As I write these words, I am wearing my favorite shirt. It feels like Tyvek on my chest. It cost me a fortune. It’s not especially flattering, and few guys under 30 recognize the name of the athlete on my back. It is a purple No. 10. Throwback Fran Tarkenton. Yeah, baby. My wife doesn’t know this, but it’s only a placeholder for the day I tap the kids’ college fund so I can buy a Foreman. Or a Page.
And I am just barely a Vikings fan.
Seriously. Not majorly affected by the outcome of these games at all. I put the shirt on during Sundays in the fall, then skip off to the bar to take my seat among the fellowship of the betrayed, the scarred and the guarded. When the game is over, I pay my tab and quietly head home. Not superstitious or anything, but no, I will not watch with friends or family. I like to keep the letdown to myself. Too much emotional spillover if the air game doesn’t go as hoped.
Fortunately, if the Vikings win, or even if the team loses while playing well, I feel as though the hours were not wasted. This is often the case, even if it wasn’t the case last Monday.
Then there are the games that count.
It has been 40 years since the 1975 season. Historians might remember that year for the fall of Saigon, the rise of “Mandy” or the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. For the rest of us, ’75 stirs a funny feeling. See, prior to 1975, the Creator did not exact punishment upon fans of the Minnesota NFL franchise. Sure, the team lost the Super Bowl in January of 1970, and then again in January of 1974, and, whoops, once more in January of 1975, but the first of those games was helmed by a quarterback who ran straight into his opponents. The second was played against the only undefeated team in the history of the league. The third — well, everyone has a bad day.
But starting in December of ’75, things began to get weird.
The Vikings began to accumulate freak accidents — postseason reversals of fortune causing both the sting of déjà vu and embarrassment for having forgotten that of course it was coming. If the Vikings were just bad, it wouldn’t have mattered. Detroit Lions fans don’t wonder whether they have developed Stockholm syndrome. But the Vikings are among the top 10 teams in NFL history for wins (.539) and playoff appearances (27), yet are the only team in the group to have never won a championship (0).
It’s been four decades of exciting runs followed by bad calls, forehead-slapping errors, collapses of all skill and plain old bad luck when the season was on the line. So, yes, no need for hyperbole: The Vikings fan is cursed, possibly more so than any other fan in all of professional sports if you consider that the Cubs at least won a championship once.
There are those going to the game today who will admit all this. The rest, as they say, are lying.
But why are we tiptoeing around the subject? Why isn’t there a statue outside of the new stadium under construction — a life-size bronze of Vikings caller Paul Allen bellowing “Noooooooo! …Nooooooooo!” as the 3-12 Cardinals kept us out of the 2003 playoffs with an impossible reception on the final play of the game. Curses acknowledge the fact of our grieving. They bind us to one another. We ought to wrap our arms around them and thank the tales of our banishment from the Promised Land. They make our lives much more interesting than it must be on Sundays in New England, where winning has surely become boring. Or so we hope.
Plus, this thing can’t go on forever. It’s been 40 years in the desert.
According to the Bible, that’s as long as the Lord will ask a people to wander in the wilderness.
• • •
Revisit the collapses of ’75 (Dallas), ’77 (Oakland), ’88 (Washington), ’99 (Atlanta), 2000 (New York Giants), 2003 (Arizona), 2010 (New Orleans) or 2012 (Green Bay) and you will be invited into an impromptu masculinity ceremony.
In the past two weeks I have endured YouTube video of Vikings fans cursing their big-screen and have listened to a colleague tell of running the alleys outside his home after Gary Anderson suffered his only missed field goal attempt of the year, an easy kick, tanking the ’98 Vikings, at the time the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. The same guy can segue to hearing an announcer extol of “the greatest dry streak in all of sports” after an East Coast hockey team picked up its second championship in 50 years.
“How’s about ‘never’?” he brooded. “How’s ‘never’ for a dry streak?”
