It was second and 10 with no timeouts and 32 seconds left on the clock when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a long bomb above the frozen grass of Metropolitan Stadium, home field of the Minnesota Vikings. In a postgame interview, Staubach told reporters that when the ball left his hand, he closed his eyes and said a “Hail Mary,” meaning he’d launched it with everything he had and then prayed for a miracle.
The crowd was on its feet, screaming and swearing and squeezing mittened hands into fists as the ball spiraled 50 impossible yards into the hands of Drew Pearson, a wide receiver who, after (maybe?) pushing Vikings cornerback Nate Wright, loped into the end zone.
The play was contested, but when the field judge ruled for the Cowboys, giving them a 17-14 lead, the mood in the stadium felt like a utility wire had snapped off its pole and was whipping back and forth, sparks flying.
On that late December day in 1975, the temperature rested in the 20s and my sister Anne and I were seated on the first deck, somewhere near the 25-yard line — our dad was with his friends in his seats, which were closer to the middle of the field. Our mom had dressed us in our jackets and snowpants and sent us off with two sleeping bags, with instructions to wear them like sacks. We looked like two seedlings in planting bags.
I was 11 and Anne was 10 — this was before helicopter parenting, clearly — and the man sitting next to Anne was wearing a snowmobile suit and Sorels and spent most of the game swigging red liquid from a flat glass bottle. Once, he glanced at us, and did a double take. He looked almost embarrassed.
“Time to take my cough medicine,” he said, clearing his throat and forcing out a few fake hacks.
Anne and I worshiped the Vikings. At home, we practiced passing to each other, pretending we were quarterback Fran Tarkenton and wide receiver John Gilliam. We were obsessed with the defensive line — called the “Purple People Eaters” — especially defensive tackle Alan Page. And we were convinced this was the year the Vikes would finally win the Super Bowl.
But first, we needed to beat Dallas in the divisional playoff game. We were optimistic: Our team had the better record. Plus, we were playing outside at the end of December. The Cowboys were from Texas. We understood cold, which was why our coach, Bud Grant, wouldn’t let his players use heaters on the sidelines, much less wear gloves or long underwear. Grant reasoned that if his team was focused on staying warm, they wouldn’t pay attention to what was happening on the field.
Of course, you already know how this game ended — how all the high-stakes Vikings-in-their-heyday games ended, from the 1970 Super Bowl loss to Kansas City to the 1974 shellacking by the Miami Dolphins.
Between 1970 and 1977 the Vikings went to the Super Bowl four times, a remarkable accomplishment. But for the team’s fans, the inability to actually win the thing made us feel like the Vikings existed to take us to the precipice of glory only to smash our northern hearts into tiny ice cubes.
I think these losses amplified our fears that Minnesota was an also-ran, a worry that still haunts us.
Most of us are intensely proud of our state, so much so that it stings when Americans on either coast have trouble locating Minnesota on a map or mistakenly pronounce our largest city “Minnianapolis,” as if it somehow merged with Indiana’s capital. We are mystified that Minneapolis and St. Paul haven’t caught the nation’s eye the way Denver and Austin and Portland have, especially now that we have moved past our self-inflicted wounds — Exhibit A: The 1980s Minneapple campaign that compared us to New York City — to embrace our chilly winters as a unique asset worth celebrating.
Maybe that’s why the possibility of winning on sports’ biggest stage feels like more than just a game.
Not to mention that the biggest of all wins would help fans of a certain age move on from some interesting coping behaviors that stem from those 1970s Super Bowl disappointments.
One friend, who has kept his family’s season tickets despite living in New York’s Westchester County, spent decades brimming with jersey-buying optimism at the start of every season, only to be so disappointed come Thanksgiving that he’d declare that he had forsaken his beloved team, even announcing after a few spectacularly botched plays that he hoped they’d lose. Another made a woodcut portrait of Bud Grant, which he prints on purple T-shirts and gives as gifts to friends, a memento of our shared pride and pain.
My 79-year-old mother watches the games on TV and yells words at the screen that are unprintable in this publication. Widespread consumption of alcohol plays a role, too, although perhaps not as much as it does for our archrivals the Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
I managed my disappointment by withdrawing my affections entirely, which wasn’t hard to do, given the headlines about players’ off-field behavior, not to mention the evidence of brain trauma caused by high-impact sports. But then my 15-year-old son became a fan and I discovered that he would tolerate being in the same room with me when we watched the Vikings on TV. And, like Michael Corleone and the mafia, I was back in the fold, cheering for Case Keenum, the once-backup quarterback who seems to have a sonar device between his throwing arm and his receivers’ hands.
And so now here we are, with a team that seems like it can do no wrong, potentially on the march to a Super Bowl that will be hosted in our hometown in a shiny new stadium. That all these years later the Vikings could be the first team in the history of the NFL to have home-field advantage seems like a vindication that’s almost too good to be true. Which is perhaps why I can’t shake the memory of that game against Dallas and how, when it became clear the Vikings were going to lose, the situation in the stadium deteriorated to the edge of pandemonium. Fans hurled garbage onto the field, even though there were still a few seconds left on the clock.
Anne and I wriggled out of the sleeping bags and I looked around for our dad. I was too short to see above the chaos. So Anne and I sat down and waited. I had some change from the money we’d been given to buy brats. If he didn’t get us, I’d find a pay phone and call our mom.
The game was still happening when a half-empty pint of whiskey sailed end over end through the frosty gray sky. It soared over the stands, flew past the sidelines, and then over the players — the Vikings now had the ball — before arcing south and smacking the forehead of an official. The impact knocked him to the ground.
Security guards and medics swarmed the field. Fans gathered their blankets and jackets and trudged up the steps toward the parking lot.
“Where are your parents?” I remember a voice asking through the din. It was the guy with the fake cough.
“Our dad is here,” I said. “He knows where we are sitting.”
He hesitated for a moment, clearly contemplating if he should escort us to a security guard. The people further down the row yelled for him to keep moving. So he saluted us, and was gone.
The crowd started to thin and still there was no sign of our dad. We were on the steps when he pushed through the crowd. He bent down and opened his arms for a hug. I could smell beer on his breath and noticed he wasn’t taking the steps two at a time, like he usually did. Later, I learned that Tarkenton had left the stadium and was in a motorhome in the Met parking lot when he learned that his father had died of a heart attack while watching the game on TV.
I recently found a scrapbook from those years, where I’d pasted a photo of Tarkenton lying on the ground, clutching a football like it was a bag of jewels he was trying to protect from thieves. I’m not sure if the photo was from that crazy, booze-stained game or another heartbreaker. Clearly my disappointment was beyond words because I didn’t write any comments.
Instead, I drew a sad face with a tear.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the author of “111 Places in the Twin Cities That You Must Not Miss” (Emons Verlag, 2017). She’s writing a book about life in winter.