- Twenty years ago the Vikings caught lightning in a bottle with a reborn QB and a jaw-dropping rookie receiver. They piled up points like no other team in history and seemed destined for greatness. The psychic toll of their heartbreak still lingers in Minnesota
The Minnesota Vikings didn’t have a losing season from 1992 to ’97, though the team was becoming synonymous with its lack of playoff success—five times in those six years the Vikings went to the postseason, but only once did they make it even to the divisional round. Built by Dennis Green as a new-age Bill Walshian experiment, Minnesota seemed destined to become a forgettable subplot of the Aikman/Favre/Young/Elway/era.
That’s when Green started talking about a player who might fall to his team in the upcoming draft. The story of the 1998 Vikings, arguably one of the best and most heartbreaking teams in NFL history, begins here, 20 years ago …
Marie Green, Dennis’s wife: He had been talking about Randy Moss for weeks. He had his eye on him, and he was thinking, Wow, this could really happen. We could get this guy. He was so excited about Randy. Really, genuinely, he knew that Randy could make a difference for the Vikings, but he also wanted to give him a chance.
Cris Carter, Vikings wide receiver: Denny thought at the beginning of the day we were going to get him at 21. I didn’t think so. He had this feeling he was going to be there, and there was no question he was going to take him.
Brian Billick, Vikings offensive coordinator: I remember that morning, Denny came in and said “Hey, I think we’re getting Randy Moss.” I thought, OK, you’ve lost it. There’s no way we’re getting Randy Moss. To be honest with you, when you’re looking at players, I looked at Moss but not intensely because I thought there was no way we were going to get him.
Jeff Diamond, General Manager: I don’t know if we were confident until pick No. 21 came up because he was such a tremendous talent. We knew we had a good team, we’d been to the playoffs the year before and there were no glaring weaknesses on the team, especially offensively. So, I think our plan was to go defense, bulk up the defense, bulk up the pass rush, and just take the best defensive player or corner available to help in pass defense. That was the fallback.
In the draft on April 18, Dallas, the team many pegged as Moss’s landing spot, took linebacker Greg Ellis out of North Carolina at No. 8. The Tennessee Oilers at No. 16 took the draft’s first receiver, Kevin Dyson. Linebacker Brian Simmons went to the Bengals at 17, running back Robert Edwards to the Patriots at 18, Vonnie Holliday to the Packers at 19 and Terry Fair to the Lions at No. 20.
Brad Johnson, Vikings quarterback: I was in Destin, Fla., hanging out with Mark Richt, who was at Florida State, and we were also with Danny Kanell. As soon as we drafted him, Danny and Mark went nuts. They said “Brad, you’ve never seen a guy like this. You cannot throw the ball far enough. You cannot overthrow him.”
Don Banks, Vikings beat writer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Denny was like the Cheshire Cat, the cat who swallowed the canary, after they took Randy. He understood what Randy could do for that offense in a way that a lot of people didn’t.
Moss called Carter immediately after the draft and asked him to train together. Carter said he wouldn’t make any exceptions but would accommodate the rookie if he moved down to Florida and submitted to his routine. Moss and his agent put an offer on a house later that day.
The result was a refined product that showed up to camp in outstanding shape. Moss’s performances that spring and summer became something like the origin scenes in a superhero comic book.
Fred Zamberletti, former Vikings trainer: The first time I met Moss, he came to our minicamp, and he’s out there—they have him catching punts, and he’s dropping everything that comes to him. So I said afterward “You want to borrow my hands?” He said “What do you mean?” and I said, “I know what you were doing back there. You didn’t come here to return punts and didn’t want to give them any inkling that you could do it.” (Laughs). I like ole’ Moss.
Todd Steussie, Vikings tackle: We’re having our intrasquad scrimmage down in Mankato, it’s like the second Saturday of training camp, and Denny would divide the team up. It wasn’t full live [contact], but it was live on the running backs and receivers. Tackle to the ground. Yellow jersey for the quarterbacks. So Randy was on the other team, and I remember watching him on a play where Randall Cunningham whipped the ball out—he was rushed in his throw and he chucked it in the air. It looked like a wildly overthrown pass, and Randy just somehow ran under it. He caught up to a ball that was just thrown downfield to get it out of Randall’s hands.
