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Monday, May 17, 2004
Updated: May 20, 12:39 PM ET
No pain like loving the Vikings

By Rob Neyer
Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Page 2, along with ESPN2's "Cold Pizza," is counting down the 15 Most Tortured Sports Cities in America. For starters, Rob Neyer knows that you don't have to look any further than the Vikings to know the pain of routing for Minnesota. We also present Minneapolis' 10 most tortured sports moments.

You think Red Sox fans have it tough? Please, spare me. Yes, I understand it's a real tragedy that Babe Ruth didn't hit all 714 of his home runs for the Red Sox. But do you know anybody who actually remembers when Ruth got sold to the Yankees? Yes, I know the Red Sox could easily have won the World Series in 1946, and American League pennants in both 1948 and '49. But again, how many people do you know who actually suffered through those miserable endings?

The 1967 World Series? Red Sox fans were just thrilled to be there. 1975? The Reds were clearly the superior team. OK, I'll grant that the events of 1986 and 2003 were pretty rough. But that's two devastating losses in the last half-century. That's nothing.

Pain? I've been a Minnesota Vikings fan since 1970, when I was 4 years old and my dad took me to watch the Vikes' preseason practices in Mankato, Minnesota. And I would be shocked to discover that any professional sports team has, in the last few decades, caused its fans more pain than the Vikings.

Below, six days that particularly stand out in my memory as particularly devastating...

December 28, 1975: Divisional Playoff
This was going to be the season. Yes, the Vikings had lost the two previous Super Bowls, but this time nobody could stop them. Near the end of Minnesota's 10-game winning streak to start the season, Sports Illustrated put Fran Tarkenton, my hero, on the cover ("He's Fran-tastic!"). Sure, they wound up losing a couple of games, but the Vikes finished 12-2, scored more points than anybody else in the NFC and allowed the second-fewest.

THE 15 MOST TORTURED SPORTS CITIES
15. Tampa Bay
14. Kansas City
13. Cincinnati
12. Phoenix
11. Washington, D.C.
10. Houston
9. San Diego
8. Atlanta
7. Seattle
6. Minneapolis

Want to find out what the No. 5 city is? Tune into ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" next Tuesday morning. Then head back to Page 2 to read all about it.

In the first round of the playoffs, they went against the Cowboys, who had earned the NFC wild card with a 10-4 record. Trailing in the fourth quarter, the Vikings drove for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead. Dallas got the ball back, and with less than 30 seconds left the Cowboys had the ball in the middle of the field. Roger Staubach, in the shotgun formation, got the snap and pump-faked to the middle of the field, then launched a high spiral down the right side. Just as the ball arrived, Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson pushed defensive back Nate Wright, who fell down. Safety Paul Krause fell down, too, as Pearson caught the ball and jogged into the end zone. The original Hail Mary.

Me? I watched the game on the little color TV at my grandparents' house in Aurora, Missouri. And afterward, I cried my eyes out.

December 20, 1981: Last Game at the Met
You wanted icy tundra in the playoffs? In the 1970s, you had to visit Bloomington, Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium for that singular experience, because in the entire decade the Packers didn't play a single playoff game at Lambeau Field (and for that matter, the Bears didn't host a playoff game at Soldier Field, either). But with the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome being constructed in downtown Minneapolis, 1981 would be the Vikings' last season in the great (and often frigid) outdoors.

After 11 games, the Vikings stood 7-4 and it looked like they might exit the old stadium in style. But the Vikes lost their next four games (two of them by just one point), exiting playoff contention. Still, there was one more home game, and a victory would allow the Vikings to exit the Met on a winning note and finish .500. Even better, they'd be beating the Chiefs! I lived in the Kansas City suburbs, and I bet a kid in my gym class three dollars that the Vikings would beat the Chiefs.

Of course they didn't beat the Chiefs. With a minute left in the game, they trailed 10-6. But, still hope. Because the Vikings had the ball on the Chiefs' 1-yard line, with four downs to play with. Any team in the NFL will score a touchdown 95 times out of 100, right? Not the Vikings. Four passes. Four incompletions. Chiefs win.

Me? On Monday before gym class, I forked over the three bucks. And I'd learned a valuable lesson that Sunday: never, ever bet on the Vikings when you want them to win.

January 17, 1988: NFC Championship
It was not, to be sure, a great Vikings team. At 8-7 they barely qualified for the playoffs, scoring almost exactly as many points in the regular season as they allowed (336-335). But then came the playoffs, and the Vikes looked like a different team. Led by quarterback Wade Wilson and receiver Anthony Carter, they destroyed the Saints (44-10) and then embarrassed the dominant-in-the-regular-season 49ers (36-24), intercepting Joe Montana twice and sacking him four times.

