They turned left and headed down the ramp toward the field.
The first sight was the enormous scoreboard more than a football field away. Then, in succession: the bright green field with maroon end zones; the stands rising up on either side. Then, to the west, the University of Minnesota campus and downtown Minneapolis.
Ezell Jones, John Williams and Jim Carter walked slowly, craning their necks, taking in the University of Minnesota's brand-new TCF Bank Stadium from the ground floor. They were not shocked. But awe?
"Fantastic," Jones said.
"Beautiful," Carter murmured.
"Really, really something," Williams said, moments after executing a three-point stance on the brightly-dyed FieldTurf surface.
These folks are not easily impressed.
Four decades ago all three played right across the street from here, in Memorial Stadium. Jones and Williams were bookend tackles and Carter -- who also was a hockey player -- the fullback on the 1967 team that won a share of the Big Ten title, the last for the program. This was a team that went undefeated at home, a team that beat Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin, taking control of the Little Brown Jug, Floyd of Rosedale and Paul Bunyan's Axe. Williams was a first-round NFL draft pick who played 12 years in the league, appearing in three Super Bowls and winning one. He knows the bright lights. Carter was drafted by Green Bay, where he moved to linebacker and became Ray Nitschke's heir apparent while playing in historic Lambeau Field. Jones played two seasons with the Boston Patriots.
Jones came to Minnesota from Memphis and returned after pro ball. He is the owner and vice president of Associated Insurance Agents Inc. For years Carter ran an automobile dealership in Eau Claire, Wis., which he recently sold before moving to Afton. After the NFL Williams studied to become a dentist and has a practice in Minneapolis.
They don't see each other a whole lot these days, but their relationship appeared strong when they convened recently to take a tour of Minnesota's new football home. The idea was to get both reactions to the U of M's new Brickhouse and memories of the old one from the last Gophers team that won a Big Ten title.
It didn't take long for the old rapport to heat up. For example:
"He was always the strong side tackle and I was on the weak side," Jones said, putting his arms around Williams' neck.
Carter chimed in: "There is some appropriateness to those names."
Jones and Williams have remained close to their alma mater. Both have premium seats in the new stadium. Carter, who has grown averse to big crowds, rarely returns. At one point, standing in U of M President Robert Bruininks' suite, looking out over a view of downtown Minneapolis, Carter, wowed by the well-appointed room, said, "But the question remains, can they win?"
"Do me a favor," Jones said. "Say 'we.'"
Carter had just agreed to take a picture of a family of tourists standing outside the stadium and Jones was warning the lady not to let Carter run off with the camera while Williams gazed at the building's brick facade.
"You can see a little bit of the old stadium in the arches," he said, nodding to the arches -- topped with names of Minnesota counties -- that wind their way around the outside of the stadium.
"When you walked into Memorial Stadium you walked in thinking about tradition, thinking about history, you know? This is a new facility. I think it's wonderful, beautiful. The technology, the skyboxes, it's just wonderful. But it's a new building. It's like a new beginning. Maybe that's a good thing. It's great for the campus, for the students. It's like they're back in the equation."
The first thing Jones thinks of when he sees the stadium is the two-tiered design. Memorial was a single bowl, and coach Murray Warmath used to make his players run the steps to get in shape. "That wouldn't be quite as hard now," he quipped.
Said Carter: "Memorial wasn't fancy like this. It was an old, rough place."
But it treated the '67 Gophers well. That season Minnesota beat Utah and Southern Methodist at home during the nonconference portion of the schedule. Then the Gophers beat Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin there in Big Ten play. They dominated the Spartans, came back from 15 down to beat Michigan 20-15, handily beat Indiana and finished up with a 21-14 victory over Wisconsin.
In the locker room
As they entered the football-shaped, 60-yard-long locker room, Jones' exclamations of admiration echoed off the far wall. The room has more than 100 cherrywood lockers. Above the lockers are the names and pictures of great players in program history. It is well-lit, richly appointed, lush. And cool.
"Air conditioning?" Carter asked. "There's air conditioning? I remember the old locker room. There was paint peeling off the walls, the locker were all broken. Gosh, this is something. This is really something."
"Look at all the clocks," Jones said. "[Former coach Murray] Warmath wouldn't let you see a clock. He'd say, 'You'll practice until you're done!' We had metal lockers. It wasn't a 10th of this size. You were knocking into guys all the time."
Said Williams: "We had two tables, three at most. A few big equipment trunks. It was, let's say, antiquated. This is the Taj Mahal."
The suite life
Jones, Carter and Williams stood outside one of the stadium's suites. Each suite has a picture outside the door, depicting part of the program's past. Here there was an aerial view of Memorial Stadium.
Jones pointed to one end of the old horseshoe. This is where the locker room was, he said. A cubbyhole. Williams pointed to a spot on the other side. This is where the Purdue Boilermakers train used to pull up to the stadium along with the team on game day.
Williams pointed to Cooke Hall, which was situated across the open end of the stadium. He remembered a day during the summer of 1967. He came out of Cooke Hall and saw a fellow drive up in a car with Texas plates. The fellow got out and started looking at the field.
"I started talking with the guy, and you know what? It was Bruce Smith," Williams said, referring to the Gophers' only Heisman Trophy winner, in 1941. "He died shortly afterwards."
Now back to the present. Jones walked through the glass door of a suite into the open seats and let out a "Whooee!" before asking Carter to take a picture of him.
Williams marveled at how close even the seats high in the stadium seem to the field.
Overall? On a sunny day in July, three former Gophers stars reminisced about the past but looked forward to the future.
"I love this, I really love this," Jones said. "This is a beautiful place."
Said Williams: "The best part will be playing back on campus. I remember what that was like. It was wild, great, wonderful. I can remember the whole ritual, the pregame meal, being escorted to the stadium. That was exciting. And that's what this will be, exciting."