So Randy came to the sideline after that, and we always joked about how fast he was. And I asked him, “So was that fifth gear?” And he just looks at me without saying anything and flashes three fingers. Third gear. I’m like, dang.
Brad Johnson: I got healthy for training camp, and after the third practice we just said “Let’s see if we can out-throw him.” We just stood around taking five-step drops, launching the ball as far as we could. We couldn’t make it happen. He caught everything unless we line-drived it.
And this is the crazy thing. Randy told me later on, “I’m never running full speed unless it’s Deion Sanders or Darryl Green.” He said “I’m just setting them up. Throw it out there and I’ll get it.”
Robert Smith, Vikings running back: My agent called me on the first lunch break of the first training camp practice and said “How’s Randy look?” And I told him, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” I had a track background, ran in a race against Carl Lewis. I’ve never seen anyone like Randy. I’ve never seen anyone as smooth. I told my agent after that first practice that if he stayed healthy, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.
The Vikings finished undefeated in the preseason, outscoring opponents 129-50, the highest margin of any team that summer. While the preseason is not necessarily an indicator of what’s to come, those inside the Vikings locker room had a feeling that this team was special. Everyone, except maybe for Moss, was preparing for a career-defining ride as the Vikings throttled the Buccaneers in the season-opener and went on to win their first seven games by a combined total of 125 points.
Cris Carter: Randy was missing from the pregame meal Week 1 down in Tampa. I found him and I’m like, “Why didn’t you go to pre-game meal?’ He was like, “I was playing video games.” I said, “Well, there’s attendance down there, so now the team thinks you’re AWOL.” He’s like, “Aw man.” So I ask him, “Did you get a meal? What are you going to eat before the game?”
He says, “What I’m eating now.” He was holding a can of Coke and a box of Hot Tamales candy. [Moss caught four passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns, and the Vikings won 31-7].
Robert Smith: It worked so well because guys were all scoring and making plays, and when that happens, there’s really nothing to complain about.
Tim Connolly, team president: I had never seen anything like it. Everyone was pinching themselves as it got better and better. There was no fear of losing. It was “What could we do this week?”
Brian Billick: We almost got to the point where we stopped looking at film. You try and prepare the players and say, OK, this is what teams usually did, they’re single high or three deep or whatever. So we’d come into the game and it would be totally different. They figured they’d have to try something. So we’d just get into the game and adjust to whatever they were doing. Looking at all that film was a waste of time.
Brad Johnson: I remember the game-planning meetings where the coaches would stand up and talk about who the middle linebacker was and who the SAM linebacker was on the other team, and the twists they would run. Then the wide receivers coach, his name was Hubbard Alexander, legendary coach, would get up to talk. Randy would tell him “Sit down! It doesn’t matter what they play, it doesn’t matter who they are. We’re going to blow right by them.” And so that was the scouting report. Him telling the coach to sit down. [Moss declined to talk for this story.]
The Vikings offense was designed in part around the quick-strike ability of Brad Johnson, but Johnson went down in Week 2 with a broken ankle. In came Randall Cunningham, who arrived in Minnesota a year earlier after spending the 1996 season out of football. It turned out to be kismet, with Cunningham, the former Eagle, finishing the ’98 season 259-425 for 3,704 yards, 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He would earn his first Pro Bowl nod in nearly a decade.
Randall Cunningham: I was going to sign with the New Orleans Saints, but Keith Johnson, the Vikings’ chaplain at the time, said, “You’re Randall Cunningham right?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “What are you doing working out? I thought you were retired.” I said, “I’m coming back.” He said, “Talk to Denny.” So I flew to Minnesota, and they offered me a contract.
