Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – Playoff football and blizzards

I suppose it was inevitable. Another disappointing end to a Vikings season in the middle of a blizzard.
After all, we are talking January. There are two constants for this time of year, at least in this part of the country. Playoffs in the National Football League are something fans share in every corner of the nation, and the Vikings have made the playoffs 26 of their 48 years in the league. Plus, along the northern border, January is prime time for winter storms and blizzards. So it isn’t an incredible coincidence that some of my most memorable memories combine Vikings football and snowfall.
The storm this weekend seemed a whole lot like the game. The start was fast and furious, then there was a lull and the ending was downright miserable. As far as the game goes, it has to rank up there with the 1999 NFC championship debacle against the Atlanta Falcons.
I don’t know what it is about these New Age Vikings and missed field goals. I think an old-fashioned drubbing feels better in the long run that choking the game away in overtime. I don’t remember that day a decade ago as being particularly stormy, but looking up some old weather records it seems the state had received three times normal snowfall that January. So I guess I will rack that one up for the old snowball-football connection.
The gold standard, of course, became known as the Super Bowl Blizzard, in 1975. The weather system stormed out of the south forming 45 confirmed tornadoes from Texas to North Carolina to Indiana that left 12 dead. It slammed into cold air from the north and dropped more than 2 feet of snow across the Dakotas and Minnesota. That same weekend the Steel Curtain wrapped up the Purple People Eaters in a game where legends were burnished as Franco Harris gained more yards by himself than the entire Vikings offense. It was the first of four Super Bowl victories for the Steelers and was the third appearance in a Super Bowl for the Vikings.
But the 1977 Super Bowl has to be the most memorable one for me personally. Looking back, it was the sort of experience that taught me you can get through almost anything as long as there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I was a junior in high school way back then. I think it was just after the Christmas break when I was talking to a friend who told me her vacation had been ruined because she had come down with a bad case of shingles. I didn’t know it at the time, but shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus. When most people have chickenpox, their bodies eventually beat back the virus. However, the virus is tricky and doesn’t disappear altogether. It retreats into nerve cells where the immune system can’t find it. For any number of reasons, including extreme stress, the virus can bust out of the nerve cells and cause a bad localized rash called shingles.
Why go into all that? Well, at the age of 16, I had never had chickenpox. Yep, shortly afterwards I was a pimply, scabby, itchy scratching mess.
Well, it turned out that year the Vikings had another good year and rode 38-year-old Fran Tarkenton’s arm and the rushing of Chuck Foreman and Dave Osborne to another conference championship and berth in the Super Bowl. And just like mud follows a rainstorm, another blizzard roared through North Dakota.
Now I have to give you another piece of background information. The house I grew up in was the very last house on the REC power line. It looped west out of Langdon and then south so I’m guessing that line was at least 50 or 60 miles long. What that meant in practical terms was that no matter where there was a break in that line, our house was going to be blacked out. And when there were many breaks in the line, all of them had to be fixed before our power was restored.
Well, I’m sure you can see this coming, that blizzard snapped the line between just about every power pole in the country. Or at least it seemed that way to me. So by Super Bowl Sunday we had been out of power for four days or something like that.
Did I mention that we relied on an electric pump for water? And the house was warmed by electric heat? Dad had a small propane heater that kept the pipes from freezing, but by game time the house had hovered in the mid-30s for quite a while. Obviously, I didn’t get to watch the game on television, but we had a transistor radio for entertainment.
So if you can picture it, there I was itching like crazy and fighting the urge to scratch, bundled in blankets against the cold, nicely ripened after four days with no shower, listening to the pregame show on a tiny AM radio. The only light was coming from a pine scented Christmas candle. It was already shaping up to be a memorable game for me.
Of course you know how the game turned out. The Vikings were handed their record setting fourth Super Bowl defeat. Fred Biletnikoff was the MVP for the Oakland Raiders, but my main memory of the game was hearing “Mark Van Eeghan crashes into the line – First Down!” over and over and over again. In the darkness, the Purple went down to their final ignominious Super Bowl defeat.
It was unimaginable at the time that it would be the Vikings’ last grab at the brass ring for more than 30 years. Since then, with five straight losses in conference championship games, I think we fans have gotten used to the Vikes being the ultimate “close but not quite” team. But both the Vikings and I survived, and there is a lesson in that. Maybe it’s a good thing they haven’t won a Super Bowl. If they won, it would probably have taken us months to dig out from the resulting blizzard.


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