Part II: Brutal Vikings camp, wild nightlife and the Dallas Cowboys come to Bemidji in 1962
The Minnesota Vikings brought a brutal training camp, the Dallas Cowboys and wild nightlife to Bemidji in 1962.
Head coach Norm Van Brocklin worked to weed out weaker and older players at the second camp in franchise history during the grueling two-month session of two-a-day practices.
"We can give our first-year men our undivided attention," Van Brocklin said in the Bemidji Pioneer on July 10. "We're going to do a lot of hitting right from the start because we've got to find out who the real football players are."
The coaches and players visited local bars to wind down after hard-hitting practices. Some nights became out of control, including a 1963 incident when Van Brocklin confronted former Bemidji State football player Bob Nelson and threw punches at a reporter at Jack's nightclub in Wilton.
The players and coaches had separate hangouts. Jack Ward's nightclub was the bar of choice for the coaching staff and one of two bars in the Bemidji area allowed to sell hard liquor.
The coaches forbid players from frequenting the hard-liquor establishments so the players went to The Duchess bar owned by Floyd Nelson where 3-2 beer was served. Players were also known to visit the bowling alley and the old Corner Bar.
"The players were always wearing white T-shirts so you knew who they were," Bemidji's Gale Falk said.
Cowboys in Bemidji
The local highlight for Bemidji in the 1962 preseason came Aug. 4 when 5,503 fans attended a controlled scrimmage between the Vikings and Tom Landry's Cowboys at what is now Chet Anderson Stadium.
It was a source of civic pride, and the event brought together the community and region.
"It was a great event and still the most people I think ever gathered for one event in Bemidji," Falk said. "The stands were full and on the lake end of the stadium there were people 20 deep behind the sideline."
Vikings General Manager Bert Rose, the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce and BSU leaders put together the $3,000 needed to bring the Cowboys to town.
An anticipated draw was the chance for locals to see former Bemidji High School Lumberjack and University of Minnesota standout Mike Falls play offensive guard for the Cowboys. He played the 1961 season with Dallas but retired to a public relations job before the team came to Bemidji.
Game tickets cost $2.50 and all gate proceeds were given to the Bemidji State scholarship fund. There were 4,000 bleacher seats brought in from the University of North Dakota Fieldhouse in Grand Forks to boost stadium capacity to 7,500.
Prior to the Saturday night game there were festivities on the Lake Bemidji waterfront.
At 2:30 p.m., the Red Lake Band of Chippewa held a powwow at Library Park and adopted Van Brocklin as an honorary member of the band.
Van Brocklin arrived to the ceremony by water on the Duluth Jaycees' Viking Ship.
Red Lake's William Dudley performed the ceremony in native language and tribal chairman Roger Jourdain interpreted it to the crowd.
Van Brocklin's proposed name was initially "Chief Pigskin," but the Tribal Council held a meeting and said the name would not lend any dignity to the head coach. Van Brocklin was instead given the name "O-ke-chi-dah," which means "Brave Leader."
At 7:30 p.m. the 70-member Grand Forks Central Marching Band entertained the crowd and Van Brocklin held an instructional 'Learn Pro Football' clinic at 7:45 p.m. for about 200 fans.
Rainy skies gave way for kick-off at 8:30 p.m. and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was in attendance. The game used a modified scoring system to the disdain of some local fans.
The Vikings won the game 34-31 for the first unofficial victory in franchise history over the Cowboys. Offenses were awarded one point for first downs. Defenses were awarded two points for stopping a first down, three for a fumble recovery and five for interceptions.
There were no touchdowns scored in the defensive game.
Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton came the closest when he fired a 38-yard pass to Jamie Caleb, who fumbled the ball away on the Dallas 7-yard line.
Tarkenton completed seven passes in the scrimmage and the Cowboys' Don Meredith had five completions.
The teams combined to run 111 plays: the Vikings 57 and the Cowboys 54. The Vikings gained 245 total yards with 179 through the air. The Cowboys gained 220 total yards, 177 through the air.
The Cowboys arrived in Bemidji by airplane from their training camp at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and flew out after the game ended.
The Vikings were on the road the following Friday bound for the World's Fair exhibition against San Francisco in Seattle. The team returned to Bemidji on Aug. 19 and broke camp Sept. 1.
Nelson was a lifeguard and swimming instructor in 1962 with Falk, who was the Bemidji High School swim coach. The two would often attend Vikings afternoon practice sessions at Bemidji State after work.
The gritty Vikings practices were open to the public and ran twice a day. The sessions from 9-11:30 a.m., 3-5:00 p.m. and attracted 200-500 spectators at a time.
Coaches reported to Bemidji on July 12, the 45 rookies reported July 13 and the returning players reported July 17. The team was allowed to carry 60 men on the training camp roster.
