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Original Issue

The Vikes' Rugged New Nook

It's Minnesota's Crockpot, where chilblains are out and running backs like Darrin Nelson can pile up the yardage

The Minnesota Vikings made their debut in the $55-million Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome last Saturday night with a 7-3 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, another bunch of dome gnomes, and it was enough to turn a non-quiche-eating man's stomach. In the great and glorious days of Vikings past, they drafted players for their ability to exhibit grace under zero. But no more will an Ahmad Rashad or a Sammy White pluck a miracle off a safetyman's frozen fingertips. No more will a Chuck Foreman or a Ted Brown tiptoe over the frozen tundra. Football at the Vikings' old Metropolitan Stadium is just a piece of freeze-dried history.

"No matter where teams used to come from, they all used to talk about the cold in Minnesota," Rashad said on Friday. "When I was in Buffalo [in 1974 and '75], we'd be leaving 35 inches of snow and everybody would be talking about how cold it was in Minnesota. Can you imagine that?"

An even greater strain on the imagination is the fact that the Vikings have vaulted directly from ice palace to sauna, omitting the temperate zones entirely. To be sure, they didn't pass quietly into the Enclosed Era. On Friday they filed a suit in district court against the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the panel that manages the dome, charging irregularities in several areas, including the scoreboard, the retractable seats, the parking, the broadcast facilities, the concessions and, most ironically, the air conditioning—or lack of it. Where once visiting NFL teams congealed in Minnesota, they may now melt away.

"You just hope a player or a fan doesn't die in there," Minnesota Linebacker Scott Studwell said before the game. "It would probably take something that tragic to open the commission's eyes." Though it was 82° in the dome Saturday night, the 57,880 fans and the players had been prepared for the worst by reports of the games of baseball's Twins. Fortunately, the temperature was a moderate 79° outside at kickoff and the humidity 42%. "They [the commission] just got lucky," said Viking General Manager Mike Lynn, "and we don't want that stadium operated on luck."

"On a humid day it's simply unbearable in there," says Tom Mee, the Twins' director of public relations. No doubt because of such talk, Don Poss, the commission's executive director and the man taking the heat for the situation, pulled a reverse Bowie Kuhn on Saturday—he wore a long-sleeved shirt and a tie in the dome. "And I'm not hot," Poss pronounced.

The Vikings and Seahawks weren't so hot, either. The game's only touchdown came on a fine grab of an 11-yard Tommy Kramer pass in the third period by Viking Tight End Joe Senser, who also blocked two Seahawk field-goal attempts. In the first half the Vikes rushed for 27 yards, the Seahawks passed for 13. There were 17 penalties, and the Seahawks had a third-down efficiency of 15% (two of 13). Get the picture? All in all, the game was as miserable as, well, a hot day in what has come to be known as the Minnesota Crockpot.

But despite some bumbling, the Vikings clearly reestablished themselves as a pretty decent aerial circus. Kramer completed 21 of 35 passes to nine different receivers. Senser, Rashad and White are still one of the best receiving trios around, and Brown may be the best pass-catching back in the league. Rickey Young is steady, and Tony Galbreath and Jarvis Redwine appear to be ready to contribute.

And now, too, there is Darrin Nelson, an All-America who holds seven Stanford career records. The 5'9", 185-pound halfback was esteemed by the pros, especially by teams with artificial surfaces, because, like the Cowboys' Tony Dorsett, he's a quick-cutting runner whose style is perfectly suited to broadloom football.

He may soon be in the first-string backfield with Brown, though Coach Bud Grant usually breaks in rookies slowly. In one three-play sequence in the second quarter against the Seahawks, Nelson darted five yards off tackle for a first down, got three more on a typical Viking back-in-the-flat pass, then picked up 38 yards on a "scramble screen" down to the Seahawk 16-yard line, which was nullified by a clip.

Nelson, the seventh pick overall and the first running back taken in the draft, created a stir on draft day when he announced he was disappointed that the Vikings had drafted him. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles," Nelson said. "I'm used to big cities. I like to do things in the city. I like to go to discos." Assured that the Twin Cities did so have discos, Nelson responded, "I don't want to go to discos and listen to country music."

The Twin Cities media immediately dubbed him Disco Darrin. Grant said Nelson should be assured that polkas, not C&W, were big in Minnesota. Rashad sent him a telegram that read, "Dear Darrin: Please reserve your judgment on Minnesota until you get here. Don't worry about discos. Worry about the Super Bowl. Looking forward to seeing you."

Nelson now says he was kidding about the discos. "I just like the California weather," he says. "I'm not a surfer, but I've lived there my whole life and I like to be outside, playing softball or going for a swim. But the main reason was my family. It's so far for them to come to watch me."

