GENERATIONS: Art Lee: Enough Super Bowl lament, remember when the Vikings started out in Bemidji?

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The Minnesota Vikings football team dominated the sports pages this past pall and early winter, starring as top division winners right up to Super Bowl time — and then, “oops” came their untimely loss in the NFC Championship game that would have landed them in the Super Bowl, played right here in Minnesota.

Boo hoo. So they went from BIG to little almost overnight. But now in the off-season, it’s planning/building time again for them to become BIG again! Onward and Upward? To the Super Bowl? Who knows?

Perhaps now is the time to look back, way back to their start-up year and their first season of play. When did they start? And where did they start their first training camp? Answers: In 1961, in Bemidji, of course. Seniors in town likely remember well that summer of ’61 because it was an exciting time for Bemidji area sports-minded citizens who could and would come to the Bemidji State College football field and watch the Vikings daily practices for no charge. Sure was a different summer, much enjoyed and appreciated by most townspeople and businessmen and the many summer tourists. Always a large crowd of watchers every day, all speculating on how this brand new team would do when the NFL season started in September. Just to witness these huge hulks of muscle-bound athletes was amazing. So big and yet such fast runners.

The Vikings players stayed/slept/ate in the BSC dormitory just across the road from the football field. It was all so wonderfully different for the community and of course It all seemed so important at that time. The town was buzzing! The Bemidji Pioneer sports section usually is/was found in the back pages; in July of ’61, the Vikings were front page news!

A lot of attention

The Pioneer’s Sports Editor at that time was Cliff Morlan, who was also a local barber in town, and who wrote a daily column. He was a former BSC football athlete who knew his football and soon knew the Vikings players and coaches — and hobnobbed with both of them. Cliff was always in the middle of what was going on with this new franchise expansion team. And he told all in his column! (His prediction for the future of rookie quarterback Fran Tarkenton was right on.)

Naturally the players themselves attracted lots of public attention wherever they went in town -- and naturally created stories about their goings on, both individually and collectively (did the full squad actually one night descend on the Duchess Tavern outside of town on Fourth Street and drink the entire bar out of every ounce of liquor?). But how impressive were they without their uniforms and padding? It varied, of course, depending  on who and how important they were. It was later when one fan reported that he happened to be in line at the airport and just ahead of him stood Carl Eller, looking so big and so strong, was his report, that Eller appeared to equal the size of the Paul Bunyan statue in town.

That first Vikings team consisted of some fairly well known if not famous veteran backfield names like Hugh McElhenny, Tommy Mason, George Shaw and Mel Triplett, but there were more unknown nameless rookies there in large numbers trying to make the squad (most did not); among these early  unknowns was this young quarterback named Francis Tarkenton.

In January, the Vikings had named their first head coach, the volatile Norm van Brocklin, who recently retired at age 34 as the league’s MVP quarterback for the 1960 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles

To the many cynics watching the start of this newest NFL football team in Bemidji, it was easy for them to conclude that the entire squad would be composed of only “has-beens and wannabees”  who’d never win a single NFL game all season long! Make that two seasons for this start-up team. Wrong. With Tarkenton at quarterback, the Vikes won their very first league game in a stunning franchise-opener 37-33 win over the Chicago Bears.

While eagerly watching the team’s daily  practices -- their huffing and puffing and and pushing and shoving and fighting and  laughing and sweating and swearing, and the air constantly punctuated by blowing whistles -- the summer’s end of the Vikings first training camp came to a climax with a complete preseason game against an NFL team who flew into Bemidji from Texas, the Dallas Cowboys. Likely the number of persons watching that game (at no charge) set an attendance record that will stand for a long long time for a football game at the Bemidji State football field. The bleachers of course were overfilled and a crowd of at least 10-deep surrounded the entire playing field. It was Big Time in Bemidji!

Football distractions

In poring over the Pioneers for that summer of ’61, it’s easy to get distracted from Viking football by the surrounding stories and ads that seemed to leap out at the reader. For example, The Piggly Wiggly grocery store (where the Buffalo Wings restaurant is now located) took out a full-page ad with headlines reading: FOR THE FINEST IN FOOTBALL, SEE THE MN VIKINGS PLAY. FOR THE FINEST IN GROCERIES, SHOP AT PIGGLY WIGGLY. (Sample bargains:  a can of tomato soup cost 10 cents. Chicken fryers were 25 cents a pound) Same appeal was made by JOHN’S SUPERVALUE GROCERIES (located across Bemidji avenue from BSU’s baseball field), the owner was John Johanneson, the father of Keith Johanneson who today owns MarketPlace Foods). Sample of John’s super values: a full crate of peaches: $1.79. A 100 lb bag of sugar: $9.39.

A short newspaper story announced that Bemidji State College was expecting a record 1,600 students to be enrolled for the upcoming fall quarter. The cost for college then -- tuition plus board-and-room -- would be $938 a year. Yes, many changes for both Bemidji and the Vikings and Minnesota since that special summer of 1961.