The stunning comeback Sunday against the Denver Broncos revived memories of the greatest Vikings comeback I’ve witnessed, one that occurred at a unique place in time, featuring a cast of future Hall of Famers, head coaches and television personalities in a game that signaled the effective end of the Mike Ditka Bears.
On Oct. 4, 1992, the Bears played the Vikings at the Metrodome. Years earlier Ditka called it “The Rollerdome,” and longtime Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn had Vikings cheerleaders wear roller skates on the sideline.
It was that kind of rivalry: Intense yet fun.
On this afternoon, the Bears took a 20-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Bears quarterback (and current Michigan head coach) Jim Harbaugh threw a touchdown pass to receiver (and current Chicago radio personality) Tom Waddle, and Harbaugh ran for a touchdown.
The Bears made the playoffs the previous two seasons, still featured Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael and William “Refrigerator’’ Perry, and Ditka remained a beloved and dominant personality in American sport — the embodiment of the grit-and-gristle school that defined old-school football coaching.
The Vikings had left their old school. Jerry Burns retired after the 1991 season and Lynn had been removed. In came Roger Headrick, who hired Denny Green instead of Pete Carroll, even though Carroll was a favorite of Bud Grant’s.
The Vikings were still suffering the effects of the Herschel Walker trade, but Green brought hope in the form of one of the greatest coaching staffs in NFL history.
He hired future Hall of Famer Tony Dungy as his defensive coordinator. Brian Billick, who would win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Ravens, was his tight ends coach. Tom Moore, who would become famous for his tutelage of Peyton Manning, was underemployed as a receivers coach.
Monte Kiffin, who would become a defensive coordinator famous for popularizing the Tampa 2 defense, was linebackers coach. Ty Willingham, who would become head coach at Notre Dame, coached running backs. John Michels (offensive line), Willie Shaw (secondary) and John Teerlinck (defensive line) were considered standouts.
The Vikings’ roster held future NFL head coaches and broadcasters, as well. Linebacker Jack Del Rio was the former and is the latter. Quarterback Rich Gannon and Cris Carter became television personalities. Tight end Mike Tice would become head coach of the Vikings.
Carter, Randall McDaniel, Chris Doleman, John Randle, Ditka, Singletary and Dent would all make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Vikings cornerback Carl Lee would become the head coach at West Virginia State.
After three quarters of the game on Oct. 4, 1992, tradition was trumping change. The Bears led, 20-0.
Then Harbaugh called an audible, dropped back and threw an interception that Vikings safety Todd Scott returned 35 yards for a touchdown.
Scott slammed the ball into a mural featuring Ditka in the end zone. Ditka screamed at Harbaugh on the sideline. Dungy called down from the press box to tell the defense, “Tell our guys if they hold them, we’ll win, 21-20.”
When Roger Craig scored from a yard out with 1:46 remaining, the Vikings won by that score.
“That was as great a comeback as I’ve been associated with,” Vikings offensive coordinator Jack Burns said. “This was like a 10-round heavyweight fight — with a lot of punches thrown.”
The Vikings finished 11-5 and made the playoffs despite the Walker trade, and set themselves up for a decade of high competitiveness that included two appearances in NFC championship games.
The Bears finished 5-11 and fired Ditka. Harbaugh, who had won 21 games the previous two seasons, left after the 1993 season and played for three more teams.
Without Ditka or a dominant Bears team in the division, and without Ditka and Lynn to add fuel to the dying embers, the Vikings-Bears rivalry receded in importance.
Two weeks earlier, Brett Favre had made his debut with the Packers, beating the Bengals with a late lightning bolt.
No more roller skates. The Vikings’ new primary rivalry from then on would feature cheese wheels.