Nelson is an easygoing, intelligent young man (he graduated with a 3.0 as an urban development and environmental planning major) who has a squeaky, high voice, smiles a lot and isn't stuck on himself. He just happens to be honest. He didn't want to go to Minnesota, and his agent, 29-year-old Tony Agnone, who's assistant to the dean of the University of Baltimore Law School, wrote the Vikings telling them just that. Agnone felt Nelson would be gone by the 10th pick, and only Minnesota among his undesirables (Detroit and Green Bay were others) drafted higher. "In retrospect, I should've written the others so it wouldn't look that bad," agonizes Agnone.

After some foot-dragging, Nelson signed on July 30, two days after camp began. There was speculation he had a deal worth $800,000 over three years, including signing bonus, salary and incentives. Lynn said $520,000 over three was more like it. Agnone hinted $800,000 wasn't as farfetched as Lynn claims it is, but refused to get more specific.

All the publicity about the penny-wise Vikings' paying princely sums to a rookie didn't sit well with three-year veteran Brown, who last year ranked third in the NFL in pass receptions, with 83, and ninth in the NFC in rushing, with 1,063 yards. On the day after Nelson's signing press conference, Brown missed both drills at practice at Mankato State College and never sufficiently explained his absences. He does admit that he was getting advice from his accountant that day, though. Brown was actually more upset by the reports that Nelson got a three-year guaranteed deal while most of the other Viking veterans, himself included, have a series of one-year contracts. But Lynn and Agnone both say that Nelson has signed three separate one-year contracts, too.

Though some observers were surprised when the Vikes picked another pass-catching back, Brown and Nelson shouldn't get in each other's way. Brown is the fullback, who runs and does most of his receiving on releases out of the backfield. Nelson is the movable back, who'll often line up as a wide receiver and perhaps discourage double-teaming on Rashad or White. "It's obvious what Darrin gives us with that quickness," Kramer said after Saturday's game. "He ran a little option pattern tonight, and I threw it behind him because he's so fast. But I'll adjust to it. On this turf he's going to be something else."

Nelson liked the Crockpot, and he'll like it more in November and December when those cold winds will be blowing through Metropolitan Stadium. But other opinions varied widely. "On the eighth day, God created the Vikings," said Greg Coleman, whose first punt on Saturday night sailed 70 yards, "and on the ninth day, He created the dome. It took him a long time, but I'm patient." Linebackers aren't. "Domes may be great for the skill people," said Studwell, "but not for people like me. Football should be played outdoors." Said Brown, "I wouldn't mind playing the first half of the season outdoors and moving into the dome for the second half."

For his part, Grant was taking a predictably moderate stance. "There was a lot of criticism in New Orleans when they built the Superdome," he said, "but still and all it's the biggest thing that happened down there to make that a big league town. Someday they'll erect a statue in front of the place to the man responsible for the Superdome. We had to do something here, and this was the best move to accommodate everyone."

Though there were no tears shed the day before the game, there was a lot of nostalgia about the good ol' Met.

"I honestly can say the cold weather never bothered me," Studwell said, "even when it was 20 below. The Met wasn't exactly ideal for football, but I'm going to miss that place and that unique feeling of playing outdoors."

Rashad won't miss it quite as much, but he'll miss it just the same. "I'd just die when it was cold," he said. "Listen, is Bud around? I'll tell you this. Sometimes he used to give me a hand-warmer he kept in his pocket on real cold days. I think he saw that I wanted to leave because it was so cold.

"But I always felt the cold out here gave me an advantage, because the footing wasn't very good and I knew where I was going. There were so many big plays made when the defender slipped. Some of them went against us, too. But that kind of thing was synonymous with Viking history. You had to concentrate to play in this weather. You know what the hardest catch is to make? A five-yard out in five-degree weather.

"The big reason we had an advantage in the cold is that we knew there was nothing you could do. When it's five degrees, it's five degrees. George Allen used to try all sorts of things. He'd bring his team in here a week early, lose, then the next time come in a day early, lose again. The only thing you could do was prepare yourself mentally for the cold, and that's what we did."

Former Viking great Fran Tarkenton told Coleman the key to beating the cold was keeping the feet warm. "Once the feet go, forget it," Coleman said. "So I'd change socks and shoes after pregame warmups and again at halftime. Hey, I paid my dues here. I'm not going to miss that cold.

"O.K., the cold weather was a big part of Viking history," the punter said. "I'll have some nostalgia for it. But only until fourth down."



Temperatures and tempers rose in the Metrodome as some longed for old Metropolitan Stadium and the snows of yesteryear (inset).



When teamed in the backfield, Nelson (left) and Brown might well have the last laugh.



Kramer thrilled his fans with a TD toss.