WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE COUNTRY'S MOST GARISH, OVERSTATED EVENT INVADES OUR MOST MODEST, UNDERSTATED STATE? EVEN WHILE THEY QUIETLY CURSE THE VIKINGS, MINNESOTANS ARE SURE THE EXPERIENCE WILL BE ... NOT TOO SHABBY
IN THE WEEKS leading up to Super Bowl LII, landmarks in downtown Minneapolis have been bathed in purple, the unofficial color of Minnesota—the color of the Vikings, of Prince and of late-stage frostbite, three things every Minnesotan has reckoned with, in various combinations.
And bruises. So many bruises. Lindsay Whalen was a high school junior on a basketball recruiting trip to the University of North Dakota on Jan. 17, 1999, when she watched the Vikings lose the NFC championship game in an operatic collapse against the Falcons. Driving home to Hutchinson, Minn., where she had often pretended to be Vikings wide receiver Anthony Carter while growing up, Whalen and her mom were caught in a whiteout and had to pull over for the night. "That was the first big letdown," she says. "The Vikings lost, and now we're stuck in a Country Inn & Suites in Fargo in a blizzard."
In Minnesota the weather, the football and the emotional froideur are inseparable. "I will always live in Minneapolis," Prince once told Oprah. "It's so cold, it keeps the bad people out." It was Prince who hosted Whalen and her teammates on the Minnesota Lynx at his Paisley Park studio in 2015 after they won the third of their four WNBA championships. "One reason we've had such a great following in Minnesota is people here were so starved for a winner," says Whalen, who's been with the team since 2010. "For a while our teams were struggling to make the playoffs in any sport."
Minnesota's longest-serving teams—the Vikings, Twins, hockey's North Stars and Wild, and the NBA's Timberwolves—have gone the last 27 years without a championship, the longest drought for any city that has NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams. The no-show in this year's NFC championship game in Philadelphia was typical of the Vikings, the 54 Norsemen of the Apocalypse.
Whalen also won Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, and her husband, Ben Greve, is the two-time defending Minnesota Open golf champion, but you'd hardly know it, because Minnesotans seldom boast and do it badly. The quaint downtown in Nisswa, Minn., announces itself with a sign: NISSWA SQUARE—PRETTY GOOD SHOPPING.
All of this is to say that the Super Bowl is everything Minnesota is not: loud, vainglorious and self-celebrating. "There's a humility here," says Dick Bremer, the television voice of the Twins, who is reluctant even to brag about his state's modesty. "We don't like drawing attention to ourselves, for the most part. And the Super Bowl is the antithesis of that."
When he coached our perennial runner-up Vikings, Bud Grant didn't allow his players to spike the football or use sideline heaters. The fan base fell into line. Let those desperate dairy farmers in neighboring Wisconsin declare themselves Titletown. Minneapolis has a thriving neighborhood called Dinkytown. Everyone wants to appear smaller here, to go unnoticed, to avoid making a scene. We had to invent Paul Bunyan to cast the rest of us in his shade.
The nation's biggest spectacle, like the world's highest honors, is not accorded the same gravitas as elsewhere. CONGRATS TO BOB ZIMMERMAN CLASS OF 1959 WHO RECEIVED A NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE read the marquee outside Hibbing High School in 2016, where ordinarily it might announce the Potluck Hot Dish Dinner fund-raiser, because Minnesota is not comfortable with excessive attention, over-the-top achievement, or a public display of affection—even for Bob Dylan—any stronger than that perfect, truncated "Congrats."
As a result, Minnesotans have cultivated a reputation as stoic but courteous, and adamantly no-better-than-thou. "It's very difficult for us to tell you exactly what you should do when you're here," says the official website of the Minneapolis Super Bowl, in the section where you would ordinarily find What To Do When You're Here. "That would be very un-Minnesotan of us." Texas has "Keep Austin Weird," while the Twin Cities—in a typical act of one-downsmanship—has a T-shirt that reads keep ST. PAUL BORING.
What does all this have to do with football? Everything. There are certain clichéd verities a Minnesotan accepts as the price of living here. The person ahead of you in line at Holiday will write a personal check for a quart of milk. Among futile pursuits, the Sisyphean spectacle of perpetual road construction is exceeded only by the Vikings' serial failure to win the Super Bowl. Charlie Brown—progeny of St. Paul native Charles Schulz—will forever kick at a football that Lucy will swipe away.
Habitual futility informs daily life. When he was a college student in 1975, Bremer attended the Vikings' NFC playoff game against the Cowboys, when Roger Staubach heaved a ball 50 yards to Drew Pearson, who pushed off against defender Nate Wright for the game-winning touchdown that the Dallas quarterback would immortalize as a Hail Mary. "Two minutes after the throw, one of the referees is stretched out on the field, hit by a whiskey bottle," sighs Bremer. "And when you think the day can't possibly get worse, we hear on the radio, sitting in traffic waiting to leaving the one exit of the parking lot, that Fran Tarkenton's father died during the game." His name was Dallas.
