Sports postsMonday May 27, 2019
Bart Starr (1934-2019)
I think of Dave Budge, one of my best friends in childhood, who lived across the street in South Minneapolis, and with whom I would throw a football around on Emerson Avenue in spring, fall and sometimes winter.
For some reason (relatives?), he rooted for the Green Bay Packers rather than the Minnesota Vikings, as was custom in our neighborhood. By this point, the the point I began to care about football, Super Bowls still numbered in single digits (or, I guess more appropriately, before “X”), and the glory days of the Packers were already over. But the team was already legendary. Back then, a lot of teams were 1-1 in the Super Bowl, seeming to lose their first shot only to win a later one:
- Chiefs lost I, won IV
- Colts lost III, won V
- Cowboys lost V, won VI
- Dolphins lost VI, won VII
It was nice—like teams were taking turns. (Until it was the Vikings' turn.) But at the top, both chronologically and in the SB standings, was Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, 2-0 in Super Bowls I and II, and led by #15, the MVP of both Super Bowls, the perfectly named Bart Starr.
Despite that name, he had an ordinary face and manner, and never acted the star. He was thoroughly Midwest in that regard, even though he was Alabama born and bred. He was also at the helm during the legendary “Ice Bowl” victory over the Cowboys in 13-below weather in Green Bay on Dec. 31, 1967. Apparently he was the one who called the QB sneak with the Packers on the Cowboys' goal line, down by 3, with less than 20 seconds left and no timeouts. If it didn't work, season over. But it worked. I remember reading about it and thinking, “I wouldn't have taken that risk.” That he did is why he was where he was.
Did we argue, Dave and I, over who was better, Fran Tarkenton or Bart Starr? Probably. Probably one of the many such arguments as we tossed a non-official football around the neighborhood.
Anyway, when I heard the news, I thought of Dave.
Roughing the Ref
The other day, Joe Posnanski mentioned something in passing—an “outtake,” in his words—during an extensive post on why Aaron Nola's 2018 stats are so incredibly good by certain statistical measures, and whether those measure are wrong or Nola's really that good (spoiler: the measures are wrong).
What he mentioned in passing was about reffing in the NFL:
The referees immediately called it an incomplete pass [in the Philly-Chicago playoff game two weeks ago] because it's not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. I don't mean this facetiously. It is not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. The game moves too fast, there's too much happening at once, the rules are too vague and teams work harder at breaking the rules than referees could ever work at upholding them.
Calling an NFL game is like trying to police a 42.4 mph speed limit (or maybe it's 37.3 mph speed limit) on the Autobahn if the cars were (only in specific ways) allowed to crash into each other.
Watching a different game that weekend (Seahawks vs. Cowboys), I had the exact some thought.
It was the 4th quarter, Seahawks were still down by 3, and they had the ball on their own 20 with 9:33 to go. So here we go! First pass from scrimmage, gain of six. No, wait. Penalty on us: holding. Now it's first and 20 at the 10.
So here we go! Another short pass, five yards. No, wait. Penalty on us: unncessary roughness. Now it's second and 22 at the 8.
All of that kind of killed that drive. We wound up punting, they wound up scoring (to go ahead by 10), we wound up scoring (to bring it within 2), but then flubbed the onside kick and that was the game and the season.
I‘ve spent a lifetime listening to my father yelling at the refs on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota, and I kind of did the same during that drive at a Seattle bar, but it also made me think. How many refs are there on the field? Seven? How many umps during a MLB game? Four? Six during the postseason? But think of the difference in responsibilities. In baseball, the job is basically to follow the ball. That’s really it. If a player leads off an inning with a single to right, umps won't have to look at the center-fielder or left-fielder or third baseman or shortstop; they won't factor. Just follow the ball and follow the runner.
