Minnesota Dreamin’: An Ode to Fandom

I’m happy. I was sad. Now I’m like — wow,” Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen told ESPN in a post-game interview. Griffen captured every Vikings fan’s reaction to wide receiver Stefon Diggs’ miraculous 61-yard touchdown catch over whiffing New Orleans Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams, giving the Vikings the 29-24 victory over the Saints in the NFC Divisional Round Jan. 14, the first walk-off playoff touchdown in NFL history.

In those nine words, Griffen encapsulated the 57-year history of Minnesota’s oldest professional sports team. The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and have faced every disappointment an NFL team could, from playoff meltdowns to stadium collapses.

Griffen’s reaction illustrates the beauty of sports fandom. Fans invest so much in their teams. The payoff: entertainment, pride and occasional elation. The cost: frequent anguish. Vikings fans know this emotional rollercoaster better than most. But they also know the secret of fandom: hope.

I’ve been a Vikings fan since I was five years old. I grew up hearing my dad’s tales of the Vikings’ 1970s glory days. They had a Hall of Fame defense, highlighted by defensive tackle Alan Page and defensive end Carl Eller. At quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. The unit lives on in Vikings lore as the Purple People Eaters.

Our team went to the Super Bowl four times from 1971-1977. They lost each time, normalizing the agony of heartbreak. It’s generational.

The next dominant Vikings team arrived in 1998, the team of my older brother Mathew. With veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham airing it out to Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter and wide-eyed rookie Randy Moss, the Vikings had an offense so dangerous that it broke the existing NFL record for points per game.

The 1998 Vikings went 15-1. Before their matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship, football legend John Madden asserted, “This is really their year.”

Madden was wrong. With the chance to ice the game, legendary kicker Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season, from a makeable 39 yards, costing the Vikings the game and a Super Bowl berth.

Mathew was heartbroken. Never again did he put the same hope in the team he loved.

The Vikings regained prominence in 2009 when they managed one of the greatest coups in Minnesota’s history by signing Hall of Famer Brett Favre, the long-time Green Bay Packers quarterback and Vikings terrorizer. With Favre and running back Adrian Peterson, the offense exploded. For the first time in five years, I didn’t grimace at a shotgun formation. The team went 12-4, including two victories over the Packers.

Just like ‘98, the Vikings got to the NFC Championship. Just like ‘98, victory was within reach. Mathew, jaded by past disappointment, was less than optimistic. Tied with the New Orleans Saints with under one minute to go, Favre rolled right. In my cousin’s  basement, I watched the disaster unfold. Nothing developed downfield. “Throw it out of bounds!” I screamed. All we needed was a field goal. Instead, Favre threw across his body to the middle of the field and was intercepted. The Saints won in overtime.

Max Rotenberg (center, white jersey) suffers through a family photo. Max Rotenberg/Contributing.

I was in tears, but my mom took a family photo anyway. My mugshot in that family photo immortalized another disappointing Vikings performance.

Favre was never the same and retired a year later. Even with Peterson, one of the best running backs in NFL history, the team wasn’t good enough, especially with Aaron Rodgers down the road.

We hit rock bottom in 2013, going 5-10-1. My love for the Vikings, for the first time in my life, began to wane.

But my hope for the team didn’t, and I was rewarded. By 2015, we were back in the playoffs, winning the NFC North with an 11-5 record behind great defense and a new quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.

History repeats itself. Just like ‘98, the Vikings’ 2015 season came down to a kick. Down 10-9 in the final seconds of the NFC wild card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, kicker Blair Walsh shanked an easy 29-yard field goal. Another season over.

I pulled my hat over my 18-year-old eyes, balled up on my couch and cried.

But hope whispered to me again. They’ll come back stronger next year, right? We have a great defense. We’ll be able to contend.

Then Bridgewater tore his ACL. In desperation, Minnesota traded for quarterback Sam Bradford. The team started the season 5-0, then crumbled to finish 8-8, becoming just the fifth team since 2002 to miss the playoffs after such a start.

Enter the 2017 season. Bradford returned after posting the best completion percentage in NFL history. In week one, the Vikings smoked the Saints behind a career day from Bradford. Then disaster struck. Bradford suffered a knee injury that no one (including Coach Zimmer) understood. In desperation (again), the Vikings turned to six-foot journeyman quarterback Case Keenum. After a shaky start, the Vikings began to look like a legitimate NFL team. Case “He’s just a backup” Keenum and the No. 1 NFL defense rattled off eight straight wins. Could Keenum be the key to a Super Bowl?

History suggested otherwise. Year after year, luck has worked against the Vikings. Against the storied Purple People Eaters defense in the divisional round of the 1975 NFC divisional playoffs, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach completed the original Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings. Miracles happen in the NFL — Vikings fans just happen to be on the wrong side of the magic every time. That is, until three weeks ago, when Diggs and the Vikings walked off against New Orleans.

In one play, Diggs exorcised the demons of the original Hail Mary and the 2009 Saints loss and became a Minnesota legend.

“I ran a route, my [quarterback] gave me a great throw and God took care of the rest,” Diggs told ESPN.

Ecstatic, I stayed up watching replays of the final catch. We were going to the Super Bowl. All we had to do was beat the Philadelphia Eagles.

That shouldn’t be too hard, I thought. We have the best defense in the NFL and they have Nick Foles, who has one touchdown pass over his last three games. No way he scores more than 13 points on our defense.

How wrong I was. Just like Madden. Just like the generations of Vikings fans before me. Foles and the Eagles blew the top off the Vikings, 38-7. The NFL’s No. 1 defense, which had allowed only 15.8 points per game, gave up 38. To Nick Foles.

I’m sad. I was happy. Now I’m like — wow.

Thus ends the fairy tale season. The Vikings wouldn’t be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Instead, they broke my heart again. New year, same story.

But hey, there’s always next year.

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