TUESDAY, NOV. 16: Gloves
I first heard the strike was over late this afternoon, when I was in a sporting-goods store. I said sure, thanks, when the guy told me. I'd heard that too many times the last 50-something days. But outside, in the mall, I met a neighbor of mine, and she told me the same thing. She's married to a Northwest pilot, and those guys are always on strike, so I figured she knew strikes. And she was right.
The first thing that came to my mind, Frank, was: This is great. We can get hot and win the whole thing. The way I heard it first, eight teams would make the playoffs. We're 1-1 now, so I figured we could glide past some guys. We're a passing team, and passing doesn't demand as much precision as running. Besides, it's going to be essentially a cold-weather season now, and receivers always have the advantage on frozen fields.
Unfortunately, that also made me think: I wonder if Bud Grant has changed his theory on gloves. His theory is that no matter how cold it is, you don't need 'em. My hunch is, Bud hasn't changed.
I've changed, though. I've been growing a beard for six days. I needed to do somthing. At first, the strike was nice. I haven't had two days off in a row in the fall for many years. But having two months off was another matter. For several years I had a mustache, and I was a totally different-looking person with it. I appeared much older and tougher. I'm proof that all black people don't look alike, because with a mustache I didn't even look like me.
Thought for today: I just found out 16 teams, not eight, get in the playoffs. Great: I always wanted to play in the NBA.
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 17: Shoes
Up at 6:30 for a physical at 8. And I couldn't find my shoes. The last thing I did when the strike was called was to bring my cleats home, because I was going to work out a lot in them. That was the last time I thought about my shoes. I finally found them out in the garage.
Then everything went great. I was so excited I was actually looking all around for other Vikings as I drove to our training facility. And 10 minutes after we got there, it was like we'd never been away. It was fun all over again. The three things you need to play pro ball are good hands, quick feet and thick skin, and right away, the guys were all over each other. Like, if you've got a slightly large nose, everybody will say, "Hey, tell me what they're cooking in Spain today." Why, there were even some guys who actually had some unkind remarks about my new beard, such as: Did you just climb out of a garbage can?
The universal joke was, "Hey, Where's my check?" because in the new agreement we're all getting big bonuses. The backup universal joke involved urine specimens. The gag was that clean specimens were for sale, starting at $35 and going up to $100 if you had a reputation as a party boy. As you can see, Frank, the 50-some days haven't eroded any of the clever wit we gridiron stars are renowned for.
I had forgot my shoes again, so I had to go out to the car to get them. Then we had our first meeting, watching films of the Tampa Bay game, our season opener. Both the teams we played in September used the 3-4, and so does Green Bay, which we play Sunday, so that's good for us. And Jerry Burns, our offensive coordinator, just started the meeting off as if nothing had happened. Coaches are always up for meetings.
Green Bay? People ask me what my greatest pressure situation ever was in football, and I answer: Green Bay. Only it was a Green Bay meeting. It was during the '75 preseason when I was with Buffalo. Lou Saban was the Bills' coach, and he's one of the great meeting coaches. Whenever Lou gave a speech I tried to memorize it in case I ever got into a war and had to fire a whole army up.
This particular time, the Packers had beaten us, and Saban was mad. I was sitting next to O.J. Simpson. That was my mistake. No coach was ever going to get mad at O.J. Later that year O.J. played a bad game, and so for the whole meeting after it Saban screamed at Jim Braxton, because Braxton was sitting next to O.J.
At the Green Bay meeting Saban was wearing khaki pants, with a real football coach's shirt and a cap, and he had a pencil stuck up under one side of his glasses, so it bounced up and down whenever he screamed. O.J. started to giggle, and I could feel myself getting ready to laugh. And I knew: If I laugh, I'm gone. This is serious. Green Bay has beaten us in preseason, and that is no laughing matter. And here I am, a new kid on the block, trying to get more money, and if I laugh, my career is over. And next to me, my friend O.J. is trying to make me laugh.
And then Saban lets it out another notch: He screams at the offensive line. They were called The Electric Company—remember that? He yells, "Electric Company? Electric Company, my ass—you guys blew a fuse!" And now I really can't stand it. I have to hold my hands up like blinders to keep from seeing O.J. And then Saban moves on to money and greedy players, which includes me, and his pencil is really bouncing now, and he hollers, "Money, money, money!—when you guys die, I'm going to stick a green flag in each of you, and it'll say, HE HAD SOME MONEY. Yeah, money, money, money!" And now I absolutely couldn't control myself, so all I could do was lay my head down and think serious things, sad things. I thought about people dying, everybody dying all over. And somehow I survived the meeting. But talk about pressure—that was my most ever.
After Burnsy's meeting came practice. It was indoors, under the bubble that covers part of our practice field, just helmets and shoulder pads. Bud told us he wasn't going to punish us, just work us as if it were a regular situation. Of course, normally we only have one practice a day during the season. We're having a second one this afternoon and a meeting tonight, just like we were in training camp. The first workout went surprisingly well—at least until Bud made us all run 10 40-yard sprints, gassers. I should have used those shoes some.
