The state of unrest around the Twin Cities this past week has brought back memories of one of the most difficult times in the history of the state, the 1967 Plymouth Avenue riots in north Minneapolis.
Those riots, like the ones taking place around the death of George Floyd, led to the National Guard deploying more than 600 troops to the area where I had grown up.
The 1967 riots were also about racism in the state and took place in July around the Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight parade.
There had been riots the year before, as well. It was a very tense time, with the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement both going on.
One of the most unique things about that time was that professional athletes weren’t as separate from the public in quite the same way they are now. Two Vikings players were in the National Guard and got called up to help calm the riots in Minneapolis.
Training camp had just started in Mankato, but when guard Milt Sunde and linebacker Ron Acks were activated by the guard they left camp on July 21.
They were part of a military police unit and had received riot training during six months of active duty.
They received the news from coach Bud Grant, who had started his first season on the job only two days earlier.
We reported in the Star Tribune that within 20 minutes of getting the news they both were in street clothes and headed to Minneapolis.
Acks had been a National Guardsman for a year and Sunde was a two-year veteran.
“I figured it might happen this summer,” Acks said at the time. “I became more sure when we were put on alert two weeks ago.”
Pros served in military
At the time, the laws had changed so that athletes were no longer protected from active military service.
Vikings General Manager Jim Finks said at the time, “Our experiences the past two days should help prove none of our people are receiving preferential treatment.”
Acks had been selected in the fourth round of the 1966 draft out of Illinois and was really battling for a roster spot, and his leaving during training camp for duty might have been a reason he didn’t make the team.
He did go on to play nine seasons in the NFL with the Falcons, Patriots and Packers and was an excellent defensive player.
Sunde, a Gophers product from Bloomington who died last month at age 78, was an established star player with the club. He was a four-year veteran and had started 28 consecutive games at left guard going into the 1967 season.
He would play 11 seasons with the Purple and start 113 games. His 147 games played are the eighth most in club history for an offensive lineman.
The Vikings also had rookie defensive end Paul Sannes on active duty.
The story on Acks and Sunde being called to duty ended this way:
“As Acks prepared to leave, someone said, ‘Well, it could be worse. You could be going to Vietnam.’
“ ‘You can get shot in Minneapolis, too,’ Acks replied.
Grabowski also on duty
The rioting would get worse throughout the summer around the country, even as it calmed down around Minneapolis.
The great Jim Grabowski — a Packers fullback and All-America at Illinois who is now in the College Football Hall of Fame, which was damaged Friday night during protests in Atlanta — was put on duty as riots tore apart Milwaukee in August at the start of the NFL season.
I covered the Packers’ 27-0 victory over the college All-Stars in Chicago on Aug. 4, 1967, and Grabowski told me he nearly missed the game because of his active duty.
“I was relieved [of duty] at 5:30 a.m. Friday,” he said, referring to that morning. “It took me about 7:30 to noon to find out if I could get a pass. Now, I have to be back in 24 hours for more guard duty in Milwaukee.”
He finished that contest with 77 yards rushing and a score.
A time of unrest
It was a time of real unrest around the country and in the state.
A month before Acks and Sunde were called to duty in Minneapolis, the Star Tribune had a front-page headline on June 21, 1967, that read: “Guilty of refusing induction Clay Gets 5-Year Jail Term.”
At the time Muhammad Ali was still known as Cassius Clay and was the heavyweight champion, maybe the most famous athlete in the world, and he had refused induction into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam.
He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $1,000.
Clay would eventually appeal to the Supreme Court and be found not guilty in 1971.
Howard Cosell and I were very good friends and he introduced me to Ali, who I got to know very well during his career, and he was one of the greatest and most outspoken athletes I ever covered. A photo of him and I at dinner still hangs in my office.
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