17 January, 1987 – exactly 30 years ago to the day that I was first introduced to Minnesota Vikings playoff heartbreak…
I was 9 years old (10 in a few weeks!) but I’d been following American Football for a few years already. It began one autumnal afternoon; a new couple moved in next door with their son. I was outside, kicking a football about the back yard, and started up a conversation with him in the only way a young boy knows how.
“Do you like football?”
“What team do you support?”
“The Chicago Bears.”
My interest was piqued. His Papa Bear was a big fan of American Football; still a nascent sport in the United Kingdom at that time, but one that was starting to attract viewers by the millions. Channel 4 had broadcast the NFL for a few years; British-born retired placekicker Mick Luckhurst presented highlights of one game a week, followed by a results montage set to the relentless pounding bass line and funky guitar riff of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”. Welcome to the Pleasuredome.
I wasn’t allowed to stay up for my first Super Bowl, so my neighbour videotaped the game and I went over on Monday night to watch the ’85 Bears culminate one of the greatest seasons in NFL history by killing the Patriots. I saw my first live game on TV that summer, the Champion Bears beating the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural American Bowl at Wembley Stadium.
My neighbours, Papa Bear and his Cub, already supported Chicago, but to me the instant success smacked too much of ‘glory-hunting’ for my liking. If I wasn’t going to be with them, though, I reckoned it would be just as much fun to be against them. The Green Bay Packers were perhaps the Bears’ bigger rivals, but we had an American kid at our Primary School (quite remarkable at that time for a small village in North East Scotland) and he’d already picked the Pack. After that, the natural choice was obvious. The Vikings were rivals of both Packers and the Bears. On the gridiron, they were neither too good nor too bad; just right. So instead of becoming the Third Bear, I decided to don Goldilocks and a Helga Hat.
Come the 1987-88 NFL playoffs, the Vikings had a Championship-level defence, Pro Bowl receivers and a veteran quarterback. Sneaking in as a wildcard, the Vikings dominated the Saints in the Superdome before pulling off a shocker in San Francisco to beat Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the top seeded 49ers in Candlestick Park – Wade Wilson (three years before he would make his first appearance as ‘Deadpool’ in a Marvel comic…) threw for nearly 300 yards, but it was Anthony Carter who led the way with 10 catches for 227 yards – then a single game postseason record.
The Vikings now played Washington in the NFC Championship Game – on 17 January, 1988 – at RFK Stadium. Trailing 17-10, and with a little over a minute remaining, Minnesota was six yards away from tying the game. On 4th down, one play was left to decide their season and, possibly, the Super Bowl. Back Wade Wilson looked, threw under coverage to Darrin Nelson, who had the ball knocked loose on the goal-line by All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green. Washington went on to the Super Bowl; I went to bed, broken hearted.
Since that day, Minnesota have been the masters of playoff misery. Fast forward 11 years and the Vikings – just like their most famous Minneapolitan, Prince – are ready to party like it’s 1999. With a record setting offense led by Randall Cunningham, veteran wide receiver Cris Carter and explosive rookie Randy Moss, the Vikings returned to the NFC Championship game – this time as a heavy favourite in the Metrodome in their showdown with the Atlanta Falcons. Leading by 7 points, with just over 2 minutes remaining, kicker Gary Anderson – who had not missed a single extra point or field goal the entire season – has a 38-yarder to win the game. He misses, the Falcons tie the game on their ensuing drive and go on to win it in overtime. The Vikings make history becoming the first 15-1 team to fail to reach the Super Bowl.
Fast forward another 11 years and Prince is now writing songs about the Vikings. The ‘Purple and Gold’ are now led by veteran quarterback Brett Favre, who helps his team clinch the second seed in the conference before hammering the Cowboys in the divisional round to advance to the NFC Championship game. Like the River, Old Man Favre flowed south from northern Minnesota to the Mississippi Delta, only to ultimately discharge out of the Louisiana Superdome following his interception in the final minute of the fourth quarter as the Saints would go on to oust the Vikings in overtime.
Only two seasons ago the Vikings – led by their top 5 defence – ended the season with an 11-5 record and the number 3 seed in the playoffs, only to lose to the Seattle Seahawks 10-9 after Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal in the bitter cold outdoors of The Bank Stadium. Is this what it feels like When Doves Cry? (The ‘Hawks would go on to experience the Blair Walsh Project for themselves at the end of this regular season.)
And finally… last Sunday night. The Saints recover from a 17-0 deficit late in the third quarter, before making a 43-yard field goal to take a 24-23 lead with 25 seconds remaining.
10 seconds left at their own 39-yard line.
“Keenum steps into it… Pass is… CAUGHT!
DIGGS! SIDELINE! TOUCHDOWN! UNBELIEVABLE! VIKINGS WIN IT!”
As the late Prince would say: Let’s Go Crazy!!!!!
The Vikings now travel to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, with a chance to end another curse by becoming the first NFL team to play the Super Bowl on their own home field. Will they Bring It Home? Who knows? Whatever happens, the Vikings’ history of postseason heartbreak has ended. Minnesota now has its own entry in NFL lore. We’ll always have the Minneapolis Miracle.
Picture from Heavy.com