This history has been internalized by Minnesotans. We're not emotional exhibitionists. The only thing we wear on our sleeves is another sleeve. (It's all about layering.) Anyone burning a jersey in Minnesota is likely doing so for warmth. But that game, and a string of other Viking disasters that Minnesotans finger like worry beads every winter—including a Brett Favre interception in the 2009 NFC title game, and disastrous missed field goals in 1999 and 2010—has made Minnesotans cautiously pessimistic.
Sam Farmer, the eminent football writer for the Los Angeles Times, asked me to confirm what a friend from Minnesota had told him: that the Minnesota "reaction to good things [is] always coming from the negative. So the response to a postcard-perfect day might be, 'Could be worse.'"
It's true, I replied: The quintessential reaction to the Vikings'"Minneapolis Miracle" win against the Saints would be, "Not too shabby." That is to say: shabby, but not nearly as shabby as we expected.
Within minutes, Farmer texted me a tweet from a fan going by SKOLTuddy, sent to Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in the immediate aftermath of his heroic performance. "Not too shabby," it said, "for your first playoff start."
EVEN WITH their quiet pessimism, Minnesotans are nevertheless renowned for being convivial—"Minnesota Nice," it's called, a friendliness to strangers that is genuine. It's a paradox, to be sure. "I think there's a passive-aggressive meanness just below the surface here," says Dan Barreiro, the Minneapolis columnist and radio personality who has hosted a show on KFAN for 25 years now. "On the other hand, it is nicer than other places I've been."
When Keenum returned to his suburban home after engineering the Minneapolis Miracle, he found that in his absence his neighbors had shoveled his driveway not once but twice. They would do the same for you.
And yet, there is still a quid pro quo at play. "We're not just the cute little town anymore where if you try hard, we accept it," says Barreiro. "After a couple of wide lefts and Favre throwing against his body, there's a real sense of: You guys owe me now."
It has been an eventful few years in Minnesota, full of national and international headlines. Prince died, Mary Tyler Moore died, the U.S. won the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, Garrison Keillor and Senator Al Franken were both Vaudeville-hooked off the national stage and a dentist from Eden Prairie shot Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, to global condemnation. And now the Super Bowl. "As long as we don't get a foot and a half of snow on Super Bowl Sunday, people will have a really good time and enjoy the city and nightlife and the clubs and bars downtown," says Whalen, speaking by phone from her home in Golden Valley, Minn., where she has been holed up all day. "It's kind of a snow day here today," she concedes.
The first time Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl, in 1992, the Metrodome had a message emblazoned on a wall in a place chosen for maximum television exposure. It read, a tad defensively: MINNEAPOLIS—WE LIKE IT HERE. The sign had echoes of London's Millwall soccer club, whose supporters chant, "No one likes us, we don't care."
Or do we? "A certain percentage of the population here doesn't give a bleep what people think of us," says Barreiro. "The rest have to be constantly validated." And so Minnesota has had a record number of Super Bowl volunteers—10,000—attending a higher-percentage of meetings than previous host cities.
And while the Vikings will miss the Super Bowl for the 41st consecutive year, the game is already a success to many Minnesotans merely because Green Bay isn't taking part. "Hosting the Super Bowl would not have been good if the Packers were in it," agrees Whalen, and indeed the thought of free-range Cheeseheads roaming the streets of Minneapolis sends a shudder through this Minnesotan living in Connecticut.
Minnesota, like the mafia, is almost impossible to leave, no matter where you reside now. Down 4--1 with five minutes left in their game against the Wild in St. Paul a couple of weeks ago, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a native of Plymouth, Minn., Skol-clapped along with the rest of the Xcel Energy Center crowd. It was to all appearances an involuntary reflex, a Minnesota muscle memory.
And yet we're allowed to grow, to develop new interests, to let our Helga braids down every now and then—possibly even to toot our own horn. Vikings legend Alan Page does this literally, playing his tuba once a year for the runners who pass through his neighborhood during the Twin Cities marathon.
Every so often, the state produces someone every bit as flamboyant as the Super Bowl itself. Prince was one. Jesse Ventura was another. When he was the sitting governor of Minnesota, the Body and I played a round of golf in Blaine, Minn., where the governor fished about in every water hazard with his telescopic ball retriever. "I'm looking for Titleist Pro V1s," he explained. "Those puppies are five dollars a ball."
And then he told me a story. In 1978 and then again in '81, Ventura had been injured in his job as a professional wrestler and made ends meet by serving as stage security at concerts in the Twin Cities, including two Rolling Stones gigs. Twenty years later, as governor, he mentioned this to the Stones themselves, before they played a concert in St. Paul. Keith Richards—picture him in a silk kimono, waving a martini glass—perked up at this anecdote and said, "'old on, you bodyguarded us in '81, and now you're the guv'nor?" When Ventura responded in the affirmative, Keef shook his head and said, "F------ great country, mate."
The point is, a garish reinvention—however unlikely—is always possible: for Minnesota, for Minnesotans, maybe even for the Minnesota Vikings. (It could happen. Conceivably. Someday.) Just don't tell anyone how much you like it here, even in February. We Like It Here, and that's probably enough. Keep St. Paul Boring.
WE'RE NOT EMOTIONAL EXHIBITIONISTS. ANYONE BURNING A JERSEY IN MINNESOTA IS LIKELY doing so for warmth.