Last Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., Jim Marshall, age 41, did what has come naturally to him on autumn Sundays for the past 19 years. He lined up at right defensive end for the start of a Minnesota Vikings game. There were no marching bands or halftime ceremonies, only a brief P.A. announcement that this time would be the last time for Jim Marshall.
The big goodby had been said the previous Sunday in Bloomington, Minn., where Marshall was honored for his long service with the Vikings. After he rode around Metropolitan Stadium in an old red convertible, Marshall was toasted by his teammates at midfield before the game against the Buffalo Bills.
In that game Marshall sacked Quarterback Joe Ferguson twice, and he even played offensive tackle during the Vikings' final series. Minnesota won 10-3, and at the end Marshall was carried off the field by his teammates, with the game ball—the first one ever given to a Viking player by Coach Bud Grant—in his right hand and tears in his eyes.
So it really doesn't matter that the New England fans didn't fully appreciate what they were seeing. For against the Patriots, Marshall was playing his 282nd consecutive regular-season game—every game after the 224th, in 1975, was an NFL iron-man record. This man had been in professional football before there was a franchise in New England. He played in Canada for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1959 after leaving Ohio State a year early and then joined the Cleveland Browns in 1960. Minnesota traded for Marshall, and beginning with the Vikings' inaugural game against the Chicago Bears in 1961, he has started in every regular and postseason contest the Vikings have played—302 in all.
December 24, 1979
Marshall's record for longevity and durability may never be equaled in the NFL, where the average defensive lineman survives only 4.5 years and players other than quarterbacks don't last that long. How, then, was Marshall, who came into the league at 6'3" and 220 pounds and is leaving at 6'4" and 235 pounds, able to play pro football for 21 seasons?
"Jim would say it's the vitamins he takes or transcendental meditation or something else, but it's not true," says Fred Zamberletti, the Vikings' trainer for the past 19 years. "I've seen all that stuff come and go with him. He's just one of those people who has been blessed with a great body." Grant agrees, calling Marshall "a physiological impossibility. He just doesn't rip, bust or tear."
Marshall himself says his career endured so long because he wanted it to. "Why can't I play football until I'm 42? Only because someone my age isn't supposed to be able to. That's the mind's negative programming. The human body is the only thing we have that we can control to some degree, and the mental controls the physical. There are things we are physically capable of doing but push away from because our minds tell us to."
In his effort to "make the mind and body totally harmonious," Marshall has given a lot of thought to human behavior, and he has been able to play week after week despite the ankle sprains and concussions that might have sidelined lesser men. Twice Marshall kept his streak intact by walking out of hospitals where he was recuperating, once from pneumonia and this season from ulcers. On another occasion he played after accidentally shooting himself in the side while cleaning a shotgun.
Strangely, Marshall was regularly on the disabled list during the off-season, victim of a life-style that produced any number of close calls. He is an avid sky diver, scuba diver and snowmobiler. On one trip in the Wyoming mountains, Marshall's party was trapped in a blizzard, and the group's snowmobiles conked out. One man froze to death in the waist-high snow. Marshall and the others had to resort to burning their money to produce heat.
Throughout his career Marshall stayed out of the spotlight. In the Purple People Eaters' heyday, Alan Page and Carl Eller received most of the attention—not Marshall, not Tackle Gary Larsen. When Page left the Vikings for the Bears and Eller departed for Seattle, publicity focused on their replacements, not on Marshall.
When this season began, Marshall was used only sparingly, sometimes giving way to Randy Holloway as early as the third or fourth defensive series. Critics said Grant was succumbing to sentimentality in keeping Marshall's streak alive at Holloway's expense. Marshall was philosophical about the situation. "For the future of the team, it had to happen," he said of his benchings. "When you play, it's like you're an artist. You put the colors on the canvas and see what happens. Maybe what I'm doing now is helping mix the colors. Things will work themselves out."
While Holloway was breaking in, Marshall was called on when Minnesota found itself in crucial situations—which happened all too often this season. His performance in the tight spots earned him more and more playing time.
"All the time you're playing, you're trying to refine what you do on the field, trying to fit it into the overall picture," he says. "If you do that, you can put your energy where it's needed, when it's needed, as opposed to putting your foot to the floor and burning yourself out."
By playing at his own sweet pace, Marshall avoided the trauma of the final days of Page and Eller, who were unceremoniously shipped out after what were considered poor seasons. "Sometimes you can go to a store and buy something that's very good for next to nothing because the store owners just want to get rid of it or start a new model," Marshall says. "That's their opinion, but yen just hate to see something like we had severed."
What they had, according to Marshall, revolutionized football. "At our peak," he says, "we changed the game. Rules were passed to help teams adjust to us. The new holding rules, the outlawing of the head slap—that was because of the things we did. We were like a SWAT team, a strike task force—quick and agile. Apart, we were entirely different, but put us together and we clicked. It got to the point where I knew what the others were going to to do the moment they started it. It was just understood."
Despite his positive achievements, Marshall is probably best remembered around the NFL as Wrong Way Marshall. In 1964 he scooped up a fumble, carried it 66 yards into the end zone and then jubilantly tossed the ball toward the stands. Trouble was, it was the wrong end zone. "I was so intent on picking the ball up and doing something with it that I wasn't even aware of what I had done until the ball had been whistled dead," Marshall recalls. "It was the perfect example of a young player using energy without thinking."
There was no such problem when Marshall made his decision to retire, a choice that pleased his wife, Anita. "I'm glad it's done," she says. "It has been fun, but inside you knew it had to end sometime. There were two ways that it could end—on top with dignity or the other way. I like the 'on top with dignity.' "
Marshall agrees. "I always said I would play as long as I could contribute and the team needed me, and I still feel like I could play another year or two, but it's time for a change," he says. "I'm a talented individual, and now I have to let those talents take me elsewhere.
"But everything is still so fresh to me. Some people saw the game as a drudgery, but things were always changing too fast for that to be true. Strictly speaking, it's still a game of moving the ball up and down the field, but things are more sophisticated, more disciplined now than five years ago, let alone 20. Back then someone like Big Daddy Lipscomb could cross the line of scrimmage and handle the entire offensive backfield through sheer physical ability. Today's defenses are too complex for that because of the roles each player has, because of the things offenses can do. Someone like Big Daddy isn't going to happen today."
And it's doubtful that another Jim Marshall will come along tomorrow.