Bob Schnelker died on Monday at 88 in Naples, Fla. He was a receiver for the Vikings in the expansion season of 1961 and scored the franchise's first touchdown on a pass from Fran Tarkenton.
More notoriously, he was a victim of fan criticism as Jerry Burns' offensive coordinator. And on Nov. 5, 1989, Burnsie let the fans know he didn't appreciate their treatment of Schnelker. Here's my column from the next morning's Star Tribune:
THE PUBLIC CRITICISM of Bob Schnelker, the Vikings offensive coordinator, turned to obsession last week after our heroes were beaten 24-14 by the New York Giants. In an interview a couple of days later, Schnelker said, "I can take the heat."
By Sunday, the heat had become so outrageous that neither Schnelker nor his boss, coach Jerry Burns, were able to enjoy the Vikings' astounding escape from defeat against the Los Angeles Rams.
A monumental reception by Hassan Jones with 12 seconds remaining led to a try for a seventh field goal by Rich Karlis. The 40-yarder was six inches inside the right post, and that led to overtime, where Mike Merriweather blocked a punt to produce the winning safety.
The 23-21 victory put the Vikings back into first place in the NFC Central. It reminded Burns of a miraculous finish that beat Cleveland in the next-to-last game of the 1980 season at Met Stadium.
Yet, when it was over, Burns had more a sense of relief than joy. When he made his way back to the coaching quarters adjacent to the Metrodome's home locker room, that relief turned to anger.
Schnelker was behind the closed door of Burns' anteroom. "He was emotionally distraught," Burns said. "The way he was treated today was ridiculous. We don't mind criticism. We don't claim to have the corner on brains in this business. But when it gets personally demeaning, it's gone too far. You can only take so much."
Before yesterday's game, there was a middle-aged man standing in front of the Dome in the rain, handing out large decals of a slashed circle, with the initials B.S. inside of it. Below, the name Bob Schnelker was printed.
It was what happened inside the Hump that had Burns fuming later. When a sideline shot of Schnelker was shown on the scoreboard, the crowd took note by booing viciously. When the Vikings left the field at halftime, leading 12-7 and having marched for 16 first downs and 228 yards, fans stretched their necks over the railing leading to the tunnel and cursed Schnelker.
They cursed Schnelker again when it was over, even though the Vikings were moments removed from a victory that could provide the impetus for that heretofore imaginary trip to the Super Bowl.
There's a difference between cursing and cussing. There is venom in a curse. That's what Schnelker was getting. There is heart in a cuss. No one cusses better than Burns.
Before Karlis' tying field goal, Burns' sideline scowl had turned to a head-bowed kneel. Karlis answered the prayer, Merriweather blocked the punt, the crowd celebrated for a couple of minutes and then went back to cursing Schnelker.
Normally, Burns can control his street language when the television mini-cams are rolling. Not this time. The room where Burns conducts a postgame interview was crowded with more than 50 reporters. The lights of a half-dozen TV cameras were in his face.
"As long as I'm on the job, Bob Schnelker will be the offensive coach," he said. "Let's get that straight right now."
Then Burnsie started to roll. This speech demands editing for daily newspaper consumption. We'll try this approach: Consider the words in single quotes to have been preceded by a colorful adjective. OK, Burnsie, let it rip:
"We can't be responsible for the blocking. We can't be responsible for the guy jumping offsides.’ We get down there . . . I don't like to name names after a win, but Anderson made a dumb play. I love Alfred Anderson, but it's a dumb play by him. His shoe was coming off. We were hollering to take a timeout. We had a trap play called, and his shoe comes off. That ain't ‘Bob Schnelker's’ fault.
"We have another draw play, and if ‘Fenney’ picks up his feet he walks in. A.C. is out there in the flat, and the ball is thrown in low by Wade. We have second down and 2 yards to go down there - I don't know where the hell it was, down around the 15 - and Irwin jumps offsides.
"These are the things that have been hurting us all along, the little things. We're working hard to stop them. We were moving the ball good today, we'd get down there and we didn't get in the end zone for a variety of reasons . . . reasons I just gave you.
"We win a game like this, and ‘Bob Schnelker’ felt like (deleted) afterwards. There's no smarter coordinator in football, and they put his picture up there on the board and they boo the hell out of him."
Burns was disgusted with the crowd's treatment of Schnelker. He also was disgusted with the mistakes made on offense that kept this team from being an easy victor - Anderson falling down when he lost a shoe, Rick Fenney missing the hole, quarterback Wade Wilson making a poor throw to an open Anthony Carter and Tim Irwin leaving ahead of the count.
The way Burns figured it, eliminate those mistakes and the Vikings had four touchdowns and three field goals, not seven field goals. The way the crowd figured it, eliminate Schnelker and the Vikings had seven touchdowns.
"The second-guessers are never wrong," Burns said. "If you run and don't make it, you should've passed. If you pass, you should've run. We had Alfred Anderson wide open on a trap, and he doesn't call timeout to put a shoe on his foot. How can anyone in their right mind blame ‘Bob Schnelker’ for something like that?"