Sunday, January 22, 2012

Purple Pain

My brother is a Steelers fan (I know, right? I don't know why, either). Two weekends ago, the Steelers played the Broncos in the playoffs on his birthday. Should have been an easy win, right? Well, we know what happened.

Afterward, my brother said he didn't want to talk about the game, because he was tired of his team always breaking his heart. Excuse me? His team has won six Super Bowls. More importantly, they've won twice in recent history, so that he can remember where he was when it happened. I think the rule is that you can't complain about your team's heartbreaking losses if you have a memory of your team winning a championship.

You want pain? Be a Vikings fan. I can point to more than one devastating Vikings loss. In fact, I can think of 10 pretty quickly. They didn't all happen in my lifetime, of course, but they've all happened, permanently scarring people like my dad for life. So here they are: The 10 most painful losses in Vikings history. This is what true heartbreak looks like.

10. 2000 NFC Championship Game - 41-donut
Well, it was a quick kill. Quick, as in the Vikings were down 14-0 before they ever got the ball. They never had a chance. At halftime of this game, I went out to shovel the driveway to try to forget what was happening. It hadn't snowed that day. It wasn't a great Giants team that the Vikings played that day, but they still somehow eked by 41-0. I can't imagine there's ever been a team more ill-prepared or uninspired for a championship game.

Numbers 9 through 6: The Super Bowls
Long-time Viking fans (hint: my dad) might not agree with putting the Super Bowls way down on the list. It's the Super Bowl! And they lost! FOUR TIMES! But my reasoning is simple: all four Super Bowl losses happened before I was born, so I don't have a specific painful memory related to a Super Bowl. Another key fact: my dad has never mentioned a Super Bowl as a bad memory. Maybe he's blocked them out of his mind and just doesn't want to talk about them, but the fact remains he's far more bothered by another game later in this countdown.

Besides, it's not like the Super Bowls they lost were ever close. Not only have the Vikings never won a Super Bowl, but they've never even had the lead. For the most part, it was over with quickly. Like Super Bowl VIII against Miami. The Dolphins had completed their historic perfect season in 1972, and most historians believe Miami was even better in 1973; that they lost two games is simply a matter of having a much tougher schedule in 1973. They cruised 24-7.

Same with Super Bowl IV. The Vikings were heavy favorites in that one because the AFL was still considered highly inferior, despite the Jets' upset win the year before. But the Chiefs took a 16-0 halftime lead on the Vikings, and since Joe Kapp was Minnesota's quarterback then, they had no chance of coming back. The final was 23-7.

Super Bowl XI against Oakland wasn't close either, but I have that one ranked as more painful than the other two because it was the fourth loss, the frustration finally boiling over. In truth, the Raiders were just too good, probably the best Raiders team ever. They gained a Super Bowl record 429 yards against the Vikings, winning 32-14. The only highlight for the Vikings was that they became the first team to block a Ray Guy punt; he would only have three punts blocked his entire career.

The only Super Bowl that was close was Super Bowl IX against Pittsburgh. This one matched the Purple People Eaters against the Steel Curtain, and the defenses dominated the entire game. At halftime, Pittsburgh lead 2-0. That's right. They extended the lead to 9-0 before the Vikings fell on a blocked punt in the end zone. But don't worry, they missed the extra point. It was 9-6 entering the fourth quarter before the Steelers added one more touchdown to clinch the title. So that one is the most painful of the losses. If the Vikings offense had been able to do anything - hell, even one connection on a long pass play - they could have won that game.

5. 1987 NFC Championship Game
The 1987 season was all thrown off by the players strike. After two weeks of regular games and one cancelled game, each NFL team played three games with replacement players who crossed the picket lines. When the strike was settled, the regular players came back and the season continued like nothing had happened. As it was, the replacement Vikings went 0-3, putting them in a hole. But they persevered, finishing 8-7 to earn the last playoff spot. After crushing the Saints and shocking the 49ers, the Vikings were on a roll entering the NFC Championship Game against Washington. It was a tight game throughout, the defenses dominating, and it was 17-10 as the Vikings embarked on their final drive. They made it inside the 10-yard-line, fourth and 4 with less than a minute to play. Then Wade Wilson threw a pass for Darrin Nelson...

4. Final game of 2003 Regular Season - The Force-Out
It was kind of a slow death. After starting the season 6-0, the Vikings started losing and losing. Picture holding on to the edge of a cliff by your fingernails. Among those losses were games lost to all four teams that finished that season 4-12. And yet, the Vikings entered the final week of the season needing only a win against Arizona to win the NFC North.

McCown down to win the division. Even after he drove the Cardinals down for a fourth-quarter touchdown, things should have been safe. When the Cardinals failed on the two-point conversion, I actually got more worried; it meant that a field goal wouldn't help them, so that Arizona would have to try for a touchdown.

They drove down, the clocked ticked down. Desperate measures as Vikings fans screamed at the defensive players to make a stop, yelled at the clock to turn faster. It all came down to one final fourth down play from the 28-line-yard. McCown dropped back, then stepped up and rolled to his right. He fired to the end zone toward Nate Poole, who was double-teamed. Poole caught the ball, got one foot in, then was pushed to the ground.

Of course, that "pushed" was the key. See, in 2003, the force-out rule was still in effect. The touchdown was good. The Vikings season was over. They were out, and the Packers were in. And on the radio, Paul Allen screamed "No!"

Naturally, the NFL changed the rules after that season, taking the force-out rule out of the books. Had that play happened in 2004, Poole's catch would have been no good. It's the merely the first time a tragic Vikings loss seemed to be the catalyst for a rule change.

