IT WAS A case of biological ventriloquism. When Bud Grant walked onto the field wearing short sleeves in -25° windchill before the Vikings-Seahawks game in Minneapolis on Sunday, I was the one—in Connecticut, in front of a fire—who got goose bumps.
The 88-year-old, his eyes still the color of a Bombay Sapphire bottle, had coached the Vikings to their greatest triumphs (four NFC championships) and greatest defeats (four Super Bowl losses). As such, he stood at midfield before the NFC wild-card game as a kind of coded message to Minnesotans. There will be hope followed by disaster, he seemed to say. But we'll suffer through it stoically. In short sleeves.
The Vikings' 10--9 loss would have resembled a horror movie—The Blair Walsh Project—had we not seen it so many times before. If Minnesota minted its own coins, the motto on them would be uff da, an all-purpose exclamation of Norwegian origin that approximates the sound that follows a punch in the stomach.
The worst losses in Vikings playoff history are familiar to every Minnesotan. Here, in chronological order, are the Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse.
DEC. 28, 1975
In an opening-round game in Minnesota, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach throws the game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Drew Pearson, who probably pushed off on Vikings defensive back Nate Wright. The play prompts Staubach to coin the phrase Hail Mary, which isn't the only message from on high that day: Referee Armen Terzian is brained by a whiskey bottle thrown from the stands.
JAN. 17, 1988
Trailing Washington by a touchdown in the NFC championship game, the Vikings are at the Redskins' six-yard line with 56 seconds remaining. On fourth down quarterback Wade Wilson throws to running back Darrin Nelson at the goal line. Washington coach Joe Gibbs has fallen to his knees, as if in prayer. Wilson's pass rockets off Nelson's open arms, and CBS announcer Pat Summerall says, as if it's no big whoop: "Nelson! Went through his hands, and the Redskins will go to the Super Bowl."
JAN. 17, 1999
Minnesota is an 11-point favorite at home against Atlanta, winner goes to the Super Bowl. Up 27--20 with two minutes left and looking to ice the game, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson attempts a 38-yard field goal. He has made 44 of his previous 44 attempts, but this one—it scarcely needs to be said—goes wide left. The Falcons drive 71 yards to tie a game everyone knows they'll win in overtime.
JAN. 24, 2010
Tied in the NFC championship game in New Orleans, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre throws an interception at the Saints' 22-yard line with 14 seconds left in regulation. It is both inexplicable and inevitable. "I can't believe what I'm seeing," says Vikings radio announcer Paul Allen, who surely can. The Saints, obviously, win in overtime.
As a result of all this, Vikings fans were a bit wary on Sunday. But my best friend in Minneapolis likens the Vikings to the mafia in that you can't escape them except by death. "You can say you're out, you can say you no longer care," he texted me, "but when Bud strolled out to midfield in his golf shirt, I wanted to get in a stance and knock someone into next week."
Grant is Minnesota's Dad—we all still want to please him—but he of all people knew what was coming. The best running back of his generation, Adrian Peterson, fumbled late, leading to the Seahawks' go-ahead field goal. Still, the Vikings were in position for a 27-yard game-winning kick with 22 seconds left. A text from my sister-in-law just before the boot: they might just do it!
My weary reply: not holding my breath.
The kicker, Walsh, who had scored all of the Vikings' points and was thus the principal reason they were still in the game, pulled the kick left. No matter. He was simply playing his role in a drama much older than he. "At least it was only the fifth-worst loss in our lifetime," said another friend in Minnesota.
As my phone sprang to life with texts and tweets, I thumb-typed a two-word message to my sister-in-law. It gave me no pleasure to write: told you.
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Consecutive FCS national championships for North Dakota State, which beat Jacksonville State 37--10 last Saturday in Frisco, Texas. The Bison are the first college football team at any level to win five straight titles.
Wins, through Sunday, in franchise history for the Bruins, who joined the Canadiens as the only NHL teams to reach that mark. Boston beat New Jersey 4--1 last Friday night in Newark for the milestone victory.
Age of Bill Guilfoil, of Fairway, Kans., who will try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic table tennis team at the trials in Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 4--6. Guilfoil, who would be the oldest Olympian ever, also tried out for the U.S. team in 2012 but lost in the first round.
BRUCE KLUCKHOHN/USA TODAY SPORTS
SHANE ROPER/CAL SPORT MEDIA/AP (NORTH DAKOTA STATE)
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (BRUINS)
SERGEY SKLEZNEV/FOTOLIA.COM (PADDLE)