The following is excerpted from the book SUPERFANS: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom by George Dohrmann. Copyright © 2018 by George Dohrmann. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
It is Week 11 of the 2015 NFL season, and in Lot 37 on the northeast side of TCF Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, amid the parked cars and barbecues, amid the folding tables covered in food and the shade tents and the tall poles flying purple Minnesota Vikings flags, a special ceremony is under way.
Approximately a hundred and fifty fans, many holding plastic cups or beer cans, almost all wearing Vikings gear, have gathered in a circle around seven people who are standing in a straight line. These seven fans are all dressed for the occasion. Three women are dressed in full-length faux-fur white coats and sport fur-lined white Vikings helmets with black horns. A fourth woman is wearing a black and purple number 52 Vikings jersey and a ski hat with purple Valkyrie wings attached to the sides. The men are equally decked out, wearing custom jerseys and helmets and camouflage pants. None of the seven look out of place among the crowd—if anything, the people surrounding them are even more elaborately dressed—but the seven stand out because of the line they’ve formed and because of what stands at the front of it: A wooden kneeler.
It may have once resided in a Catholic church, perhaps inside a confessional, but now it stands proudly in the parking lot of a football stadium. It is a simple oak kneeler with a wide base for your knees and another plank at the top where one might put folded hands. Just below that is a shelf where a Bible or hymnal might go. The base, the spot for kneeling, has been modified slightly: it is covered in a purple Vikings towel. Additionally, the top plank is adorned with various Vikings patches that are glued to the surface. Many of the patches contain the letters VWO.
by George Dohrmann
A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist pulls back the curtain on the extraordinary inner lives of America’s most obsessive sports fans.
Standing beside the kneeler is Syd Davy, a muscular and heavily tattooed fifty-seven-year-old hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Randy Moss, Minnesota’s star wide receiver, would jump into the crowd after touchdowns, and Davy would catch him. Davy became so visible he couldn’t walk down the streets of Minneapolis without being recognized, and he became so synonymous with the team that his picture has appeared on game tickets. On this day, Davy is wearing his full ensemble. His eyebrows and handlebar mustache have been dyed bright yellow, the Vikings secondary color. Two long braids (also yellow) emerge from underneath his horned Viking helmet (which is painted gold) and run down his face (which is painted purple), over some chain mail (like ancient knights wore during battle) and a sleeveless purple Vikings T-shirt. The braids stop just short of a giant gold championship belt (like the ones professional wrestlers wear) that wraps Davy’s waist.
In a booming voice, Davy calls out a name, and the first person in the line, a thirtyish woman from Iowa named Rhonda, the one wearing the number 52 jersey, steps forward. Davy takes her hand as though he’s about to propose marriage and then declares loudly, “Do you swear to be a Minnesota Vikings fan for the rest of your life?” Some candidates say “Yes” or “I do” but many shout “Skol!,” a Norse exclamation. The woman answers, “I swear.” Then Davy asks, “Are you going to honor the Minnesota Vikings for the rest of your life?” And finally, “Do you swear to serve the VWO with integrity and respect?” After the woman responds in the affirmative to the final question, Davy shouts: “I hereby knight you Lady Pete, Valkyrie division, Viking World Order!” And as Davy kisses the top of her hand, the crowd roars its approval.
The three women in full-length faux-fur white coats are inducted next and then the first of three men. The women stand before Davy; the men kneel before him, placing their knees on the purple towel. Then Davy, like Zeus shouting from above, asks them to affirm their commitment to the team and to the Viking World Order. As they answer, he raises a sword with a blade nearly four feet long and with small white horns as a guard, and he touches the men on each shoulder. The first man, from Georgia, is given the name Sir Airborne and assigned to the Army division. Then comes Sir Bonez, from Wisconsin (assigned to the Air Force), and finally Sir Crusher, a Minnesotan (placed in Special Ops).
“Skol!” Davy shouts as Sir Crusher, the last of the seven, is announced as a member of the Viking World Order. The crowd erupts again, and then Davy leads a raucous rendition of the Minnesota Vikings anthem: “Skol Vikings, let’s win this game / Skol Vikings, honor your name.”
