THE VIKINGS ON THE MOVE
Entering the third week of the season, the National Football League already has managed to scramble itself into a big variety show in which there is fun for nearly everyone. No team has won two games, 12 teams have won one game and only two teams have not won at all. In that sort of atmosphere anything is possible. It is even possible for the Minnesota Vikings to have as good a record as the Green Bay Packers against common opposition, although a man who said that last month would have been hurried off to analysis.
Two weeks ago in their league opener the Vikings smashed out 313 yards on the ground, beat the Baltimore Colts 34-24 and put on a pass-rush that buried Johnny Unitas in the white shirts and purple pants the Minnesota players call their Easter-egg uniforms. Last Sunday in Minneapolis the Vikings saw their All-NFL Halfback Tommy Mason (see cover) knocked unconscious in the first quarter, but they still rambled for 413 yards and four touchdowns against the formidable defense of the Chicago Bears before losing 34-28 to the 1963 NFL champions. The Packers had clipped the Bears 23-12, but on Sunday the Colts—a team the Vikings had handled easily—sprang back to beat Green Bay 21-20.
Although the Vikings stand only 1-1, they lead the league in total offense and are tied with Philadelphia in scoring with 62 points. Their record to date is an impressive answer to the cynics who tried to laugh away Minnesota's five exhibition victories. Exhibition games are used for experimenting with rookies and earning training-camp expenses; this is the one period during a long and arduous season when the question is not who won or lost but how the game was played. And the opinion was that once the game began to be played toward the championship the Vikings would fade like summer roses.
September 27, 1964
The Vikings had no such thought themselves. Instead they were remembering 1960, the year a bedraggled and much-abused team called the Green Bay Packers won six straight exhibition games to the same skeptical smiles that greeted Minnesota this season and then kept going into an era of championships. The Vikings, the newest franchise in the NFL, may not be headed toward an immediate championship, but they are not a mirage. They have a fine young quarterback in Fran Tarkenton (six touchdown passes in the first two games), excellent pass receivers including last season's Rookie of the Year, Paul Flatley, and an offensive line that does its work in effective, if unspectacular, fashion. Rookie Carl Eller has added strength and size to the defensive front, the line-backing is adequate, and Corner Back Ed Sharockman is developing into one of the league's best. The Vikings are a team of hitters. Minnesota fans fondly call them "our headhunters." But perhaps the main reason the Vikings are suddenly in contention is that the slashing Tommy Mason is now getting help from stumpy, bowlegged, 221-pound Bill Brown and is free to run with only slightly more than normal attention from the opposition.
Mason spent the previous two seasons being guarded like Willie Sutton, but he frequently escaped anyhow. This year the pressure on Mason has been eased by the emergence of Brown—who was traded by the Bears and was on the brink of being cut by the Vikings—as a runner who breaks tackles and as a receiver who can score on the deep pass. With Brown banging at the ends and ripping at the middle in his rolling, bumping, barging style, the defenses cannot afford to jam up on Mason. In the first two games Brown has rushed for 180 yards in 32 carries, and Mason, despite being groggy for most of the afternoon against the Bears, has run for 153 yards in 27 carries.
Tommy Mason is a 6-foot-1, 196-pound halfback, singer, guitar player, weight lifter, poetry quoter and sugar-plantation owner with the strong, handsome, country-boy face of a young calf-roper. He was not an All-America, because he chose to go to college at Tulane which plays in the tough Southeastern Conference but has a somewhat Ivy League approach to football these days. When the Vikings made Mason their No. 1 draft choice for 1961, Minnesota Coach Norm Van Brocklin said, "We got the best football player in the country." After watching Mason as a pro for three seasons Van Brocklin says, "Nothing has happened to make me change my mind. Mason runs with speed and power. He's the best blocker on our team, and if he played defense he'd be our best defensive back. His only weakness is balance. He's inclined to be a Stumbler. But he's the kind of kid you'd like to claim for your own. He doesn't drink or smoke, but he doesn't make it uncomfortable for those who do."
Fran Tarkenton, a close friend of Mason, says: "Tommy is the best halfback in the league. I don't know how you could expect one man to do any more than Tommy does for us. And with Bill Brown running so well this year, we have great versatility. It's a tremendous advantage to me as a quarterback. It doesn't matter which one of them I Set to which side, which one has to block or run or catch the ball. Nobody can key on Mason anymore."
Brown and Mason complement each other like a pair of well-trained carriage horses. They come out of the huddle and line up in an I formation with Mason behind Brown. Then they split to either side, leaving no one in the usual fullback position. The way they help each other wreck opposing defenses is illustrated in one of the Vikings' most effective plays—the swing-and-up pass.
