My earliest recollections of Vikings football were sitting with parents and brothers around the TV on Sundays watching Fran Tarkington scramble for his life and keep the play going longer than you ever thought possible. Or watching the Purple People Eaters converge on the poor opposing quarterback who was smothered and eaten alive. The players of that time didn't get paid what do today, they somehow seemed to be more real back then, they weren't surrounded with PR experts, or taught the politically correct things to say. They seemed larger than life heroes, with both greatness, and flaws that made it easier to see them as working guys like us. They came out after the games and joined in with the tailgate parties of fans. You read the stories of some of their crazy daredevil stunts off the field. Some became bigger than the game itself, their personas carried them on to greater things, and they impacted the society they lived in. For a boy looking for heroes, they were there, and the only color that mattered was purple.
When I was a young boy playing football, pro football players didn't promote themselves with ads or commercials as they do today, they didn't move on to another team when they became great, and their loyalty remained for their team and fans. They stayed in their community during the off season, stayed after retirement to become judges, coaches, entrepreneurs, broadcasters, and loyal fans of the Vikings. They stayed on to join the ring of honor, not Super Bowl winners, yet they all helped create a legacy and memories of better times, of closer families, of pride for Minnesota. For those of us over fifty, it was a different time, pro sports was a significant part of the social upheaval towards equality of the races and the sexes, often ahead of its time. As blacks and whites fought together in Vietnam, blacks and whites fought together on the football field in Minnesota, while white police beat black rioters around the cities in our nation in the effort to sustain the injustice of racism. Football helped us forget the darkness we saw on our black and white TV, for even color was once segregated by technology back then.
One thing I love about being at the field live, versus watching football on TV, is the feeling I get when the national anthem is played, as both teams line up before going to battle, and honor our nation, and the symbol of freedom of our flag. Networks don’t cut in to play the national anthem on TV much these days, and many people have forgotten the words, and don’t know the meaning of the song. I have been a soldier and far from home, and when I see the American flag waving I am reminded with pride why I served in the military. To men who have sacrificed for the ideals that formed America, the flag is a symbol of this dream. I get a lump in my throat, and I feel deep emotion fill my soul. I see these great athletes standing still and honoring that symbol together. They are soldiers of another kind, yet they sacrifice in their own way to bring competition and teamwork and loyalty to a higher place of honor and recognition.
Football to me isn't simply about the winning or losing as it was was when I was younger. It’s about honoring the past, honoring the game by remembering it’s a game played by men who despite their successes, will fail, they will fall short of the ideal, they will experience pain and hardship, and will sacrifice their future health because they love what they do together on the field more than doing it for wealth, glory, or fame. The rookies come in with visions of greatness, and when they leave, they have learned of self-sacrifice, of selflessness, of teamwork, of blending their spiritual faith with what they do on and off the field.
Many teams are filled with men who are strong in their faith, for this game is challenging in every way imaginable. Yes it can bring fame and wealth, yet the ones who stay on, who continue to play, realize they need something beyond themselves to sustain them through the lonely and difficult trials of injuries, bruised and battered bodies, trades, new teams, new towns, and finally, an end of the game. Football can make men out of wet-behind-the ears rookies. Not all, but many. The ones who endure, who are teachable, who stay humble in the peak of their careers, who learn how to keep giving in the twilight of their careers, and move on to new lives afterwards, these men are remembered in stories by the vets, in the trophy halls of team headquarters, in the homes of men who share their memories with children and grandchildren, and in the hall of fame, where fans go to remember their past, and the glory of the game that is so much more than a game to us, but an ideal of what can be.
We all want the win; yet to win with honor is the only win that means anything. New Orleans’ win will always be tainted by Bountygate. The Vikings loss will never sting as much as the shame that came to the Saints by taking the low road to claim a victory. History works things out in all areas of life and love and loss. It’s not only about the win, it’s how do we take the high road and still not lose our identity as we go to battle. We remember who we are by the men who fought once on the field, and the sacrifices of them all to keep the game honorable. This in the end makes the Vikings the team I will remain to cheer for as a fan. I will remember a forty year old man get up over and over again, even when younger men tried to keep him down. Whatever is said about the flaws of Brett Favre, I remember a hero who never quit when most would have.
Football is a game, yet it is much more than strategy, draft picks, wins or losses. It can represent the best of what men can be in life. If we were to ask either soldiers or athletes what they valued the most in their work, it would not be what they gained for themselves, but it would be what they experienced with their brothers on the field. I hope it will always be this way. Free agency has changed much. Yet I to believe the sacrifice made for their families, at practices, on game days, and behind the scenes when players are friends to one another, all this makes football a great game to watch. We are all watching and excited for what our team can be, and we hope the Vikings successes can lead us all to a better place. We all need heroes, no matter how old we get. We win and lose with the team because we believe in the best of the coaches and players we support. They are imperfect, but so are we.
We love the game because we may be or have been a player, or wanted to be, and even now we yearn to be a part of something greater that leaves a legacy of what is good and honorable and worth the sacrifice we’ve made in life for those we love. We love the wins, yet it is in the defeats we grew wiser and more tolerant of other’s weaknesses. Football is forgiving. We always have another season to try again and start fresh. This is what makes the game of football so great for me. We always have another chance, it’s not over. It could be this year, or the next, but in time the Vikings will see the culmination of all they, and we, have sacrificed to achieve. Success is not simply about the win, it’s getting up off the field after getting knocked down, and continuing to the end. We all need inspiration to go on after the heartbreaking defeat. What a day that will be when we see our favorite team standing together with the trophy after the championship game, in the greatest sport ever made, and everything we have hoped for has finally reached its glorious end. And then there is next year…