Witnessing this for the first time, a person could be forgiven for asking: What the hell is going on here? The elaborate dress and pledges of devotion. The ritualism and ceremony of it all. It is so over-the-top that it would be easy to mock, yet it is also obvious that for those involved it is a moment of great significance. On this Sunday and the others when people are formally welcomed into the Viking World Order, many new members hug Davy and the “general” of the division to which they’ve been assigned. They embrace friends and family who have come to TCF Bank Stadium solely to witness their induction into the group. They liken it to their wedding day or the birth of a child. Many new members, overcome by the significance of this achievement, shed tears of joy.
The unofficial headquarters of the VWO is a modest home in a neighborhood of Saint Paul called the North End. Train tracks hook through the neighborhood, which was first developed in the 1870s. There are some large older homes, but most streets are lined with modest houses owned by working-class families. Historically, it has been one of the area’s most diverse neighborhoods, as many immigrants settled there upon arrival in the Twin Cities.
You know the home on Woodbridge Street belongs to a serious Vikings fan the moment it comes into view. The concrete walk has been painted purple, and giant yellow block letters spelling V-I-K-I-N-G-S run from the curb to the porch. The house’s clapboard siding is also yellow, and most of the trim is purple. It is the kind of house a neighbor might say hurts property values, but the paint job was well thought out. For example, the trim on the front porch railing is purple but the balusters are yellow, a touch that, depending on your view of that color pairing, kind of works.
Remarkably, the inside of the house makes the outside look subdued. Almost every single wall—even the back of some closets— is painted either yellow or purple, and nearly every inch of every wall is covered in Vikings paraphernalia. Additionally, several carpeted areas have a Vikings logo embedded in the fabric, and instead of curtains the windows are shrouded with Vikings flags, which casts a yellow or purple hue on those rare surfaces that aren’t already that color.
“You must not be married,” I remark to David “Diggz” Garza, forty-five, the home’s owner, as he welcomes me inside. “No, I am married,” he answers. His wife, Jennifer, not only agreed to let him turn his house, inside and out, into a Vikings shrine, but she once won a “biggest fan” competition and a trip to Mexico, beating out, among others, her husband.
Garza is five-foot-ten but seems bigger. He weighs nearly 240 pounds and has a massive chest and thick arms. He is half Mexican and a quarter Sioux, so when he speaks with a thick Minnesota accent it throws you a bit. His day job, what he would call a sideline to his role as the de facto executive director of the VWO, is as a caregiver in group homes for the mentally and physically disabled. One could easily imagine him being very good at that job, as he is an unflappable bear of a man with a calming manner. He has taken residents from his group homes to the Vikings’ stadium, and has them over to watch games. His house has an open-door policy, and neighbors and relatives and VWO members are always coming and going, some crashing for a night or two or three.
“Once, when I worked at a school as a teacher assistant with my mom, she started calling me the pied piper. She’d say, ‘You talk and the kids just come running,’” says Garza. “I don’t know how to explain it, really, but I just like to get to know people.”
In police dramas on television and in the movies, there is often a wall, covered in pictures, a collage of the bad guys being hunted. The number of pictures grows and grows and eventually takes up every bit of space. This mural of faces dominates the room to the point that it becomes the only thing you notice, like a loud song that overwhelms any other sound. Garza’s entire house is one of those police-drama walls. It is room after room of enveloping visual noise, so overwhelming that upon exiting you will forever appreciate the underrated significance of negative space.
Greeting you on the wall as you enter the home’s entry landing are two life-size wall decals of then–Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and another that is about half scale. That wall is, for the most part, dedicated entirely to Peterson, with several framed pictures of him in action and decals of his number (28) and his name. Elsewhere in the house there are mini-shrines to other players, past and present—Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Visanthe Shiancoe, Daunte Culpepper, and more—but Peterson, the biggest star of the bunch, gets prime real estate all to himself.
