Once Tommy Kramer gets going telling stories about the old days, it’s hard to stop him. The beloved former Vikings quarterback, given the nickname “Two Minute Tommy” because of his penchant for late-game heroics, needs a few more minutes than that to wind through the highs and lows of a 14-year NFL career — all but one game of it spent with Minnesota.
There was the time he threw six touchdown passes against the Packers in 1986 before being lifted in the third quarter. That same season he made the Pro Bowl, and a year after that he and Wade Wilson nearly helped quarterback the Vikings to the Super Bowl.
That quest fell short, of course, and it stings Kramer that he couldn’t deliver a still-elusive championship for the Vikings. To him, 1987 also marked something of a culture change. It was that year, he said, that he noticed mobile phones becoming more prevalent in society. If he was out at one of his favorite haunts having some beverages — the Rusty Scupper is the one people remember, though a story he tells me involves a Red Lobster — Kramer would notice people looking at him and talking on their phones in hushed tones.
After his career finished in 1990 with one final game for the Saints, he lived in the Twin Cities for a couple more years. But that scrutiny, he said, led him to finally decide in 1992 that he had to get out of this place. He headed back to his native San Antonio, where he still lives to this day.
Fast-forward a quarter-century, and Kramer is back in Minnesota — this time trying to make technology work to his benefit instead of his detriment.
The 62-year-old Kramer joined Twitter a few weeks ago, in part to help promote a bowling event he and a few other former Vikings are putting on Saturday to benefit Ethan Kranig — a 9-year-old he has befriended through his longtime friend Buddy Becker. Kranig — who lives in Prescott, Wis., but has become a Vikings fan instead of a Packers fan with Kramer’s help — was born with a rare disorder that has caused numerous (and expensive) health complications.
The event is 7 p.m. Saturday at the Mermaid Event Center in Mounds View. Kramer flew in from San Antonio on Thursday afternoon, and we met at the Mermaid an hour later as he and Becker went over details of the fundraiser.
The Mermaid, for those not familiar, is a sprawling bowling alley/bar/event space right off I-35W and adjacent to an AmericInn hotel. On the roof, a giant mermaid beckons visitors to come inside and just see what happens.
After Becker introduces himself, Kramer interrupts. “Actually, his name is Anderson Cooper,” he says of his friend, who bears a detectable similarity to the CNN personality. There is talk about a man known only as “Bowling Greg,” which is befitting of the place. They go over the details: $10 gets people in the door and gets them autographs from all the expected former Vikings attendees — Kramer, Robert Griffith, Byron Chamberlain, Tuineau Alipate and Tyrone Carter. For $25 attendees can be part of the bowling tournament and for $50 they can bowl with one of the former Vikings. Tickets are available at the door.
Becker is the chief organizer but says he has no idea how many people will show up. Becker has a natural love of meeting people, he says, and seems to have a friend in every city. One of them is Calvin Murray, the former MLB player who Becker reminds me is the one who was at the plate when Randy Johnson threw the pitch that destroyed a bird.
Kramer seems at ease and mellow — happy to be here, happy to help. He planned a trip to Mankato while he’s in Minnesota to see a longtime friend’s band play. He tells a story of a former teammate, 30 years ago, carrying the musician around on his shoulders while he performed a song. Those days are long gone, and Kramer is fine with that.
“I’m retired. I go out and mow the yard on my John Deere tractor. Every day is a Saturday,” Kramer says of life these days in San Antonio. “I go to the grocery store. You can go on the seniors’ hours when there aren’t a lot of people there. All the kids are in school, so it’s not crowded. I love to grill ribs, rib-eyes, burgers. All kinds of things.”
But he still also carries himself with the kind of confidence that comes from having played a professional sport — and specifically from being an NFL quarterback.
He was back in Minneapolis just a couple weeks ago when longtime friend and former teammate Ahmad Rashad — with whom he co-authored one of the most famous plays in team history, a Hail Mary in 1980 that beat the Browns – was inducted into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor. Rashad is also good friends with NBA legend Michael Jordan, who was there for the induction weekend. Kramer casually mentions that he had previously met Jordan at a golf tournament.
“I think he’s taller than 6-foot-6,” is Kramer’s takeaway from sharing space with one of the most famous athletes of the last century.
I ask Kramer if he’s any good at bowling, since that’s the centerpiece of the fundraiser. He says he hasn’t bowled in years, but then recalls a time several years ago when a group of friends wanted to roll a few games.
“I threw a 290,” Kramer says of a score that’s one strike short of a perfect 300. “That was the first time I had bowled in 10 or 15 years. I can throw it down the lane. It’s like a nice, flat putt. You should make all of them.”
The “Two-Minute Tommy” nickname goes back to high school, he says, when seemingly every big game during his first year as the varsity starter for Robert E. Lee High went down to the wire — including a 28-27 victory in the state title game at Texas Stadium, a game still revered in Texas high school football lore.
From there Kramer starred in college for Rice before being chosen No. 27 overall in the first round of the 1977 draft by the Vikings. The Packers had the No. 28 pick in that draft, and Kramer said Thursday that they had called him to tell him they were going to choose him. Instead, the Vikings took him one pick earlier.
“Imagine that,” Becker says. “The Packers would have had 40 years of great quarterbacks in a row instead of 25.”
“Great” doesn’t seem like the right word to describe the 1980s Vikings often quarterbacked by Kramer, but “memorable” is a good fit. If you thought the quarterback shuffling of recent Vikings vintage (including this year) was something, it was nothing like the flip-flopping between Kramer and Wilson in the late 1980s. “That all stemmed from my injuries,” Kramer says.
When Kramer was healthy and dialed in, though, he was a sight to behold. That six touchdown game against the Packers — which Kramer dedicated to his mother, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer not long before the game — was the perfect example. With this being Vikings-Packers weekend and Kramer planning to attend Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium, he’ll surely get plenty of chances to reminisce about it.
The Vikings won the game 42-7, with Kramer throwing five first-half touchdowns and one early in the second. Head coach Jerry Burns took him out to preserve his health; Kramer remembers cursing at his coach, telling him, “Burnsie, I could have had 10 touchdowns!”
Kramer tells me he was “20 of 23 with three drops” that day.
Pro Football Reference says he was 16 of 25 and doesn’t say how many drops there were.
But what are you going to believe and what do you want to believe: The archives or the memories?