Brian Billick: Back in ’97, Dave Atkins, our running backs coach, says, “Hey, we gotta talk to Randall.” Randall was out of the game, living in Las Vegas, and Denny and I talked about it. So I fly out to Vegas and have dinner with Randall, and Randall was Mr. Vegas. He was the king out there. Looking back, [the restaurant] was like a scene out of Casino, the whole mob, long collar, ties. Looking back, it was like, “Hoo boy, I hope I’m OK here, but I’m going to trust Randall.” I was expecting Joe Pesci to come out and sit down next to us.
Cris Carter: He became a typical prototype pocket passer after being a scrambler, a very athletic quarterback. I thought that was important, the overall growth. You just don’t see a whole lot of people who can do it, and he was able to do it. That was very fulfilling to see that.
Brian Billick: He comes in, and I can tell he’s not really on top of it just yet. Then once he becomes the starter he transforms—his focus and everything. He knew he never had to force the ball. Someone was going to be open. He was so focused on being a pocket quarterback, proving everyone wrong. He wanted to so much to show that he could that he actually wouldn’t run the ball. Teams were spying him, waiting for him to take off—and he never did.
Cris Carter: Brad had better anticipation and less arm strength, but Randall has a bigger arm and could ad lib and do other things that other quarterbacks can’t do. We knew that, in having Randall, we had one of the best backups.
Don Banks: It was just lightning in a bottle. The next thing you know, Brad is on the sidelines watching this memorable season unfold. It could have easily happened the same way with Brad as the quarterback because, if anything, I think he had a better connection with Moss because they worked so closely together throughout the preseason.
Denny felt a sense of loyalty to Brad, but you just couldn’t pull Randall. [Reporters asked about a quarterback controversy] but, come on, it was Dak Prescott and Tony Romo. The writing was on the wall. Denny strung it out, saying Brad is the starter but Randall is going to play. We were like “Umm … being the starter doesn’t matter if someone else is playing.” He hid behind that for a few weeks, and then it just became obvious. You couldn’t take the highest-scoring team in the league and interject a quarterback change. Brad had to suck it up.
Brad Johnson: It was a magical year. For me, my personal side, it was a blessing in disguise because of my neck surgery [during the ’97 offseason]. The grip strength in my hand, I don’t know if I would have lasted the whole season. And then after I broke my ankle [in Week 2] and broke my thumb [in Week 9], it kind of saved me. It was almost a year and a half recovery for me.
Perhaps the greatest credit to Green was his ability to wrangle so many different personalities. This Vikings team was a stew of cliques waiting to be formed; a locker room full of young, cocky superstars, strong-willed offensive linemen, born-again Christians and degenerate gamblers. Green, according to some players, was the pioneer of using Tuesday’s off day to do charity work in the community, which is now a common staple in the NFL. He was quick to laugh at himself to put others at ease, and he was masterly at blending different cultures together.
Brian Billick: Randall had gone through a personal conversion, a very strong faith-based conversion, as had Cris Carter. They had turned their lives around. The team was very grounded in that way.
Faith can be divisive. I’ve been on teams where that competing faith can be a problem, but no, Randall and Cris were very strong in their faith, and they weren’t forcing it on others. It created a calm in their personal life.
Randall Cunningham: When we would go out of town, yeah, we’re playing football but [the team chaplain] would take me in the streets. We’d go to the mall, we’d go walking, and if there was someone in need of ministry, that became our focal point. It allowed me to relax and help someone who was less fortunate.
I remember when we went to Pittsburgh in the preseason, and we were walking down the street. There was a guy in a wheelchair who had no legs, and he asked us for something and I asked him what happened. He threw himself in front of a train to try and commit suicide. He said “You’re Randall Cunningham right?’ I said Yeah. He said “I’m a big fan of yours, but I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.” So we got him tickets. We prayed with him.
Cris Carter: We had organized groups, family groups, and a discipleship group too. We had five or six different church services. We had services in the stadium for the families, so if you wanted to still go to church on Sunday there was a Christian non-denominational service and we also a priest who came and did a Catholic service. If you wanted to get 30 to 45 minutes of a church service we provided that. Guys who wanted Bible study, we provided that.