That set up the NFC Championship Game, Vikings at Redskins. The Redskins were certainly a good team, having gone 11-4. But they weren't any better than the Saints or 49ers, and the Vikings were riding high after consecutive road wins against superior teams.

Trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter, the Vikings drove to the Redskins' 6-yard line with roughly a minute left. But on 4th-and-goal, Darrin Nelson -- who had great hands -- couldn't handle a catchable pass from Wilson, and the game was essentially over.

Me? I was older then -- this was the first time since I'd turned 20 that the Vikings had lost a big game -- and this time I didn't fall apart. But for the first time I wondered, "Is there something wrong with this team?"

Gary Anderson
Gary Anderson watches his only missed field of the 1998 season sail wide.

January 17, 1999: NFC Championship
This was the team that brought me back to the fold. I thought I'd given the Vikings up for good after they went 6-10 in 1991, and the intervening years of moderate success hadn't been quite enough to make me care again. But in 1998, the Vikes went 15-1 and displayed one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history, as Randall Cunningham, Robert Smith, and (especially) rookie Randy Moss propelled the team to 556 regular-season points. In a divisional playoff game they destroyed the Cardinals, leaving only the Falcons to dispatch on their way to the Super Bowl.

The Falcons didn't exactly roll over, though. With under five minutes left in the game, the Vikings led 27-20. Looking for insurance, they drove downfield for one more, championship-clinching score. The drive stalled at the 21, and Gary Anderson trotted onto the field.

Game over. To that point in the season (including the playoffs), Anderson had attempted to kick the oblong ball through the uprights 106 times, and he'd been successful 106 times. Perfect. Field goals: 39 for 39. Points after touchdown: 67 for 67. This field goal, from just 38 yards away -- a chip shot, for a kicker like Gary Anderson -- would put the Vikings in the Super Bowl.

Except he missed it. I don't think he missed it because he was a Viking. On the other hand, missing that chip shot did, in a sense, make Anderson a true Viking, just another player in the long-running tragicomedy that is franchise history. And given a reprieve, the Falcons quickly scored a touchdown to force overtime, then won in overtime. On a 38-yard-field goal. By a kicker named (Morton) Andersen.

Me? I watched the game in a sports bar in Spokane. And what I'll always remember about that game, even more than the field goal that should have been, is that my girlfriend simply couldn't fathom how a silly football game could so darken my mood (if just for a couple of hours). Shortly thereafter, we broke up.

January 14, 2001: NFC Championship
Just two years removed from the disaster against the Falcons, the Vikings had another chance at the Super Bowl. After going 11-5 in the regular season, they drubbed the Saints in the divisional round, setting up an NFC title match against the Giants.

They were never a part of the game. Giants quarterback Kerry Collins enjoyed the greatest game of his life, and the Vikings lost 41-0. It was the biggest blowout in NFC Championship history, and the first time the Vikings had been shut out in nearly 10 years.

Me? This game wiped me out. It wasn't losing. During the regular season, the Vikings barely managed to score more points than they allowed. It was the impression that they weren't even trying to win. The rational part of my brain knew full well that of course the players wanted to win even more than I wanted them to win.

But the irrational part wanted to scream at the players, "Don't you know how much this means to me? Must my love forever be unrequited?"

December 28, 2003: The Final Collapse
After going 6-10 in 2002, the Vikings passed their way to a 6-0 start in 2003. Teams that start a season 6-0 almost always reach the playoffs.

These are the Vikings, though. By the regular season's final Sunday, the Vikings were 9-6 and they needed to win their last game to make the playoffs. Fortunately, their opponents were the woeful Arizona Cardinals. Unfortunately, these were the Vikings, and so they somehow managed to squander a 17-6 lead in the fourth quarter, the decisive touchdown coming after an onside kickoff, a stupid pass-interference penalty, and a miraculous pass from a quarterback nobody'd ever heard of. And yet again, a season that started off so well ended with a loss that should have been a win.

Me? I was flying somewhere that afternoon, and just glimpsed the "highlights" on the TV in an airport bar. It made sense, though, this one. The Vikings have carved out a niche for themselves over these last three decades. They're not exactly loveable losers; no franchise that's featured Dennis Green and Randy Moss so prominently should be described as "loveable." But losers? I don't think any team can match the way the Vikings lose.


OK, so that's only six moments. But I could have listed many more. I left out the four Super Bowls -- all losses, of course -- only because it could reasonably argued that the Vikings were the lesser team heading into each game. I left out the two Vikings games I've personally witnessed, both of which they lost (of course).

In my more philosophical moments, I understand that when the Vikings finally do win a Super Bowl, the victory will be all the sweeter because of what's come before. But whenever that happens it will only be after a long -- and yes, painful -- wait.

Senior writer Rob Neyer usually writes about baseball for ESPN.com.