IN NORTHWEST WISCONSIN — Call it the anti- training camp, this small backwoods lake where, a few days ago, Bud Grant piloted a pontoon boat, looking to tangle with a largemouth bass, a northern pike or a mess of sunnies.
No two-a-day practices here, no snoopy sports reporters, no hot nights in Mankato dormitories, windows yawning, hoping to catch a breeze.
"I can understand why Brett Favre doesn't want to go to training camp," said Grant, the retired Vikings coach. "I didn't, either."
Grant spoke on a peerless summer evening, in a month that for the entirety of his working life he didn't know. "I've really just learned since I retired how wonderful August is," he said.
With him on his roomy craft was Pat Smith, a woman Grant has grown close to following the death of his wife of 60 years, Pat Grant. Along also was Norb Berg, a longtime hunting and fishing companion of Grant's and the person he credits for "saving his life" after he moved to Minnesota from Winnipeg in 1967 to coach the Vikings.
"When I came to the Twin Cities, I didn't have a place to hunt ducks," Grant said. Then he met Berg, an executive at the time with Control Data Corp., which owned a swath of what is now the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington.
"Norb allowed me to hunt down there," Grant said, "which is how in the fall I could get into the marsh for a couple of hours before going to the office or a game.
"I don't know what I would have done otherwise."
• • •
Contrary to the stone-face persona NFL fans might associate with Grant, having watched him for 18 seasons stand expressionless on the sidelines, he's long been known to his friends as a talker -- a chatterbox, even, at times -- and a cutup.
Years ago, when Berg and I visited him at training camp in Mankato, the two of us would move lockstep with Grant as he shifted about the field, presumably watching one player or another.
Instead, like Berg and me, he was counting monarch butterflies, which migrate in August, and whose varying numbers Grant -- the amateur naturalist -- tabulated year to year in Mankato, training camp to training camp.
On the pontoon boat, we recalled some of these times, while Smith, a retired teacher who is quick to smile and comfortable with a fishing rod, angled for Mr. Big, minnows for bait.
Grant said when he coached the Vikings he often hunted with his players, something that might seem too familial in the NFL today. Among these hunting pals was linebacker Roy Winston.
"Winston was a great linebacker and he became a good friend, but one time at training camp he came to a meeting after having something to drink," Grant said.
Grant called the meeting to order, only to hear Winston say, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Same old thing. Same old thing."
Grant in turn suggested to Winston that a wise career move for him would be to quiet down.
Winston instead countered, "So trade me if you want. I'm outta here."
The next morning, early, having been told by his teammates in detail what he had said at the meeting, Winston knocked on Grant's dorm door, apologizing.
What's the penalty, Winston wanted to know.
"A fine," Grant said.
"Seriously, that's it?"
Winston was a great player who, Grant knew, would be ready to play every Sunday.
"Ya," Grant said. "That's it."
But training camp's last laugh would belong to the coach.
Over the years, the Vikings' front office had received complaints about players speeding -- some wildly so -- on Hwy. 169 between Mankato and the Twin Cities.
One August, Grant broke camp by warning his players to proceed at legal speeds to the Twin Cities.
Instead he watched as they disassembled from Mankato in a mad dash.
Whereupon Grant picked up a phone and dialed the State Patrol.
The officers were expecting the call.
"Here they come," Grant said.
• • •
Grant, Berg and I, among a few others -- including Grant's dearest traveling companion, the late Buzz Kaplan of Owatonna -- have fished together in places as diverse as Costa Rica (tarpon, snook), Alaska (salmon, trout) and the magnetic North Pole (Arctic char).
Now 83, Grant doesn't make exotic fishing trips like those anymore. Not that he isn't able -- he'll hunt more this fall, and in more places, than most anyone in Minnesota.
Instead, he says, he's transitioned as an angler from someone who once wanted to catch the most fish, then the biggest fish, then the most and the biggest fish in the farthest-most places, to someone less ambitious.
His kids, grandkids and great-grandkids are one reason. He likes to go to their games and otherwise spend time with them.
"But as a fisherman it's also true that you change over the years," he said. "I'm content now to do what we're doing this evening, riding around on this pontoon boat, catching some fish, talking, enjoying one another."
Someone mentioned the name Sid Hartman, and Grant recalled the time after a Gophers football game he and two other players, Dave Skrien and Gordy Solpau, took Hartman and U sports information director Otis Dypwick to Morris to hunt ducks.
"On the way out, we got pulled over for speeding," Grant said. "Right away, Sid jumped out of the car and introduced himself. That didn't mean anything to the officer, so Sid asked him if he was a Gophers fan. The officer said, 'Ya, ya, I love the Gophers.' Sid then said that some of the Gopher players were in the car.
"By then, Dypwick was out of the car, too, and he pulled two tickets to the next Gophers game out of his pocket.
"'Officer, I'm glad you're a Gophers fan,'" Dypwick said. "'Take these tickets and enjoy a game.'"
The officer pocketed the tickets. Then he handed Dypwick a piece paper.
"Thanks for the tickets," he said. "Here's one for you."
• • •
Grant, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994, won as a player --as an All-Pro with the Eagles and in Winnipeg -- and a coach in part because he loved to compete, something his friends know well, no matter whether the game is pitching quarters, smacking racquetballs or dealing gin rummy.
"One time on a trip we didn't finish a gin game because we ran out of time, but Bud was leading and wanted to get his winnings. Months later, maybe even a year or more later, Bud and I were at a party at a mutual friend's house," Berg said. "When Grant saw me, he pulled the score sheet from that unfinished game out of his billfold -- he had carried it all that time -- and said, 'Let's find a room and finish this game.' Which he did, right then and there.
Mellower now, perhaps, Grant was content the other evening to settle for a draw. Each fish we caught was released. The outing ended just at dark.
Then, angling down one country road after another and another, we found a food joint whose lights were still on.
A far distance away, in Mankato, monarch butterflies were no doubt migrating, some, as they always have, over the Vikings practice field.
Whoever might be counting them, it wouldn't be Grant. Not every August of his life was meant to be spent in training camp, he figures, and he wouldn't be going back anytime soon.
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com