In football, refs have to watch every single player on every single play. Even a guy across the field from where the action is. He could do something—flag!—that brings the play back. Imagine if that happened in baseball. “Sorry, Felix, that's not a strikeout; the third baseman did X while you were throwing the ball.”
I don't know how refs do it. I suppose we should stop yelling at them and take in the enormity of the task.
Pick a Pose
A lot has been written about the Minnesota Vikings thrilling, last-minute victory over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, but I particularly like this piece by Barry Svrluga in The Washington Post. He goes into the background of game-changer Stefon Diggs and the “late-round guys” that make up the Vikings offense. It's classic underdog stuff. Here's the end:
There are paintings of Ahmad Rashad and Jim Marshall and Fran Tarkenton and so many others hung in different spots around U.S. Bank Stadium. Pick a pose for Diggs now — leaping to grab the ball, balancing himself with his hand, spreading his arm as a disbelieving stadium pulsed around him, flinging his helmet in celebration afterward. The kid from Gaithersburg, Md., who felt slighted all this time needs to feel that way no longer. His life changed Sunday night, and he will forever be a hero here.
'This Doesn't Happen to Us'
“In the moment, when there is ten seconds left, you start preparing your mind with all the past conditioning; you start saying, 'It doesn't matter' and 'We are now free to stop watching and caring' and then boom Diggs is up in the air, he catches the ball. Does he run out of bounds for the field goal? No, there is no time. Does he step out of bounds? Did one knee touch the surface after the catch? Where's the flag? There has to be a flag that brings it all back? ... This is the life and legacy of being a Vikings fan. It can't be real. This doesn't happen to us.”
-- Robb Mitchell, long-suffering Vikings fan, the day after Stefon Diggs' incredible 61-yard touchdown that propeled the Vikings to the NFC Championship.
The Minneapolis Miracle
Stefon Diggs redeems a franchise.
After it was all over, after I'd yelled at the TV about the flag that had flashed across the screen for an instant (an orange peel, we later found out), and after I couldn't believe that Drew Pearson hadn't been called for something (offensive interference, pushing off, being a Dallas Cowboy), and after the Vikings attempted a last-minute drive of their own that went nowhere, and the game, and the season, and the dream died, I put on my coat, hat and gloves, and in the twilight, with snow crunching beneath my feet, walked down 54th to Salk's Rexall Drugs. And there, while I looked at the comic book racks but didn't really look at the comic book racks, I heard a conversation between the back cashier and the pharmacist.
“Yeah? What happened?”
“Don't know. Just heard they lost.”
Casual, like that. Just another day.
I wanted to yell at them, these strangers, these poor people working the last Sunday of the year, December 29, 1975. Because IT WASN'T CASUAL! It was HORRIBLE! It was THE END OF THE WORLD!
Instead I walked back outside, down Lyndale, and over to 53rd, and made my way home in the cold. I was 12, almost 13. I didn't know about adult solutions to pain yet—drinking, pot, Xanax, whatever. All I had was walking in the Minnesota cold.
I'd been a fan since ‘72, when we went 7-7, and when we still had, I believe, Gary Cuozzo as QB, before we got back Francis, scrambling Fran Tarkenton. The next year we went to the Super Bowl against the Dolphins, and lost, and the year after we went to the Super Bowl against the Steelers, and lost, and the year after the Drew Pearson debacle, the ’76 season, we went to the Super Bowl against the Raiders, and lost. And by the end of the decade I was doing other things and never watched football regularly again. Not like this. Never like this again.
But I have friends in Minnesota who still bleed purple, and for them, and for the 12-year-old in me, the end of today's game, a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs with no time remaining, to beat the New Orleans Saints 29-24, and send the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, feels fucking awesome. It brings tears to my eyes. I didn't even watch the game but I‘ve seen that final play a dozen times now. I could watch it 100 times.
It was finally the Vikings’ turn. After all that heartbreak, it was finally their time. And your time, Jim, and Adam, and Eric, and Stu, and Deano. And Dad.