Friday, January 15, 2010

Sorrow, Stone, and Snow

Article in Thursday's WSJ explained that the way the Vikings have built much of their current team defies NFL conventions:

The Minnesota Vikings have never won a Super Bowl. They play in a drafty old dome in a sensible Midwestern city where the average low temperature in January is four degrees.

But in each of the past four seasons, the Vikings have used a combination of charm, shoe leather, a private jet, clever legal maneuvers and gobs of cash to craft a roster that's full of the kinds of gifted free agents who almost never become free. While most NFL teams have very few imported stars, half of the Vikings' current starters—from quarterback Brett Favre and guard Steve Hutchinson to Pro-Bowl defensive end Jared Allen—were drafted or signed by other teams.

"Scratch, claw, all the things they've had to do to get these guys," says Ken Harris, an agent who represents Mr. Allen, "the Minnesota Vikings are a phenomenal story."

Despite this "phenomenal" story and the fact that the Vikings are hosting this Sunday's divisional playoffs in the Metrodome (where they're 8-0 this year), I don't get the impression that many true Vikings fans are all that confident that their squad will beat the Cowboys. Sure you hear a lot of false bravado on local talk radio stations and some of the younger cadre of Purple fans may honestly believe their team is Miami bound. But deep down the fans who have been around for a while, the ones who can all too clearly still recall the playoff and Super Bowl losses, know that when it comes to the Vikings letting us down it's not a matter of if but when. The Vikes very well might defeat Dallas this week. All that will do is postpone the inevitable letdown.

What best describes this attitude? Some might say cynicism, others fatalism. I would say it's more of a stoicism, taking the definition of the word commonly used today rather than the philosophy itself. We accept our destiny but continue to carry on anyway, impassive in the face of eventual defeat. It's almost as if Viking fans have taken on the persona of Bud Grant, a man well-versed in hiding the pain of crushing losses. Vox Day was the first one I recall to make that connection:

People occasionally ask me how I can persevere so stoically in the face of constant scorn, derision, mockery and ridicule. They marvel at my ability to shrug off the most scathing attacks with little more than a sardonic smile, and they wonder how I remain so blithely unmoved by criticism, dislike and hate.

I find it hard to understand the question. I am a Vikings fan. There is nothing you can throw at me that could make me feel any worse than I have felt before. I sobbed in 1974. I raged with burning fury in 1975. I cried in 1976. I felt sick in 1987. By 1998, there was nothing left inside but a frozen hollow. In 2000 and 2003, I barely blinked. That which did not break me has made me stronger and harder than you can possibly imagine.

We are cold and bleak, we men of the North. We are made of sorrow, snow and stone.

We are all Bud Grant.

And there have been plenty of crushing losses over the years. The Nihilist in Golf Pants has long argued that Viking fans have suffered more almost any other followers of professional teams. With a couple of World Series under their belts, Red Sox nation is no longer in the mix. While Cubs and Indians fans bemoan their long World Series droughts, the truth is that both teams have rarely really had a shot at the ultimate prize. In the last forty years, the Cubs have had what three good teams? The Indians may have had a few more than that, but they too have only been knocking on the door a few times.

In the NFL, those who follows the Saints, Browns, and Lions have also been long suffering. But again, how many good teams have these three franchises had in recent history (this year's Saints being an obvious outlier)? The Vikings had more good teams in the Seventies alone than these three franchises have had COMBINED over the last forty years.

While having a bad team is certainly not a lot of fun, it doesn't compare to the pain for fans when good teams fail. Being a Lions fan is like having a dull muscle ache. After a while you get used to it and almost don't even notice it's there anymore. Being a Vikings fans means getting a knife in the gut on a fairly regular basis. And then having it twisted and ripped out. You don't easily recover from having your insides torn apart.

The Vikings kicked off the Seventies by losing Super Bowl IV 23-7 to the Chiefs despite being heavily favored. They went on to lose three more Super Bowls during the decade. Only the Buffalo Bills can match that record of futility, but again other than their run in the early Nineties the Bills haven't put many good teams on the field over the years.

The Eighties were mostly a down decade for the Purple. But in the strike shortened 1987 season, a team with better talent than their record would indicate made a playoff run that ended when they lost the NFC Championship game to the Redskins 17-10. The Vikings had the ball at the Redskin six yard line with a minute left, but when a fourth down pass fell incomplete the season and hopes of reaching the Super Bowl died.

The Nineties require no further elaboration. The mere mention of "1998" causes Vikes fans to experience an involuntary twinge of pain. That was the last time that we suspended our disbelief and allowed ourselves to truly believe that this was the team of destiny that could not fail to deliver us our Super Bowl. Let us mention it no more.

The Vikings started the Aughts in 2000 by going 11-5 and reaching the 2001 NFC Championship game against the Giants. Even though the game was in New York, the Vikes were actually favored to beat the Giants and reach the Super Bowl. Instead they went out and suffered the worst loss in franchise history getting utterly destroyed 41-0. It wasn't nearly as painful as the 1999 NFC Championship game, but it was disappointing to see them mail in such a pathetic performance.

Here we are again in 2010. A 12-4 team with a good deal of talent on both sides of the ball. Could this be the Vikings team that finally breaks through, wins the Super Bowl, and ends the suffering that Viking fans have endured for so long? It certainly could be. Do Viking fans believe in their heart of hearts that it actually is? Certainly not.

As Vox Day explained in another post:

Fortunately, Vikings fans have no need of faith. We have no expectations, we have no heart, we simply watch in numbed catalepsy and hope for the best.

So on Sunday we'll put on our grim game faces, utter a stern "Skol!," and await our fate.

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