[Green] struck a good balance, because you had so many guys. You have to be able to send a message to the masses compared to just one group, so you need to strike a balance not only from what he believed from a spiritual standpoint, but balanced in society. Treating people fairly, being involved in the community, what kind of food we were going to eat, not having cliques in the locker room. Making it a point to sit down with someone you don’t know for every meal—that was one of Denny’s things.
Robert Griffith, Viking safety: Denny almost made it mandatory that every guy get out in the community. We, and I want to make sure you write this in capital letters, please, as a personal quote because there’s not a lot of acknowledgement that goes out to Denny Green man—Denny Green is the NFL’s Community Tuesday. He started it. He did, I was there. If you were at home on Tuesday, you were reaching out on Tuesday and doing something—going to a hospital and visiting a sick kid or speaking at elementary schools.
That didn’t mean there was no room for fun…
Todd Steussie: We would wind up throwing a couple hundred bucks down—I think the pot ended up getting to a couple thousand dollars—to see who would win in a race, winner takes all, between Randy Moss and Robert Smith. Robert Smith was generally considered the fastest guy on our team until Randy showed up, so all year we wanted those guys to race.
Robert Smith: Oh yeah. (Laughs). I did actually hear about some of that. It’s kind of funny. I don’t really know why, as competitive as both of us are, I don’t know why we never got around to it.
Cris Carter: There was not anyone we would have bet money on to outrun Randy.
Jeff Diamond: I think Randy probably would have gotten him. It would have been close though, because Robert can fly, and they were both track guys at some point in their careers. It would have been interesting, but I probably would have put my money on Randy.
Tim Connolly: As you’d come down from the home team’s locker room, you’d go down this ramp and make a right hand turn onto the field, and when the offense came out of the locker room to run down for pregame warmups and they’d be yelling at each other “$100 for first touchdown, longest touchdown and most touchdowns.” “No, make that $200, $300 for long distance.” They were like high school kids. They were great.
Cris Carter: Randy and I played a lot of cards—we liked to gamble, so I knew it would motivate him. It’s easy to get his attention to say, “First series, hey, first touchdown is worth $100. If it goes over 50 yards in distance, I’ll give you $200.” And then we always had like $100 on 100-yard games.
I needed my money. I’m out here working. Absolutely [I made Randy pay]. There’s nothing better than taking money from a rich guy. So you had to pay.
Fred Zamberletti: They had some big card games in that locker room.
The 1998 season was filled with signature, prime-time wins, including a 37-24 takedown of the Packers on Monday Night Football in which Cunningham threw for a career-best 442 yards and four touchdowns (Moss had five catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns) and a Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys that featured a combined 10 catches for 298 yards and four touchdowns between Moss and Carter.
Green, though, wanted to make sure his team stayed grounded. In a search for material, he turned an embarrassing public gaffe into one of the best mid-week speeches in coaching history.
Robert Smith: When you got back from a road trip there would be this rush to get to the parking garage because everyone was valet parked, and you wanted to be the first one to get there. So the coaches are up front in the plane, and Denny was sprinting to an escalator and tripped, and a bunch of us saw it.
The next week he turned it into the night before a game speech. Because we were playing so well, we were playing a team on paper we were so much better than, he made the analogy of, “Look, it’s just like an escalator. Some of those steps are a little bit slower, but they’re still important steps, and they can all trip you up.” And everyone laughed.
The Vikings finished as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, setting what was then the record for most points by a team in an NFL season, 556. As they headed into an NFC title game matchup with the 14-2 Falcons, nearly everyone had cemented Super Bowl expectations that began to develop earlier in the week, or earlier in the season.
Cris Carter: If you talk to the players, I know the players will tell you we weren’t thinking about [it]—I had to think of where the Super Bowl even was.
Fred Zamberletti: I remember before the Atlanta game, our offensive line was looking through a Rolex catalogue. They already had the [playoff] money spent.
Robert Smith: Probably a few games after the Tampa Bay loss [in Week 9, the sole defeat of the season], when you’re sitting at 9-1, you’re probably going to start thinking it could really happen.
