CAPE CORAL, FLA. – Minnesota and the Twin Cities started the drive to be a full-service sports market in 1961, when the Twins brought the American League and the Vikings brought the NFL to the Bloomington prairie.
In those six decades, we have had a select few opponents (players or coaches) who were reviled as villains. The first such player that comes to mind was Al Secord, the Chicago Blackhawk who relished in taking runs at our guy Dino Ciccarelli with the North Stars.
Baseball? The opponent treated most like a villain was Chuck Knoblauch, then of the Yankees, but previously an important element of a Twins’ World Series champion as a rookie in 1991.
NFL? You might mention Drew Pearson of the Cowboys, but the villains were the refs that allowed Pearson to get away with the notorious push off, not the receiver that did the pushing.
Brett Favre was more a rival than a villain, before he became a Vikings’ hero in 2009. And Mike Ditka as the Bears’ coach … in our hearts we enjoyed that loose cannon.
As for the Gophers, we sure didn’t like that Bret Bielema as Wisconsin’s football coach as he went 7-0 against the Gophers, and the hometown kid, Brad Davison of Maple Grove, is going to get himself some serious boos when he comes into Williams Arena with the Badgers on Wednesday night.
All-time villain against a Gophers’ team: I’d go with Bobby Knight. The crowds in the Barn never seemed to side with Sid Hartman’s conviction that Bobby was a wonderful fellow.
One other villain who is neither coach nor player: Joe Buck, the ever-present play-by-play announcer. We’re still mad at Joe for calling out Randy Moss as a jerk one wintry afternoon in Green Bay after Randy acted like a jerk.
There’s no doubt, though, as to the No. 1 all-time villain for Minnesota fans. Trouble is, you either have to be 60-plus or take my word on his identity:
Hank Stram, coach of the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs from 1960 to 1974.
Everyone with a football interest has seen the clips of a mic-ed up Stram from the NFL Films highlight reel of the 1970 Super Bowl, when Hank’s Chiefs upset Bud Grant’s Vikings 23-7 in Tulane Stadium. Yet, you had to live it in real-time to appreciate the outrage that Stram brought to Minnesota fans.
General Manager Jim Finks had hired Grant as coach in early 1967. Bill McGrane was told to pick up Grant at the airport. McGrane said, “How will I know him?’’ And Finks said: “He’ll be the one that looks like the town marshal.’’
Three years later, Bud had become that to all Minnesotans. He was our Gary Cooper, taking on the bad guys in “High Noon.’’
And it was distressing enough the bad guys had won in New Orleans in January, but then a few months later, here came the Super Bowl film -- and Stram, ridiculing the Vikings and Bud and, thus, laughing at all of us.
Minnesotans loathed Hank for that. Many went to their graves without forgiving him. These days, it’s more likely to be an urn, but that won’t change the sentiment of this state's oldtimers about Stram.
The Chiefs were back in the Super Bowl on Sunday night for the first time in the 50 years since they defeated the Vikings. Stram had died back in 2005, so presumably it was now OK for Minnesotans to root for the Chiefs for these main reasons:
One, Patrick Mahomes was not only a fantastic young quarterback, but his father, Pat, had pitched in five seasons for the Twins.
Two, Andy Reid had brought so much offensive mastery and taken so many tough losses that many of us wanted to see him holding a Lombardi Trophy.
There were also Chiefs fans. On the scale of loyalty and passion, they are there with Packers fans, Steelers fans, Bills fans, Vikings fans, the best of fans. There are Kansas City Chiefs fan clubs all over the country, including the Southwest Florida chapter.
The gathering place on Sundays has been the Overtime Pizzeria and Pub in Cape Coral in recent years. It’s a large bar and restaurant and it was jammed when I arrived an hour before kickoff.
There were Chiefs cheers and “chops” breaking out every few minutes, when a man decided to go walking through the main room while waving a large banner in support of the 49ers.
First, there were a few laughs, then hoots of derision, and finally disgusted shakes of the head. “He’s starting to get on my nerves,’’ said Brian Callahan, an Iowan turned Floridian, but a Chiefs zealot in a family where his late mother was a Vikings zealot.
The 49ers guy was asked to identify himself. “Just call him ‘Dennis the Menace,’ ’’ his wife said. “We’re from New England and Patriots fans. He’s just trying to get Chiefs fans worked up.’’
The Menace made another pass through the Chiefs crowd closer to kickoff, but later he was sitting on a bar stool, quietly.
“Where have you been?’’ I asked.
He shook his head and said: “Right here. A waitress told me to sit down and shut up, or I was going to get thrown out. Apparently, the business provided by these 250 Chiefs fans is more important than mine.’’
The Chiefs opened the game with a three-and-out. When the 49ers started their first possession, Callahan offered this prediction: “Watch. There’s going to be a strip sack.’’
This was repeated a few times, at which point I said to his friend Sean Jane: “Brian seems to be quite a believer in the strip sack.’’
Jane nodded his head and said: “He predicts them several times every game, and once in a while, he’s correct.’’
Soon, pressure from Chris Jones helped cause the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo to lob an interception. Jane rose to his feet for an extra celebration, since he wears a Jones jersey.
“I’m from Syracuse originally,’’ he said. “And Chris Jones played at Syracuse.’’
Before kickoff, Callahan had leaned over to the stranger from Minnesota and said:
“Tell me, have you ever seen a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes? You haven’t. Because there hasn’t been one.
“That’s why we’re going to win this game. Patrick Mahomes.’’
Over the next 3 ½ hours, the emotions went from euphoria, to gloom, even to some murmurs of “what’s wrong with Patrick?’’ and then it came:
Twenty-one points in five minutes, from 6:13 remaining to 1:12 remaining. Magically, Mahomes and a flawed-but-resilient Chiefs defense had turned a 20-10 deficit into a 31-20 victory.
During the final commercial break before kickoff, I said to Callahan: “For quite a while, I’ve looked at the Chiefs as the Vikings’ AFC counterpart. Not often terrible, quite often contenders, but on the receiving end of excruciating defeats when it matters the most.’’
Callahan nodded and said: “Yeah, but there’s one big difference. The Chiefs have a ring.’’
And now they have two.