These guys would have the best seats in the house for Minnesota Vikings home games — if they had chairs.
Instead, they stand for the entire game on that sideline swath between the field and the players. They are the “chain gang,” the 10-member crew that carries the stakes marking first downs, recording penalties and signaling commercial breaks.
The job barely pays, but no matter — men stay for decades and pass the jobs down to family members. Many are second-generation.
“There’s only 22 people that are closer to the action than we are,” said crew coordinator Roger Soltau.
Those would be the players on the field.
Each NFL team has its own crew to work the home games. Of the 10 members, six hold the orange-and-black stakes that track the ball and mark downs. Four keep track of penalties and ball placement — providing a reference in case the referees, the NFL employees in the zebra stripes, need backup.
Soltau thinks the most recent job opening was about five years ago.
“It’s a nice way to spend 10 Sundays a year and hopefully sometimes 11 or 12,” said Soltau, in his 29th season.
So nice that Bloomington native Tom Fischer flies in from Los Angeles at personal expense to work as the “pencil guy” on the crew, carrying a clipboard to back up the referees by recording penalties. In the final 5 minutes, he tracks the time the ball gets snapped in case there’s a discrepancy with the clock.
The sounds and sights can be jarring — the sideline chatter, grunts and groans from hits, or a broken leg hanging loose. But to a crew that’s been at it so long, even those are entertaining.
The crew members have the same assignments for every game, but they switch sidelines at the half. At the Gophers stadium, that usually means sunshine for half the game and windy chill for the other.
The gig is hardly luxurious. They arrive about an hour before the game to put on their yellow-and-black uniforms, get a briefing and a little breakfast, and head out to the field. Halftime gives them their only break and it’s barely 10 minutes. “You run off, you quickly go to the bathroom and get something to eat,” said Dennis Anderson.
“We’ve had guys sprinting off the field,” Soltau added.
‘For the love of football’
For this they’re paid $50 a game and two end-zone tickets for friends and family — which are taxed.
“Money has absolutely zero to do with working on our chain gang. We do it for the love of football,” Anderson said.
Like many on the crew, Soltau is a second-generation member. His father, Jim Soltau, was recruited through his connections from playing football for the Gophers.
Tom Fischer and his brother Tony got on through their father, former Edina High football coach Frank Fischer, who was an original crew member and worked through the 1992 Super Bowl at the old Metrodome. (Tony now works for the NFL as the “green hat,” coordinating commercial breaks.)
Greg McMoore, 62, of Minneapolis, came into the job 20 years ago through his dad, another former Gophers football player. Anderson, a sporting-goods manufacturers’ representative from Eagan, is in the minority; he got in through professional rather than family connections.
In sports parlance, they do the job for the intangibles. “After this many years, you feel like you’re part of the family,” McMoore said. “You get a real feel for the ballplayers — their strategy and the intensity of it.”
Good news for Vikings fans: Crew members say they’ve noticed more focus and intensity under Coach Mike Zimmer. “You can definitely tell the difference” from previous seasons under other coaches, McMoore said.
‘Bingo, bango, bongo’
From the moment a team comes out of the tunnel, its depth of discipline and preparation is palpable, the crew says. By that measure, the New England Patriots stand out. “They always have this persona. It’s bingo, bango, bongo. They’re very professional. They’re here to take care of business,” McMoore said. On the sidelines, their players and coaches stand behind the line and don’t yell. No one approaches Coach Bill Belichick unless summoned.
Green Bay Packers games are always fun because of the high-energy rivalry. Crew members loved seeing quarterback Brett Favre play and now enjoy watching successor Aaron Rodgers’ swagger. Anderson said he’s seeing some of that confidence in the young Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Fischer confessed to one moment of being a fan, with Bears great the late Walter Payton. “He was the only one that I ever asked for an autograph,” he said.
Soltau remembers moments: The standing ovation fans gave Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana on his last game when he was playing for the Kansas City Chiefs after an extraordinary career in San Francisco. Retired Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer hitting the 25,000-yard passing mark.
There’s another big one in the future: The 2018 Super Bowl in the new stadium. Traditionally, the home field crew gets to work the game, so the crew is hopeful.
Regardless of the stakes on any given Sunday, Soltau said, “I basically find them all fun and exciting. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing Jacksonville or New England.”