Keith Nord started jotting down his goals when he was just a kid. At 12, he wrote that he would one day play for the Vikings. Instead of hanging posters of musicians and sports stars on his bedroom walls, he hung that piece of paper with his dream written on it.
Years later, Nord parlayed that focus into a career as a motivational speaker where, among other things, he told his audiences to write down their goals.
After all, it had worked for Nord. He played for the Vikings for seven seasons in the 1980s and went on to speak around the country to businesspeople and school kids about how to live with integrity and achieve their dreams.
The former Vikings defensive back died at his home in Orono on Sept. 19 at age 61. The cause was cancer.
A Minnetonka High School and St. Cloud State University graduate with Robert Redford looks, Nord joined the Vikings in 1979 as a walk-on. Only 5 percent of walk-ons ever make it into the NFL.
“Anytime you’re an undrafted free agent, you’re fighting an uphill battle, but he showed up prepared,” said Steve Dils, a former Viking who was roommates with Nord during their rookie year. “That was the thing I loved about Keith, that he was always positive.”
Though he wasn’t exactly known for his natural talent, Nord made up for it with his determination to succeed, eventually becoming the first Minnesotan to be a special teams captain, in 1983. “He wasn’t the best of the field, but he worked the hardest,” said daughter Alex Yonga. “He fully believed that you can do anything.”
Family and friends relied on him to always tell the truth, something he spoke about often in his motivational speeches. Nord was generous in offering his opinion on matters from football to love.
“He was direct. Sometimes too direct,” said Dan Smoot, who had turned to Nord for advice since he was in eighth grade, after Nord spoke at his school in Cottage Grove. Later, when Smoot was going to move in with a girlfriend, not only did Nord disapprove, he offered to pay the girlfriend’s separate rent and then sent the couple to premarital counseling. “He loved giving his two cents.”
His directness unnerved his wife, Jenn, during their early courtship, but ultimately revealed a lighter side. “He was always asking, ‘What are you thinking? What are you feeling?’ ” Jenn said. One time, Jenn asked the question right back. “He said, ‘I’m just glad you don’t have a mustache.’ I was like, ‘We can say things like that?’ ”
At home, he was a “goofball,” Jenn said, who loved to hide in closets and jump out at his kids as they passed by.
His steadfastness was as much a key to his success as it was one of his signature quirks. There were foods he refused to eat simply because he had never tasted them: strawberries, marshmallows, coffee.
In May, Nord was diagnosed with a rare cancer, and doctors never could pinpoint its origins. It was already stage 4.
“He’s got determination that’s just crazy,” Jenn said. “That’s why it was so strange for him to be given a type of cancer that there was just no chance. If he could have fought, he would have been able to do it.”
As a motivational speaker, Nord spoke often of integrity, of telling the truth even when it’s hard. He turned that advice on himself when his prognosis was grim, sitting down with his younger children to tell them the difficult truth about his disease.
“He said, ‘The treatment is not working.’ He said, ‘Daddy is dying.’ He wanted the kids to know he wasn’t afraid, that he was OK, but that he was going to miss them. I don’t think it was very motivating,” Jenn said. “Just honest.”
Nord is survived by his wife; daughters Yonga, Katie Dougherty and Emerson Nord; sons Easton and Avery; and grandsons Alex and Kaiden. Services have been held.