About 16 hours after he learned he would be needed under unfortunate circumstances to step in as interim head coach of the Vikings for at least one night, Mike Priefer stepped up to the podium after he nearly steered them to an upset of the top team in the NFL at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"It was a great opportunity for me," said Priefer, Minnesota's special teams coordinator since 2011. "I'm just sorry we didn't get it done."
His day had been a whirlwind. Priefer learned early Thursday morning that Mike Zimmer would be unavailable to coach the team after having emergency surgery late Wednesday night to repair a detached retina, and the two had a brief chat about gameday logistics and issues.
Zimmer gave a brief but emotional speech at the team hotel before the buses departed for the stadium, then Priefer, the son of longtime NFL special teams coach Chuck Priefer, took it from there, leading the reeling Vikings into a game against a Cowboys team with two MVP candidates in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and a 10-game winning streak.
With Priefer executing the game plan that Zimmer had installed during the week, the Vikings checked off every box that gave them a chance.
The Vikings scored first, forced a pair of turnovers and dominated time of possession. Prescott and Elliott had quiet games by their standards as the defense, with Zimmer at home and George Edwards calling the plays, stood its ground against the most formidable offensive line in the NFL.
But after a game-changing fumble in the final quarter and a controversial two-point failure that should have resulted in yellow flags tossed on both teams, the Vikings lost 17-15 in Priefer's head coaching debut.
"He's that type of coach, with that type of mentality, we all want to play for Mike [Priefer]," veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He understands situations as good as anybody, and I think he did a great job."
That showed in the fourth quarter, when Priefer successfully challenged the spot after a Prescott slide that had originally been ruled a first down. After the review, the ball was spotted a yard short of the sticks. Prescott couldn't handle the third-down snap and the Cowboys were forced to punt, giving the Vikings their last gasp, which came up two points short.
All things considered, the 50-year-old came off in a favorable light in the prime-time spotlight in probably the biggest game of a football life that has led him from Youngstown State to VMI to the NFL, after, of course, he served as a Navy helicopter pilot in the early 1990s.
"I think you kind of, hopefully, have been preparing [for this opportunity] your whole career — learning, understanding the game," Priefer said at the podium. "I appreciate what [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and Coach Zimmer did, giving me this opportunity to help our football team win tonight. Obviously, I didn't do my part and we didn't get it done."
If Zimmer can't coach the next game in Jacksonville on Sunday, Priefer will be ready if called upon.
"I hope I'm not needed in that capacity. Looks to me I have my work cut out for us for special teams," said Priefer, taking a dig at himself. "If Rick and Coach Zimmer think that we need another week for him to keep healing, then I would obviously love to do it. I would be honored to do it."
Priefer, who has coached special teams for five NFL franchises since 2002 and is considered one of the league's best, has aspirations of being a head coach. In 2013, he interviewed for the Bears opening that went to Marc Trestman. But then Priefer was suspended after an investigation into whether he made a homophobic comment, which could prevent him from getting serious consideration for future openings.
He was asked if he had allowed himself to think about what this opportunity filling in for Zimmer could mean for his coaching career going forward.
"I haven't thought about that at all. I just wanted to win tonight," he said, "and give Coach Zimmer another win. But that didn't materialize. I don't, it doesn't matter for me. I want to help our team.''