In the end, Doleman a star

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2012 - 12:42 PM

The former Viking ranks among the most tenacious and best who ever played at his position, striking fear in his opponents -- and teammates.

It was the fall of 1969, and 8-year-old Christopher John Doleman was in his first season of organized football.

"I think I played every position there was for the York Boys Club in York, Pa.," said Doleman, now 50. "Running back, wide receiver. I was the punter. I was the kicker ..."

What about, you know, right defensive end?

Nah. Even when the Vikings drafted him fourth overall in 1985, Doleman had yet to play the position. More than a year later, he was still a nondescript outside linebacker with half a sack in 19 NFL starts.

It was too soon to call him a bust. But there were some who thought the tips of his toes were on that slippery slope when the Vikings found themselves in need of a right defensive end who could rush the passer. What happened next was one of those fateful turns toward Canton, Ohio.

"We were making a run for the playoffs and, sure enough, Mark Mullaney went down," said Doleman, referring to the Vikings' 12-year veteran and first-round pick in 1975. "So the coaches asked me, 'Can you rush the passer?'"

Can he? You betcha.

Doleman finished with one sack in each of his last three starts, all at right end, in 1986. The Vikings didn't make the playoffs, but for Doleman that final month of the season was a harbinger of a 15-year career that would keep opposing quarterbacks terrified and bag the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2012.

He'll be enshrined Saturday with his 22-year-old son and presenter, Evan, by his side.

"Doleman is one of those rare guys, maybe one of four or five that I played against -- right there with Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas -- that you had to know exactly where they were," said Hall of Fame quarterback and former Viking Warren Moon. "You just knew he could get to the quarterback."

Doleman played 232 games, missing only two because of injury, and made eight Pro Bowls with three teams: Vikings (1985-93, 1999), Falcons (1994-95) and 49ers (1996-98). A three-time first-team All-Pro and a member of the NFL's 1990s All-Decade team, he also finished with 150 1/2 sacks, 44 forced fumbles, 24 fumble recoveries, eight interceptions and two touchdowns.

He ranks fourth in career sacks. Only Smith (200), White (198) and linebacker Kevin Greene (160) had more sacks since they became an official stat in 1982.

Starry cast

The Vikings never made the Super Bowl during Doleman's career. But there were three seasons (1990-92) that featured Doleman and tackle John Randle next to each other on the defensive line and guard Randall McDaniel and tackle Gary Zimmerman on the left side of the offensive line. That's four of the 273 members of the Hall of Fame going against each other every day in practice.

"And if he had stayed healthy, Keith Millard would be in the Hall of Fame with us," said Doleman, referring to the former Vikings defensive tackle.

For seven seasons (1986 to 1992), Zimmerman and Doleman went head to head in practice. Each says the other is the toughest matchup he ever faced during a combined 29 NFL seasons.

"The reason I went into the Hall of Fame was Chris," Zimmerman said. "Every day, I had to come up with new ideas to stop him. The games were easy."

Zimmerman gave Doleman the nickname "Rockhead" early in their Mankato camp battles.

"That rockhead just kept coming," Zimmerman said. "He was a power player. He'd try to knock you off your spot and then do his moves. He hated to lose, and I hated to lose. So every day was an all-out battle."

Doleman, who now lives in Atlanta, played for 12 winning teams and was part of four defenses that ranked No. 1. Two of the tackles he played next to -- Millard in 1989 and the 49ers' Dana Stubblefield in 1997 -- won NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The year Millard won, Doleman had 21 sacks, a franchise mark that stood until Jared Allen had 22 in 2011.

"Chris was ahead of his time," Allen said. "He played a lot lighter than guys did then. He was relentless, explosive off the edge and used his hands so well. He was so long and could bend like no other. Great leverage, which is what football is all about."

From 1981 to 1984, Doleman played outside linebacker at the University of Pittsburgh. His 25 sacks ranked third in school history when he left and stand sixth-best today. His pursuit of quarterbacks continued at a high level when he was moved to defensive end permanently by the Vikings in 1987.

Nullifying the Niners

In 12 starts during the strike season of 1987, Doleman had 11 sacks and earned his first All-Pro honor. He also had a signature playoff game that was instrumental in fattening the bank accounts of NFL left tackles for generations to come.

On Jan. 9, 1988, 49ers coach Bill Walsh had the NFC's No. 1 seed, a 13-2 team led by quarterback Joe Montana and receiver Jerry Rice, who had set an NFL record with 22 touchdown receptions. But that Hall of Fame trio and their rhythmic passing attack didn't have an answer for Doleman's pass-rushing skills on that day.

Doleman punished left tackle Bubba Paris, sacking Montana twice and knocking him down consistently throughout a 36-24 upset.

"Chris dominated that day," said Paul Wiggin, himself a former defensive end and now a consultant for the Vikings. "It was just one of those days that, like the good Lord says, 'It's your day.'"

Walsh had seen enough. Tired of having Super Bowl plans ruined by edge rushers such as Lawrence Taylor and Doleman, he changed the perception of and the market value for "blind side" pass protectors. He replaced Paris with Steve Wallace, who was given a five-year, $10.7 million deal. That was unheard of for left tackles at the time, but the 49ers also won the Super Bowl the next season.

In 1998, while playing for the 49ers, Doleman had 15 sacks -- his 10th double-digit total and the second-highest of his career -- at age 37. He retired but came back to rejoin the Vikings two games into the 1999 season. In 12 starts in his final season, he finished with eight sacks.

"Chris didn't care who he was playing against," Randle said. "He was sure he was going to show the guy for 60 minutes, 'I'm Chris Doleman and I'm going to kill you.'"

Wiggin played with Hall of Famers, such as Jim Brown, and coached Hall of Famers. He said they all share a natural gift that just needs the right opportunity. For Doleman, it was that switch to defensive end.

"I learned a lot of things in coaching Chris," Wiggin said. "But the most important thing was if you've got a goose that lays golden eggs, you don't mess with the goose."

  • 2012 NFL HALL OF FAME CHRIS DOLEMAN'S INDUCTION

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