Thursday, December 18, 2008

Redemption's Path

“Loved and lost.” Is there a better description of the psyche of Vikings fans? “Four Lost Superbowls” is the catchphrase used nationally, but the hurt is both deeper and broader than that. For starters, it doesn’t include the second generation of Vikings fans which came of age on January 17, 1999 with two more catchphrases: “Take a Knee” and “Weeping Blonds”. But it also doesn’t encompass the older fans who watched the single best team they had ever seen lose long before the Super Bowl.

Right about now I have some regular readers who are about to leave an irate comment about how this is supposed to be a Twins blog. What they don’t know is that Monday I opened a fortune cookie that said: “Focus on the color purple this week to bring you luck.” I am not making this up. This story isn’t a departure. It’s a destiny.

Those who have loved and lost seek redemption. It is the scarcest of life’s gifts – the intersection of so many rarities – opportunity, performance, desire. But today Vikings fans redemption’s path laid out in front of us – and it makes us wince. Like eating something too sweet. (Especially since we’ve already grown accustomed to the bitter taste in our mouths.) It’s laid out in front of us, like rocks over Minnehaha creek. And we’ve already taken the first step….

Boy, I wish I was Frank Miller right now. Can’t you just see this story flanked by a heroically drawn Viking? Standing on a gridiron, staring into a driving snow, waiting for a long anticipated dawn? Isn’t that what this story needs? What we all need?

Game 14 vs. Arizona Cardinals - The Vikings trounce the Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium, erasing the nightmare of their last appearance there. On Sunday, December 28, 2002, the Vikings needed to beat a pathetic Cardinals team for a playoff berth.

I wasn’t able to watch the game because I was in Philadelphia at my in-laws house, so I was watching my browser update. It said 17-6 with 2:00 minutes remaining, and I swear I still didn’t feel safe. And then……

“NOOOOOOooooooooo! NOOOoooooo! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!” It’s a beautiful radio call, capturing the desperation and rage of forty years of futility. It was courtesy of Paul Allen, when Nate Poole caught a pass from Josh McNown as time expired to produce an 18-17 Cardinals win.

I suspect Allen cringes every time it’s replayed on KFAN radio (and that’s quite a lot) but the truth is that’s when we truly welcomed him into or arms. That’s when he truly understood what it meant to be a Vikings fan. It’s when he popped his Vikings cherry.

Game 15 vs. Atlanta Falcons – The Vikings have a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week with a win over the Falcons in the Metrodome, and their magic number is one with two games left to play. This is usually when disaster strikes.
Guys, I am begging you – do NOT take this game lightly. It’s deceptive. It’s the first of four tries to get into the playoffs, but it is absolutely your best chance to control your destiny. Not to mention to exact some revenge for …

The 1998 NFC Championship game. It was a breakdown on so many levels. From the mistakes that kept the game close, to the defense that finally broke instead of bending, to the first missed field goal of the season to the inept late game coaching that we all knew would end up ruining us. Falcons 30, Vikings 27 OT. The Star-Tribune’s cover page was of three beautiful crying blonds, looking like they had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. Essentially, they had.

There are, I think, two moments in the history of the franchise where Vikings fans understood that they were on a slow road to hell. This was the second, and it introduced a whole new generation of Minnesotans to what their elders had been bitching about for the last 20 years.

Game 16 vs. the New York Giants - The Vikings may have a chance to secure a bye week in the playoffs in the last game of the season. It will bring to mind another shot at redemption, one which ended tragically against a different New York Giants team.

The 2000 Vikings were not the unstoppable force that the 1998 Vikings were, but they were in the NFC Championship game – for all of about five minutes. Before the Vikings offense had taken the field, they were down 14-0 courtesy of two Giants touchdown drives sandwiching a fumbled kickoff return. By halftime the Vikes were down 34-0.

My friends and I watched Kerry Frickin Collins pick apart the Vikes defense while the Vikings refused to rush more than four players at any one time. I bet, between us, we must’ve yelled some variation of “Denny, please, blitz! Just try it. Just once!” fifty times in the first half. My recollection is that they never did. Not once. “Plan the work, work the plan” was Denny’s motto. Even if the plan made Kerry Collins look like Johnny Unitas.

NFC Playoff Game vs. the Dallas Cowboys – Of course, there’s nothing predetermined about playoff matches yet. Or is there? How could The Fates not line up a playoff game versus the Cowboys for a Vikings team that is seeking redemption? Either it’s redemption for the ultimate crushing loss, or it’s yet one more chance to twist the dagger. It’s a win-win karmically. And the scary part is that Vikings fans understand and accept this.

It’s 1975 and the 12-2 Vikings are facing the wild card Cowboys in Met Stadium. It wasn’t the Super Bowl, or even the NFC Championship game, and it was in frigid weather. But the Cowboys won by completing two consecutive long bombs, the last of which came with 24 seconds in the game when Drew Pearson threw Nate Wright to the ground before catching the ball. It was the first “Hail Mary” pass.

Alan Page was so incensed with the non-call that he got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty assessed. Fran Tarkenton (the NFL MVP, by the way) spent the last seconds of the game arguing with the referees. Met Stadium fans threw debris on the field, including a whiskey bottle that hit referee Armen Terzian in the head and required 11 stitches.

