If there is gridiron reincarnation, this Sunday’s Vikings-Seahawks playoff game may be it. Or, alternatively, it is a football version of “Our Town” with the narrator returning from the hereafter to remember the past for a day-in-the-life glimpse at postseason NFL football.
From 1969-1976 the Vikings played ten December playoff games at Metropolitan Stadium on ground painted green and thawed with a large wheeled acetylene torches.
Moving indoors to the Metrodome in 1982, such games were seemingly consigned to history and memory. Now with a temporary hiatus at TCF Bank Stadium about to end – before a return indoors to U.S. Bank stadium – the 2015-2016 Vikings can for a few hours revive “the Spirit of the Met” in the words of Jim Klobuchar’s “True Hearts and Purple Heads.”
As I grew up in elementary school and junior high school in St. Louis Park in the years before ESPN and sports talk radio, a Vikings playoff game was a huge local story and a chance for Minnesota to appear on the national sports scene. Watching the game was an afternoon of family and friends punctuated by the excitement (and sometimes spectator anguish) of the four team conference playoff with no easy outs.
The games remain vivid in memory across the decades and from a Minnesota perspective should carry their own mystical nomenclature like the Roman numerals of the Super Bowls.
The heightened sense of drama of the December playoff games was watching the games while on family vacation. There were the early morning starts in Los Angeles (1969) and Maui (1973) and renting a television just in the nick of time in Fort Lauderdale (1974) for a sparsely furnished condominium.
Who can forget watching the 1969 divisional playoff game against the Rams in the company of my LA cousins in my grandparents’ den in West Hollywood? The game in which the last few minutes featured Carl Eller sacking Roman Gabriel for a safety to give the Vikings a three-point lead and Alan Page sealing the victory with a mid-field interception. There was nothing like celebrating the Vikings’ defense and a Vikings’ victory amid the palm trees of Southern California.
Watching the 1973 games starting at 8 a.m. Hawaii time barely gave us time to prepare for the Yiddish imprecations which “Uncle” Mickey Spector would hurl at the television as the thumb licking Washington coach George Allen appeared on the screen. (Little did we know that Carl Eller – who was not going to allow the Vikings to lose in the divisional round for a third consecutive time – was also expressing himself smashing a blackboard at halftime to inspire the trailing Vikings.). The next week the Vikings dispatched the loathed Cowboys in Dallas 27-10 in the 1973 NFC championship game which was the Vikings’ only road playoff game in the 1969-1976 era of Vikings dominance. For my money this was the greatest Viking win of all time celebrated by the Hunegs and Spector families at dinner in the restored whaling village of Lahaina, Maui.
The heart of the Vikings 7-3 December home playoff record (the Vikings were a combined 0-3 against San Francisco and Dallas) was hexing the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams – statistically outplayed the Vikings in the 1974 and 1976 NFC championship games. The Vikings, though, had the ability to make huge plays at critical moments in those games to thwart Chuck Knox and the Rams: Wally Hilgenberg’s end zone interception; Bobby Bryant’s 90 yard blocked field goal return; Chuck Foreman’s 60 yard run off a swing pass deftly keeping his balance and juking Jack Youngblood on the icy turf. Hence Pat Reusse’s nickname for Bud Grant: “Horseshoe Harry” – whose teams always knew that ultimately beating the Rams at Metropolitan Stadium in the December wind and cold was inevitable – which made it all the more delicious.
The December 26, 1976, NFC championship game was a fin de siècle moment in Minnesota sports history. This was the last great Vikings team of the Bud Grant era. (Hubert Humphrey was interviewed at the game looking healthy and rosy cheeked as the Parkettes skated on the little ice rink set up down the left field line – only at Met Stadium. During the 1977 playoffs Hubert would be terminally ill with cancer.)
The Gopher basketball team of Mychal Thompson, Kevin McHale, and Ray Williams was a magnificent 24-3 although the NCAA would later vacate the record. The Gopher Hockey team featured fabulous freshman such as Steve Christoff and Eric Strobel who were instrumental in winning the 1979 NCAA championship and were part of the minyan of Gophers who played on 1980 gold medal winning USA hockey team. Herb Brooks coached his last Gopher hockey team in 1979 and the era of Minnesota dominance – three NCAA titles in six years – ended.
The Twins were exciting and scored runs at an impressive rate in 1976 and 1977 (the 85 wins in 1976 were the most between 1971-1988) led by Rod Carew, Larry Hisle, and Lyman Bostock. Hisle and Bostock left by free agency in 1978 and Rod Carew was traded in 1979. Even the resource-starved Gopher football team – coached by the under-appreciated Cal Stoll — had solid football teams in 1976 and 1977 drawing three crowds of over 50,000 to Memorial Stadium in 1976 and upsetting Michigan 16-0 in 1977. (The 1976 team started 3-0 in the Big Ten but blew a 12-0 halftime lead at home to a lousy Iowa team which ruined a promising season.) Cal Stoll was fired at the end of the 1978 season as the first of nine coaches who have struggled to return the Gophers to Pasadena.
So – on Sunday – we get one more taste of outdoor, home Viking playoff football in the cold and snow. I hope we’ll celebrate a Vikings win, because this taste will need to last forever and there are few things as ephemeral as sports success.
Steve Hunegs lives in St. Louis Park.