To the right of Peterson’s wall is an adjoining wall taken up almost entirely by a closet. Most people would not see space to display anything here. Garza, however, squeezed no less than twenty pictures around and above the closet opening.
From the front landing, you can go up a few steps to the living room or down to the basement. Going down, you step into a dark area with weight-lifting equipment centered in the room. This is where Garza and other VWO members work out, maintaining the thick arms and shoulders owned by many in the group. They work out surrounded by more Vikings paraphernalia, more shrines to players and action photos and trinkets like Vikings pins and commemorative coins and license plates, and there are bobble heads and hard plastic statues and pint glasses and flags and footballs and on and on. With some items, it takes a moment to identify the connection to the Vikings, like the small Marshall University helmet in a glass box. (Randy Moss went to Marshall.) You also have to look closely to see that on some walls, amid all the Vikings stuff, there are pictures of VWO members at tailgaters, inside stadiums, and elsewhere. Some walls are more like homages to the group than the team, though those lines are obviously blurred.
“If I like something, I find a spot for it,” says Garza, describing his design strategy.
In the living room above the landing, and in the adjoining kitchen, and in the hallway between two bedrooms, the motif is the same, a total visual assault of purple and yellow and whatever Vikings and VWO mementos Garza deems keepers. Even the bathroom features a Vikings shower curtain and a Vikings rug.
The tour ends in Garza’s office, just off the kitchen, which is the nerve center of the VWO. Hanging there are elaborate portraits of the core VWO members done by an artist in California and a poster collage of members done by another artist (and VWO member) who lives in Virginia. The VWO’s terminology and rituals are heavily influenced by what could be called machismo pop culture, and this is obvious by the posters and other items displayed in the office. Movies like Troy and Excalibur, and the television series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena are big among Viking World Order members. The series Vikings, obviously, is huge. The influence of the film Braveheart can be seen in the knighting ceremony and also in how some members paint their faces before games. Garza, for one, will go into his office before games and put on the Spartacus sound track to get pumped up. “Once, I got my heart racing so much I almost passed out coming down the stairs,” he says.
On the wall next to the door is a whiteboard, divided into columns. This is where Garza tracks the progress of prospective VWO members—how far along they are in getting approved for membership, whether they have gotten the VWO tattoo (mandatory, but members can design their own), whether they have paid the $20 entry fee. Syd Davy is the founder, president, and public face of the organization, but Garza is the wizard behind the curtain and the person who has had the most influence over the VWO’s structure and direction.
Going into the 2015 season, there were almost two hundred World Order members. The group’s numbers and visibility grew considerably during a (successful) push to get the team a new publicly funded stadium. Now, they are making it more exclusive, to make certain that people admitted are truly dedicated to the Vikings and, more important, to the VWO. The VWO recently began labeling new members “prospects,” a move pulled from the biker gang in the Sons of Anarchy television show, and introduced a probationary period. In the early days, all new members came in with the rank of second lieutenant. Now they are coming in as a private and under probation for a year. The VWO leadership has also begun the process of registering the group as a nonprofit organization, as fund-raising for charities has become a bigger part of its mission. Garza and Davy want the group to stand for something, not just be a collection of hardcore Vikings fans. “We can sell patches and T-shirts to nonmembers, and give the money we get from that to charities,” Garza says.
Garza is eager to talk about the group’s future, but first he indulges a request to look to the past. Sitting in a chair in his office, a tackle box at his feet filled with military insignia (silver lieuten ants bars, gold oak leaves, generals stars, and so on), next to the customized Vikings helmet he wears to games, Garza settles in to answer the obvious question: How did all this—the VWO and his total devotion to the group and the Vikings—happen? He begins with an analogy: “You know that kids’ show Mr. Rogers, how there is the trolley to the neighborhood of make-believe? I was on that trolley, and it got derailed, and now I am lost in there.”
For most of his young life, Garza felt adrift, and he blames that on his father, who he says abandoned him and his mother and two siblings when Garza was around nine. Garza briefly played baseball and football in high school, and probably would have been pretty good at football given his size, but he bristled at any authority. “One time I missed practice and the coach cussed me out and I just quit,” he says. “I did a lot of stupid stuff like that in high school. Got into a lot of trouble, smoking and girls.”
