A somber feeling of near disbelief hung over Vikings Nation on Saturday as the players from the franchise's storied heydays came to grips with the passing of Bud Grant, the 95-year-old Hall of Fame coach and iconic face of football forever in Minnesota.
"My son heard it on the radio and I couldn't believe it because you don't expect someone like Bud to ever die," said cornerback Bobby Bryant, one of 11 players on all four of Grant's Super Bowl teams. "This is like a family member passing away. The Lord granted him a lot of days, but it's still sad because Bud was almost bigger than life."
Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause, the NFL's career leader in interceptions and usually a man of many words, paused and said: "I'm at a loss for words because it's like losing your best friend. Not a coach. A best friend. He treated all of us like we wanted to be treated. He led a great life and touched a lot of us who are still thanking him to this day for what he did for us."
Grant took over the Vikings in 1967 at age 39 after 10 seasons coaching in the Canadian Football League. In six seasons in the NFL, they had never reached the playoffs. Grant led them there in 1968; the next season, he led them to the Super Bowl.
He coached the Vikings for 18 seasons, compiling a 168-108-5 overall record and reaching the Super Bowl again in 1973, '74 and '76. After he retired — for the second time — in 1985, he remained a regular presence around the team for the next four decades.
"His commitment to the Vikings never wavered as he was a mainstay in our facility, spending time with coaches and staff in his office on a regular basis," Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf said in a statement. "We cherished the times we had together, listening to his tremendous stories and soaking up his knowledge of the game."
Running back Chuck Foreman saw Grant only a week or so ago.
"Ninety-five and still sharp and vibrant and still telling his stories," said Foreman, who played for Grant from 1973 to 1979. "A long, good life that was filled with quality right to the end."
Dave Osborn, a Vikings running back from 1965 to '75, called Grant the "greatest coach a guy could play for" and remembered fondly how different Grant was from his predecessor, Norm Van Brocklin. While Van Brocklin was volatile and often demeaning to players, Grant was a stoic man of few words — a man who could use those steely blue eyes of authority more effectively than Van Brocklin's screaming and name calling.
Osborn recalled a hunting trip in the late 1960s. Grant took center Mick Tingelhoff and another player to Nebraska. Tingelhoff, who like Grant would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the other player decided to play a game as they climbed into Bud's truck. They would not speak a word until Bud spoke first.
"They leave Minneapolis and almost made it all the way through Iowa without anyone saying a word," Osborn said. "Bud's driving. They have to stop for gas. Bud's first words were, 'Tank was full when I left.' That was Bud. That's all he needed to say to make them understand the situation perfectly. They were paying for the gas."
Bryant remembered the stories Grant would tell before the team would play its first outdoor cold-weather game each year. A mind-over-matter tale of how in Canada the Inuit could work for hours on end in sub-freezing weather without having to retreat to the indoors like many an American would.
"They knew they were going to be cold, but they also knew they had a job to do so they just did it," said Bryant, who played for the Vikings from 1968 to 1980. "Bud would say we're going to learn how to play in cold weather. We're not going to have heaters, we're not going to wear gloves and we're going to get used to playing in cold weather. And guess what? We didn't lose very many games in cold weather."
Grant's favorite football saying his entire life was, "The best ability is durability." To this day, three of the top seven players on the list of consecutive NFL games played — Jim Marshall (282, second), Tingelhoff (240, fourth) and Alan Page (215, seventh) — played for Grant.
"Bud was a significant part of my life and my success and I think he felt the same way about me," Marshall said. "As a coach, he was logical and goal-oriented. As a person, he was the same, along with being more fun than the fans would ever see.
"We enjoyed decades of friendship and I am grateful to have known him. His passing is a blow personally. And a loss for the state of Minnesota and Viking fans all over the country."
Osborn said Grant was strict, but fair and respectful.
"He never embarrassed a player, never criticized or chewed a player out in front of anybody else," Osborn said. "If he had something he didn't like about you, he'd take you aside and talk to you.
"Bud just had a knack for leading, handling people. He was a great football coach, but Bud could have coached a sport he didn't know anything about because he just knew how to handle people. It's tough. You think he's going to live forever."
Bryant said he's holding out hope that the old gang gets to see their head coach again someday.
"Maybe we'll all see him again in heaven," Bryant said. "And this time we win the Super Bowl."