“They break your heart every time,” my wife texted last night from an airport somewhere, on her way to somewhere else, as the New Orleans Saints were preparing to kick the field goal that would give them a 24-23 lead over the Minnesota Vikings with 25 seconds left in an NFC playoff game that looked like so many others in the benighted history of a star-crossed franchise. If my phone weren’t already in flames from a dozen similar messages, I’d have replied from our family room in Connecticut: “Not every time.”
A long time ago, on December 14, 1980, the Cleveland Browns were beating the Vikings 23-9 in the fourth quarter of a game at Metropolitan Stadium in my hometown of Bloomington, Minn. But the Vikings rallied behind quarterback Tommy Kramer and trailed by just one, 23-22, with five seconds remaining. There was time for one last play, from the Cleveland 46. As Browns owner Art Modell chewed on his fist in a glassed-in box at the Met, Two-Minute Tommy threw a Hail Mary to Ahmad Rashad, who caught it in the end zone like a baby dropped from a second-story window: first to held breath, then to delirious celebration.
I watched it on a TV that rested on a folding chair inside the Met, in the tunnel that led to the Vikings’ locker room, having just punched out from a happy few hours stabbing hot dogs in the commissary. As Rashad caught the ball, the stadium shook around me. The sound waves passed through me. My body vibrated like a tuning fork and for a moment I thought I might actually be dying—that I might be the subject of a small but jocular story in the following day’s Minneapolis Star headlined: TIME EXPIRED AND SO DID HE.
But I didn’t expire. The men in purple celebrated on TV, then jogged off the TV and just past me in the tunnel while the stadium continued thrumming. If the entire cast of The Empire Strikes Back had stepped off the screen that year and greeted me in my seat at the Southtown Theatre I would have been less impressed. I was 14 years old and knew in that instant that I didn’t want to work in any other environment if I could possibly avoid doing so. And as it turns out, I could possibly avoid doing so.
I became a sportswriter, spending many days and nights in the bowels of various stadiums, and bowels is the right body part. It is the locus of professional agony, of pressure and relief but not of what I would describe as joy. There is joy, of course, but it is often someone else’s. The writer mostly gets secondhand joy, like secondhand smoke.
Last night, thirty-seven years and one month after Kramer and Rashad connected on Squadron Right, Vikings’ quarterback Case Keenum threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play of another Vikings game for a 29-24 win. And once again, I thought I felt my internal organs vibrating, over and over and over. But this time, it was the phone in my pocket.
From her cabin in Nisswa, Minn., where it had been –25 earlier in the week, my sister sent video of her family and a large group of high school kids bouncing off the walls in celebration. (“Oh my God,” were the only words I could make out, frequently repeated.) From his house in suburban Chicago, my brother texted a photo of his 8-year-old son, my nephew Mick, wearing a vintage (for him) Vikings Jared Allen jersey. Silhouetted against the TV screen, Mick is in mid-leap, caught in a posture that resembles the Jumpman logo of Michael Jordan. The boy is literally jumping for joy, the very picture of pure, unfettered, childhood bliss.
As the night wore on, it became apparent that my sources on the ground in Minnesota were rapidly becoming sources on the floor in Minnesota. In a group text to my dad and her four siblings, my sister sent a first-person piece by Case Keenum published in The Players’ Tribune in which he mentioned his high school teammate Josh, who had promised to pee his pants on the spot if their Wylie High football team won the 2004 Texas state 3A Division 1 State championship.
“Little does Keenum know that multiple women all over MN are peeing their pants right now,” texted my sister in Nisswa. She’s a medical doctor.
“And men,” replied my brother, who works for a bank, 138 miles away in Minneapolis. Whether these were acts of solidarity or something more involuntary I couldn’t say from halfway across the country. But as the Minneapolis Star Tribune began reporting on “half-naked snow angels” being done in Minnesota, I sat down and composed this text to my wife, which is clearly too long to send, but important to enter into the record. What I want to tell her, wherever she is, is this:
Most of the time they break your heart. But not every time. Not every time.
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