Three weeks out of high school, in 1989, Garza joined the Army. It was an odd choice for a kid who feuded with coaches and other authority figures, but intuitively he knew he needed more structure in his life. He also didn’t have a lot of other options. “It didn’t pay being the class clown,” he says. He liked the Army, the order it brought to his life. He was stationed in Hawaii and later at Fort Drum in New York. He wasn’t deployed during the first Gulf War but went to Haiti to train Guatemalan soldiers during Jean Bertrand Aristide’s second stint as that country’s president. He was active for nearly six years and then, in 1995, returned to Minnesota and finished up in the National Guard, finally leaving the Army in 1998 for civilian life.
That is an important year in the history of the Vikings franchise. During the draft that April, twenty other teams passed on wide receiver Randy Moss due to his well-chronicled behavioral and legal issues. Minnesota grabbed him with the twenty-first overall pick, and the franchise immediately went from good to great, compiling a 15-1 record in Moss’s rookie season and advancing to the NFC Championship game, one step short of the Super Bowl. “I was a Vikings fan [already], but when we got Randy Moss, it was like, wow, it hit overdrive,” Garza says.
He worked at a high school special-education program while in the National Guard, and then he began his current job in group homes. He was making good money, so he bought two Vikings season tickets. That first year, Moss’s rookie season, Garza “was like a freelance tailgater.” He would drive to the old Metrodome with his girlfriend or a friend, park his car nearby, and then walk the parking lots, 12-pack under his arm, talking to anyone who greeted him. The tickets proved to be too much of a financial burden, however—he couldn’t even afford to buy playoff tickets, an extra expense, that season—and so he gave them up after the 1998 season. But he didn’t stop going to games. “I developed this outfit,” Garza says. “It was, like, remember how Mike Tyson used to look entering the ring, wearing that cut towel? I did that with a Vikings towel and wore that and my [Vikings] helmet with the horns on it.” Like Michael Hopson, Garza took great care to get his look just right, and when he put it on he felt transformed, like a different person. Also like Michael Hopson, when he started going to games in costume he did so usually without a ticket, without really caring if he saw the game live. It was the interaction with his fellow fans that impelled him to dress up and go to the Metrodome on Sundays.
He would park at a meter and walk to the corner of Chicago Avenue and Sixth Street. “The crowd was crossing the street to go to the dome, and I would get them fired up. I would say, ‘When this light turns green, I want to hear you roar!’ I would do it again and again, pacing around, getting pumped up.” Sometimes, his enthusiasm caught the attention of a fan with an extra ticket. More often, he made it back to his home in Saint Paul by kickoff. If the Vikings won, he’d go out to his front yard—at the time he was living in a neighborhood known as Frogtown—and wave a Vikings flag while hooting and hollering. He did that for a few years because “I was wrapped up in my own head that I was some kind of number one fan.”
In 2001, the first game after 9/11, Garza was given a ticket by another fan, but it fell through a hole in his pocket, and he was kicked out of the stadium by security when he tried to get to his seat. After that, he continued to watch Vikings games on television, but he stayed away from the Metrodome for almost five years, what he calls “my retirement phase.” Getting kicked out was the burst of anger that sparked his boycott, but it continued because he never could find an answer to a question he kept asking himself: “I was putting all this energy into rooting for the Vikings, dressing up and going to games, firing up the crowds, and for what?”
When he finally returned in 2006 and eventually got a season ticket again, he still hadn’t resolved that issue. He didn’t dress up for the games, and his enthusiasm waned. But then, the following season, he was walking through the parking lot and someone, he doesn’t remember who, offered him some food, “and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, I went to this tailgate and saw some real Minnesota nice. Full bar and all this food and then, here comes Syd Davy.” Garza knew who Davy was, of course. “I mean, he is just king shit. This is the guy who caught Randy Moss.” Davy took a shine to Garza, and they compared Vikings-themed tattoos. Garza told Davy he once wore an elaborate getup to games, and Davy encouraged him to resurrect it and come back the next Sunday.