We broke for lunch. Scott Studwell started calling me Scuz in pointed reference to my beard. In the afternoon we worked in full gear. But you know, all day, there really had been no talk about the strike. Then, in the middle of afternoon practice, I looked up and saw David Huffman walking toward the field. Dave is our player rep and he was just back from New York, where he'd been for about a week for the negotiations. He was carrying a big athletic bag, and I screamed out, "Hey, Huffman, is that bag full of money?" And everybody laughed. Well, everybody but Dave laughed.
We had our last meeting of the day at 7:30. Just beforehand, bowing to public demand and peer pressure, I shaved off my beard. It hadn't been much of a beard, anyway.
Thought for today: Everybody probably figures that all the teams will stick to pretty basic stuff this Sunday. I doubt that. You can probably pull off something like a double reverse flea-flicker at a time like this when the defenses aren't so well prepared.
THURSDAY, NOV. 18: Hits
Most guys didn't do much during the strike, but there's a rookie on our team named Steve Jordan who has an engineering degree, and he went right downtown and got a very good job as an engineer. Jordan went to Brown so, naturally, we call him Ivy, and if anybody ever has a question, whether or not Jordan is involved in the conversation, he'll get asked for the answer. Like, "Hey Ivy, how many miles is it to Denver?" Or, "Ivy, what's 8½ of $93,500?" And the thing is, he's usually right, too. Once when he was wrong, I said, "You see, Ivy, you should've gone to Harvard."
The guy who had the best deal during the strike was Curtis Rouse, another rookie. We call him Boo Boo. He and Jordan live together. Jordan supported him, and Rouse, who started the strike weighing slightly less than 300, ate. He gained about 20 pounds. Today he asked, "Ahmad, can they cut weight off you?"
I said, "No, Boo Boo, but they can staple your stomach."
Actually, the only guy on the whole team who really looks the worse for wear is Dave Huffman. I told him today that we all appreciated what he had done for us as the player rep, but that didn't exactly pep him up.
Of course, I know there's been some talk that we're all coming back to action without sufficient preparation, but none of us believe that. Nobody is any more worried about injury than ever before. Our bodies are mature, in excellent condition. If you think about it, eight weeks is a drop in the bucket physically in the life of a pro football player. Think how often it happens that somebody comes back from an injury after eight weeks—and nobody makes anything of that.
After all, we don't ever practice for contact. When we came to camp this summer, after being away from football seven months, we played our first exhibition after only nine days of workouts and one short passing scrimmage. If you practiced getting hit, you'd only get hurt more in the process. It's like remembering how to ride a bicycle—or maybe remembering how to fall off one. Whenever I practice and I catch a ball with a lot of guys around me, I just register somewhere: Well, if this were a real game, I'd be hit now, so you're prepared when it is a real game.
They really got me at practice today. They all bet me I couldn't stay quiet for three minutes. Steve Riley, the tackle, the poor guy who has to stand next to me in the huddle, came running over and said, "I want some of that action." I haven't heard Steve say that many words in the seven years I've been here. They won, too. But it wasn't fair. Sammy White followed around after me, sneaking tippy-toes, listening to hear if I was talking under my breath. And Sammy's a very sane person, too. None of us would have acted like this four days ago. I don't think you can be a part of a team and be grown-up, no matter how old you are and no matter what you do when you're not playing.
Thought for today: In our meetings, the rookie nearest the door is in charge of the light switch. Curtis Rouse won the honor tonight. He was the tiredest-looking guy on the team, and Jim Hough and I agreed that Curtis would fall asleep during the films. But as soon as the film ended and Burnsy said "Lights," Curtis flipped that switch right on. I think there's an extra ingredient in football players that makes them look involved as soon as a film ends. And, if you're going to last as a pro, you have to have answers, too. The best football players have answers. That's what coaches need. The top answer so far this season was Tommy Kramer's. We were watching films and Burnsy asked him why half the team went offside on a play. "Well," Tommy said, "half of them thought it was supposed to be on hut-one and the other half on hut-two." Great answer. World-class answer. I guess that's why Tommy's a quarterback.
FRIDAY, NOV. 19: Pies
The oldest player on the Minnesota Vikings—me—turned 33 today, and we have a tradition that the birthday boy is fair game for some kind of trick. At our first meeting this morning, Les Steckel, the receivers coach, put three numbers up on the board—17, 14, 10. "What's that mean?" he asked. Now, what it means is 17 yards down on a comeback pattern, 14 on a sideline, 10 for a quick out. But right away, Wade Wilson, a backup quarterback, says, "Add them up, you get Rashad's age."
When I came out of the bubble this morning, I saw a photographer there, and I thought, uh-oh. And sure enough, here come two guys at me with whipped-cream pies. I ran a quick down and out, they missed, and I was giving them all a big smug expression just as Greg Coleman came up behind me and got me right in the face with a reverse slam dunk. And Burnsy sees me with all this cream on my face and yells, "Hey, Al Jolson, sing for us."