Robert Griffith: When we came back [after the Tampa Bay loss] and went 9-1, that’s when I knew we legitimately had a home-field advantage, a Super Bowl-caliber team that had all the bells and whistles in place.
Brian Billick: It didn’t take long [to start thinking this was a Super Bowl team]. By the time we got to about midseason and you could see the way things were going, I realized there was no defense in the National Football League that could match up with this talent. Just couldn’t.
Gene McGivern, author of Green’s 1997 autobiography, No Room For Crybabies: They’re sailing along, and the publisher calls me and says we’re coming out with a paperback if they make the Super Bowl, and we’re going to add three chapters. They’re 15-1 and they’re just steamrolling everyone, and sure enough the Atlanta game comes. I talked to Denny on a Thursday night, and we were going to do a chapter of the book on the Super Bowl. He was going to have me come down and be in the team meetings. We were going to do a chapter on [Super Bowl week], win or lose, and there was no doubt in his mind they were going to take care of the Falcons.
Don Banks: If they had made the Super Bowl, Randall and I were going to do a book that year on his Christian transformation, on his faith, on his career turnaround. He took notes into a tape recorder all year anticipating that we were going to do a book, since everyone knew they were going to the Super Bowl.
Jeff Diamond: My daughter was playing in a basketball tournament [on the day of the NFC title game], so she couldn’t go to the game. She left me a note that morning that said “Good luck in the game today. I know we’re going to win and we’ll be GOIN’ TO MIAMI.” That was a big song at the time. I think it was Will Smith or someone who sang it.
The Vikings hosted the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 17, in front of 64,060 at the Metrodome. Minnesota ran out to a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter. But a slew of uncharacteristic mistakes started plaguing the Vikings.
Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass with a little more than three minutes to go in the half, resulting in a field goal rather than a touchdown. Then Cunningham was stripped by Chuck Smith deep in Vikings territory with a minute to go in the half—Minnesota’s first lost fumble in more than 11 games—which led to a next-play touchdown by Terance Mathis to make the the score 20-14. In the second half it was more of the same: dropped interceptions, stalled drives, untimely runs out of bounds and mounting injuries. And yet, in Vikings lore, the game is often defined by just one play: Gary Anderson’s missed 39-yard field with 2:10 left in the fourth quarter and the Vikings up seven. It was Anderson’s first miss of the year, having completed just the second perfect regular-season for a kicker in NFL history.
Robert Smith: There was never any panic. As a matter of fact, I remember going on to the field as an offense before the drive where Gary missed the kick. It was 27-20 at that point, and we knew if we got some points the game would be over. I remember, it was just this incredible sense of calm and togetherness and confidence. It was spontaneous, I’ve talked about this 100 times but it still gives me chills—on that drive, everyone on offense held hands for the first time. It just, like, it said, “We’re together, let’s do this.” It was never something we had done before, but we held hands on that drive.
Jeff Diamond: I remember thinking, even going into that game, God, Gary. You haven’t missed a kick all year, why don’t you just miss a kick in the last game of the regular season or something? Don’t carry that thing into the postseason.
Fred Zamberletti: They talk about doctoring footballs—back in those days those kickers doctored the hell out of those balls, and I can remember vividly we had those balls and we worked them over pretty hard. Those kickers had them in the clothes dryers, heating them, pushing them, making pumpkins out of those things. Breaking the seams and everything else. They really worked hard on it. Then we end up missing the kick. If we make that kick the game is over.
Brian Billick: On third down [and 7 from the Atlanta 21] I looked at Denny and was like, “What do you want me to do? Want me to take a shot here?” He says “No. Get in position to kick the field goal, kick the field goal and we go to the Super Bowl.” I turned my back to the field because I figured we’re going to the Super Bowl. Gary hadn’t missed one all year long. He was 100 percent. Had not missed a field goal all season, so I’m going back to the Gatorade thinking it’s over. Then I hear the crowd groan, and I look up and see we had missed the field goal.
