Chris Doleman’s journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame had its first stop in Minnesota, where his plans to be a star linebacker didn’t go too well.
“He was the exact same player that Matt Blair was, and that’s why they drafted him,” former teammate Keith Millard said. “They thought he would take over for Matt.”
But when defensive coordinator Floyd Peters arrived in 1986, Doleman’s second season with the Vikings, he had a different plan.
“I was playing defensive end, [Doleman] was playing linebacker,” said Millard, “and Floyd sees this guy … and says, ‘We got to make a pass rusher out of this guy.’ He went to defensive end. And that’s why I moved to defensive tackle. Floyd’s philosophy was to get the best, fastest people all on the field at the same time.
“And ‘Dole’ worked hard at it. He wanted to be that guy who got to the quarterback.”
Doleman died at age 58 on Tuesday in Atlanta after a two-year bout with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. Although his former teammates knew of his grave condition, they were still crushed by the sudden news. Doleman had tweeted on Saturday, “Today is my 2 year anniversary of being a brain cancer survivor! Huge!”
A three-time first-team All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler as a defensive end, Doleman was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s. He had 150½ sacks over 232 games and 15 seasons, which included stints with Atlanta and San Francisco.
He was the NFC defensive player of the year in 1992 and led the NFL in sacks with a near-record 21 in 1989. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Strength and versatility
Doleman was the fourth overall pick in the 1985 draft by the Vikings out of Pittsburgh. After eight seasons in Minnesota, he played for the Falcons in 1994 and ’95 and for the 49ers from 1996 to ’98 before returning to the Vikings for the 1999 season in a final attempt to get to a Super Bowl.
“He was a funny guy, a great teammate,” Millard said Wednesday. “Things came so easily for him, he didn’t have to work out — as hard a worker as he was, he never had to train. We used to call him ‘Jethro,’ you know the guy from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ because he was so darn strong. This guy would walk by the weight room and be stronger than us.
“This is a guy who never missed a practice, never missed a game, this guy was Superman. If this was going to happen to anybody, this would be the last person you would expect it to happen to. That’s what blows me away.”
Around the time of his Hall of Fame induction, Doleman talked about how he’d played almost every position in the York (Pa.) boys club youth football program:
“Running back, wide receiver. I was the punter. I was the kicker,” he said.
But not defensive end. With the All-Pro Blair in his final season in 1985, Doleman got a lot of snaps at linebacker, and made his transition to defensive end when he stepped in for an injured Mark Mullaney the following season.
After that, the 6-5, 270-pounder chased down quarterbacks for a living.
Hall of Fame battles
“Chris was like a cruise missile out there,” said Hall of Fame offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, who joined the Vikings in 1986. “He was so determined. The whole defensive line was like that.
“When I first got to Minnesota, Chris was playing inside linebacker. One of his first practices, one of the plays was called and [left guard] Terry Tausch was staring over at the defense. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m looking at where that Doleman is going to be because I have to block him.’ Then they moved Dole to end and I figured out what Terry was talking about. He was the perfect combination of speed and strength and determination.”
The battles between Zimmerman and Doleman in practice were brutal.
“Doleman could not beat Gary,” Millard said. “And it just made him hungry and work that much harder. If he could beat Gary, he could beat anybody. But he couldn’t get around him with his speed, and nothing was working.
“Finally he started bullrushing Gary, then using his moves, and Gary started struggling with that a little bit, and Dole was able to build his repertoire off that. But man, him and Gary used to battle. They made each other better. They both got better.”
The Vikings never made the Super Bowl during Doleman’s career. But three seasons (1990-92) featured Doleman and tackle John Randle next to each other on the defensive line and guard Randall McDaniel and Zimmerman on the left side of the offensive line. That’s four Hall of Famers.
“When we were together, the whole D-line, we went out every Thursday night, we called it the D-Line Dinner; every Saturday we’d go out for breakfast, just great friends,” Millard said. “Dole always kept it lively and funny; he kept the reality that, ‘Hey, this is supposed to be fun.’ He always softened the mood with his personality. He was one of those guys that was always up, always happy.”
In 1998, while playing for the 49ers at age 37, Doleman had 15 sacks — his eighth double-digit total and the second highest of his career. 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.
A surgery and five-week hospitalization prevented Doleman from attending Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in 2018. He did make it to Canton, Ohio, later that summer for Randy Moss’ induction into the Hall of Fame. In September that year, Doleman married his wife, LaTresa, and attended the Vikings Ring of Honor ceremony for former coach Dennis Green, wearing a helmet in case he fell.
He is also survived by a daughter, Taylor, and a son, Evan, who presented his father for induction into the Hall of Fame.
“Such sad news,” said Scott Studwell, who played six seasons with Doleman. “A great player and even better person. One of those players who had an unbelievable skill set and could have transcended his game to every level or any era.”
Tommy Kramer, the Vikings’ quarterback from 1977-89, said, “He was a tremendous athlete. Speed and strength. He had it all, that’s for sure. Just a shame. It’s tough to swallow.”
“Love Dole,” tweeted former Vikings teammate Robert Smith. “So low key but an incredibly gifted player. I remember talking to him when I was a rookie in the Mankato cafeteria. He said so matter of factly one day, ‘You look too skinny to be a running back — your arms look weak.’ I just laughed and said, ‘You’ll see.’ ”
Another former teammate, Cris Carter, tweeted: “Kobe Sunday and last night my guy Chris Doleman. … Another great man gone. Today will be tough.”
Doleman and a group of Hall of Famers went on a tour of Israel in 2015, after which he said, “The highlight was being baptized in the Jordan River. Everybody can’t say that one.”
In the past two years, Millard said, former teammates constantly encouraged Doleman, who remained optimistic despite a grim diagnosis.
“When we got together — [former teammate] Hank [Thomas] and I were just talking about this — we’re all in our late 50s, but it would be like the old times,” Millard said. “You don’t have to be together all the time to have that bond.
“I’d let him know that I was thinking about him, and praying, and I loved him. He would text me or call me back when he could — toward the end he had a hard time doing that — but as long as he got back to me in any way, shape or form, I knew that was enough. It was Chris.”