MANKATO – The Vikings will pack up and leave Mankato on Wednesday and, for the first time in 52 summers, they shall not return.
“This is my 41st season coming down as a player or scout,” said Scott Studwell. “Lots of memories. All the friendships formed. Some shenanigans I’d rather not discuss. I guess it still hasn’t hit me that we’re not coming back.”
Training camp moves to the team’s new Eagan headquarters in 2018. Meanwhile, 80 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the city that sharpened 13 Hall of Famers and created countless memories — many good, some bad and one very tragic one that cost Korey Stringer his life — will sit eerily quiet for the first time since 1965.
In Vikings lore, Mankato even predates Bud Grant. When the team left Bemidji State for what’s now Minnesota State University, Mankato, Norm Van Brocklin was in his final season as head coach.
The franchise was 29-51-4 with no playoff appearances when young Bud and his steely blue eyes swaggered south from Canada. His first order of business was to establish defensive end Jim Marshall and center Mick Tingelhoff as captains. Mick was the introvert. Jim was very much the extrovert from the team’s inception in 1961 until he played his 282nd consecutive game in 1979.
Mankato is where Marshall met his wife. Where his mother-in-law, Fran, is 101 going on 102. Where he grabbed an entire NFL roster in his great, big hands and helped Grant shape it on and off the field every summer.
“I love Mankato,” Marshall said. “I still get Jake’s Pizza delivered to my brother-in-law’s place down there. But most of all, Mankato was our chance to develop that family unity that our teams had.”
Grant was detail-oriented. He even orchestrated the precise moment players were allowed to leave Mankato for a home preseason game at old Met Stadium in Bloomington.
“Marshall had this gun,” said former Vikings defensive lineman Bob “Benchwarmer” Lurtsema. “Bud wouldn’t let him have it in the dormitory. But he would let Jim fire it to signal when it was OK for us to leave Mankato.
“We’d all be sitting in our cars outside Gage Hall, engines revving. Jim would reach his hand out the window and, ‘Ba-wham!’ Tires screeching and we’re all flying up 169. We’d be passing all the people going to the game. Cars honking, kids in their favorite jerseys waving at us. We had a blast down there.”
Monte and his mannequin?
Longtime equipment manager Dennis Ryan’s work in Mankato is serious business. But there was that one classic exception back in the ’80s.
In 1986, coach Jerry Burns concocted a prank he wanted to pull in camp. It required Ryan borrowing a mannequin.
“For three straight summers, I went to Sears down here and took a mannequin out on loan,” Ryan said. “I had no idea why Burnsie needed a mannequin. I just got it and hid it in my closet in the dorms until Burnsie said he needed it.”
Two summers passed.
“Finally, the time was right and Burnsie told me to go get the mannequin,” Ryan said.
The prank began with Burns orchestrating a shouting match in the training room between linebackers coach Monte Kiffin and defensive lineman Keith Millard. Soon, the entire team was talking about it.
“So Burnsie dresses the mannequin up to look like Monte,” Ryan said. “Monte and Keith take it way up to the rooftop of the Gage Hall towers.”
Down below, as practice is starting, Burns at least tried to be nonchalant in getting the players to notice the ruckus atop Gage Hall.
“Keith and Monte staged this big tussling match up there,” Ryan said. “Then they went behind the chimney. Then Millard comes out and throws the mannequin off the roof.”
That story has been told enough times that the mannequin really should be put in the Vikings’ Hall of Fame. But it won’t be.
“I took it back to Sears,” Ryan said. “Fortunately, nothing got broken in the fall.”
Freddie the Frog
Gage Hall housed the Vikings until 2009 and was taken down in 2013. In many ways, the un-air-conditioned behemoth is as much a part of team history as the nearby practice fields and Blakeslee Stadium.
It’s where Lurtsema, Doug Sutherland and their band of merry curfew-breakers tiptoed in past 11 p.m. Where first-round draft pick Dimitrius Underwood spent one night in 1999 before leaving forever after his first practice. Where Koren Robinson was racing to get to by curfew time in 2006, when his Vikings career ended with six counts of drunken driving and fleeing police during a high-speed chase between St. Peter and Mankato. Where Randy Moss would bike to after whipping fans into a frenzy by racing by defenders and catching all those highlight-reel deep balls.
And, of course, where “Freddie the Frog” went up and never was seen again. Wait, what?
Led by Marshall, players with time to kill used the open space around Gage Hall to fly model airplanes and launch homemade rockets.
“We got this frog and we named him ‘Freddie’ after [head athletic trainer Fred] Zamberletti,” Lurtsema said. “We put a parachute on him and hooked him on the top of this 3-foot rocket.”
The rocket went up. The parachute didn’t come down.
“There were no survivors,” Lurtsema said.
The Ironman mistake
Say “1984,” and watch Studwell wince. Yes, the Les Steckel year was a mess. A 3-13 debacle that got off on the wrong foot with Steckel’s infamous “Ironman” competition on the first day in Mankato.
“There were guys falling all over the place, passing out, dropping out,” Studwell said. “Two guys got hurt pretty bad. And it kind of went downhill from there. We beat the hell out of each other the entire time we were here. We were completely worn out by the fourth game of the season.”
When Studwell joined the Vikings in 1977, training camp was nearly seven weeks. This year: 13 days with two off days.
“We had two-a-days, full pads in every practice,” Studwell said. “And one water break. If it was hot enough.”
Aug. 1, 2001
Today, there are collectively bargained rules in place to make NFL practices lighter, shorter, more humane. Players are kept hydrated and no longer have two-a-day practices.
A lot of that can be traced to Aug. 1, 2001. The day Stringer, the Vikings’ 27-year-old right tackle, died of heat stroke at a Mankato hospital.
“I just remember [Mike] Tice, our line coach, coming into our position room early that morning and saying, ‘Korey passed,’ ” former Vikings center Matt Birk said. “It was total disbelief. You just never think that can happen.”
Stringer collapsed after the morning practice, a three-hour, fully padded workout in severe heat and humidity. The Vikings practiced that afternoon and went through team meetings before players started going to the hospital as word spread that Stringer’s situation was serious.
The Vikings didn’t practice the day Stringer died. They returned to the field the next day.
“We just kind of went through the motions,” Birk said. “Nobody said anything. The fans were totally quiet. It was eerie.”
When Tice assembled the offensive line for its first drill, nobody lined up at right tackle. Tice started sobbing.
“It was hard,” Birk said. “That whole year was hard.”
Coming off a trip to the NFC title game, the Vikings went 5-11. Coach Denny Green was fired and replaced by Tice with one game left.
“I was down in Mankato the other day and saw the trainer’s tent and thought about Korey,” Birk said. “I just remember before that first practice after he passed, Cris Carter getting us all together and saying, ‘Look, we’re all hurting. But let’s get our work done. That’s what Big K would want us to do.’ ”
Stringer was beloved by teammates, coaches and the fans who always flocked to Mankato. Wednesday, a team and a city will part ways.
“It’s understandable,” Marshall said. “But still hard to believe.”
Marshall laughed when it was suggested the best way to end the Mankato era would be for him to bring his gun down on Wednesday and fire it one last time.
“Oh, man,” he said. “That would be great. I’d love that. And I’ll always love Mankato.”