Mark Bennett: Jacket, loyalty endure as beloved NFL team tries again to win it all

Ready, waiting: A youth-size Minnesota Vikings jacket might be brought out of storage should that NFL team ever win an elusive Super Bowl title.Tribune-Star/Mark Bennett

If Minnesota ever wins a Super Bowl, I might just twist myself into that old Vikings jacket and wear it for a week.

That moment would resemble Chris Farley’s “fat-guy-in-a-little-coat” bit from “Saturday Night Live,” but I’d endure snickering onlookers. My parents bought me that jacket when the Vikings dominated the original National Football League. As a grade-schooler, I was fascinated by Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” defense, led by its front four linemen — Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Jim Marshall — and their home-field atmosphere. That’s how they became the favorite team of a kid from Prairieton, Indiana.

My buddies and I mimicked our favorite players in backyard football games then, and I’d pretend to be unstoppable tackle Alan Page on defense and rugged wounded-duck-throwing quarterback Joe Kapp on offense.

The black-and-white TV picture in our rural Hoosier home only enhanced the Vikings’ mystique. Minnesota didn’t play inside a climate-controlled dome in the 1960s and ’70s. Metropolitan Stadium stood fully exposed to the icy winds, heavy snow and frigid temperatures of the North Star State. Sunday after Sunday in winter, the grounds crew wheeled flame-throwing carts along the snow-covered playing field, just so the yard lines were visible, before kickoff, at least.

Once play started, the Vikings’ front four lined up along the line of scrimmage, with their frozen breath billowing into the faces of the opposing linemen. After they’d stop the visitors’ offensive possession, the Vikings returned to their sideline bench, where there were no gloves, heaters or coats awaiting them, even in sub-zero temperatures. Minnesota Coach Bud Grant figured while the visiting team players huddled around their sideline heaters, his Vikings were not so tempted and instead stood “watching the game, ready to play,” as he once told NLF.com.

And they won a lot.

Grant’s teams won 87 of 111 regular-season games from 1969 to 1976, the pinnacle of his 18 years as Minnesota’s coach. Four games his Vikings didn’t win were Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX and XI. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of my first Vikings heartbreaker, their unexpected 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth Super Bowl on Jan. 11, 1970. It was the final game played between pro football’s two separate leagues — the establishment National Football League and the upstart American Football League. After the 1969 season, the leagues merged into one NFL.

I probably wore my Vikings jacket as I watched them get routed by the Chiefs. The jacket was my Christmas present.

Sears & Roebuck made that coat in high school letter jacket style, with its dry-clean-only purple wool torso, purple-and-white cotton collar, purple lining, and white sleeves made by the Uniroyal Rubber Co. Talk about an All-American garment. It has a few cracks in the sleeves. If it once had tear stains, they’re no longer visible. It still looks pretty good, hanging in the back of a closet in our house.

My mom preserved the jacket, after I outgrew it. I doubt the boys-size-12 still fit me by the time the Vikings made their second Super Bowl appearance in 1974. I was 13 then, when they lost to the Miami Dolphins. Those losses broke my heart, but not my loyalty. Hoping against hope, I again watched the Vikings lose Super Bowls in 1975 to the Pittsburgh Steelers and 1977 to the Oakland Raiders.

They’ve never been back to the title game since, though they’ve come close.

This year, the Vikings have a long-shot chance at winning their first Super Bowl in the club’s 59-year history. On Saturday, they’ll play the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers in California in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, exactly 50 years after Minnesota’s loss to the Chiefs. Like all NFL teams, the Vikings pass a lot more today than they did in 1970. And, they play home games in a beautiful, enclosed, warm stadium. No pregame, field-thawing flame-throwers are necessary. Despite the changes, the Vikes remain my team.

They’ll have to win two more playoff games just to reach the Super Bowl. If such a miracle unfolds, and Minnesota then gets its first Super Bowl title in Miami, I’ll pull out that jacket. Maybe I shouldn’t try to squeeze myself inside of it. Better yet, I’ll see if one of my grandkids will wear it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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