Relocated MNF in Minneapolis: Will the Real Men Please Stand Up?
On a beautifully miserable Minnesota winter day long ago, Bill Brown ran out of the Vikings locker room, rolled up his sleeves and started rolling around on the frozen grass at Metropolitan Stadium.
After a couple of minutes, he got up with his arms raw and bleeding. The Los Angeles Rams saw it and couldn't get back to the beach soon enough.
That was then, when men were men, or at least men didn't mind becoming ice men. This is now:
"If the field is frozen, who the hell wants to play on that?" Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman said.
The field in question is TCF Stadium, the Vikings' emergency backup for the deflated Metrodome. After much debate, the NFL decreed Thursday that next Monday's game will be played at the University of Minnesota's stadium.
It will be outdoors. It will be at night. It could be the best throwback game in NFL history.
Failing that, the throwback conditions will at least make the game interesting. Unless you are one of the three people on earth who've been dying to see rookie Joe Webb start at quarterback for Minnesota.
The only people who don't seem to be warming to that notion are the players. I understand why they're concerned about getting hurt on a frozen field. I just hope they understand that everybody who played in the NFL before 1980 considers them wimps.
"It's uncharted territory," Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said.
Granted, the field has been under ice for weeks. And crews are working 16-hour days to remove all the snow from the seats. But you'd think nobody ever played on a real grass field that didn't have heating coils or in a stadium that wasn't 72 degrees year-round.
The Vikings used to manage that very well. They made four Super Bowls when they played at Metropolitan Stadium. Is it mere coincidence that they've made zero since moving indoors in 1981?
I don't want to say today's players are pampered, but if the real Vikings had been this soft they would have waited on Carnival Cruise Line to give them a ride to America.
The forecast calls for a high of 17 next Monday, with a low of around zero (photo above shows fans in line to volunteer Thursday to help shovel snow out of the stadium). If Bud Grant were still coaching, he'd send the Vikings out in thongs and tank tops.
He didn't allow his players to wear gloves, long underwear or any clothing other than their uniform. There were no heaters on the sideline, much less those fancy heated benches players swaddle in now.
"It's all in the head," Grant would say.
And he did his best to get it inside the opponents' heads. Brown's arms were bloodied that day, but it wasn't from the simulated blocking techniques he performed for the Rams. Just before going out there, he peeled all the scabs off his arms.
Grant used to tell his players about the U.S. Army having to build radio towers in Alaska during World War II. Soldiers would last only 15 or 20 minutes in the open cabs before having to seek shelter.
A lieutenant colonel suggested the Army hire Eskimos to do the job. The locals happily bulldozed away for three or four hours at a time. They did such a good job that the Army conducted medical exams afterward to see if there was a genetic difference.
After centuries of Arctic existence, had their blood gotten thicker or their skin more resistant?
"There turned out to be only one difference," Grant said. "Everybody knew it was cold. The Eskimos just sat there and drove bulldozers."
The weather didn't get in their heads. I'm not suggesting the Vikings replace Webb with an Eskimo next Monday night, though it might not be a bad idea. But the Metrodome dilemma shows how the NFL is losing touch with its essence.
Frozen tundra is now heated FieldTurf. Players wear space-age long johns. Even Houston, which hasn't had a blizzard in recent memory, built a retractable-roof stadium.
Even open-air stadiums are more like TV studios, with the players kept as warm and comfy as possible as they wait to perform. It makes for crisper but not necessarily better football.
Think Ice Bowl. Think 1958 NFL Championship Game. Think Tuck Bowl. Think of all those NFL Films where you could see the linemen snorting as they tried to dig a toehold into the turf.
Tillman asked who the hell wants to play on that? Nobody wanted to. They just didn't have a choice. So they sucked it up, and few did it better than the Vikings.
As luck would have it, the franchise is celebrating 50 years in Minnesota on Monday night. It will also mark the 29th anniversary of the last game played at Metropolitan Stadium.
The team will unveil its 50 greatest players, most of whom will be there. Here's hoping Brown makes the list. And for old time's sake, he will roll up his sleeves and roll around the non-heat-coiled turf of TCF Stadium.
If he gets up bloody, I just hope none of today's players faint.