I have never met Drew Pearson. And I hope I never do, because since I was eight years old I’ve wanted to punch him right in the mouth. The 1975 Vikings team was the single best Vikings team of all time, a heavy favorite for the NFL championship, and the team that the elder generation of Vikings fans can’t forget, no matter how much they try.

It remains the single most defining moment of Vikings fandom.

Super Bowl vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – In Super Bowl IX, the Steel Curtain faced off against the Purple People Eaters, and Terry Bradshaw dueled with Fran Tarkenton. The Vikings lost 16-6 in a game filled with turnovers and goofy penalties. It was also the last Super Bowl game played in inclement weather until Super Bowl XLI, because the Superdome was still under construction. The sloppy play might be partially attributed to a slick field caused by overnight rain. It was the third Super Bowl the Vikings would lose – Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6.

There’s no doubt that the Vikings had worse Super Bowls losses than they did against the Steelers in Super Bowl IX. But those didn’t happen while I was in second grade, falling in love with Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall. I distinctly remember sitting in Mrs. Rogee’s class at St. Peters the Monday after the game, believing that when I got home there would be some announcement that it was going to be replayed because the officiating had been so unfair. I don’t even remember the specific calls I had a problem with, though I’m pretty sure they involved pass interference. That game had so many fumbles and goofy plays, it could have been anything.

Anyway, I got home and they announced no such thing. And for the next week, I felt incensed that nothing was happening, and it was all the worse because there was nothing to fight. And that's when I understood what it means to be a Vikings fan. It's when I popped my Vikings cherry.


These aren’t just losses to the fans. They’re scars. And it isn’t clear that a march through these opponents, or even a Super Bowl win, would heal those wounds. But this path provide a chance to start a new chapter for this franchise, and to redeem the love a fan base had shown for almost fifty years. The path is there, if we can only walk it.

Skol Vikings. Let’s go.

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Give credit where credit is due on this story. I am totally ripping this idea off from LaVelle E Neal, who proposed this redemptive string of game for the Vikings yesterday on KFAN. Thanks LaVelle. It was really run to write this.

8 comments:

BeefMaster said...

Wonderful post, John - it captures the essence of being a frustrated Vikings fan.

It was especially funny to see you mention Allen - since that point, he's become the pessimist that every lifelong Vikings fan is. I particularly remember the Vikes-Cards game the year after "4th and 26" - the Cardinals were in a similar situation (needing a TD, an onside kick and another TD), and there was no surprise in his voice when the Cardinals scored, or when they recovered the onside kick. The surprise came when the Cardinals' Hail Mary fell incomplete and the Vikings officially won.

One minor correction - Vikes-Steelers wasn't the last outdoor Super Bowl. It rotates among domes and warm-weather outdoor sites, although the only time I remember weather being a factor was the rainy Bears-Colts game a couple years ago.

Ghost42 said...

I do believe BeefMaster's correct; remember the only halftimeshow worth watching since nipplegate? Prince singing Purple Rain in the rain.

John said...

Thanks guys. It's fixed.

walter hanson said...

The one alarming thing about the Vikings. I consider Denny Green to be a dumb head coach (after all on his resume is he is the only coach to have lost to "2" 1-15 teams in the same season). Childress tried his best to lose to Detroit twice. And we're in this position only because of some bad refererring in New Orleans, in Detroit twice, and because two years ago Adriann Peterson dropped into our laps at number seven (and just to think if I was the Vikings at the time I would've traded the pick to a team that would've wanted AP because I thought it will help us fill other needs and because we had Chester Taylor). Of course it helps that this owner was willing to open the checkbook and get Jarred Allen!

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

Boof said...

I remember watching the 4th quarter of that game when Robert Smith was carrying the ball to victory. The Top Gun guitar theme was in my head and I turned to my buddies,
"Guys, we're going to the (bleepin) Superbowl!"

Then the nightmare happened and we had a group of 4 people performing the "Dirty bird" in front of us.

My god that game was heartbreaking.

Nathan Gau said...

Why did you have to remind me about that 1998 Vikings team... Talk about a heartbreaker. You get a minute with timeouts in the fourth quarter of a tie game and you take a knee... What the heck are you waiting for? Then again, I was living in Cleveland the last time Dan Reeves took an underdog team and beat them in OT on a 37 yard FG. So maybe it is fate.

I remember the Tarkington days only by replays... and I still can't believe no interference was called on that play... Oh well.

Sadly, I don't think this team is good enough to get beyond 1 round of the playoffs. To their credit, they are playing the best football they played all season, but with the exception of Arizona last week and Chicago 3 weeks ago, they haven't exactly been stellar against good teams (then again, Chicago isn't a good team).

KEN said...

My Vikes cherry was popped when Darrin Nelson dropped the pass in the end zone in the NFC championship game v. the Redskins. I think the AFC didn't even bother to send a team to the Super Bowl that year.

And you forgot to mention the year the Panthers went 1-15, the Lions went 2-14, and they both beat the Vikings.

Yeah, it's a cursed existence.

Add in the wife-choking Warren Moon, coercing cruise employees to have sex with them on Lake Minnetonka, and drunkenly driving their cars into the same Hardee's drive-thru box every weekend, and it's awfully hard to root for these jerks.

Anonymous said...

Ken I vividly remember Jerry burns literally pulling out his hair having watched the ball hit Darrin Nelson in the HANDS and bounce off like a car careening off a cliff! For me, the memory of that game kept running through my head during the title game in 1998 as we snatched defeat from the hands of victory.

Shannon