Minicamps were a concept a couple of decades in the future. Any football player that mentioned “OTA,” teammates would have figured his family was buying an appliance from Sears “on time.”
Getting ready for an NFL season in 1961 was based 100% on what took place in training camp. The 60th Vikings team was forced into an abbreviated camp by the coronavirus this year, but the expansion Vikings started practices in Bemidji on July 8 and did not pack up everything and bus the 240 miles back to the Twin Cities until Sept. 1.
The first five camps for the Vikings were held in Bemidji from 1961 to ’65, and the time frame was similar each year, with brief departures for exhibitions.
“We needed a long training camp — maybe not seven weeks, but long — because we had to get in shape,” said Jerry Reichow, a Vikings receiver from 1961 to ’64, and a super scout in various forms for the next 55 years. “We didn’t work out that much in offseason, because we were actually working. With the money we made in football, most of us had other jobs.”
A large percentage of tales from the five late summers in Bemidji revolve around coach Norm Van Brocklin — occasionally brilliant, more often tyrannical, abrasive when sober, worse when full of whiskey at Jack’s, located a few miles away in Wilton and the Dutchman’s main hangout.
Van Brocklin quarterbacked Philadelphia to an NFL title and was league MVP in 1960, then quit before his 35th birthday to become the Vikings coach and had autocratic personnel powers.
Reichow was a receiver for Van Brocklin with the 1960 Eagles. He wasn’t acquired by the Vikings until the week before the regular season opener and thus missed the first camp in Bemidji.
“I was there for the next one in 1962,” Reichow said. “It was brutal … the worst I ever was involved with, or that I’ve watched. Norm always believed in hitting for two hours in two practices daily, but that year was different.
“If you weren’t tough enough, leave … that seemed to be Norm’s attitude … and we had guys packing up and getting a ride out of Bemidji with frequency.”
Jim Marshall, the ironman of the Vikings, came in from Cleveland in the last week before the 1961 opener. So, it was also 1962 when he received a first taste of a Van Brocklin training camp.
Reichow said Marshall “was our leader,” a quality also recognized by Van Brocklin.
“One year, at the start of camp, Norm gave me a list of players to ‘keep out of trouble,’ ” Marshall said. “I kept ’em out of trouble by doing my best to make sure nothing got back to Norm.”
Marshall laughed slightly during a Sunday conversation and said: “Van Brocklin would try to trick players into doing the wrong thing, so he could make it tougher for us in practice the next day.
“One day, Dutch called me in, gave me $250 and said, ‘Everybody’s been working hard; why don’t you take ’em out, buy the beer, have a good time?’ The Duchess was our place, and you could buy a lot of beer there for $250 in the early ’60s.
“Everybody got back by curfew, but full of alcohol. At 6:30 the next morning, Norm came walking down the hall, beating on a tin pan, saying, ‘Get up, you so-and-sos.’
“Quick breakfast, got us out of the field, had a bunch of baseball bats. You had to put your nose on that bat, spin around 10 times, then run 120 yards. And if you fell, you had to roll the rest of the way. Lots of people heaving, then rolling in it.”
Yet, through the Dutchman’s attempt to create Hades, the Vikings of yore recall fondly the welcome they always received in their summer home of Bemidji.
“They did a lot for us, including fish fries with endless, just-caught walleye,” Marshall said. “Fantastic.”
Of course, there were also the mosquitoes, when practicing down there by Lake Bemidji.
“They looked more like humming birds when they came swooping in,” Marshall said.
John Vinje, a retiree still appearing four days a week on the first tee at Bemidji Country Club, worked for equipment manager Stubby Eason starting as a 15-year-old. Eventually, he was in charge of newcomers serving as ball boys and equipment helpers.
“I had Greg Gagne one summer,” Vinje said. “He wanted to get out at night and see what temptations Bemidji had to offer for a teenager. I had to remind Greg frequently we had a curfew.”
Vinje recalled himself being the king of Bemidji’s teen world for a few hours one night, courtesy of Van Brocklin.
“We had a scrimmage in the main stadium and the ball was misplaced at the line of scrimmage,” Vinje said. “Norm didn’t like anything that he saw that afternoon and gave me a profane chewing out.
“Then, he told me to come up to his room after I got back to the dorm. I thought I was getting fired. No. Norm gave me a $20 bill, the keys to his Bonneville convertible — white with red interior — and said, ‘Be careful and get back by curfew.’ I was a hero that night, driving up and down what we called ‘The Loop.’ ”
Gerry Douglas, a young coach in the area, was taking summer classes toward a Master’s degree. He watched afternoon practices and got to know various players, including Tommy Mason, the NFL’s No. 1 draft choice for 1961 with the Vikings.
“A few of us were in the room, and Mason was on the phone; he said, ‘Why don’t you talk to this guy?’ and handed the phone to me,” Douglas said last week. “It was Ann-Margret. I was talking to Ann-Margret!
“After the call ended, Mason said, ‘She likes me.’ ”
The actress would have had to meet Mason at the Duchess, since the players were banned from Jack’s, the popular steakhouse. It was off-limits because Van Brocklin and his coaches drank there.
Which was just as well, since a notorious example of a liquored-up Van Brocklin took place at Jack’s on Aug. 3, 1963 (reviewed fully by the Bemidji Pioneer in 2011):
First, the Dutchman got into a verbal altercation with Bob Nelson, a former Bemidji State player, after the coach had been talking up Nelson’s wife, and then got into a physical altercation with Jim Klobuchar, the feisty Vikings beat reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune.
“That was oil and water, right there … Norm and Klobuchar,” Reichow said. “Klobby had a great way of placing an opinion in his articles that would greatly irritate Van Brocklin. I always kind of enjoyed that.”
Bemidji, too. Enjoyable, when the coach wasn’t scheming to get you to roll around in teammates’ spew.