The Vikings were coming off a 3-11 inaugural season record with a patched-together squad of rookies and NFL castoffs acquired in the expansion draft.
"It (1962) was the worst training camp I ever went through," tight end Jerry Reichow told Vikings Update magazine in 2010. "It was like they wanted to get rid of the older players. It was brutal. We scrimmaged twice a day for a month, in full pads. There was no water. I'd never been through a pro camp like that. It was unbelievable ... Van Brocklin didn't like older players. When you got to 30, it was time to leave."
Purdue defensive lineman Larry Bowie broke his thumb on the first play of afternoon practice July 18. He was the first camp injury and was sidelined for three weeks. North Central Illinois' John Turpin rushed to Bemidji after a six-month Army tour and was thrown into contact workouts 35 minutes after arriving to camp.
When Thief River Falls native and then St. Paul mayor George Vavoulis attended a session as a spectator, Van Brocklin gave him shorts and a T-shirt to run calisthenics with defensive linemen Don Joyce and Marshall Shirk.
The Vikings played five preseason games in 1962 and opened Aug. 11 with a 30-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the World's Fair in Seattle.
The Vikings lost to the Los Angeles Rams 33-24 in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 18; defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 24-21 at Minneapolis Parade Stadium on Aug. 25; lost to the Baltimore Colts 24-13 at Metropolitan Stadium on Sept. 2; and defeated the Dallas Cowboys 46-26 in Atlanta, Ga., at Grady High School.
The Vikings finished the regular season 2-11-1. Wins came against Los Angeles and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Van Brocklin brawl
Van Brocklin's confrontational personality left the practice field with him and into the nightclubs around Bemidji.
Nelson recalls the night - Aug. 3, 1963 - he met Van Brocklin at Jack's nightclub after the Vikings defense defeated the offense 56-25 in an intrasquad scrimmage at Chet Anderson Stadium. What followed was a heated exchange and a one-sided brawl with a journalist.
"There were a lot of people at Jack's, including all kinds of reporters," said Nelson, who played for BSU from 1957-60. "I didn't see him at first and it all started when my wife Joan was sitting at the end of the bar and motioned for me to come down. She said, 'you never guess who's harassing me.'"
At that point Nelson felt the sharp jab of another person's knee buckle the back his of his leg.
"I turned around it was Van Brocklin," Nelson said. "He asked me, 'What are you going to do about it?' I just stared at him."
A reporter then told Van Brocklin a joke and Nelson started to laugh.
"Van Brocklin turned around to me and said 'what are you laughing at boy?'" Nelson said. "And I said 'nothing, I just heard a guy telling a pretty funny story.'"
Van Brocklin looked up and down Nelson before asking another question.
"You look like a big stud. Why don't you play for the Minnesota Vikings?' but he didn't ask it that way," Nelson said. "He said it really sarcastically."
By that point a growing crowd gathered around the two anticipating a fight.
"So looked him right in the eye and I told him - 'Well Norm, I played football in junior high, football at Bemidji High School and I played at Bemidji State for four years - I don't play games anymore." Nelson said. "I was looking at his big forearms and his hands and waiting. But he took it. He told me to come down to Birch Hall to sign a contract the next day but I said 'no, I'm not going to do that.'"
Van Brocklin then gave Nelson a hard pat on the back which Nelson described as a 'crack.'
"I was still staring right at him when someone at the other end of the bar shouted out to Norm and said 'your boy just threw a touchdown pass,'" Nelson said.
Van Brocklin walked to the other end of the bar to watch the television and the exchange with Nelson ended.
The touchdown pass was a 74-yard strike from Wisconsin quarterback and Rose Bowl MVP Ron VanderKelen, who led the College All-Stars to a 20-17 victory over defending NFL champion Green Bay the previous night in Chicago.
VanderKelen flew to Minneapolis that Saturday morning and then to Bemidji on a charter flight with fans in time to play in the scrimmage. VanderKelen and Bemidji were profiled in Sports Illustrated magazine Aug. 19.
Nelson said Van Brocklin was "half drunk" later that night at Jack's and "swinging haymakers from the floor" at a reporter who was doing his best to evade the blows.
"Van Brocklin then grabs a hold of the guy and slams him into the cigarette machine; there were cigarettes falling all over the floor and guys diving to pick up the boxes," Nelson said. "Then the other Vikings coach Stan West grabbed a hold of Van Brocklin and dragged him out into the parking lot. He was so far out of it. I think he was drunk most of the time when he was up there. He thought he was such a great womanizer and I don't think he liked it that I stepped in."
When Nelson woke up the next day, he picked up a Minneapolis newspaper to see if the incident made the sports page.
"It wasn't there and that surprised me," said Nelson, who now lives in Anoka with Joan. "Things were just a lot different back then and I think the reporters wanted to protect the Vikings because they were so new."