This story appears in the Jan. 18, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It was a case of biological ventriloquism. When Bud Grant walked onto the field wearing short sleeves in –20º wind chill before the Vikings-Seahawks game in Minneapolis on Sunday, I was the one—in Connecticut, in front of a fire—who got goose bumps.
The 88-year-old, his eyes still the color of a Bombay Sapphire bottle, coached the Vikings to their greatest triumphs (four NFC championships) and their greatest defeats (four Super Bowl losses). As such, he stood at midfield before the NFC wild-card game as a kind of coded message to Minnesotans. “There will be hope followed by disaster,” he seemed to say. “But we’ll suffer through it stoically, in short sleeves.”
The Vikings’ 10–9 loss would have resembled a horror movie—The Blair Walsh Project—had we not seen it so many times before. If Minnesota minted its own coins, the motto on the money would be “Uff da,” an all-purpose expletive of Norwegian descent that approximates the sound of being punched in the stomach.
The four worst losses in Vikings playoff history are familiar to every Minnesotan. Here, in chronological order, are the Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse:
• December 28, 1975: In an opening-round playoff game in Minnesota, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach throws the game-winning touchdown pass to Drew Pearson, who probably pushed off on Vikings defensive back Nate Wright. The play prompts Staubach to coin the phrase “Hail Mary,” which isn’t the only message from on high that day—referee Armen Terzian is brained by a whiskey bottle thrown from the stands.
• January 17, 1988: Trailing Washington by a touchdown in the NFC championship game, the Vikings find themselves at the Redskins’ six-yard-line with 56 seconds remaining. On fourth down, Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson throws to running back Darrin Nelson at the goal line. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has fallen to his knees, as if in prayer. Wilson’s pass rockets off Nelson’s opens arms and CBS announcer Pat Summerall says, like it's no big whup: “Nelson … Through his hands and the Redskins will go to the Super Bowl.”
• January 17, 1999: The Vikings are 11-point favorites at home against the Falcons, winner goes to the Super Bowl. Up 27–20 with two minutes left and looking to ice the game, kicker Gary Anderson attempts a 38-yard field goal. He has made 44 of his previous 44 attempts, but this one—it scarcely needs to be said—goes wide left. Atlanta drives 71 yards to tie a game everyone knows they’ll win in overtime.
• January 24, 2010: Tied in the NFC championship game in New Orleans, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre throws an interception at the Saints’ 22 yard line with 14 seconds left in regulation. It is both inexplicable and inevitable. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now,” says Vikings radio announcer Paul Allen, who surely can. The Saints, obviously, win in overtime.
As a result of all this, Viking fans were a bit wary on Sunday. But my best friend in Minneapolis likens the Vikings to the mafia in that you can’t escape them except by death. “You can say you’re out, you can say you no longer care,” he texted me, “but when Bud strolled out to midfield in his golf shirt, I wanted to get in a stance and knock someone into next week.”
Grant is Minnesota’s dad—we all still want to please him—but he of all people knew what was coming. The best running back of his generation, Adrian Peterson, fumbled late, leading to the Seahawks go-ahead touchdown. And still, the Vikings were in position for a 27-yard game-winning field goal with 22 seconds remaining. A text from my sister-in-law, just before the kick: “they might just do it!” My weary reply: “not holding my breath.”
The kicker, Walsh, who had scored all of the Vikings points and was thus the principal reason they were still in the game, pulled the kick left. No matter. He was just playing his role in a drama much older than he is. “At least it was only the fifth-worst loss in our lifetime,” said another friend in Minnesota.
As my phone sprang to life with texts and tweets, I thumb-typed a two-word message to my sister-in-law. It gave me no pleasure to write: “told you.”