By some stroke of luck, my wife and I are spending this January aboard a boat in Key West, Fla. Before you go sizing me up as one of those Thurston Howell types, I can assure you I’ve never owned an ascot in my life. And the only dress shirt I have on board happens to be stained with ketchup. Let’s just say we’re down here chasing a dream.
Last Sunday we parked ourselves in an air-conditioned bar to catch the Vikings playoff game on big-screen TV. Along Schooner Wharf it was 82 and humid; nearly everyone in the place was in flips-flops and loose shirts. Sunday noon in Key West is still the waking hour, and the bloody marys and pina coladas were going down like coffee as the bar filled up.
Interest in the pregame show was running second to a motocross event being broadcast on the bar’s other screens. But then the old Gray Eagle, Bud Grant, trotted out for the coin-toss in a short-sleeved golf shirt, and you could see a few jaws drop. The TV said it was 8 below in Minneapolis with a windchill of 24 below. People shook their heads, stared in disbelief.
For a while, I seemed to be a one-man cheering section, my sudden outbursts at a Vikings first down eliciting only a few curious glances. But by halftime, with the Vikings in the lead, I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a bandwagon of newfound fans. I’m not sure if it was the prospect of an upset that piqued their interest or the spectacle of 50,000 Minnesotans sitting in the brutish cold to watch a football game. For some reason, there’s an abject curiosity in watching people freeze to death.
One of my sons was actually at the game, and he began texting us photos from the stands. Ice muzzles adorned the faces of anybody with a beard, but in general, most everyone wore a scarf or a mask — Minnesotans dressed for the weather as only Minnesotans know how. As he described it, the mood of the crowd was “fantastic,” the game easily the best he had ever seen. No one seemed to be freezing to death at all unless you counted the guy stripped down to his chest hair and carrying on like it was mid-July at Lake Calhoun. But what would a January football game be without someone like him in the stands?
People stopped by our table to ask what part of Minnesota we were from. Someone had a sister in Roseville, while another fairly inebriated gentleman had gone to college in St Cloud (imagine that). The cold seemed to be a rallying point, and by the end of the fourth quarter, everyone in the bar was pulling for a Vikings win. When Walsh missed the chip-shot, the collective groan and ensuing silence were eerily fitting; we should have won. But when you’ve been watching “the curse” as long as I have, nothing really surprises you anymore.
Over the past few days, complete strangers have stopped on the dock of our marina to take note of the home port on our boat. “I see you’re from Minnesota. What a gut-wrenching defeat!”
The game, they said, had really captured their interest — from Bud’s summery attire to the vapor trails of the players’ breath to the hardiness of the fans in the stands. Like it or not, we as Minnesotans are remembered — dare I say revered — for our cold climate.
If there’s such a thing as a “Minnesota Mystique,” I witnessed it Sunday.
Sadly, that’s about to change. Again. For two years we’ve been allowed, by default, the pleasure of outdoor football, the way it used to be before the Metrodome and the powers-that-be intervened. I’m beating a dead horse here, because the new stadium is nearing completion. (By the way, were we informed that its exterior was to be black? It looks more like a downed stealth bomber than a football stadium.)
Next fall, we Minnesotans will take our football back indoors, where on cold winter days we can all show up in flip-flops and Hemingway T-shirts. In Key West they might find this amusing. Or not.
They might just as easily switch all of the TVs to motocross.
John Halter lives in St. Paul.