Brad Johnson: Like, I don’t even know if Gary even missed in practice. That’s how good he was. I think someone got loose on the left end and they almost blocked it, and he tried to slice it in there. But he took responsibility. He was a man about it, and you know, those things happen.
The Vikings lost in overtime, 30-27. The team returned to a shell-shocked locker room, unable to cope with the stunning defeat.
Robert Smith: They put the congratulations banners up in the locker room. Yeah. So the “NFC Champion” stuff was in there. It was as empty a feeling as I’ve ever experienced going into a locker room. This overwhelming sadness. Grown men crying. It was brutal, and Denny was the only one who talked, and I remember the reporters coming in and people didn’t want to say anything.
Jeff Diamond: Guys crying, throwing helmets, such disappointment. The sad thing was, we had a team postgame party that was going to be at the team hotel, so of course no one wanted to go to the postgame party. I want to say half the team, maybe more, did go to the party, and as the GM I had to be there. Didn’t want to be there. But just a very, very painful postgame party. That’s what I remember more than anything, having to go back to that party at the Hyatt Regency and thinking, Wow, I don’t want to be here for this.
Don Banks: I’ve never seen anything like the psychic toll of that game on those guys in the locker room.
Fred Zamberletti: There were some guys sobbing, sincerely. Very deeply. I don’t remember ever seeing athletes cry as much as I did after that game.
Cris Carter: I didn’t listen to the speech afterward. I just sat in my locker, that’s all I did. I wasn’t conscious enough to hear what Denny was saying.
Todd Steussie: I wound up sitting around my house in Minnesota for a few days not knowing what to do with myself. I thought, I gotta get out of here, stop listening to local talk radio. I jumped in my Tahoe and drove to California. I just needed to get away from it all. I think there was certainly a hangover that lingered beyond that offseason. Everyone realized the missed opportunity.
Brian Billick: I’m not sure the city had ever rebounded from it.
Randall Cunningham: It just wasn’t our destiny to be in the Super Bowl. That’s my conclusion. Because if it was, we would have gone. But, you know, after that season things really started to shift and change.
Robert Griffith: My agent booked me for all these appearances at the Super Bowl, so I had to go down to Miami, and I didn’t want to be there. I had probably 15 appearances, I was there for four days eating crow.
Tim Connolly: There was a reception at the Super Bowl two weeks later in Miami. We went to the commissioner’s party, and inside was Mike Shanahan—he was coaching the Broncos in the Super Bowl. We were in the same line or something and he looks at me and just rolls his eyes like, Oooof, we so dodged a bullet. He was being nice, a gentleman. But I felt the same way. You couldn’t say it, but he was nice enough to say it. Just roll his eyes and give me that look. Like, I’m glad we’re not playing you guys, that kind of look.
Throughout her husband’s career, Marie Green used to give Dennis three days to stew after a loss. Seventy-two hours. Beyond that she would confront the lingering frustration and say “OK, I need my husband back, you need to snap out of this.” The community service days on Tuesdays would typically serve as a trampoline for his spirit, but this was different.
Marie said it took years for her husband to get over the Falcons loss and said it remained one of his biggest regrets until his death on July 21, 2016, from complications related to cardiac arrest. But in the early morning hours on the day after the defeat, Green received an unexpected phone call, and with it recognition from the highest level that, despite the cruel ending, he had truly built something special.
Marie Green: Dennis didn’t speak much on the way home, and usually when he doesn’t speak that’s when you worry. And I remember clearly, we were sitting upstairs and the phone rang. So I looked at the caller ID and it said THE WHITE HOUSE. And so, of course I answered the phone, and there was someone who said, “I have President Clinton on the line. He’d like to speak with coach Dennis Green. Is he available?”
So I hand the phone to Dennis, and I say. “President Clinton is on the line. He wants to talk to you.” He smiled for the first time all day. I got as close as I could so I could hear everything they said, and [Clinton] said “Dennis? Dennis? This is President Clinton …” and he just went on to tell Dennis he was so sorry about the team and that they hung in there. He gave him some really great words that were so, so perfect to hear in that situation, after losing a game like that. That’s something really remarkable about that night that I will never forget.
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