In the swing-and-up pass Mason sets as a halfback on the strong side, the side on which the flanker back is playing. At the snap, the tight end, who is on the strong side, and the flanker go down-field and break toward the middle to draw the corner back and the safety with them. Mason drifts out as if for a swing pass and then cuts on his 9.8 speed and sprints for the end zone with only the strong-side linebacker to chase him as Tarkenton throws the ball.
"I run my tail off," Mason says. "I can run with any back in the league and with most of the ends and flankers, and I ought to be able to outrun a linebacker." He always does. In Mason's second season, 1962, the Vikings scored six touchdowns on the swing-and-up pass. Last year, whenever Mason set to the strong side the defense went into a zone to be certain a safety man would be tagging Mason deep, but the swing-and-up pass worked for three touchdowns. Two weeks ago in the second quarter against Baltimore, Mason and the flanker set left and the Colts went into a partial zone—or trick—defense on the same side to try to protect themselves against the swing-and-up. So Brown ran the swing-and-up pattern from the weak side. It turned into a foot race between Brown and Linebacker Bill Pellington, a race Brown won easily to score on a 48-yard pass from Tarkenton.
"Brown is really the big man for us this year," Mason said. "If they key on me, Bill drives them crazy. I sure am glad we have him." The kind of running Mason does best is hit quick and then disappear over the horizon. "But I had trouble learning that," Mason said. "In my rookie year, 1961, we had Hugh McElhenny, and he sort of took me under his wing. Most of the stories about me say I didn't play regularly as a rookie because I was hurt [he got a pinched nerve in his neck during workouts for the Chicago All-Star game], but that wasn't the reason at all. I didn't play regularly because McElhenny was better than I was. He was great to me, though. He tried to teach me everything, and that's how I got into trouble.
"McElhenny was a dancer. He had great balance and footwork. I tried to copy him. I would be dancing around looking for holes, and wham! While I was dancing the hole closed and I was nowhere. I finally learned what I had to do was break for that hole and run as fast and as hard as I could. I'm no dancer. But the thing McElhenny helped me most on was my confidence. He used to put his arm around me and say, 'Kid, you can be the best halfback in this league.' Eventually I believed him. You can't be anything as an athlete without confidence."
Mason's long runs are a result of planning as well as instinct and ability. "Of course, you can't really plan a long run, but you can make it a lot easier for yourself," Mason said. "I can diagram everybody's assignment on every play, and when I break into the secondary I know where my help is most likely to come from. I know what defensive backs are fastest and should be avoided if possible. I can nearly set my pattern for going downfield. Then much of it depends on reflex. I see a flash of color and go the other direction. If, for example, I see a flash of color on my right and know I'm about to be hit from that side, I prepare for it. I spin and give them a limp leg and try to twist out and keep going. I can't overpower the guys in this league.
"I never have felt I have run as well as I am capable. I look at movies and see where I made a wrong cut. I made it in a split second with bodies all around me a few feet away, but still I see in the movies where it was wrong. I'm working to improve that and to improve my balance."
As a blocker Mason is excellent, though he had to make some embarrassing adjustments in his early days as a pro. The first time he tried to pass-block Doug Atkins, Chicago's 6-foot-8, 255-pound All-League end, Mason ducked and lunged. Atkins leaped over Mason's head and landed on Tarkenton. "They call Atkins 255, but he hasn't been that light since he was 10 years old," said Mason. "He's at least 285. Next time I kept my head up and he grabbed me by the seat of the pants and scruff of the neck and tossed me aside like a bouncer throwing a drunk out of a beer joint. But blocking is a matter of pride. I can knock down a 230-pound blitzing linebacker if I really hit him hard. I've found out I feel it less if I hit him hard. If I get set and wait he'll knock me end over end. Football is a game of hitting. I don't think of myself as a hard-nosed player. But I know you have to keep hitting and hitting and hitting until you make the other guy quit, and that's how you win. I haven't missed an assignment in two years through not knowing what I was supposed to do. If I didn't get the job done it was not because I was in the wrong place or not trying."
Mason's exuberant personality has brought him more than the usual amount of locker-room jockeying. He sings and plays his guitar at the slightest invitation, he drives a new Cadillac with a stereophonic tape machine on the front floorboard blaring Percy Faith records, he likes to keep his brown hair long, and he is not reluctant to wear his black-and-gray cowboy boots with a suit. All of that can be, and often is, used against him. Once when the Vikings met to watch movies of a game with Green Bay, Van Brocklin called their attention to a play in which Mason slipped as he was trying to block Linebacker Bill Forester. Mason sprawled ingloriously on the wet turf, and Forester sprawled on Tarkenton. "Gentlemen," said Van Brocklin, "that is how a guy blocks who has a Cadillac and a banjo."
