In January of 2010, I realized what it meant to be a Minnesota sports fan. It wasn’t the moment when the Minnesota Wild were routed by the Anaheim Ducks after a Cinderella story kind of run. It wasn’t the late 2000s either, when the Minnesota Twins were continuously knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees, watching as the talents of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were wasted in first round knockouts. It wasn’t even when Kevin Garnett, the most exciting basketball player that young Timberwolves fans had the privilege of watching, was sent packing to the Boston Celtics, only to win a title in the following year.
No, it had to be much worse than that.
Sure, Minnesota is the state of hockey, thanks to the unbelievable youth programs offered, and that is essentially a factory for NHL prospects, but if you walk the streets of Minneapolis between the months of August and December, I promise that you’ll see splashes of purple everywhere you go. This is a Vikings town, and the passionate fan base here that lines the fences at Mankato University during training camp, and tailgate in freezing weather outside the Metrodome, deserves a championship.
Unfortunately, the ball always seems to bounce the wrong way for one of the most snake bitten franchises in the National Football League. Growing up, I didn’t have the luxury of sitting through, and remembering, one of the worst moments in Minnesota sports history, when the greatest offense of all time in 1998, fell to the Atlanta Falcons because of a storybook chain of events. Go back and either watch, or read, exactly what happened in the 1998 NFC title game, and tell me that would happen to another team.
The ironic part about it, is that you would be able to find another team. The 2009 Minnesota Vikings.
When I started growing up in Minnesota, I really started following the Vikings when Daunte Culpepper took the reins of the franchise. I still remember watching him and Randy Moss play together, the latter being one of my favorite athletes of all time. Granted, Moss came with his issues, but as a fan of the franchise, how could you not love 84?
I still remember when Culpepper was snubbed in the 2004 MVP voting, and when I bought my first Madden video game with him on the cover. Remembering the good times is hard though, when you remember losing 41-0 in the 2000 NFC title game to the New York Giants, and watching Culpepper fall apart in the 2005 season.
However four years later, things were different. On paper, the Vikings were stacked top to bottom, with one of the better offenses in the entire league, and an opportunistic defense with some overachiever. The only thing missing, was someone to lead them at the quarterback position. Tarvaris Jackson wasn’t the answer, proving it with a horrible performance the year prior in a Wild Card loss.
Now this is when it became storybook again.
Chances are, you have heard of a football player named Brett Favre. The long time rival of the Minnesota Vikings, played for their enemies across the border in the Green Bay Packers, a team that was lead to two Super Bowls by the aforementioned superstar.
This was a player, who was so hated by the Minnesota Vikings, that they put his number four jersey over tackling dummies in practice. This is a man, who earned his gunslinger reputation, by playing 15 straight years for the Green Bay Packers, and one year for the New York Jets, without missing a start. This is a man who was ridiculed after retiring in back-to-back off seasons, struggling to give up his love of the game.
As former coach Brian Billick once said, “it is the oldest cliché there is, but Brett Favre loves playing football.”
I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. I can still remember being at school, hearing from friends passing in the hall, that Brett Favre was on his way to Minnesota to sign a two-year deal with the Vikings. It was surreal, I couldn’t believe it. He had been retired for only three weeks, and yet, there he was on the news, throwing passes with rookie wide receiver Percy Harvin in his red number 4 practice jersey. The jerseys printed fast, and sold out even faster, as every Minnesotan wanted the chance to show off their Brett Favre Vikings apparel to their friends, and to gloat to their enemies from across the border.
I had never been more excited for a football season, and why would you blame me? I had never seen a stable Vikings quarterback in my entire life. Enter the quarterback who crushed my hopes in dreams for my entirety of football fandom. It would be like trading Tom Brady to the Jets for one season, or even sending Magic Johnson to the Celtics for one year. Sure, that last one was a stretch, but being from Minnesota, that is how it felt. I could taste the championship already.The year went on, and it went better than anyone expected. Favre created a sense of winning in Minnesota, that hadn’t been felt in years. You didn’t feel like this was some team that could sneak in as a six seed in the playoffs, and maybe upset a better team on the road. You felt like this team could win it all.
When I watched Favre dismantle his old team in Lambeau Field, I started to believe that we would win it all. Everything, for the first time in a while, was going the way it was supposed to go. Even Brett Favre said it himself, “the pieces are in place.” He was right, but it only took one piece to dismantle everything.
Most would look at the 2009 NFC title game, and blame Brett Favre for throwing one of the most horrific interceptions I’ve ever seen, across his body inside New Orleans territory. Others would blame the referees and the booth reviews, for making some very questionable calls in overtime that allowed the Saints to march down the field, and kick the most important field goal in Saints history. I disagree with both, because the collapse began weeks before that, on Monday Night Football in Chicago.
The Vikings were on a horrible stretch in December, living up to the cliché that Brett Favre plays horrible football in the winter months. Dropping games to Arizona and Carolina, the Vikings were losing traction in the race for the number one seed in the playoffs, and home field advantage throughout. A date with the struggling Bears on Monday Night Football was a game that most expected the Vikings to win, and clinch home field advantage for the upcoming playoffs. The game didn’t go as planned, and an epic Brett Favre comeback began, as the Vikings rallied from being down 23-6 at halftime. With a minute to go in the game, the Vikings marched down the field, and were stopped at the 6 yard line, with 16 seconds to play.
