Thursday, June 05, 2008

The cynical optimism of Viking fans

This is an essay on my life and view as a Viking fan.

To write of my experiences as a Viking fan, I could start with Herschel Walker, with Anthony Carter, with Gary Anderson, with 41-0, with Nate Poole. All of these things have real life resonance for my life as a Viking fan.

But that’s not quite right; for a Viking fan too young to have seen the team play in the 70s, it is the generation that comes before mine that defines being a Viking fan. Why? Because they’re weird.

It’s a generation that has an amazing level of reverence for Bud Grant and his Viking teams. I heard stories about how Chuck Foreman carried the ball, about how quick off the snap Alan Page was, how adept at blocking kicks Matt Blair was, at what a hard hitter Karl Kassulke was. I heard stories about Carl Eller’s safety in the playoffs. I heard stories about the bravado of Joe Kapp and the crazy scrambling of Fran Tarkenton. I know that Bud Grant did not allow heaters on the sidelines of the old Met stadium because he thought they were a distraction. And I know that in any way disparaging any of these Minnesota legends would get you looks of contempt, shock, and horror.

But this generation with such deep reverence for the Vikings of old is also the generation that watched the Vikings lose--in convincing fashion--four Super Bowls. Along with the glories of those Viking teams, I know that Drew Pearson pushed off Nate Wright to give the Dallas Cowboys an undeserved victory over the Vikings in a 1975 playoff game, that a fan threw a whiskey bottle at the referee’s head, and that everybody in Minnesota nods approvingly when telling or hearing the story because clearly the referee had it coming. I know the raw disappointment that can be heard in the voices of that generation of Viking fans when they talk about those teams.

And that’s why they’re weird--there’s an indescribable combination of deep revering devotion and bitter, empty, heart-breaking disappointment. Viking fans of my generation are raised to love and cherish the Purple. But we’re also raised to expect to be disappointed by the Purple.

And at that level, younger Viking fans share a bond with those older fans: the Vikings always succeed in fulfilling our expectation of being disappointed. Fans who were too young to see the Whiskey Bottle Incident or any of the four Super Bowl losses might be old enough to have seen the ball bounce feebly off Darren Nelson’s hands in ‘87. If we were too young for that, we believed Herschel Walker would transcend the very game of football for the Vikings, only to see all our draft picks help the Cowboys win three Super Bowls. If we’re too young for that, we watched Gary Anderson make every single kick during the regular season, only to see him miss the field goal in the NFC Championship game that would have clinched the Super Bowl. Still a little young? Then we might have seen the Vikings lose to the Giants 41-0 in another NFC Championship game. A really young Viking fan? Then you still might have seen the ‘03 Vikings blow a 17-6 week 17 lead over the awful Arizona Cardinals, and you remember where you were when you saw Josh McCown complete a TD pass to Nate Poole with no time left (the ‘03 Vikings were 9-7, but they were 0-4 against the four teams tied with the worst record in the league that year--they will ALWAYS find new and exciting ways to disappoint us).

But lest you think Viking fans are despairing nihilists, think again: we are bitter, but we are always optimistic. When Gary Anderson missed that clinching kick, I thought, “Well, we can still stop Atlanta from scoring.” When Atlanta tied the score, I thought, “Well, there are 30 some seconds left to try score.” When Dennis Green ordered Randall Cunningham to kneel down, I thought, “Well, we can score in overtime.” When the Vikes went three-and-out in overtime, I thought, “Well, we can still stop Atlanta and get the ball back.” And when Atlanta scored and the Vikings missed the Super Bowl, I thought, “Well, there’s always next year.”

And that’s what I’ve said every year since.

14 comments:

  1. Peter9:41 AM

    Building on our theme of juxtaposed emotions, this post made me laugh and cry.

    I'm too young for the Whiskey incident, but I've heard about it plenty. I don't recal what happened in '87 with Darren Nelson, but you can bet I'll look that up today.

    Born in '81, I remember the Walker trade very well (also watching the Cowboys win Superbowl after Superbowl in the years to come). I have hated the Falcons for nearly 10 years now (and still contend the Vikings would've beaten the Broncos in the big game) and take some guilty pleasure in their recent and current woes.