After that game, my dad turned off the TV and stormed upstairs, oblivious to the fact that I was still watching. When I got upstairs, he was sitting and calmly reading a book, like that's all he had been doing all afternoon. Then I figured out how he put up with it all those years: denial.

(Fun fact: This game took place 28 years to the day after game #2 on this list. Happy Anniversary!)

3. 2009 NFC Championship Game - 12 Men
The Vikings sold their soul in 2009. Believing they were just one piece of the puzzle away from competing for a title, Brad Childress worked behind the scenes to get Brett Favre to postpone his retirement to come play for the Vikings.

Selling their souls to get Favre got the Vikings a 10-1 start. They stumbled down the stretch, losing three straight road games to finish 12-4, losing out on home field advantage. Enter the NFC Championship Game, at New Orleans. Despite five turnovers, the Vikings were still in the game, tied 14-14 at halftime and tied 28-28 late in the fourth quarter. Getting the ball back just before the two-minute warning, they drove. A beautiful mix of passes and runs, they got as far as the New Orleans 33. They faced a third down with 25 seconds left. Already in range for a field goal, albeit a long one, all they really had to do was hope to gain a couple of yards, run the clock down to nothing, and kick their way into the Super Bowl.

But then fullback Naufahu Tahi ran into the huddle, and nobody ran out. The 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty pushed them out of field goal range, so they had to get the five yards back. Favre rolled right, and had Berrian deep along the sideline, at about the 15. Instead, he threw across his body toward Sidney Rice, and it was intercepted, and the game went to overtime.

And of course. The coin flip. Saints win. Saints drive. Two first downs given to them by Vikings penalties, another one on a fourth-down measurement that was oh-so-close. They kick the field goal. The Vikings never get the ball.

It's the second instance where a Vikings loss led to a rule change. Now, in the playoffs, if a team kicks a field goal on its first possession of overtime, the other team gets a chance. That rule came one year to late for the 2009 Vikings.

2. 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff Game - Hail Mary
Fourth down, 24 seconds left. Ball at midfield, trailing 14-10. Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach called the play in the huddle, then closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary. He took the snap, looked around for a few seconds, then threw deep down the left sideline. Near the goal line, Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson pushed down Vikings cornerback Nate Wright, then pinned the ball against his hip. Instead of letting the ball fall to the ground, he kept it pinned and crossed the goal line. As he did, a flash of orange flew across the field at his feet; for a fleeting moment, Vikings fans thought it was the rightful flag for offensive pass interference. But it wasn't. It was an orange. As in, the fruit. The score stood, and the term "Hail Mary" became a part of the football dictionary forever.

Soon after fans realized that the play was going to stand, the greatest throw in the history of Metropolitan Stadium happened. From somewhere deep in the stands, a bottle of Corby's whiskey flew through the December air and hit official Armen Terzian square in the head, an absolutely perfect throw. He left the field with a bloody head. Most Vikings fans probably felt just like him. To this day, the only thing that makes my dad upset is if someone mentions the name Drew Pearson in his presence.

Watch this for Pearson's blatant push-off

1. 1998 NFC Championship Game - Wide Left
See, everybody always blames Gary Anderson. And really, he's a convenient target. I mean, how poetic is it? The kicker who hadn't missed a kick all year misses the biggest kick of the biggest game of the year, causing his nearly unbeatable team to lose. At home.

It shouldn't fall just on Anderson's shoulders, though. There were many reasons why the greatest Vikings team of the all never even made it to the Super Bowl. In order:

1. In the 1995 season, Robert Smith suffered a knee injury on a running play, getting hurt while tip-toeing along the sideline trying to gain a few extra yards. After that injury, he promised himself that he wouldn't keep fighting for a few extra yards on similar sideline plays, reasoning that his team needed him in the lineup more than they needed those extra two yards. This will make sense in a few paragraphs.

2. Back to 1998. Leading 20-7 late in the first half, the Vikings went for the kill. As Randall Cunningham dropped back to pass, he was stripped of the ball. Atlanta scored a quick touchdown to make it 20-14. Aside from the shift in momentum, this will make more sense in a few paragraphs.

3. Still leading 27-20, the Vikings embarked on one final, hopefully clock-killing drive. Three times on that drive, Smith ran out of bounds untouched (see item no. 1). If he stayed in bounds even once, the game would have probably turned out very differently.

4. The miss. Yah, he missed. But, the Vikings were still up 27-20, and there was only 2:07 left in the game. The Vikings should have been able to stop the Falcons from scoring.

5. The Falcons scored. Tie game. Vikings got the ball back with 30 seconds left. In a moment that drives Vikings fans crazy, the best offense in NFL history took a knee. But, look back at moment 2). Dennis Green had terrible flashbacks of the end of the first half. So they took overtime.

6. The Vikings win the toss in overtime. See, everybody forgets this. The greatest offense in NFL history got the ball first in overtime that game. And they didn't score. Of course, the Falcons did.

So there it was. A series of events that kept the greatest Vikings team of them all from the Super Bowl. The single most painful loss in team history.


So that, certain Steelers fan, is heartbreak.

And now the question: Why put up with it? Why keep cheering for a team that will always let you down? The answer is simple. Because of the hope that one day, they won't let us down. One day, everything will come together perfectly, and they'll take fans on a magical ride that won't end until there's purple and gold confetti fluttering down onto some field somewhere. And it will seem extra sweet because of all the past heartbreak. And everybody who was along for the entire ride will scream and shout and cry and hug and will be able to tell each other "that's why we put up with it." And it will have all been worth it.

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