Carl Eller is a legend. A DE on the famed Purple People Eaters, he was a 6x Pro Bowler, 5x First-team All NFL (as well as Second-team All Pro twice), the George S. Halas Trophy winner in 1971, the all-time Vikings sack leader with 130 1/2, a Hall of Famer... the list of awards he has stacked up goes on and on. This Tuesday, March 5th, he will receive yet another accolade: the Hometown Hall of Famer award presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate. A plaque will be dedicated to him at Atkins Academic and Technology High School, his alma mater in Winston-Salem, N.C. A big thanks to Samantha Cannon, who allowed the Daily Norseman the opportunity to interview Eller this morning- and also an apology from me personally, as I may or may not have gone 14 minutes past the scheduled end. (Whoops.) Hopefully you'll understand why: the man is both gracious and fascinating, and honestly I could have probably interviewed him for 2-3 hours straight.
Most know that Eller is a major proponent of substance abuse counseling as well as the President of the RPA, the Retired Player's Association. His dedication to both programs becomes very evident, and he had some of the best ideas I've personally ever heard regarding how former players can remain invaluable assets to their teams. He also has high hopes for the Minnesota Vikings as they are today, as well as some of the best compliments for current players I've heard yet. Read on to hear the man himself cover topics from the current state of our beloved purple, and about the state of affairs for retired players.
Mr. Eller, it's an honor to speak to a Hall of Fame Purple People Eater, you are an absolute legend. You have received a lot of well-deserved awards, and I understand on Tuesday you will be receiving another one.
I will be. It's a great award and a great honor. I'll be going back to where it all started and it's going to be a super time. I'm thrilled to receive this award at Atkins Academic and Technology, it'll be great to go back to Winston-Salem and just to get involved with this, it's great. It's great because it goes back to everything, everything that's happened in my career, all the success I've had, it's where all the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. I'm so indebted to my time there and what all began there and it's going to be great.
I understand that it's a former high school teammate who will be presenting you with the plaque.
Yeah, its Hessie [Smith] and its great because we played together in high school, and you know, we've kept contact, some contact, and it's going to be a real honor and a pleasure. I think what's great is that my daughter is going to get to go, she lives in California and she's going to be there. She's never been to Winston-Salem because she was born in Minnesota and now she can go there and meet some of my former teammates, meet Hessie, my old friends and my old brothers. I can't wait for that.
A year or so back, you joined in a class-action suit against the NFL over the trauma caused by head injuries. This is obviously a very serious issue, how do you personally feel things are going in that direction- do you feel the NFL is on the right track, or does a lot more need to be done to keep players safe and healthy?
You know it's not just about the injuries. The RPA [Retired Players Association], we joined in, but not just for the head trauma, there's a lot more that happens. When the CBA was being negotiated during the lockout, the NFLPA they dissolved and it left retired players hanging without representation. We were still aiming for the retired players to be involved in the whole process, not just about the injuries because a lot of things go on. There's a lot of stuff that happens when players retire and leave the game.
What's the one thing you want to see happen for retired players?
The best thing is to keep these guys involved. There's a lot of things that happen and it's not just about the injuries. It's about a better understanding of what they're going through. These guys they leave the game and it's a new world. They leave and... what we're working on right now is something called Gameplan 2, and we're working with colleges and universities so these retired players can have college credit through this program, to help them make the transition to the next part of their lives. It's not just something the league needs to handle, its bigger than that, and the focus isn't just on the injuries. There's trauma, there's emotional trauma that happens when you leave the game because it's all you know and now it's gone, and people don't think about that. There's a thing I call pperolism (OPPOSITE OF HEROISM), it's the opposite of heroism. You are loved and treated like a hero, and then you leave the game and that's gone. And that can cause a lot of emotional trauma, and there's a psychological transition. People lost sight of this. There's a lot of focus on the head trauma and the CTE, and because of that people aren't aware of these other issues retired players are facing.
How is Gamplan 2 going, is that something that's fully started or is there still a lot to go?
It's going but there's a lot of work that needs to be done. We're working with universities and colleges and they don't always have what they need for this, and that's very difficult to tell these colleges that they >laugh< don't have the education yet. It's a very unique experience for these former players. These guys they come out of the game and it's just something they're not prepared for.
Changing the subject a bit: last year the Vikings exceeded expectations in a big way. As a member of the dominant 1970's Super Bowl era teams, how close, or how far, do you think this team is from getting back to the big game?
It's hard to say, it's a mystery. That's part of the beauty of the game is that constant mystery about how well a team is going to do. The Vikings, they work hard, they have great ownership that's putting the pieces in place. The coach, Leslie Frazier, I think Frazier is doing an excellent job, and it was remarkable how they were able to do so well last year, it was tremendous. But you know, they have Adrian Peterson, they have a guy like that- and it's a thrill to have him, it's a thrill to recognize that talent on the field and to see it and to know he's a Minnesota Viking. But we need supporting cast, on offense and on defense. We need some of the players to make that supporting cast and to do a great job. This team has a great attitude, they have a great fan base, great support, the best fan base (Ed. note: HELL YEAH WE DO), and this team they will work for it. It's just hard to tell, they're working on it, they're close but hard to tell, it's a mystery. But I think if they keep at it, keep as they have been, we'll see it and sooner rather than later.
I have to ask, being one of the best at the position, what you think about our current DE squad- Brian Robison, Jared Allen, and Everson Griffin.
