In just their ninth season after joining the league as an expansion team in 1961, the Vikings already had been crowned 1969 NFL champions when they were upset by Kansas City in Super Bowl IV.
Afterward, a dejected Carl Eller sat in the locker room and thought about Vikings fans.
The Vikings had entered their first Super Bowl as a 13-point favorite over the Chiefs, the AFL champions, and fans in the Twin Cities were poised to erupt. Instead, Minnesota was stunned 23-7 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on Jan. 11, 1970.
“We were disappointed not for us as players but I think for the fans, for the people of Minnesota,” said Eller, a hall of fame defensive end. “I think we felt that we were indebted to them and we thought we had let them down. I think that was the biggest disappointment.”
Half a century later, members of the 1969 team will hear cheers from fans. During halftime of Sunday’s game between Minnesota and Oakland at U.S. Bank Stadium, 22 players, plus head coach Bud Grant and assistant Jerry Burns, are scheduled to be introduced as part of the first reunion celebration for the team.
The Vikings were NFC champions in 1973, 1974 and 1976 but lost all those Super Bowls, too.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about people, so having a chance to visit with people from back then, it’s nothing but a positive,” said hall of fame defensive tackle Alan Page, one of 11 players who were on all four Minnesota Super Bowl teams. “That game itself, the experience itself, that’s all history. Today, it’s more than that.”
Nevertheless, there is much to remember. While members of the 1998 team that went 15-1 might disagree, the 1969 outfit might have had the best season of any Vikings team.
They went 12-2 and led the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game. With the “Purple People Eaters” defensive line leading the way, they allowed an NFL-low 9.5 points per game. That remains the second-best average allowed by any team since the Vikings entered the NFL in 1961.
The only regular-season losses were the first and last: 24-23 against the Giants in New York, when former and future Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton completed a late desperation pass, and 10-3 at Atlanta, a meaningless finale played in a rainstorm.
“If it weren’t for Tarkenton throwing a Hail Mary pass that beat us in the last second and going down to Atlanta and playing in a typhoon, we would have gone undefeated,” said Grant, a hall of fame coach.
’40 for 60′
The team’s quarterback and emotional leader was Joe Kapp. Now 81, he is attending the reunion even though he has Alzheimer’s Disease.
Kapp tied a single-game NFL record that season by throwing seven touchdown passes in Week 2 against the Baltimore Colts. Named the team’s MVP, he declined the award at the postseason banquet and evoked the team motto for that season, “40 for 60,” meaning 40 players competing for 60 minutes.
“That was a natural thing for Joe to do,” hall of fame tackle Ron Yary said. “He was very selfless and he had the attitude that it wasn’t about ‘me.’ We all did. We weren’t out for individual glory.”
In addition to Eller, Page and Yary, other players off the 1969 team enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are safety Paul Krause and center Mick Tingelhoff. All but Yary will be at the reunion.
Nine players made the Pro Bowl that season: Page, Eller, Krause, Tingelhoff, Kapp, wide receiver Gene Washington, tackle Grady Alderman, defensive tackle Gary Larsen and defensive end Jim Marshall. Alderman is deceased, but all the other 1969 Pro Bowlers will be at the reunion.
Grant said he will be glad to see many of his former players but he also was realistic about it.
“It’s nice but sometimes it’s kind of sad,’’ said Grant, 92. “You want to remember all (of the players) in their vitality and their stamina, and you look at them now and we don’t look the same. We’re all stooped and walking with canes and have gray hair and no hair. It’s nice to be remembered but we like to be remembered in our heydays and not in these old broken-down bodies we walk around in.’’
Twelve of the 44 players on the 1969 roster at some point that season have passed away. In addition to Alderman, other deceased starters from the team include running back Bill Brown, tackles Jim Vellone and Doug Davis, linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, cornerback Earsell Mackbee and safety Karl Kassulke.
“You think of those guys who are missing,” Larsen said.
Larsen said that makes the reunion bittersweet, but that it will be good to see many former teammates.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” he said. “You’re only going to celebrate your 50th anniversary once.”
Like Eller, some of Larsen’s greatest memories from 1969 are about the fans. They packed Metropolitan Stadium throughout the season and were especially vocal in two home playoff games.
In the first, the Vikings had to rally to beat the Los Angeles Rams 23-20. In the NFL Championship Game, they crushed Cleveland, 27-7, on a bitterly cold day — the wind chill factor was minus-6 degrees — and fans spilled onto the field and tore down the goalposts.
“I was trying to get off the field and to the tunnel just to go to the locker room and you had people pounding you on the back, yelling and screaming,” Larsen said. “It was unbelievable.”
The momentum from that win looked as if it could carry into the Super Bowl, the last before the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The Vikings were big favorites based largely on the belief that the NFL was superior. This was despite the AFL’s New York Jets, as a 17-point underdog, upsetting the Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III.
“The NFL thought Minnesota was going to kick our butts,” said hall of fame Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell, who played at the University of Minnesota. “But we felt like we had the best defense in the country, and we thought we would manhandle them.”
Six players from that Chiefs defense are in the Hall of Fame: Bell, linebacker Willie Lanier, defensive tackles Curley Culp and Buck Buchanan, cornerback Emmitt Thomas and safety Johnny Robinson.
The Chiefs, who went 11-3 during the regular season, also featured future hall of famers in Len Dawson at quarterback and Jan Stenerud at kicker as well as head coach Hank Stram.
The temperature was 55 degrees on game day with winds gusting at 14 mph. Bell never will forget a balloon carrying the Vikings mascot crashing on the field just before kickoff.
“It malfunctioned, and that was a bad thing for the Vikings,” he said. “Everything went downhill from then on for them.”
The mascot was OK, but the Vikings weren’t. The Chiefs jumped to a 16-0 lead on three Stenerud field goals and Mike Garrett’s five-yard touchdown run.
The Vikings got within 16-7 on a Dave Osborn’s 4-yard TD run in the third quarter, but the Chiefs all but locked up the game later in the quarter on a short pass from Dawson, the Super Bowl MVP, that Otis Taylor turned into a 46-yard touchdown.
“I caught an interception (in the first quarter) when they tried to throw downfield and I think that turned around their game plan,” Krause said. “They started going with short passes and doing things that were completely out of what they had done before, and we never really did change to accommodate what their changes were.’’
Now teams have two weeks to prepare for a Super Bowl opponent; then it was one. Kapp has said in the past the Vikings had little scouting material: three Chiefs game films from the season, and one from a 1968 preseason game.
Grant shrugged off the X’s and O’s, saying the big difference was the Vikings losing the turnover battle 5-1.
“They played better and they got a few breaks, and we didn’t take advantage of some things,” he said. “But they deserved to win.”