There’s not much question that NBC’s pregame coverage of the NFL playoff game on Saturday in San Francisco will include a highlight or two from the most disappointing loss in Vikings history, what with it being the exact 50th anniversary of that event.
Newer generations of Vikings fans might claim that disappointment came in an NFC title game, the 30-27 overtime loss to Atlanta on Jan. 17, 1999, in the Metrodome, or perhaps the 31-28 overtime loss to New Orleans on Jan. 24, 2010, in the Superdome.
Defeats that bind Vikings generations together in a sense of fatalism, for sure, but those of us who were around on Jan. 11, 1970, to witness and fully comprehend the 23-7 loss to Kansas City in the fourth Super Bowl can assure you of this:
On a per capita basis of Minnesotans, Dakotans and Iowans north of Fort Dodge, neither of those overtime losses in conference title games caused the level of complete disbelief that did watching Bud Grant’s monsters of Midway (they practiced at the old St. Paul stadium) get manhandled by the Chiefs on that Sunday at Tulane Stadium.
As certain as we were that Randy Moss and the ultra-explosive Vikings were going to blow past the Falcons inside a frenzied Metrodome, Purple fandom was not as certain as they were on Jan. 11, 1970, that the People Eaters would devour the Chiefs, the last champions of the “inferior” AFL.
As devoted as we became to Brett Favre, an aging and ramblin’ man on the field and in interviews, it did not equal the fanatical embrace of Joe Kapp, the proud “Chicano” with the filibustering interviews, the quarterback who would leap short defenders in a single bound.
In the fall of 2009, you could stop at a bar — say, O’Gara’s in St. Paul — on a Sunday and hear a couple of cynics say, “Ah, he’s still a Packer,” as Favre was leading the Vikings down the field.
In the fall of 1969, there was no chance to hear, “Ah, he’s still a BC Lion,’’ as Kapp wobbled a 40-yard completion to Gene Washington. “We’re 40 for 60, 40 players for 60 minutes,” Kapp said as he rejected the team MVP award at a public honors banquet at the end of the regular season, and Vikings fandom went nuts.
“We not only have the greatest defense and grittiest offense, we not only have a coach and a team that embrace rain, snow or sleet, we have the greatest team spirit,’’ shouted the fans.
The Purple masses were so happy they could cry. And then they did, with real tears.
First, that photo of Kapp walking off late in the 23-7 thumping administered by the Chiefs, beaten, battered, holding his right shoulder in agony. Then, the Super Bowl film, with Chiefs coach Hank Stram cackling at the Vikings’ futility to stop his mastermind offense.
And finally: The news that Kapp had teamed with a lawyer, John Elliot Cook, to pursue free agency for the quarterback, and that he wouldn’t be showing up in 1970 training camp in Mankato.
Amy Klobuchar, our U.S. senator running to be the Democratic candidate for president, was a 10-year-old girl that summer. She was a Vikings zealot, by way of her father, Jim, the great Vikings biographer from Twin Cities newspapers, and has admitted crying in disillusionment over the Kapp news.
Minus Kapp, the Vikings followed with two more seasons of mauling defense that was short-circuited in the playoffs by a void at quarterback.
On January 27, 1972, the Vikings finally replaced Kapp by bringing back Sir Francis Tarkenton in a trade with the New York Giants. This was followed by a 7-7 flop in 1972, and then three Super Bowl losses in the next four seasons — glory, but not quite all of it.
Yet, when we go back those 50 years on this Saturday, failing to win a Super Bowl in that time, or Gary Anderson’s “only’’ miss, or 12 Men in the Huddle, or 41-doughnut, or the Herschel Walker trade, or the Love Boat, those defeats and pratfalls are not the story of this Minnesota franchise.
The Vikings have given the loyalists plenty to cheer over those 50 years, more so than the other entities in this sports market — including Gophers in their many forms. Another grand moment came Sunday, in the overtime victory in which the Vikings thoroughly outplayed the Saints as 8.5-point underdogs.
In the half-century since the first Super Bowl loss, the Vikings have been in the playoffs 29 times, compared with 22 for the Packers, 15 for the Bears and 12 for the discombobulated Lions as division rivals.
They made an inspired run through New Orleans and San Francisco in January 1988 before losing narrowly in Washington, D.C. If they were to make it a long-shot trifecta of road wins this time, at New Orleans, at San Francisco and, sweetest of all, at Lambeau Field, what tales that would add to Vikings lore.
And if the end result was running into Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, just as Bud’s warriors ran into Lenny Dawson (Chiefs), Bob Griese (Dolphins), Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) and Snake Stabler (Raiders), and a Super Bowl loss for the thumb, it would remain a fantastic voyage.
That’s really what’s here to celebrate as Jan. 11, 2020, approaches:
Fifty years of consistent winning, amazing characters on a spectrum from steely Bud to goofy Randy, and enough agony to keep things spicy.
The Vikings and their faithful: I’d call it a perfect relationship.
OK, dang near perfect.
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