“Outdoor football!” was my exclamation upon exiting the Metro Transit Green Line train last Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. When I saw the forecast last week for the possibility of subzero temperatures on Sunday, I knew I had to attend what appeared to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was two years old the last time the Minnesota Vikings played an outdoor playoff football game, and even though I’m no longer a fan of the team, how could I not go!?
The pregame hype was a mix of reminiscing about the good old days for those older than me and curiosity among those who are younger. Regardless of the result, the game turned out to be a full-fledged embrace of Minnesota pride, if only fleeting; a wonderful civic event held in bracing conditions.
Three columns have appeared on the Star Tribune opinion page in the days since Sunday’s game. But two of them weren’t so much about the game itself, but the novelty that it was played outdoors in the cold. One of the columns reflected on the beauty of the frigid game, and the other was written by someone who watched the game at a bar in Key West, but did a great job of explaining the mystique created simply by playing outdoors.
I couldn’t agree more. Even coach Zimmer hinted that he’ll miss the outdoor conditions. It was beautiful. Too bad the mystique is already gone (again).
On the way to the game, the Green Line train was packed, mostly with layers of coats, scarves, bib overalls, pieces of cardboard and blaze orange, but also some fans sweating profusely under all those layers. There was much talk about the team, but also giddy chatter about the weather. After all, the buildup to this game was rooted in those old stories of Vikings games back in the day, when the Purple People Eaters ruled the gridiron and the elements. Fans of both teams knew they were witnessing something special, and former Vikings coach Bud Grant taking the field as honorary captain for the coin toss wearing a short-sleeved shirt confirmed it. More than a few tears froze on cheeks of fans who were present, whether their blood was running purple or merely red.
The game time temperature was minus six degrees (-6), the coldest Vikings game of all time! (The third-coldest game in NFL history!) Despite all those legendary games at the old Metropolitan Stadium before my time, here I was at the coldest Vikings game ever.
From my vantage point, I could see every breath that every fan exhaled. Punts averaged only 25 yards. Stadium staff handed out hand warmers. The little rubber pellets kicked up by players on the field turf seemed to be white with frost. A crate full of sodas had all frozen in their bottles by the time they were delivered to the concession stand. Even the Vikings’ Gjallarhorn shattered from the cold before the game. (A bad omen? I think so.) Luckily, the team had a spare, a fact that is pretty funny when you think about it.
We all know the Vikings lost the game, but they also lost a fleeting moment of mystique and ‘lore. Adding insult to injury, we need only look across the border to find a team that thrives in the frozen tundra. Whether the Packers win or lose, Lambeau Field has mystique, and although some of us embrace it more than others, you cannot deny the civic pride outdoor football brings to Green Bay and Wisconsin overall.
If there is a silver lining it is that at least some sports are still played outdoors in Minnesota, even if football returns to a soulless controlled climate. I’ve watched a number of English Premier League games lately, many of them played in the rain, and I look forward to braving the elements at the new soccer stadium at Snelling and University. I’ve been to a Twins game at Target Field when it was 33 and snowing at the first pitch, which is among my top five baseball memories (championships help, too).
After the game ended in unique yet entirely believable fashion, I sat for a while in the bitter cold, high on the north side of the stadium. I had to put my feet up to get them off the cold concrete (I should have brought cardboard), and I watched as stunned fans slumped in their seats and shuffled home, sports reporters interviewed happy (and equally stunned) Seahawks players, and a couple players traded jerseys on the frozen field. Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” played on the PA. My gaze moved beyond the stadium to the Prospect Park water tower (the “witches hat”) and various buildings pumping out steam on this wonderful, frigid, sunlit day. I remembered Dave Moore eulogizing the last outdoor baseball game at the old Met (starts at 2:26 on the video). At my feet a frozen beer had erupted from its can. Outdoor football!
I decided to beat the crowds and walk through campus and across the Washington Avenue Bridge to catch a Blue Line train home. Besides, I needed the long walk to restore feeling in my toes. The postgame stroll gave me time to think. I had always wondered, in a state that that embraces winter so completely with civic events like the Winter Carnival and Lakes Loppet, how we ever decided that indoor football was a good idea. Now I understand. It isn’t.
So good luck, Vikings. I sincerely hope you win the big one some day, but you’ve made a deeply misguided mistake (again) by not building an outdoor stadium. Sunday’s game was a reminder of what civic life in Minnesota has been missing since 1982, and that is profoundly sad.
Still, I’m proud, as a former fan, to say I was there at the last home playoff game played outdoors in the frozen “north” of TCF Bank Stadium. Some day I’ll tell my grandchildren my little piece of Minnesota Vikings ‘lore. In the meantime I can’t wait to watch some more games at Lambeau Field.
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