    Giants-Vikings games have been glorious or horrendous for years now. I'm always watching through fingers when my hands inevitably cover my face.

    And those stupid '03 Vikings. I can't even talk about them.

    Your inner-dialogue about the NFC Championship game with the Falcons was spot on. I thought the very same things. The Minnesota fans I talk football with still refer to ol' Denny take-a-knee Green.

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  2. I think, speaking as a Minnesotan who is not a Viking fan, primarily, this attitude has spread to fans of other Minnesota sports franchises. This essay articulates my feelings towards the Twins and Wild more than I could expound on. When I went to school in Indiana, I brought the same attitude with me to sports teams at my school. I was always optimistic heading into the season, but never really downtrodden when I was inevitably let down. And that is the Vikings legacy.

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  3. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Nate Poole or Nate Wright?
    At one time I knew the officials name and the guy who threw the bottle.

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  4. Thanks Anon--it's fixed. Obviously both Nate Poole and Nate Wright were on my mind.

    Watching the best player in Timberwolves' history play for a different team against the best franchise in Minnesota history playing in a different city is again making me depressed about the state of Minnesota sports. Two titles since the Lakers moved, no trips to a championship round since '91. I don't have any real hope that any of my favorite teams will ever actually be relevant.

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  5. Anonymous9:29 AM

    Us old guys know our old Vikings!

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  6. Wow, that was right on with how I am as a fan. You must be right around my age. I do remember the Darrin Nelson game, but I was resilient at 6 and didn't take it as hard as my dad did when Nelson dropped the pass that would have put us past the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins. I was a relatively new Vikes fan since my first team was the Randall Cunningham Eagles until Dad and my uncle famously taunted me out of that phase during a Vikings comeback victory over said Eagles. I thought I’d see plenty of chances for the Vikings to win it all.

    More than twenty years later, my youthful optimism has undoubtedly faded. I was actually just talking to my friend today and said I had no idea what I would do with myself if the Vikings won the Super Bowl. It’s turned into the type of incomprehensible event that rivals winning the Powerball. Sure, it could happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Sigh…the life of a Minnesota sports fan. Unconditional devotion constantly rewarded with inevitable heartbreak. Is it too much to ask to at least make it to a final series or a Super Bowl? We haven’t even seen that for 17 years! Wait, never mind—I don’t think I could handle losing when it’s that close.

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  7. The name of the official that got hit with the bottle was Armen Terzian.

    The Simpsons, it seems, may have given a nod to him as well. There was the episode where Principal Skinner left Springfield where it was revealed that Seymour Skinner's real name was Armin Tamzarian. Too close to be just a coincidence, in my opinion.

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  8. Anonymous8:29 AM

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  9. Peter9:29 AM

    gonzo: that was amazing. As a huge fan of both the Vikings and the Simpsons, I am ashamed to not have known such a valuable piece of trivia.

    I always felt like something was missing in my life. Now I feel complete.

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  10. Peter4:25 PM

    According to the commentary on the DVD, the Simpsons were NOT acknowledging the Vikings with that name:

    "The Principal and the Pauper" was the last episode written by Ken Keeler, who had also pitched the original idea for the episode. Keeler named the fake Seymour after Armin Tamzarian, a claims adjuster who assisted him after a car accident. Tamzarian, who later became a lawyer, was unaware that his name was used until after the episode was completed.

    It's a shame. The Vikings explanation would've been much cooler.

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  11. Anonymous1:44 PM

    ...but enough of this witty banter. We all know that football is a gay man's game. So who's schtupping whom in the Vikings locker room?

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  12. New and exciting ways to disappoint us? More like boring and uncreative ways to make us think they are actually trying to succeed.

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  13. josdin0012:53 PM

    If it's any consolation, I am a Vikings fan and a Cubs fan. I am infected with the same bittersweet optimism whether it's summer or winter.

    True to form, with the way the Cubs are playing right now, and the way the Viking's roster looks, I'm hoping this will be the year for both teams.

    I just can't help myself.

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  14. well I did not find the cynical optimism of Viking fans as you said it in the title, but after I read your entire post I did understand what you meant by the title and I actually never thought of it

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