It wasn’t long, maybe a few games later, before Davy showed Garza an arched tattoo just under his rib cage, spanning his torso, that said Viking World Order. Garza loved it and asked if he could get one. Davy said, “Not yet.” A short time later, however, Davy gave Garza permission to get the tattoo, and he began introducing Garza as his “vice president” in the Viking World Order. It was a group with only two members, but they still went through with the knighting ceremony. “Both of us were talking about the movie Braveheart, and they did a knighting in there, and Syd said we should do it,” Garza says. (Years later, as they were watching a fan with knee problems try to kneel in the snow, the idea for the wooden kneeler came about.)
By the end of the 2008 season, membership in the VWO was around fifteen to twenty and growing quickly. Entry required little more than dressing up and catching Davy at the right moment. “Syd would have a few beers at the tailgater and say, ‘You are in!’” Garza says. The newbies would show up at the next knighting ceremony with their VWO tattoo and say Davy had approved them.
One evening, Garza was playing SOCOM: US Navy Seals, a third-person tactical shooter video game, on his PlayStation, and it hit him: structure the VWO like the military. It made sense, as many members had already served in a branch of the armed forces. Garza worked in his small office, scribbling in notebooks and then later on a whiteboard on the wall, mapping a structure for the group. Eventually, with the help of Davy and others, he would establish the “branches” of the VWO: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Special Ops, Secret Services, and, for women, the Valkyries. He inserted “generals” above each of those groups (save the Valkyries). He also formed an “executive committee” comprised of “five-star generals,” and those individuals were given titles taken from the Cabinet of the United States. For example, Garza is a five-star general and the vice president, another general is the secretary of state, another the secretary of defense, and so on. Davy, of course, is the president.
Next, Garza led an effort to define the process by which an applicant gains entry into the VWO: endorsement by twenty-one of twenty-eight generals and then Davy’s stamp of approval. Their membership policy is the antithesis of the one held by Timbers Army. (“If you want to be Timbers Army, you already are.”) Garza and the other leaders want the VWO to be a special group for only the most devoted fans.
Who did or didn’t get in and who did or didn’t get promoted has at times become a major issue within the group, in part because it wasn’t clear what it took to impress the generals. Garza’s pat response when asked what it would take to get into the VWO or gain promotion is often, “Make the VWO important to you.” Showing up at games, dressing elaborately, cheering loudly and fervently, that all helped, but typically a candidate had to go one step further. The group became involved in various charities (such as Toys for Tots and a Polar Plunge for the Special Olympics), and people looking to enter the group or gain promotion have used those opportunities to prove their dedication. One year, two guys from Iowa raised $3,000 for an event by selling most of their belongings, which accounted for almost half of the total raised by VWO members. “Those two guys, I told them, ‘You are getting promoted,’” Garza says.
Early on, as the various branches were being formed, a member of the group remained a major when his peers became generals, getting stars. (Members are given actual rank insignia, which Garza purchases at a military supply website.) This was punishment, Garza says, because the member was skipping VWO events. The generals also excluded him from group pictures and taunted him. “Man, these are looking mighty shiny,” they’d tell him. Later, during a heart-to-heart with Garza in the weight room in his basement, the major told Garza how deeply this hurt, to be excluded from the core group.
The major remained at that rank until early 2009. At a playoff game that January between the Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles, some fans were “talking crap” to Garza’s wife, and the major who had been passed over jumped in and fought three guys. He ended up with a nasty bump on the back of his head, but he got his stars. He is now one of the division “commanders.”
A few members of the VWO have been demoted (one for getting into a senseless spat with a Packers fan at a bar), but no one has been expelled. One guy left “over girl issues, kind of a love triangle sort of thing. He covered over his tattoo, but that is not required,” Garza clarifies. “There is no blood-in and blood-out policy.”
