FORT MYERS BEACH, FLA. – Mackenzie Weber was indoctrinated into Vikings fandom at a very young age in Benson, Minn., by her parents, James and Kathy. The occasional cruelty of this preoccupation had its first major impact on her in January 1999, at age 8.

“When Gary  Anderson missed that field goal and we lost to the Falcons, I went in the closet and cried,’’ Weber said. “I refused to come out. I was in there for a long time, just bawling. Mom was saying, ‘You have to come out, Kenzie; we’re going to have dinner.'"

The Star Tribune’s Brian Peterson took a famous photo after that game was over: Three blonde ladies decked in Vikings garb and gathered in an emptyung Metrodome, looking as if they had lost a loved one.

The photo became known in Vikings lore as the Weeping Blondes.

“I’ve seen it,’’ Weber said. “Nobody could’ve gotten a picture of me after that game. I was in the closet.’’

The Vikings started their playoffs in the new dome on Sunday, and with the greatest expectations for success since January 1999. Yes, there was the loss in the NFC title game in New Orleans after the 2009 season, but those Vikings were underdogs.

This time, the Vikings were starting as five-point home favorites over the Saints, and knowing that with victory, they would be expected to win again next Sunday at Philadelphia.

“I hate the Saints almost as much as I hate the Packers,’’ Weber said.

For beating up Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC championship game? “Yes, for beating up Brett,’’ she said.

Mackenzie was part of a group of 12 young women visiting the Fort Myers area on a bachelorette party for Keri Mikkelson. Mackenzie and Keri were the best of friends as kids in Benson and now both live in the Twin Cities.

Young folks looking to celebrate here have a tendency to wind up on Fort Myers Beach, with its large collection of bars. Most of Keri’s bachelorettes were dressed in Vikings garb when they arrived at the beach, and were looking for a place to watch their home-state football team.

“We were in another bar and some guy said to me, ‘You’re not a real Vikings fan; you don’t even know who Fran Tarkenton was,'" Weber said. “He was a jerk. We went looking for another bar to watch the game.’’

They found the right place: The Lighthouse Tiki Bar, attached to a hotel just on the island side of the bridge to Fort Myers Beach.

Craig and Sherrie Clausnitzer moved from the Twin Cities to the Fort Myers area a decade ago. “I heard that this place showed all the games, so we came here to watch the Vikings,’’ he said. “Back then, we were standing on gravel and watching the games on a small TV.’’

Craig started telling other Minnesota transplants and visitors about this location to watch the Vikings on a Sunday, to the point that he is now called “the Mayor of the Tiki Bar’’ by the Purple-clad fans that assemble regularly.

There is a real patio, tables with dozens of chairs and two large televisions for Vikings viewing. The magnitude of Sunday’s game and the arrival of the “snowbirds’’ had perhaps 100 people in this portion of the bar to enjoy beverages and cheer for the Vikings.

The Clausnitzers have two children that are police officers in the Fort Myers area. Daughter Melanie was at the Tiki Bar as a civilian on Sunday, and was keeping track of the plastic, Purple horn through which her father leads a chorus of “Skol Vikings’’ when the Minnesota heroes get on the scoreboard.

I checked out a couple of other alleged Vikings bars earlier and was disappointed in the turnout. The place on the beach was going to be a last try. I was listening to Kevin Harlan on the radio describe the Vikings’ first touchdown.

I parked in the hotel lot and heard a Vikings’ fight song. I knew this was the right place.

Soon, they were singing again, and Clausnitzer was being accompanied by a young lady in leading Skol Vikings. That turned out to be Mackenzie.

“Is she with you?’’ I asked Clausnitzer.

Answer: “No. She’s here from Minnesota with a bachelorette party.’’

OK, an earnest reporter has to find out more about that, right?

Mackenzie told me about sequestering herself in the closet, about her disdain for the Saints, and said: “I was at our last playoff game when Blair Walsh missed the field goal, too. We froze all afternoon, and then he missed the field goal … shorter than an extra point!

“People had so many blankets security was just waving you past. We smuggled in a bag of beer. And then when we opened it, the beer was frozen.’’

Weber laughed and said: “We went to Rudolph’s BBQ later and you know who was in there? Blair Walsh.’’

What are the odds? “I know!’’ she said.

Mackenzie laughed again and said: “You know how crazy I am? I bought a ticket for a possible home game next Sunday for the NFC championship …. 380 bucks, for a nose bleed seat. I get a refund now, but I wanted to be at that game.’’

The Vikings soon scored again to make it 17-0. Mayor Clausnitzer and Mackenzie led the scores of gleeful Purple fans in another round of Skol Vikings, followed by another round of beverages.

Keri Mikkelson, the bride to be, and her sister Natalie, in a hat with both horns and braids, were sitting at the bar. They were blondes, as was Mackenzie, so this was easy:

I had one of the other bachelorettes take a photo of "The Smiling Blondes,’’ to prove this was a different day for Vikings fans – that they would no longer be required to shed tears inside closets and sit glumly in the stands after home playoff games.

(From left: Natalie Mikkelson, Keri Mikkelson, Mackenzie Weber.)

Vikings, 17-0 at halftime. It was a mismatch.

I bid adieu to the Vikings loyalists and headed back across the bridge, comfortable that it was going to be a night of celebration for the Mayor, for the Smiling Blondes and the rest of the Purple believers at the Tiki Bar.

And, yes, their boys had 'em all the way.

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