The worst part is, I feel so old. No, the worst part is: Everybody else looks so young. Of course, that may be because they are so young. Frank, maybe you shouldn't take too seriously all that stuff I told you a couple days ago about how great it felt to be back. I ache. Who's responsible for ending this strike?
Thought for the day: Football practice sure is fun, at least for the first hour.
SATURDAY, NOV. 20: Packers
We didn't take off for Milwaukee, where we're playing tomorrow at noon, until 3:45 this afternoon. Bud believes in saving time. Guys will be home for dinner in the Twin Cities tomorrow evening. We're always the last team to go to training camp, and Bud has us leave for games so late that once, when we were playing in Detroit, we got caught in traffic and were late for the kickoff. I always ride the second bus. That's the one where you don't have to wear a real ugly pregame face. So did Fran Tarkenton. This time in Detroit he leaned out the window to a traffic cop and said, "Hey, we've got the Vikings here. Can you help us get to the game?"
And the cop said, "What do I care? I got the Lions and five." The whole bus exploded.
But we're always ready when we do get to the stadium. I feel like we're ready for tomorrow. Bud even told us today, "I'm not worried about you physically. I'm only worried about your mental preparation." But that's always the real pressure in this game, any game—the intellectual, the emotional. You are not allowed any mental mistakes. Those mistakes penalize too many other people who did things right. The many great athletes who didn't cut it in the NFL failed because they were way up here one game and down here the next, because they ran 10 yards on one quick out and eight the next. There's a lot of funny stuff on any team, but we need that outlet to preserve our sanity. Essentially, it's a very serious game. What's expected of us tomorrow will be no different just because we've been away eight weeks.
The Packer who has played me for years is Mike McCoy, and he's just a treat to go against. Mike is totally competitive, all heads-up, but never anything chippy. If I catch an out, he'll take my back off, but then we'll jog back together and talk about old mutual friends. After the game, if we were staying over, Mike and I would go out and have a few beers together and never even mention what we did to each other on the football field. That's the kind of thing I'll remember best when I'm gone from the game.
Well, I've got to study now. I was right. Bud gave us a whole lot of new stuff. Tomorrow it'll be third and long again, Frank. The ship is sailing once more at last.
SUNDAY, NOV. 21: Lines
I always try to have my own little private theme song for a game and listen to it on my Walkman. For the first two games this year—you know, B.S., Before Strike—I played You Are a Winner by Earth, Wind & Fire. Today I kept the group but switched songs to Back on the Road Again. That struck me as especially appropriate, but the fact is that nothing today seemed again, nothing was like any other experience I've ever had in football. I was even the most quiet I've ever been before a game. I was concentrating so. This was really catch-up ball we were all playing—trying to make up eight weeks in four days. It didn't even seem like the fans were on today. Their timing was off too.
We got whipped 26-7, and I can't pretty that up any. Except for our one touchdown drive in the second quarter, when we went ahead 7-6, we played terribly. The only consolation is that there's no in-between in football. It doesn't feel any better to play well and lose than to play rotten and lose.
And yet it was odd. We sacked the Packer quarterbacks eight times. How often does a team get more sacks than points? And except for two plays we might even have won. With a couple minutes left in the first half we still had them 7-6, and they were facing a third and long long—22—on their own 30. But Lynn Dickey hit Eddie Lee Ivery, their running back, coming over the middle, and he staggered through a whole posse of our guys over on the far sideline, cut back and went 62 yards before he ran out of gas. Then, a couple plays later he scored on a deflected pass from Dickey.
Still, we were only down six when the second half started, and we were getting the ball, but on the kickoff, Mo Harvey stripped the ball away from Sam Harrell. It popped up in the air and Harvey grabbed it and sauntered into the end zone. 19-6. It's a funny thing in football, but often it's how a team scores that breaks your heart. If we had punted to the Packers and then they had marched down the field in a normal manner and scored on a six-minute drive, that wouldn't have affected us nearly so much, even though it would still have been 19-6 and we'd have had even less time to catch up. But this way, it was cruel, and the instant Harvey scored you could feel the air go out of our balloon. In the whole second half, we made only four first downs and gained 67 yards.
I caught five balls in the game for 68 yards, which sounds good, but I can't kid you. I missed two catches, trying to run before I caught the ball. I never once got tired out there today. Nobody got hurt from the layoff, either. I took one tough shot, too, when McCoy knocked me sprawling into some boards that had been laid down a few feet outside the sidelines. Scraped up my back. Scared the hell out of Mike. For a long time after that, he kept saying, "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to knock you into those boards." If I hadn't been in shape, I would've gotten hurt then.
But I—everybody—was out of mental shape. You know how I would characterize it? It was like an actor who has to go on stage while he's still learning his role. No matter how good an actor may be, before he has his lines down second-nature, he can't act fluidly, instinctively. Today, all of us were still trying to memorize our lines, so we couldn't play naturally. Our minds got in the way.
When I get back to Minneapolis, I'm going to talk to our owner, Max Winter, and tell him that I'm going to call it quits at the end of the season. Knowing I'll be hanging it up will give me a boost in the rest of our games. I don't want anyone to think my decision has anything to do with how we did today. I just know it's time for me to go on to other things.