On an isolated redoubt of the Minnesota Vikings' practice field, linemen attack a column of tackling dummies. With footballs whizzing by like artillery rounds, Les Steckel barks orders through his bullhorn: "Hold the line, men.... Come on, coaches, man your battle stations.... The practice is secure." Steckel, Minnesota's new leatherneck and leather-lunged coach, has spent the last six weeks getting his players into fighting trim.
At 38, he's the youngest coach in the NFL. A Marine officer in Vietnam in '69-70, he's now a lieutenant colonel in the Reserves. He came to training camp looking for a few good men. Proud men. Men with the guts of John Wayne who could hold their own in a rice paddy or backed up against their own goal line. "A DI team," he says. That's Discipline and Integrity.
Steckel puts down his bullhorn for a moment and answers some questions. Modern military leaders have to be public relations men, too. "I'm a guy who can put his arm around you," he says, "and in the same motion kick you in the butt."
The motor of Steckel's two-fisted mind doesn't seem to have an OFF button. In a 31-10 preseason loss to the Eagles, Steckel called six straight safety blitzes. "You don't change your game plan just because the enemy sneaks up on you in the middle of a river," Steckel says. "Only unstable, wishy-washy people make excuses. I wanted to see how my cornerbacks would perform in adversity." He did; they didn't.
Last Friday in the Vikes' final preseason game with St. Louis, more than half of Steckel's starters were rookies and free agents. "Conventional wisdom says to use the last exhibition as a tune-up," Steckel said beforehand, "but I'm not conventional. The Cardinals are probably going to kill us, but out of all this we may find one good player." It was hard to find any good Vikings in their 31-0 loss.
An assistant coach (quarterbacks, receivers, special teams) during the final five years of Bud Grant's 17-year command, Steckel turned down the head job at the University of Minnesota last January. He had a feeling Grant was grooming him as his successor. Grant had a 151-87-5 regular-season record and took Minnesota to four Super Bowls, but since 1979 the Vikings have been 36-37. Worse, they seemed to wilt late in the season.
Were the Vikings physically unprepared to sustain an assault?
"That's a tough question," says Steckel diplomatically.
Grant, who retired in January, was a relatively permissive coach; he believed in saving his players' strength. Steckel held minicamps, a grueling eight-event Ironman competition on opening day of regular camp and six weeks of two-a-days topped off by an extra 20 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, leg raises and a dozen or so 40-yard wind sprints. Steckel took part in these calisthenics every day. He plans to continue the heavy emphasis on PT in the regular season. The road less taken in Minnesota is the road Les took.
Steckel's conversation is laced with militarisms. After learning that first-round draft choice Keith Millard had signed with the USFL, Steckel announced, "When I was in Vietnam and the colonel told us to take the hill, we knew we'd lose some guys, but by God we'd take the hill." For all his gung-ho approach, though, Steckel is a sensitive guy. He got all choked up watching An Officer and a Gentleman.
Some of his jargon sounds like cryptograms. There's the team philosophy: ABC (Attitude, give your Best, Commitment); the coaching philosophy: ASK (Attitude, Skills, Knowledge). And of course there's always CUT, which means your mess hall pass has been permanently revoked.
Steckel was never much of a football player. He grew up outside Allentown, Pa., a sickly child who contracted polio at five. "I can envision this little kid stuck in bed, looking out the window at his friends playing," says Steckel's wife, Chris. "I think that's when Les learned he had to be patient and determined."
Steckel's love of orderliness comes from his father, a retired high school math teacher. "Dad was a hard disciplinarian," Steckel says. "The rows of desks never moved in his classrooms. After 20 years, the impressions of the chairs were four inches deep in the carpet."
Young Steckel had a paper route from seventh grade until his senior year of high school. His mom let him keep $2 a month; he put the rest away for college. His savings paid for four years at Kansas, where he won the light-heavyweight division in a Golden Gloves tourney. After graduation in 1968, he worked briefly for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign before joining the Marines. A year later he left for Vietnam.
Steckel, who was a running back for the Quantico Marines in '70 and '71, explained the new football order to his troops three months before the Vikes' first minicamp. "Everyone came here expecting the Bataan death march," says tight end Bob Bruer. "But, really, it was almost bearable."
Camp opened with the punishing Ironman, perhaps the toughest training regimen west of Parris Island. Participation was mandatory, completion optional. Nose tackle Charlie Johnson, himself a Vietnam vet, dreaded it more than basic training. "The night before, I felt like a pancake," he says. "I was tossing and turning all night."
The test included 40-yard dashes, 20-foot rope climbs, vertical leaps, bench presses, sit-ups, agility runs, 300-yard shuttle runs, power curls and leg presses of twice a player's weight. Steckel offered $30,000 in prizes to the winners at various positions. "We were doing the monkey bars across the river when Coach told us alligators were below," says Ted Brown, who finished third among running backs and won a $100 gift certificate. "We believed him, too."
The body count was high: Some players failed to finish, some pulled up lame, still others collapsed. "I got shot two years ago," says Brown. "That might have been a little tougher."
But everyone agrees that the Vikings are in their best shape ever this early in a campaign—or nearly everyone. "I'm a victim because of a capricious attitude," says placekicker Benny Ricardo. Ricardo pulled a hamstring during the Ironman and missed the entire preseason. He'll open the season on injured reserve. "The Raiders don't make you do any of this b.s. stuff," he says. "They just line up on Sunday and kick your ass."
Steckel has been kicking butt on Sunday and every other day, too. His troops are well prepared to storm the beaches of Grenada. The question is: Can they take Green Bay?
Steckel (left) shows the Vikings the ropes.