Who was Ed Thorp and how in the world is he connected to this weekend’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Vikings’ 1969 NFL championship team?
“Ed who?” asked Gary Larsen, one of the famed front four forever known as the Purple People Eaters.
Ed Thorp. A friend to several NFL owners in the early ’30s. A referee. Ran a sporting goods store. The league loved him so much it created the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy upon his death in 1934.
Much like the Stanley Cup in hockey, the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy was supposed to be a traveling trophy first awarded to the Giants in 1934. Presumably it should have been awarded to the Vikings, who beat the Browns 27-7 at Met Stadium in the final NFL Championship Game before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
“I ain’t never seen it,” said Lonnie Warwick, the leading tackler on that 1969 team.
You’re in good company, Lonnie.
“I don’t even know what you’re referring to,” said Bud Grant, the Hall of Fame coach who took the Vikings to four Super Bowls in eight seasons from 1969 to 1976.
For years, it was assumed the Vikings had misplaced the trophy or lost it after the merger. But there was no visual evidence of the Vikings ever receiving the trophy.
“We’d have people calling us wanting to know if it was in a closet somewhere at Winter Park,” said Bob Hagan, Vikings vice president, football and media communications. “But no one around here has ever seen it.”
There’s a reason for that. According to Packers historian Cliff Christl, who set out to solve the mystery for an article he wrote last year, the trophy never made it out of Green Bay after the Packers won it for the record eighth time in 1967. The Packers’ Hall of Fame discovered in 2015 that it had the trophy, which is now on display in the Packers Hall of Fame.
“Maybe they’ll loan it to us,” Grant joked, kind of. “We got a trophy room now in our new Vikings Museum.”
Or at least call off the supposed Super Bowl curse that Thorp’s ghost was said to have cast upon the Vikings when it was rumored the team had lost the trophy. In fact, not only didn’t the Vikings receive the trophy, they’re one of three teams whose names aren’t on the trophy.
The 1960 Eagles aren’t on the trophy, although there’s a spot where they were supposed to have been listed. The 1968 Colts and 1969 Vikings are the other missing teams, which further suggests the trophy never made it out of Green Bay.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the celebration will go on. The Vikings are hosting 124 former players at their annual Legends Weekend. The 1969 team will be honored at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Raiders at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“My favorite memory isn’t a very good one because we didn’t win the Super Bowl,” said Warwick, referring to the 23-7 loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl IV.
“But that was one great team,” Larsen said. “We really came together that year and were a different team over the next decade.”
NFL Films once named the 1969 Vikings as one of the five best teams not to win a Super Bowl.
In the franchise’s ninth season and third year under Grant, the 1969 team featured six future Hall of Famers while boasting the league’s best defense and highest-scoring offense.
Led by the Purple People Eaters of Jim Marshall, Larsen and Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller, the defense gave up just 133 points, a record then. Meanwhile, with blue-collar quarterback Joe Kapp, two future Hall of Fame linemen in Ron Yary and Mick Tingelhoff, and hard-nosed running backs Bill Brown and Dave Osborn, the offense scored 379 points.
“People forget how many points we scored that year,” Larsen said. “Joe Kapp doesn’t get enough credit.”
In their 59-season history, the Vikings have scored 50 or more points six times. Three of them came in 1969, when they beat Pittsburgh 52-14, Baltimore 52-14 and Cleveland 51-3 in what remains a team record for biggest margin of victory.
“I remember getting three interceptions in that win over Cleveland,” said cornerback Bobby Bryant, who had eight interceptions before a season-ending knee injury in the ninth game. “One of them was against [Hall of Fame receiver] Paul Warfield. We both went up for the ball. I have three pictures of that play. We’re upside down, but there’s a white hand holding the ball. That’s my hand. After that, Warfield didn’t like me that much.”
The Vikings went 12-2, beat the Rams 23-20 for the Western Conference title, plowed through the Browns and were 13-point favorites vs. Kansas City.
Warwick admitted the Chiefs confused the Vikings defense with motion out of multiple formations. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ vaunted running game was stonewalled by a five-man line that put massive Curley Culp, a future Hall of Famer, directly across from Tingelhoff.
But the Vikings did actually win an NFL championship. And there actually was a trophy that went with it. Sort of.
“Maybe we can borrow it [from Green Bay],” Grant joked. “We should at least have it for a year if you say it was a traveling trophy.”