My father Richard took pride in the ability of Minnesotans to survive winters in which we had mountainous quantities of snow. That’s my assumption as to why he kept a few shoeboxes full of newspaper photos and headlines following blizzards, and why as children we were posed for photos in front of large snow drifts in the middle of our hometown of Fulda.
These shoeboxes traveled with Richard when we moved from Fulda to Prior Lake in the summer of 1962. And their contents came in handy a few years later for my father, who was a countrified agitator if there ever was one.
I was looking at the drift on our deck and the snowpiles along the sides of the driveway the other day, and these gave me a flashback to some of those snowscapes captured in black-and-white in newspaper clippings and in my father’s photos from way back when.
That in turn caused me to recall one of Richard’s most-determined pranks, in December 1969.
This was the 50th season of the NFL and the last year before a full-blown merger with the AFL. Starting in 1967, the 16-team NFL had been divided into four four-team divisions: the Capitol and Century in the Eastern Conference, and the Central and Coastal in the Western Conference.
The playoff system was simple: the four division winners played for conference championships, the two winners played for the NFL title, and the winner of that played the AFL champion in the Super Bowl. In this case, the Super Bowl would be contested for the fourth time on Jan. 11, 1970, with Tulane Stadium in New Orleans as the site.
The locations for conference championship games were not decided by records but rather were predetermined. For the 1969 season, the Central champion would host the Coastal champion to decide the West, and the Capitol champion would host the Century to decide the East.
There was no drama through the final half of the 14-game schedules in the division races. The Vikings won the Central and the Los Angeles Rams won the Coastal by 3 ½ games apiece; the Cowboys won the Capitol by 3 ½ games and the Browns won the Century by 4 ½ games.
Thus, it was clear for over a month that the Vikings would be hosting the Rams in the Western final on the weekend of Dec. 27-28.
The excitement for the first Vikings’ playoff game at Met Stadium was building through the month. So was the idea that weather was going to be a great advantage for the Vikings:
Bud Grant’s lads were so tough that they didn’t even require sideline heaters, and they would be going against the Rams, a bunch of oversized beach boys from southern California.
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas when Richard started to look through his shoeboxes for clippings of snowstorms past. He was on a mission to provide the Rams with vivid evidence of the weather maladies that would await them on arrival in Minnesota.
Richard was so committed to the Vikings’ cause that he was willing to sacrifice some of the headlines and photos that he had held since the middle of November in 1940, when the killer storm known as the “Armistice Day Blizzard’’ swept through Minnesota.
For more than a week, Richard would stuff one envelope daily with headlines and photos of Minnesota’s past winter horrors, put his return address of Dick Reusse, Prior Lake, Minn. in the upper left-hand corner and mail it to Roman Gabriel, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles, Calif.
Gabriel was the quarterback, the NFL’s MVP that season, and if anyone on the Rams epitomized the Hollywood image of good looks, it was him.
While admiring the effort, I kept telling Richard, “There’s no way Gabriel will receive these. You can’t just mail these to Los Angeles. You need an address.’’
Richard would shrug and look for even more views of winter horrors to mail to Gabriel.
Meantime, George Allen, the Rams’ coach, played right into Minnesotans’ belief that weather paranoia was going to do in our visitors from Los Angeles. Allen yanked the players away from their families two days before Christmas and brought them to the Twin Cities to work out at Macalester Stadium.
George wanted his players to get used to the cold.
Bud Grant’s response was to take the Vikings to Tulsa, Okla. for a couple of days, to work on a non-frozen practice field.
The game was played on Saturday, Dec. 27. The temperature at kickoff was 10 above. The Rams and Gabriel functioned very well in the first half to take a 17-7 lead, the Vikings rallied to lead 21-20 in the fourth quarter, and Carl Eller sacked Gabriel for a safety to make it 23-20 and that was the final.
On Jan. 4, the Vikings overwhelmed Cleveland 27-7 at Met Stadium, putting them in the Super Bowl one week later against Kansas City. The Chiefs shocked the football world – and Minnesota fans – with a 23-7 upset.
There was a photo that ran in newspapers all over the country of Joe Kapp, our battered quarterback, leaving the field with assistance and grasping his right shoulder in agony.
A few days later, a letter arrived in Prior Lake for Dick Reusse. Included inside was that photo of Kapp, clipped from an L.A. newspaper. There was also a brief note that started:
“What happened to your great Vikings, Dick?’’
It was signed by Suzanne Gabriel, Roman’s wife at the time.
That note produced one of the great smiles of Richard’s life, and mine, too.