zygi, dig it!” a fan shouted.
Cameras flashed and drums pounded. Fireworks exploded nearby.
Site excavation work actually began Monday, when bulldozers, tractors and dozens of trucks scooped and removed 11,000 cubic yards of dirt.
That work will continue in coming weeks as the team plays out its final season inside the Dome. Crews will begin pouring concrete in mid-December. A month later, the Dome roof will be deflated and demolition will follow.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Keech said, looking over the scene as the festivities ended. “I hope to get back up here one or two times to get a few more pictures if I can.”