Well I'll tell you Jared Allen, everybody loves him, I love him. I love to recognize a player like him, to watch him on the field. He has great dedication, he has an enthusiastic love of the game, it's just great to watch him. He's such a fun guy. Jared Allen is a great leader, a great guy, just fun to play with, and I really do appreciate him what he does. The spirit of how he plays, he's so dedicated to the game. And these other guys, Brian Robison on the field, they make a big difference. These other guys bring a lot out there and are really dedicated, they love the game, they love the team, they love the history. I see them filling roles, playing Vikings football, you know, you look at guys, the People Eaters, like Jim Marshall, myself, Alan Page, Gary Larsen, these guys that play rough and tough, rock-em-sock-em football, that's Vikings football. I love to see the guys like this, I love to see that because they don't wimp out, they don't go "Oh I have a headache, oh I have a hangnail, oh whatever", they're here to play that tough rock-em-sock-em football, and that's Vikings football!
Aside from Jared Allen, who just received possibly the best praise ever, who is your favorite guy on defense?
Well I think Jared Allen >laugh< he's just the best to me, but if you ask me that, well I think Winfield is the guy, and that's not going to surprise anyone. He represents the spirit of football, he represents that Vikings football, where you go after every play, you go after every tackle, each and every play. And that reminds me of who we are, who we were, that Bud Grant style Vikings team where it's a bunch of tough guys with no quit. And I see guys like Greenway and he's the same way, and the other linebackers like the brothers, the Hendersons, those guys go after every play and that's what I love to see. And we have that new guy, Smith, the new safety. This new guy, this rookie, he's out there hitting guys every play, making interceptions, making tackles, making fumbles, and these guys like that, like Smith, they're trying to express that Vikings football, that rock-em-sock-em football down after down. You look at guys like Adrian Peterson, he reminds me of someone like Chuck Foreman, Jim Brown, just tough guys that play Vikings football, and when we play that, that's who we are and that's how we win.
Have you ever had the desire to go into coaching, maybe at the high school or college level, or even into the pros?
Well, no but I do feel focused on Gameplan 2, that's what I do and that's what I want to be known for as a guy who doesn't play football anymore. That's my focus, that's my thing now. I want to help these retired players now and I want that to be my focus, and what people know me for. And you know I'm very involved in substance abuse programs, I've started a lot of substance abuse programs, and you know I look at a guy like Cris Carter who just got into the Hall of Fame, and that program really helped him and he said it. That guy would have never been a Viking otherwise and he said it, and that's something I'm very involved in in terms of helping people.
It does seem like the issue of DUIs comes up frequently, whether it's established players or younger guys at the Combine... what would you say to these guys, how do you stop this? Is it an issue for the teams, or should there be another focus?
It's a thing where we need to help educate people, both younger and older, about chemical abuse and addiction and how that works. I think that's something that former players can really help some of these younger guys with. We can talk to these guys and tell them about these dangers and help prepare them and help them avoid these mistakes. I think we need more of that, more retired players connecting to these younger guys.
Something like a mentorship program.
Yeah. I think former players, it's good for everyone. It's good for these younger guys but its good too for these former players, keeping them involved, keeping them important, keeping them connected to the game. That's one of things I really want to see happen and I think now the NFLPA is starting to come to that, players are becoming more aware. It's something I want the teams to help take a bit of a lead on, it's not just on the league.
Have the Vikings started anything like this?
Well it's something were working on, it's something I'd like to see happen. You know fans they want to know what happens to these guys that retire, and I think the [retired] players want to be known and remembered as something a bit more than football players, they want fans to know who they are and what they're doing now that they're not in the game. It's good for these young guys and you've got to find a way to connect to them, because these guys they're in their 20s, you can't expect them to think like a 70-year old Carl Eller! They're in their 20s and they're going to think and act like they're in their 20s and you need to find a way to bridge that, to find that connection, to find the difference. The league is emphasizing the damage that the sport causes but they aren't focusing on the good that these ties can do, the ties between former and current players, the help and guidance that we can offer these guys. Retired players, we can be a real asset to the league, and we need to set some policies. Some players they don't understand this, this is in their best interest. Teams need to emphasize this and use these players, because these are the guys that understand, they've been there. They know what drives these athletes, and they know what they're going to face when their time is done.
What's one thing, then, that you would want Vikings fans to know about you as a retired player?
Well, I want them to know about the substance abuse programs, the work I've done there, the Pioneer Program. It's not just for football players you know, it's for everyone. And it's helped again, you look at Cris Carter, he wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if it weren't for that. And a lot of Hall of Famers are the same way. He wouldn't have been a Minnesota Viking. And he acknowledged that and that's great, and it reminds me that a lot of other players can get that same help, and not just players but everyone with a chemical abuse problem. And we are creating and initiating these kind of things, and those are the payoffs. Helping a player it's important! And it helps the fans, it helps everyone.
[It's about here I realized I was 14 minutes over my scheduled end time, and I hastily apologized to both Carl Eller and Samantha Cannon, who graciously set up the interview and then put up with me blabbing on and on.]
Thank you very much for your time, and congratulations again on the Hometown Hall of Fame award!
Hey I appreciate your time, thanks for having me. It's going to be great, Allstate and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, giving me this award, it's going to be great.
There it is, folks. Honestly I think his concept of retired players being heavily involved with their former teams, or the teams of their hometowns, acting as mentors for current players- both those just entering the league, and those about to leave- is something that should be implemented post-haste. Kudos to Carl Eller for remaining so committed off the field, and SKOL!