Section 310, row 20, seats 11-12. I excuse my way past 10 Viking fans, all with wet lips and a hopefulness that has culminated amidst 56 years of playoff malfunction. I arrive at my seat, where I will witness what has since been coined the Minneapolis Miracle.
My old high school friend Tucker — a kid in the graduating class above mine, who wandered the halls of our small high school in upstate New York with his puffy Vikings jacket — was accompanying me to our fourth Vikings game together. All of them wins.
This was my sixth Vikings game inside of U.S. Bank Stadium. As excited as I was for the game, I was equally anticipating the “Bring It Home” towel that fans had waiting for them at their seats. Born in 1994, I had always been envious of those who received a Homer Hanky from the epic 1991 World Series where the Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves in perhaps the most incredible game 7 in World Series history. I was just hoping for a towel of my own, not necessarily expecting to see a finish that would rival even that game.
With a firm grip on my towel and a lubricated windpipe, I shook hands with the Vikings fans surrounding our seats, shortly after knocking a foam cheese-hat off of the head of a very bold Saints fan who sat, with his friend, directly in front of me. Some of the people surrounding our seats I knew from previous games, but the two seats to our left, numbers 13 & 14, had always brought new faces. This time they were empty at kickoff and would remain that way throughout the game.
I was in attendance in these very seats during both of the Vikings’ home-openers, against the Packers and Saints. Loud stadium experiences weren’t foreign to me, having witnessed the always raucous Minnesota Wild games and extra-innings walk-off wins inside of the tightly packed Metrodome. But this game against the Saints was pure pandemonium, and the decibels followed suit.
After the Vikings kicked off to New Orleans to begin the game, the first series on defense was unforgettable. As the classy, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees took the field, it was so loud that the Saints might as well have taken three kneel-downs and punted. No level of experience or Hall of Fame stature could have prepared an offense for those first three plays. The Saints’ first possession lasted 46 seconds.
The first half was surreal. No one sat down. You were yelled at by the guy sitting behind me if you had. He was in his late 50s and during timeouts talked about the 1970s, 1987, 1999, 2003, 2009, and 2015. All heartbreakers, and this was his first in-person playoff game. He was allowed to yell at us.
The Vikings defense was suffocating. They held Brees to 1 completion, 3 yards and a 0 passer-rating in the first quarter. With under a minute remaining in the first half, the Vikings had intercepted Brees twice and after a missed Saints field goal, the Vikings took over possession. Case Keenum completed a couple of passes and the Vikings were able to give Kai Forbath a shot at a 47 yarder to go up 20-0 at halftime. He missed.
If it weren’t for such a dominating first-half performance clouding up the better-judgment region of our football brains, this should have been the bad omen all of us were waiting for.
Advantage: New Orleans
As the game reached the fourth quarter, the Saints had whittled down the 17-point deficit to three points. By this time, any sensible football fan should understand that the majority of football games, let alone a playoff game, will undoubtedly be decided by the quarterback play in the final quarter. It always is. Advantage: New Orleans — and we all knew it.
The back-and-forth football that transpired in the final minutes of what would be the greatest sporting affair of my short 23 years was gut-wrenching. Keenum responded to the Brees touchdown that made it a three-point game with a perfect 25-yard pass to Jarius Wright that set up a 49-yard field goal where Forbath would redeem himself and put three more points onto the scoreboard. With a 20-14 lead, we all settled in for a wild finish.
The ensuing Vikings drive ended in a punt. And that baby got blocked. Brees took over inside Viking’s territory with less than 8 minutes left, needing a touchdown. He made it look easy. And just like that the Vikings were behind for the first time all game with 3 minutes remaining.
21-20, Saints. The place was silent.
Same old, same old. Old-timers, middle-aged men and women, young adults, and the children representing a new era of heartbreak and Viking fandom all rested their heads in their hands, draping their white towels over their sour faces. Brutal. This is when you need Brady, or Rodgers, or Manning, or … Brees.
An eight-minute blur
The last eight minutes of the game was such a euphoric blur it seemed like a back-and-forth battle for hours. Instead, a mere 480 seconds brought about football that was almost unbearable, and too ulcer-provoking to watch. Being in attendance for a game, you give up the drama created by play-by-play commentating. As Keenum and company took over with three minutes left, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like listening to Paul Allen or Joe Buck call this game. Instead, our commentary was the stillness of the crowd and my ever-tightening grip on that white towel I’d wanted so badly.
With under three minutes left, still needing that field goal, off of his back foot Keenum heaved a 30-yard “go-get-it” ball to Adam Thielen, who, with those bright yellow gloves, made a catch of a lifetime. With under two minutes to go, we were in position for a 53-yard field-goal attempt, which at the time was thought to be the Vikings’ last hope for any points. As the Viking faithful looked on as Forbath trotted onto the field, uneasy reminiscing of Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh filled our minds. He drilled it.
With little over a minute remaining, Drew Brees took over. I hardly remember that drive at all. It was a nightmare that Viking fans, having watched their team play Aaron Rodgers twice every season, know the ending of far too well. The Saints marched down the field, Brees completing a remarkable throw on 4th and 10, setting up a game-winning field goal with 29 seconds remaining. Wil Lutz drilled it from 43 yards.
With the ball at the 25-yard line, the Vikes needed to get to the Saints’ 40 to give Forbath a chance at another field goal. A tall order for even a Hall of Fame quarterback. The full force of devastation, and another long offseason, was palpable in row 20. With 25 seconds to go, Keenum threw to Stefon Diggs for a 19-yard gain in the middle of the field. Coach Zimmer burned our final timeout. We needed 20 yards in 17 seconds. After two straight incompletions, the improbable ensued.
With 10 seconds remaining, Keenum called the play “Seven Heaven,” and unloaded a 30-yard pass to Diggs — who just needed to step out of bounds to let our kicking saga continue. Instead, Diggs was able to keep his balance, stay in bounds, all after a missed tackle by the Saints safety. He bolted 61 yards into the end zone as the time expired. The place … went … bananas.
I remember very little from the actual play. Pretty sure I blacked out. People were running, hugging, and jumping. I picked up a random guy, jumping up and down, and another guy picked us both up. I jumped on Tucker as he was holding the hands of three different fans. I had an embrace with that 50 something-year-old man sitting behind us that may have lasted a second too long, perhaps having qualified as odd in any other setting. It was surreal.
SKOL chants and bedlam outside
The crowd stuck around. We SKOL chanted over and over. Tucker and I waited, and basked in the scenery, staring at the building that would host the Super Bowl in 21 short days, hoping it would be filled with purple just one more time. Outside was bedlam, as cars honked and SKOL chants resounded in the snowy downtown streets.
I have often wondered what the ticketholders of seats 13 & 14 were doing at the time of the Minneapolis Miracle. Were they just looking to make a few bucks on resale, thinking the game couldn’t possibly end in anything other than another Vikings blunder? Whatever the reason, my heart goes out to the individuals who gave Tucker, me, and the other fans in row 20 a little extra space to lose our minds.
Benjamin Butler is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, and a lifelong Viking fan.
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