What is it like to be a sports fan in Minnesota?
Well, mostly disappointing, to be honest. Sure, there was 1987 and 1991 when the Twins won the World Series. And if you're old enough, you can remember when the Minneapolis Lakers were the tops of the basketball world; but honestly, most people don't even know that the Lakers were originally a Minnesota team. Truth be told, if you are a football fan in Minnesota, you've never gotten to feel that feeling; the feeling at the end of the season when your team is the last one standing. If you're a football fan in Minnesota, every year is "next year."
When I was a kid, the Vikings seemed like they were in the Super Bowl a lot. That's because they were. As a matter of fact, Super Bowl XI, which pitted the Vikings against Kenny Stabler and the John Madden-coached Oakland Raiders, was the fourth such game for the Vikings. By 1977, there had been eleven Super Bowl games and the Vikings had been to four of them. At that time, any team that had made it to the game more than once had won it ... except the Vikings.
Going into the game, we did have a little bit of hope; but we all knew this might be our final trip for a while. The team was getting older. Most of the core group would be retiring soon. It really was feeling like our last chance.
The game started out brilliantly; the Vikes had stopped the Raiders and forced them to punt. Ray Guy, perhaps the game's all-time greatest punter (if there is such a thing) came onto the field. The Vikings blocked the punt. Never before had a Ray Guy punt been blocked, and never would it happen again, but on this Sunday afternoon in sunny Pasadena, in front of 100,000 fans and with the whole world watching on television, magic happened. The aging Purple People Eaters rose to the occasion. They recovered the ball on Oakland's one yard line. The Vikes were one yard away from taking the lead in a Super Bowl for the first time in four trips. That's right, not only had they never won a Super Bowl, they had never even had a lead. This was going to break whatever curse had been keeping us from victory for all these years. That is, until they fumbled the ball on the very next play.
The Vikings wouldn't win that day. They would in fact suffer their most humiliating Super Bowl loss yet. Who knew that forty years later, we still would be looking for redemption.
There were plenty of times when we got close. There was a fourth-down play in the nation's capital; a dropped pass on the goal line as time ran out. There was a missed field goal in 1998 after a magical 15-1 season. Then there was 2009, perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all.
Bret Favre, the hall-of-fame quarterback who had spent most of his career playing for our arch rivals, decided to finish his career in Minnesota. The aging veteran led us all the way to the NFC championship game in New Orleans. It was a game that from the onset looked like we were going to lose. Every time something good happened, we would do something bad; a fumble, a missed tackle, a penalty. Our aging QB was battered and beaten. It would later come out that this was by design; they had set their sites on trying to knock our quarterback out of the game, legally or illegally, it didn't matter. But somehow, after everything that went wrong, we ended up at the end of the game with a legitimate shot at winning and advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time in decades. We were in field-goal range with the game tied. But then the referee threw a flag. What was this? We hadn't even run a play yet. The penalty was against us for having too many men in the huddle. Seriously? Too many men in the huddle? You're in the most important game of your life and your coaching staff and players can't figure out who is supposed to be in the huddle?
That penalty took us out of field goal range. But we still had another shot. We had Bret Favre, one of the most prolific passers of all time; but also a guy who liked to take chances. As good as he was, he also held the all-time record for interceptions. One of them was on the next play. The Saints picked off his lame duck throw, took the game to overtime where they would eventually win.
Now, here we are, in the playoffs again. This time, however, there is something different. For starters, the Super Bowl is to be played in our stadium. No team has ever played a Super Bowl in their home stadium. It almost seems like destiny. But we've been down this road before.
Fans of the Cubs or the Red Sox used to be celebrated for their suffering. And sure, they had been suffering longer. The Cubs' fans suffered for more than a hundred years. Compared to that, forty years seems like nothing more than a trip to the DMV. We also didn't have any fancy curses to fall back on. We were just forced to wallow in our misery all by ourselves, year after year, decade after decade. But the Red Sox and the Cubs have both broken their curses, maybe now it's our turn to reverse our fortunes as well.
It's not fun to spend decades rooting for a team, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far, that other shoe has always dropped. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time, we will be the team that's charmed. Maybe this time, we can finally be the ones left standing. Maybe this time we won't be the one's saying, "maybe next year."