SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports NFL insider Jarrett Bell attempts to put into words the unbelievable finish in Minnesota, and how important situational football meant in a weekend of classic games.
USA TODAY Sports
Larry Fitzgerald grew up in Minnesota. He once served as ball boy for the Vikings. He knows the trials and torments of their fan base better than anyone.
Incredibly, he couldn’t bring himself to watch Minnesota’s miraculous triumph in the NFC divisional playoffs. He says he won’t watch another game until he shows up for the Super Bowl because spectating feels too much like work. But he couldn’t be happier for his hometown.
“I have no interest in watching football, to be honest,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been watching football since July for my own study purposes. But (Vikings fans) were very happy to say the least, man. They have suffered a long time. And I hope they get to the Super Bowl.”
Welcome to another strange twist of Valley fandom, where our transient nature is often a nuisance. Many of us yearn for more partisan spirit, more shared communal experiences, more solidarity in the audience. It’s unnerving to compete with Cubs fans and Dodgers fans for home-field advantage, and especially aggravating when bartenders must be asked to turn on games involving Arizona teams.
But sometimes, our mixed allegiances open a window into a broader experience, illuminating victories that aren’t our own. And that’s exactly what happened over the past weekend.
In my corner of the world, I’m surrounded by Vikings fans, and you wouldn’t believe the neighborhood commotion on Sunday. There was shrieking and screaming erupting from adjacent homes, and for once, I wasn’t to blame for disturbing the peace.
That includes Joe Winters, a great man with a purple heart from his service in Vietnam. He’s the kind of neighbor who picks up your newspaper when you leave it in the driveway and wheels in your garbage cans when you’re too lazy. I’ve never seen him angry, except when he talks about Dennis Green.
The former Vikings coach took a 15-1 team and one of the most explosive offensive in history into the 1999 NFC Championship Game, only to sit on the ball with 30 seconds left in regulation, with his team positioned at their own 30-yard line.
They lost that game in overtime after Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dominant team that failed more spectacularly, winning absolutely nothing in the process.
On Sunday, the Vikings exorcised almost all of their demons, a list that includes missed field goals (Anderson, Blair Walsh), Brett Favre’s crushing interception in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, four Super Bowl defeats that were all double-digit losses and that day at Sun Devil Stadium when Josh McCown’s fourth-down touchdown pass eliminated the Vikings from the playoffs.
The tragic narrative changed with one possession, and the Vikings’ end-game heroics against the Saints was more than simple redemption. Their game-winning drive started at their own 25-yard line with 25 seconds left, mocking Green’s tactical blunder. It proved yet again that anything is possible in athletic competition, and after all these years, sports still has the power to show us something we’ve never seen before.
The Vikings haven’t been to the Super Bowl in 41 years. A study showed that 23 of their postseason appearances resulted in 11 heartbreaking losses, an unofficial NFL record. Their collective suffering could culminate in one of the greatest payoffs imaginable, and if they beat the Eagles on Sunday, they will become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium. It will spawn a scene and a story unlike anything we’ve ever seen in professional football, and we will be blessed to feel the impact in Arizona.
The Valley’s diverse tapestry of sports fans is more than just a local irritant and national curiosity. It’s spawned a profitable cottage industry that would never fly in most big-league markets, where many of our local establishments become unofficial headquarters for out-of-town teams.
The Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe has been a Vikings bar for 20 years. And one of the company’s co-founders, Randy Schultz, couldn’t believe what went down on Sunday.
“It went from heartbreak to absolutely some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen in my life,” Schultz said. “We had over 400 people in the bar, and people were crying. The celebration went on for 20 minutes straight. There was screaming, whistling, and people singing the Vikings’ fight song. We had a guy blowing into his Vikings horn, his name is ‘Dog,’ and he’s brought that horn to the bar for the past 17 years. It was one of the best celebrations I’ve ever seen. It was utter elation.
“Our first loyalty is to the Cardinals. We have a great business relationship with them, and that’s where we dump our marketing dollars. But the Vikings have always been a way to fill the seats on Sunday, especially since they normally play before the Cardinals, in one of the earlier time slots. And it was extremely gratifying to watch a team have a miracle finish when miracles have never happened for them before.”
A recent Gallup survey showed that 37 percent of Americans still list football as their favorite sport, down only six percent from peak interest in 2007. Basketball finished at 11 percent, while baseball posted its lowest number since polling began in 1937 (nine percent).
It was further confirmation that the NFL still commands our undying passion. The ongoing playoffs have atoned for one of the worst regular seasons in history. And the Vikings’ triumph on Sunday proved that nothing galvanizes like football at its finest, and that sports has an uncanny knack of rewarding one’s faith if you stick around long enough.
That’s a great lesson for fickle fans in the Valley. And it shows that our transient nature isn’t always a bad thing.
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Reach Bickley at email@example.com or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on 98.7 Arizona’s Sports Station.