The following play, actually almost ties it for me, with the Brett Favre miracle pass to Greg Lewis against San Francisco earlier that year, and that play still gives me goosebumps when I re-watch it. The play was simple. On 4th and goal, Brett stared down his favorite target, the emerging Pro Bowler Sidney Rice, the 6″4 receiver who spent his first two years with Minnesota riddled with injures. This year, he was proving his worth, and this play embodied an entire season. Favre threw a fade to the corner of the end zone, and Rice leapt over the defender, and toe dragged a very impressive touchdown, to force overtime in Chicago.
Overtime is where the collapse began. The Vikings were marching on Chicago, looking like they would set up the game winner for stud kicker Ryan Longwell, and clinch home field advantage. It looked to become a reality, as Brett tossed a screen to the best running back in the league, and watched 28 scamper in the backfield, and break free down the sideline.
Watching Adrian Peterson run in the open field is a thing of beauty, but ironically, his weakness lies in one of his greatest strengths. Anyone who has met Adrian would tell you, that his handshake is the strongest you’ll ever experience. I can attest to that, as I shook his hand at Vikings training camp, in absolute awe of course. This hand strength would be assumed to go hand-in-hand with great ball carrying, but you would be wrong to assume this. Adrian had a fumbling problem, and this was the piece that would lead to the collapse of the 2009 Minnesota Vikings.
As Adrian weaved his way through the Bears’ defenders, the ball hit the ground. It bounced around along the sideline, and Hunter Hillenmeyer (who?) jumped on the ball, and the Bears proceeded to dagger the hopes of home field advantage at the Metrodome, with a game winning touchdown drive. Sure, that isn’t the reason why the Vikings lost the 2009 NFC title game, but remember, the Vikings were 9-0 in the Metrodome that year, including the divisional round annihilation of the Dallas Cowboys, to send them to New Orleans.
After the Vikings sent the Dallas Cowboys packing, the longest week of my life began. I was legitimately nervous, the Friday night before the showdown in New Orleans. The Vikings and Saints were the two best teams in football that year, and it was fitting that they would play for the right to play the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. 1998 was nearly the perfect story, but I would argue that 2009 was better. Who could have written it better, with Brett Favre having a MVP caliber year, stomping his former team, and his doubters along the way. How could we lose?
And then, 3 of the most stressful, nail-biting hours of my life, culminated into a perfect representation of Brett Favre’s career. After surviving turnover after turnover, Adrian Peterson struggling and battling through 3 fumbles, and Brett Favre being knocked down after each and every throw (later to be known as Bounty Gate), the Vikings still had a chance. Putting up 450 yards on a very tough defense was impressive, and holding a 28-28 tie with the final minute ticking down was even more extraordinary. The Vikings had the ball, with a chance to win.
Listening to the local broadcast, as Brett threw a strike to Sidney Rice into Saints territory, and hearing the broadcaster’s words of excitement, made myself, and the entire state of Minnesota, collectively stand. This was it. With the longest seconds of my life slowly ticking away one by one, I couldn’t even fathom what was happening. We were 15 yards, at worst, away from a Ryan Longwell field goal try, to send us to the Super Bowl. But then, I learned what it was like to be a Minnesota sports fan.
A flag was thrown for too many men in the huddle, sending the Vikings from a running situation, to a passing situation. It was supposed to be a handoff to Adrian or backup Chester Taylor to chew more clock, and give Longwell a chance. It became an infamous moment in Minnesota sports history, and the microcosm of Minnesota sports. Brett Favre rolled out to pass on 3rd and 15, and fired across his body to his favorite target, Sidney Rice. It never reached Rice, as it was intercepted by Tracy Porter, and forced overtime. Watching Brett Favre rip the straps off of his helmet, and trot off the field was heartbreaking, as none of us knew that the Vikings offense would never see the field again.
It ended with a Garrett Hartley field goal, and the confetti fell, and the chants of “Who Dat” filled the stadium, as Minnesotans watched the Vikings walk off the field with their heads hung. Adrian Peterson was on the verge of tears in a post game interview, sharing his load of the blame for the loss. Favre, was reportedly sobbing in the locker room. Most of them knew that this was it, their last chance to win a Super Bowl, let alone appear in one.
Most blame Favre for losing the 2009 NFC title game, but I don’t. A perfect collapse was necessary to slow down this team, and it happened. If the Vikings had home field advantage, I believe they would have won the 2009 Super Bowl, but I digress. This wasn’t just a normal football team, it was a group of men that remembered why they play this game, because of Brett Favre. Watching a man who played for a team for 15 years, then lead our team like he had been here his entire career, was inspiring.
The 2009 Minnesota Vikings are the reason I fell in love with football, and why I dream of working in the sports field. It was a year I will always remember, and something I will always share with family, friends, and all Minnesotans. And some say it is just a game.