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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Burnsie, Millard & Red

Jerry Burns on the Blakeslee Stadium practice fields
Syndicated writer Dave Barry penned a column entitled "16 Things It Took Me Over 50 Years to Learn." It's a funny read with some level of truthiness.

Obviously, a lot can happen in 50 years.

And not to sound like Billy Joel singing "We Didn't Start the Fire," much has taken place in the last five decades.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. There was Woodstock and the tragic shootings at Kent State. There was Vietnam and the Berlin Wall. Star Wars premiered and the Watergate break-in occurred. Sid Vicious ring a bell? A bunch of college guys beat the vaunted Soviets in Lake Placid. The Hubble Telescope went into orbit. Princess Di passed away in a car crash. Johnny Carson retired. Twins won the World Series. 9/11. Saddam. bin Laden. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Obama.

On a local level, the Minnesota Vikings first came to Mankato for their summer training camp in 1966, making this year the 50th consecutive season the Purple & Gold have made the Key City their preseason preparation destination.

While it's tough to boil things down to a few thoughts about the Vikings during this period in our little berg, let's take a look at the last 30 seasons.

1986 marked Jerry Burns’ first year. Les Steckel was named head coach in 1984 and the former Marine led the Vikings through one disastrous season in which his squad posted a 3-13 mark. Iconic Bud Grant returned in 1985, leading up to Burnsie being named head coach the following year.

Coach Burns, who guided the team for six years, could come off as curmudgeonly, but had a great sense of humor. There's a story about one camp where the weather was hot and muggy (like most years) and the players and coaches were struggling. To change things up, Burns, along with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, defensive lineman Keith Millard and equipment manager Dennis Ryan conspired to prank the team. Following a staged argument between Millard and Kiffin, Ryan later threw a dummy dressed like Kiffin off the roof of Gage Hall, giving the players on the practice field a scare.

The summer of 1991 was an interesting one. Especially the night Millard, after leaving the Albatross in a hurried attempt to get back to Gage prior to curfew, crashed his corvette into a planter at Hardee’s.

In 1998, bombastic Red McCombs bought the team and came to town bellowing “Purple Pride.”  This was also the year Randy Moss was drafted and made his inaugural training camp appearance.  The crowds got bigger as in addition to Moss, Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Randall McDaniel, John Randle and Robert Smith were also on the roster.  Loaded with that talent, the Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season and advanced to the NFC championship game before losing to Atlanta in overtime.

In 1999, first round draft pick Dimitrius Underwood came to camp wearing camo. He left camp after one day and  never played for the Vikings. Later diagnosed as bipolar, eventually he played a bit in the league with Dallas and Miami.

In 2001 Korey Stringer passed away. I wrote about it HERE.

Leading up to the summer of 2004, there was talk that the team was strongly considering having training camp at a different location. A re-commitment from the town and University, in which promotions and marketing of the team's stay in town would be ramped up, ensured the continued trip down 169. Vikings Village became a reality as camp operations became a joint effort in an attempt to become more organized and to heighten the fan experience.

In the spring of 2013, campus landmark Gage Towers, the venerable dormitory complex which housed the Vikings during their stay, was imploded (the Vikings are now housed in Julia Sears Residence Community on the west side of campus).

Along the way, a few Minnesota State players received invitations to try-out with the local NFL squad, and in 2013 wide receiver Adam Thielen broke camp as a practice squad player. In 2014, the Detroit Lakes, Minn., native made team's 53-man roster and appeared in all 16 regular-season games.

Here's to another 50 years!!!!  Skol Vikings.

It's great to be a Maverick.