The use of military designations and insignia has ruffled some feathers. “Some people think it is disrespectful at first, but when they hear how we do it they realize we are very respectful,” Garza says. The group has an unwritten policy that a member can only wear a pin or ribbon they earned while serving in the military. So, if a member shows up with a Purple Heart on his game-day jersey that he didn’t earn in the service, he has to remove it. “I spend a lot of time on little disputes like that,” Garza says.
The actual time he spends rooting for the Vikings is restricted to a few hours on Sunday. Sure, he reads about the team in the days between games, but not obsessively. Meanwhile, he estimates he spends about six hours a day working on VWO matters “and probably another four hours just in my head thinking about the VWO.” The Vikings are important to Garza, obviously, but the VWO is essential. It can be hard to draw a distinction between the two (What is the VWO without the Vikings?), but for Garza there is the team and the group, and the group is the central preoccupation of his life.
“Like I said, I just got derailed in the tunnel of make-believe. But I’m not looking to get out. I’m happy in here.”
In his seminal book, The Social Conquest of Earth, renowned Harvard biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson makes a convincing case that becoming a member of a group is inherent to the human condition. “To form groups, drawing visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups—these are among the absolute universals of human nature and hence of culture,” Wilson writes. The instincts that bind people together are “the biological product of group selection. . . . People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.”
Think back to before Garza met Davy, back when he was a freelance tailgater and then went through his “retirement phase,” when he questioned what he was getting out of being a devoted Vikings fan. Garza’s struggles to define his purpose began when he left the military, an organized group, and didn’t abate until he met Davy and the VWO took shape. He wasn’t fulfilled until he found another group like the military, another tribe, to which he could belong.
The origin story of the VWO may be unique, but the instincts that drew the members together are not. One way or another, Garza and the rest of the VWO were going to find a group because, as Wilson writes, grouping is an unavoidable propensity. People used to group together for survival, to fight wars, but now they turn “increasingly to its moral equivalent in team sports,” Wilson writes. The military is just one of many traditional groups to which fewer and fewer Americans belong. Membership in religious organizations is on the decline, with some research finding that less than 20 percent of the US population regularly attends church. Service clubs like Lions, Rotary, and Kiwanis have also shrunk in size over the past few decades. The need or tendency to group hasn’t vanished, but the groups themselves have changed. Fan tribes—formal ones like the VWO and countless others, online and off, that are much more loosely organized—have filled some of that void.
Wilson’s expertise is in biology; he examined fandom through that lens. It takes a psychologist, though, to explain the allure of the truly unique aspect of the VWO: its military-like structure. (“Oh, that is a good one,” Dan Wann says.) One explanation can be found in the work of Michael Hogg, a social psychologist at Claremont Graduate University. In 2000, he conceived uncertainty-identity theory, asserting that “feelings of uncertainty . . . motivate people to identify with social groups and to choose new groups with, or configure existing groups to have, certain properties that best reduce, control, or protect from feelings of uncertainty.” One of the VWO’s “properties” is its well-defined hierarchy. A member knows exactly where he or she stands within the group and is even ranked in relation to others. This guides members on how to act, relieving them of the burden of deciding on their own. As Hogg writes, “The world is an uncertain place, it always has been, and these uncertainties can make it very difficult to predict or plan our lives and to feel sure about the type of people we are.” Even for a lowly private in the VWO, there is great comfort in the certainty of knowing your place in the group and the cues the group provides on how to behave.
To be clear, fans are not sheep. Even as they satisfy the natural desire to group, even if they welcome structure and certainty, people want to be seen as individuals. That is why we have face painters and shirtless dudes in the stands on a subzero day. It is why people create custom jerseys and get elaborate tattoos and try to one-up each other at tailgaters, striving to have the most decked out vehicle or elaborate setup. The behavior of the members of the VWO illustrates this, but a better exemplification can be found by taking the trolley to a different neighborhood of make-believe, one about 350 miles east of the Twin Cities, in Milwaukee.
It is time to meet the Rally Banana.
This story was excerpted from the book SUPERFANS: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom by George Dohrmann. Copyright © 2018 by George Dohrmann. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.