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Safety Valve Following the lead of Robert Griffith, the Vikings' defense came to life and overwhelmed the Saints

The last thing strong safety Robert Griffith needed to deal with
last Thursday--only two days before the Minnesota Vikings' NFC
divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints--was a
missing acupuncturist. Sitting in a meeting room at the Vikings'
practice facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., Griffith punched one
number after another into his cell phone, trying to find out why
his favorite needler had missed his flight from San Diego to

Certainly another acupuncturist could have been found in the Twin
Cities, but Griffith swears by his guy. Furthermore, Griffith had
promised the man's services to eight teammates who were also
looking for a little relief, and he dreaded the thought of
letting them down. That caretaker attitude has helped make the
30-year-old Griffith one of the best players at his position, and
on Saturday it helped the Vikings move within one victory of the
Super Bowl. In eliminating New Orleans from the title chase with
its 34-16 victory, Minnesota was aggressive, inspired and cocky.
In other words, the Vikings bore no resemblance to the team that
limped into the playoffs with three straight losses.

On Minnesota's third play from scrimmage, quarterback Daunte
Culpepper hooked up with wideout Randy Moss for a 53-yard
touchdown, the first of Culpepper's three scoring passes. Moss
and fellow wideout Cris Carter had 100-yard receiving games
against the NFL's eighth-ranked defense. The Vikings' line didn't
allow a sack by the team that had a league-high 66 during the
regular season. Most important, the Minnesota defense--which had
surrendered 104 points during the three-game skid and ranked 28th
in the league--limited the Saints to 123 yards as the Vikings
rolled to a 24-3 lead early in the third quarter. "We're getting
hot on defense, and the teams that get hot defensively advance,"
Griffith said afterward. "This race is wide open, and we're one
of the teams left."

That's largely because of the efforts of Griffith, who has
replaced lineman John Randle as Minnesota's marquee defender.
Though he had only two tackles against New Orleans, Griffith was
all over the field helping teammates make plays. "Griff is smart,
knows when to take chances and is the emotional leader of that
defense," says Saints tight end Andrew Glover, who played three
seasons with Griffith in Minnesota.

The Vikings lost free safety Orlando Thomas to a strained left
hamstring in the second quarter, and three cornerbacks were
hampered by injuries. Griffith was the lone constant in the
secondary in the second half. He often raced from one defensive
back to the next, pointing, shouting, trying to make sure
everyone was aligned correctly. "Griff is our warrior," defensive
coordinator Emmitt Thomas said after the game. "He made the
checks. We blitzed him. We played him at weakside linebacker and
four or five other spots in our coverages. That's the kind of guy
he is. He's tenacious and sharp."

Such performances have become the norm for Griffith, who plays as
if he's one mistake from the waiver wire. He knows no other way,
mostly because he was given little chance to get this far. Though
Griffith went from walk-on to three-year starter at San Diego
State, he wasn't even offered a free-agent NFL contract coming
out of college in 1993. With the Aztecs he was a 185-pound
monster back, a strong safety-outside linebacker hybrid who was
thought to be too small to play linebacker professionally and not
skilled enough to play in the secondary.

Griffith caught on with the Sacramento Gold Miners during the
CFL season that year and after one week was traded to the
Saskatchewan Roughriders. He didn't get into a game with either
team. By then Griffith had started thinking about a career
outside of football, and he persuaded Saskatchewan to let him
leave with three games remaining on the schedule and return to
San Diego State to pursue his degree in electrical engineering.
While on campus he trained with the Aztecs' track team and
mulled over his options, the most viable of which appeared to be
a $40,000 offer to work at Teledyne, a defense-industry-
oriented conglomerate he had interned with the previous summer.
"I was making $37,000 in the CFL," Griffith says, "so I figured
I'd play another season up there and shop my [highlight] tape
around the NFL, and if it didn't work out, I would move up the
ladder with Teledyne."

Then, in April 1994, Griffith received a phone call that changed
everything. Looking for more speed and attitude on his coverage
and return units, Minnesota coach Dennis Green had hired Gary
Zauner to coach his special teams. As an assistant at Long Beach
State, Zauner had coached against Griffith, and after a game in
Griffith's junior year Zauner had tracked him down on the field
and told him, "If I ever get a job in the NFL, you're going to
play for me." Zauner was true to his word, and Griffith finished
third on the Vikings in special teams tackles in '94. He became a
starter two years later and, except for missing two games that
year with a dislocated right shoulder, hasn't been out of the
lineup since.

Even though he's only 5'11" and 198 pounds, Griffith is one of
the NFL's fiercest hitters, but in his first training camp he got
carried away. He drew the ire of Carter after knocking him down
as he ran a crossing route. Carter spiked the ball in anger, but
that didn't faze Griffith; as far as he was concerned, he was
there to stay. "He really wanted to impress people when he got
here," Zauner says. "He's always been physical, but when he
popped guys in practice, he would almost lay them out. More than
a few coaches had to tell him to calm down."

Griffith has had at least 100 tackles in each of his five years
as a starter, but recognition didn't come until last month when
he was selected to play in his first Pro Bowl. The news came as a
surprise to Griffith, who despite amassing 103 tackles and an
interception this season didn't think his play stacked up well
against his work in previous years. In fact, when Green announced
that a defender was among the seven Vikings headed to Honolulu,
Griffith assumed that player was Randle, who has made six Pro
Bowl appearances.

But the Pro Bowl can wait. Griffith still has unfinished
business, starting with the NFC Championship Game against the
New York Giants on Sunday.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Culpepper Shaker Victory has its price, as Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper can attest after being salted away by Saints safety Darren Perry during Minnesota's NFC divisional playoff win (page 42) [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS HIGH-WIRE ACT Carter soared above New Orleans cornerback Kevin Mathis to pull in the touchdown pass that gave Minnesota a 17-3 halftime lead.