Another wounded fan tells of watching the iconic Purple People Eaters of the 1970s show up to the big games as powerless as Sampson shorn of his hair. “I remember watching Larry Csonka chew up the Vikings and watching Franco Harris do the very same thing,” he says. “I remember the feelings of it, if not the details. I cried. I remember thinking: Where’s the team I watched all year? You started to feel like you were never going to win anything.” He was pulled in once more. “Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper,” he adds wistfully. “How did that not work out? That was my final exit.”
Then, the other night, I raised the subject at the end of a lovely and privileged dinner party. With a fire flickering and cake being passed around, a middle-aged physician told of having taped up a bag of all his Vikings wear after the missed kick of ’98 — hundreds of dollars’ worth of purple and gold that he then dropped off at a charity. This is a man who has a lovely family and a pool in his yard and all of life’s comforts — yet he spoke of the act as though he had clawed himself out of imprisonment by Pol Pot.
Personally, I carry enough pain for a “Twilight Zone” episode’s worth of divine intercession and mishap. The open 5 yards of running room that Brett Favre ignored so that he could throw an interception and keep us out of the Super Bowl in 2010 — why did that happen? Why did the Vikings send 12 men to the huddle on the previous play? Fluke? Why did Favre get hit with a cheap shot by a team called the Saints? Chance?
How about the dropped 5-yard pass that kept us out of the Super Bowl in 1988? It’s become mythic in Vikings lore — type the name “Darrin Nelson” into Google, and the suggestion that you explore “Darrin Nelson dropped pass” comes up fifth.
So. Why did that happen?
Or consider the Vikings’ one-time brain trust picking up a running back in a multiplayer trade that would come to be called be called The Great Train Robbery (the Herschel Walker deal that created the Dallas Dynasty of the 1990s). Tell us, oh Lord, so that we may repent of our sins: Why thy did thou forsake us? The defeat of the 2000 team by 41-0 at the hands of the Giants (the most lopsided loss in NFC Championship history) — dearest Lord, we beseech thee: Did the two sets of footprints become one because you were carrying us through 41 Donut, or because you went to get a hot dog?
It’s not like we always choked. In a playoff game the previous year, Jeff George played like a man possessed, throwing for 388 yards and four touchdowns. We scored 37! And yet you showered favor on Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. His receivers sliced through our secondary like men strapped into jet packs. You gave them the power to score 49.
Had we doubted you somehow?
Why, dear Creator, thanks to a long bomb on fourth and 14, did the 2003 Cardinals defeat us with a play named after a prayer?
• • •
Four decades have passed since the play that invented the expression “Hail Mary.” Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, down 14-10 with 24 seconds to go, pumped once, then heaved a 50-yard catapult toward a receiver named Drew Pearson. Asked about it afterward, Staubach replied that he “just threw the ball up in the air and said a Hail Mary.”
He might well have prayed. At the time, the Vikings had the best offense, and defense, in the NFL. We were favored to go to the Super Bowl.
Pearson appeared well-covered, with no hope of catching the pass. Then, a Vikings defender named Nate Wright fell to the ground. Pearson pulled it in for the win.
Wright crumbled so oddly that fans assumed he had been pushed. But clips show the push to be inconclusive at best, very likely a big nothing. Following the game, Wright told a teammate: “I had it, then suddenly I was on the ground.” Following the reception, Pearson immediately heaved the football into our stands. He had forgotten Proverbs 24:17 (“do not gloat when your enemy stumbles”). And yet God seemed determined to punish us instead.
If so, let us remember the original Vikings, a people so beastly that they were said to torment their opponents with an atrocity known as The Rite of the Blood Eagle. We named ourselves after the men who put the medieval in the Middle Ages. So maybe we have some of this coming.
None of it changes why I liked the team, or why I keep returning. Like a lot of others, they got me at an impressionable age, I think, implanting something sweet and redeeming that’s impermeable to wins, losses or curses. In my case, back in ’75, I had a game I played with my little brother. I would give him the football, a three-step lead, then try to tackle him as he ran up the staircase. We played it for hours, especially once it became too cold to play outside. We called the game “Chuck Foreman.” It’s one of my favorite memories.
Paul John Scott is the health reporter at the Rochester Post-Bulletin.