"He also pointed out my long hair and said I looked like a Hollywood beach bum," Mason said. "But I didn't mind. Dutch chews me out the same as he does a rookie. Nobody gets special treatment on this team. So we try to help each other. I think when I made All-NFL last year we were all proud—not for me but for the Vikings."
Mason began singing at the age of 4 when he would walk along the banks of the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, La., harmonizing with his mother and older brother, Boo. At Lake Charles High School, Mason played saxophone in the concert band for four years. But by then Mason was also playing football. He broke the district high school rushing and scoring records Boo had set and, despite an impassioned selling job by Paul Dietzel at LSU, Tommy followed Boo to Tulane in 1957, the year hurricane Audrey smashed ashore at Cameron and destroyed the Masons' home on the Calcasieu. In 1958 Tommy and Boo, who is now a captain in the Air Force, played in the same backfield.
In his senior year Mason led the Southeastern Conference in rushing and scoring and played 48 minutes per game. That was also the year a woman influenced Mason to change his course of study. Mason had been a predental student. He abandoned that and became an English major. He did it so he could expand his range of conversation with Lily Christine, an exotic dancer who goes by the name of the Cat Girl.
"Lily was very interested in the romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, Keats, you know—and I learned them, too," Mason said. "A lot of people acted kind of horrified that I was a good friend of Lily Christine. People who act like that are small-minded. Because Lily is a stripper doesn't mean she can't be a fine person. She's a health faddist, and she encouraged me to take care of myself. The only thing I ever smoked was a piece of grapevine once that burned my tongue. I tried a couple of drinks but didn't like the taste, and I can't even stand the smell of beer. Lily didn't reform me from smoking or drinking, but she got me to take vitamins and she got me started lifting weights. She's the healthiest person I know."
After scoring two touchdowns against Vanderbilt in Nashville in 1960, Mason and several teammates went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is like La Scala for country music fans. Mason was called to the stage and sang Cocaine Blues accompanied by diet Atkins, the country music recording star. From that moment it has never been entirely out of Mason's head that he might make it as a singer. Last summer, while he was learning karate, playing squash and lifting weights in Long Beach, Calif., he made a record called All My Love. On the record Mason sings harmony with himself in a throaty, emotional voice that is much pleasanter to listen to than most of the nonsingers who dominate the teen-age record market.
"It's rock 'n' roll," Mason said as he put the record on the phonograph in his apartment in suburban Bloomington, Minn.—with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in perpetual feud, the Viking offices, Metropolitan Stadium and most of the players are located in neutral Bloomington—on the afternoon before the opening game with Baltimore. "I don't ordinarily sing rock 'n' roll. But I'd wear my hair like the Beatles and run around naked if that's what it took to sell records."
Mason, 25, is still a bachelor and has lived alone since his pet monkey, Dutch, died last year. During the afternoon as Viking players and a few airline stewardesses wandered in, Mason sang duets with Safetyman Charley Britt, who has done acting jobs on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show. Somebody mentioned skin diving and the Bahamas, and it reminded Mason of the island he owns off the coast of British Honduras. Mason and two partners have invested $130,000 in the island and in 13,000 acres of the mainland of British Honduras, where they grow sugar cane. Mason talked for a while about his island, and then as the visitors drifted out he sat quietly in an armchair and watched dusk appear at the sliding glass door.
"I can't keep from thinking about tomorrow," Mason said. "Basically I'm a worrier. I'm my own worst critic. I feel that lifting weights and playing squash has made me a step or two faster than I was last year, and my knee is strong now [he missed two games last season because of a hyperextension when his knee joint was bent the wrong way]. But I can't stand the idea of losing. I'm a very bad loser. I used to sulk when I lost at anything. I want to be better, always be better, always improve. I used to get very nervous before games, too. I think I overdid it. This year I'm trying a new attitude, taking things a little lighter. I tell myself if I fumble, well, I didn't mean to and forget it. But I don't know if that's going to work."
Ironically, Mason's two fumbles last Sunday led to Chicago touchdowns and also to Mason being led off the field. In the first quarter a fist or elbow got between Mason's helmet and face mask, and he awoke with a black eye. "I lost my peripheral vision," he said later. "The rest of the game I was dizzy and was seeing sparklers." In the fourth quarter Mason was fighting off one tackier from the side when he was hit from behind and fumbled again. That time Mason suffered a hyperextension of the right elbow. Although he is recovering, he may not play against the Rams this week. "Fumbles," he said, "are an occupational hazard."
Bear Quarterback Bill Wade, using audibles to combat the Viking blitz, picked on Viking rookie Corner Back George Rose, playing in place of injured Lee Calland, for three touchdown passes to Johnny Morris. The Bears tried an outside rush to contain Tarkenton's scrambling, but he threw four touchdown passes and kept Minnesota moving. Those five exhibition games look more like omens than matters of no consequence.