A small part of me died yesterday along with Bud Grant. I had exactly one personal encounter with coach Grant. It was nearly 46 years ago and yet I remember it as if it happened yesterday. In some small way it taught me something that stayed with me all these years and resonates even more in the times we now live: It costs nothing to be nice.
It was the summer of 1977. A few months after the Grant led Vikings had lost their fourth and final Super Bowl. A few weeks after I graduated from Winona State University and started my first job as an aspiring TV sportscaster. My boss sent me to gather some stories on the first day of Vikings training camp.
At that point in my life I was an unadulterated fanboy. I didn’t know whether to do interviews or ask for autographs from those larger than life figures who were my sports heroes growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. The first thing I learned at training camp: Tarkenton cheats at doing push-ups just like I used to do in high school, but I digress.
At the end of the day I’m waiting outside the players’ dormitory in Mankato for one final interview. I was feeling like a failure because the story the boss really wanted me to do didn’t work out. I’m sitting on a bench waiting when Bud Grant strides, I don’t think he ever just walked casually, up. As always with Bud the first thing you notice is those eyes. Those steely blue eyes you saw in all the sideline photos as he gazed on the frozen turf of Met Stadium. Those eyes many former players talked about because, while they said coach Grant seldom raised his voice, a stare from those eyes told them they were in trouble.
On that hot afternoon, after a full day on the practice field, those eyes saw a kid reporter who was in over his head. He didn’t know me from the proverbial hill of beans. I didn’t see those steely blue eyes. Instead those eyes were twinkling, at least that’s the way I remember it, as he stopped and asked me if I had everything I needed. He asked if there was anything he could do to help.
The cynics may say Bud Grant was just doing his job but I wasn’t a beat reporter who he needed to build a relationship with. It was a random act of kindness to a kid who likely looked scared and intimidated. As I got older I came to realize how rare that was. I have to believe there were very few NFL coaches then or now who would make that gesture. They are not bad people, but most are driven by the demands of their profession.
Grant also taught me something else we should remember on his passing: Football is a game, it is not life. In my youthful fanaticism I pondered if his stoic approach on the sidelines was part of the reason my Vikings lost those Super Bowls. Maybe the team needed a screamer like Lombardi. A demonstrative coach like Madden. Or even a cocky braggart like the hated Hank Stram.
Age and maturity prevailed. I learned to admire Grant’s approach to the game. Those Super Bowl losses never consumed him. I heard that on many Sundays in the fall he would go duck hunting in the morning before an afternoon game. I would like to think he never once slept in his office because hunting ducks and life are more important than football.
Happy Hunting Bud!