The name of Scott Studwell has been synonymous with Minnesota Vikings football for over four decades. Since he was drafted in the ninth round of the 1977 NFL Draft, Studwell spent 42 years as a part of the Vikings’ organization as both a player and a member of the front office.
Now, he has encapsulated his experiences with the team in his autobiography, Viking for Life: A Four-Decade Football Love Affair. The book came out very recently, and we have been given permission from the publisher to share an excerpt from the book with you.
This excerpt from Viking For Life: A Four-Decade Football Love Affair by Scott Studwell with Jim Bruton is reprinted with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or TriumphBooks.com/VikingForLife.
Outside the Lines
I was thinking about Bud Grant and the way he carried himself, and a memory came to me. It was about three to four weeks into my rookie season, in training camp at Mankato, when it happened. Camp had been a grind and I had not talked to Bud at all—I mean, not a word. There had been no conversations, no sit-downs, no get-to-know-you gestures, nothing at all. He was pretty aloof, especially with the rookies.
We were in an afternoon practice, on the middle field at the south end. Bud used to run the scout team at practice, and for some reason I was standing next to him. Suddenly a butterfly flew over our heads and Bud started talking about the migration of the monarch butterfly. It was an unusual moment, odd for sure. He was not a man of a lot of words. I didn’t know if he was probing to see what I knew about it or what he was doing, but I got a good lesson on the migration of the monarch butterfly nevertheless.
I didn’t know what to think. Why in the hell would our head football coach bring this up at practice? I wondered. I didn’t get it. He had not spoken a word to me before this one-sided conversation, and it set me back a little bit because it made no sense to me. I don’t believe I said a word in response. I mean what could I have said? “Yes, Bud, they migrate very well.” I don’t think so. I was left speechless.
I never knew what kind of degree Bud earned in college but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was psychology. He understood people. He knew how to control people’s emotions and temperaments. He just knew exactly what to say at the right time to keep his troops in line.
Bud would sometimes bring his dog to practice on Saturday mornings because fall was hunting season. Wally Hilgenberg would also bring his dog, and it was so well trained it would sit at his locker for a couple hours. It was a different time in a different era; everything was a little more relaxed than it is today.
Jerry Burns was the character of all characters. Everyone on the team had a “middle name” with Burnsie and that was “Big Nuts.” He would get so excited and carried away that when he talked on the practice field, in meetings, or face-to-face, he would forget your name. He would stutter and stammer and eventually he would call you Big Nuts. It was hilarious. You knew he knew your name, but he just got so worked up and carried away that he lost it—so Big Nuts it was. It was a term of endearment from Burnsie. He was so colorful. We would sit across from the offense with a partition dividing the meeting rooms and you could hear Burnsie over there yelling at the offense. It was comical. They would be laughing and then we would start laughing right along with them. He was one of the true characters in our business, that’s for sure.
I mean absolutely no disrespect toward Burnsie. I loved the man and he was a great football coach, no question about that. Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers coach, got a lot of credit for the West Coast offense in pro football, but Burnsie ran that offense at Iowa and Minnesota long before Walsh emerged. He had that flair and ingenuity about him, and the ball-control offense was all Jerry Burns.
He was very intelligent, very funny, and a great communicator. He was good schematically and an excellent teacher of the game. He was a great coach and mentor. Some people will remember the character rather than the coach, but the bottom line was that he was very good at his job.
I don’t know why Bud and Jerry got along so well because they were surely different personalities. I think there was a level of trust that they had gained over the years from being together and working together. Even when Bud was coaching in Canada he would have Jerry come up as a consultant and assist with their offense.
I’m sure Jerry was taken aback or even hurt when he didn’t get the head coaching job after Bud retired the first time. Being a player, you are not really privy to any information around that decision—we had to just roll with the punches—but I would guess he was hurt. We players certainly were not consulted on who should get the job.
Despite the way things unfolded, he turned around and came back the next year and did a great job as offensive coordinator under Les Steckel, and eventually became our head coach. I had heard a lot of stories about the whole thing, but I am personally glad that he stayed because it paid off for both him and for us.
Burnsie was a great guy to work for, even as a defensive player. Being a captain and one of the older players on the team, we had a level of trust between us that is probably hard to find in today’s game. I could go and sit down in his office, or he would pull me aside and we could talk about anything. He was one of those guys who players loved playing for and for whom we wanted to be successful.
