The Vikings assembled for a first practice on July 7, 1961, in the leafy summer days of Bemidji. The season opener was 72 days in the distance, on Sept. 17, 1961, against the Chicago Bears at Met Stadium.
There was five exhibition games from Aug. 5 to Sept. 10, all losses, including 30-7 to the Bears in early September in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This was a time when rosters were small. The players you were going to see in the regular season also were playing long minutes in the exhibitions.
Readers of the Twin Cities newspapers were told often as the exhibition losses mounted that this was the reality of being the newest of 14 NFL teams, and to be patient.
Heck, if coach Norm Van Brocklin had been more of an excuse-maker, he could have described tha inaugural season as “Year Zero.”
The theory then was an NFL team needed an experienced quarterback to show any level of competence. Way back in January, before the expansion draft, General Manager Bert Rose traded the Vikings’ first-rounder in the 1962 draft to the New York Giants for George Shaw.
Even with Shaw, 28 and a former No. 1 overall selection in 1955, there was little in the way of expectation when the Vikings met the Bears on that fine Sunday in September.
Shaw started, completed two of three passes for 22 yards and the Vikings were leading 3-0. A couple of drives had been mishandled, in Van Brocklin’s opinion, and he switched to rookie Fran Tarkenton in the second quarter.
The term “scrambler” came to football on that afternoon. Tarkenton darted around, with fearsome Bears such as end Doug Atkins lumbering in hapless pursuit. Tarkenton went 17-for-23 for 250 yards and four touchdowns, and the Vikings embarrassed the Bears 37-13.
Watching in Fulda, Minn., on KELO-TV, Channel 11, from Sioux Falls, I looked bug-eyed at the Philco console with one thought: “How in the Wide, Wide World of Sports did this happen?”
We are in the 57th season of the Vikings, and for all the alleged heartbreak with what’s largely been a winning franchise, I’ve had five of those moments watching the Vikings.
I’m not talking about Blair Walsh missing a chip-shot field goal, or Brett Favre throwing an interception on a short pass over the middle, or Drew Pearson pushing away Nate Wright to eliminate the ’75 Vikings, or even Ahmad Rashad gathering Tommy Kramer’s Hail Mary to put the ’80 Vikings in the playoffs.
I’m not talking about being surprised. That’s not the standard here. I’m talking about being absolutely stunned by what had been witnessed, whether on a black-and-white Philco, in person or on a modern wide screen.
My five moments of stunned disbelief in 57 seasons, chronologically:
Sept. 17, 1961: Tarkenton runs Bears ragged in Vikings’ first game ever.
Jan. 11, 1970: Joe Kapp. That unmovable defense. I’m telling you, from the Twin Cities to the Minnesota hinterlands, there was no doubt the Vikings would defeat Kansas City and win Super Bowl IV.
In retrospect, Kansas City was loaded with exceptional talent and Hall of Famers, but at the time … our mighty collection that had scored 379 points and allowed 133 in a 12-2 season being dominated 23-7 by the Chiefs was incomprehensible.
Jan. 9, 1988: The 1987 season was a mess because of three games played by strikebreakers that counted in the standings. The Vikings went 0-3 in those; they lost on Saturday of the final weekend and needed a St. Louis Cardinals loss the following day to back into the playoffs.
They went to New Orleans and throttled the Saints 44-10. OK, that was the Saints.
A week later, on Jan. 9, the Vikings went to San Francisco to face the dynastic 49ers. Anthony Carter caught 10 passes for 227 yards, Joe Montana was booed off the field after throwing a pick six to Najee Mustafa, and the Vikings won 36-24. Burnsie’s long shots just missed the Super Bowl, losing at Washington 17-10.
Jan. 17, 1999: Minnesotans were as certain of these Vikings beating Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game in the Metrodome as we were of beating the Chiefs three decades earlier. I can’t forget Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe saying to me pregame in the press box, “It’s bad karma that Gary Anderson hasn’t missed a field goal. That could come into play.”
How did he know?
Jan. 14, 2018: Stefon Diggs is running down the sideline for a touchdown. There is no Saints defender left to beat. This is on a large TV carrying endless stations but the question is the same as 57 years earlier in front of the Philco:
“How in the Wide, Wide World of Sports did this happen?”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org