After I retired, I would see Bud quite a bit. Bud kept an office at the team headquarters at Winter Park and has one now at the new facility. Once Burnsie left the coaching side he didn’t come around much, except for alumni events or special occasions. I haven’t seen much of Jerry the last couple of years, and I know he has had a tough go of it physically, but I know this: his sense of humor is still as sharp as ever. I mean, every time I see him—or Rickey Young, a former player—I just start laughing. They are both the kind of guys who always have something to say with kind of an edge to it. They just make me laugh. I don’t think that Jerry ever got the credit that he deserves as a head coach. I always wished that we could have won a championship for Burnsie—and for Bud as well.
I played eight years for Bud, one with Les Steckel, and five with Jerry Burns. The year with Steckel was very difficult, as I mentioned previously. It was a very unusual year and anyone who was on the team that year will never forget it. That year with Les was a tough year for everybody. Not only did we lose Bud, who was the face of the franchise and the program, but along the way with Les, the season was miserable. He almost beat us into submission. By the third or fourth game of the season, we were almost finished, completely worn out both mentally and physically.
Just another quick note here on Steckel. As I have said, I liked Les and I got along with him, but his way of doing things was so different from the way we were used to, it made it hard to buy in. He was enthusiastic and energetic and I wanted him to succeed. I don’t think there was anyone on the team that didn’t want that. But as I said, he made it very hard for everyone. He changed too much and tried too hard to put his stamp on the program, and it didn’t work out. It was a grueling off-season and training camp and there was live contact almost every day. The first few weeks of the season we were competitive but then it went downhill from there.
I mentioned Rickey Young as being a real character. Rickey was just one of those colorful guys. He had a smile on his face all the time. He was a bit of a smart-ass type, and somewhat mischievous. He was an easygoing guy who had a way with everyone. There’s not a mean bone in his body. He was also a very good player on the field.
We had a lot of colorful characters on the Vikings during the time when I played. Keith Millard was another real character. He is a very dear friend of mine. He was a great player for us and was in the coaching business for a long time, and currently lives in California with his family. He was one of the more colorful characters we had on our team and somewhat volatile—but in a good way rather than a bad way.
Floyd Peters was our defensive coordinator when Keith was there, and he knew how to push Keith’s buttons—and Keith knew how to push Floyd’s. And they did it from time to time. There were a lot of conversations and banter that went on between them. They just knew how to get under each other’s skin.
I remember one Saturday morning when we had a light workout before a game. We were sitting in the meeting room and Floyd was kind of picking at Keith. Pretty soon Keith started back at Floyd, and it kept going until Keith got up and walked out of the room. He stormed out of the meeting room and was gone. He got into his car and drove it up over a 20-foot bank, and later showed up at the hotel like nothing had happened. He could flip a switch and become upset. But I will say this about Keith: he could flip a switch in a game and become unstoppable. He was a great player and had some dominating years with us.
I had some great mentors with the Vikings during my playing days. Wally Hilgenberg was a good voice of reason. He had been in the league a long time and became a good friend. Jeff Siemon was the starting middle linebacker when I arrived, and although we didn’t spend a lot of time together outside of football, I had a tremendous amount of respect for both of them and how they prepared and carried themselves. Matt Blair was an outstanding leader, excellent player, and someone I admired. Even though I was the new kid on the block they were always there for me to answer questions or help any way that they could. They were always very professional in their approach.
Jim Marshall was a phenomenal leader and player. He never missed a game. He was always there on Sundays, and he had that aura about him—and the wisdom that came with all his experience. Bud entrusted Jim with the football team, to make sure that everyone was on the straight and narrow and focused on the task at hand.
There were a lot of veteran players on our football team for me to emulate. I got to see how they carried themselves on and off the field. It was a great time to come into a veteran team, to see how they worked and prepared and determine what I needed to do to get myself prepared to play every Sunday.
Thank you to Scott Studwell, Jim Bruton, and the folks at Triumph Books for allowing us to republish this except from the new book Viking For Life: A Four-Decade Football Love Affair. If you want to gain some more insights into the history of the Minnesota Vikings from someone that’s lived quite a bit of it, check it out at one of the links at the top of the post.