Jan. 17, 1999. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in Cary, North Carolina, where I sat with my family and friends as the Minnesota Vikings hosted the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. Gary Anderson, who’d yet to miss a kick all season, lined up for 39-yard attempt that would have given Minnesota a 10-point lead and assuredly sent them to their first Super Bowl in my brief lifetime.
We all know what happened next. He missed left. Atlanta would tie it, then win it in overtime.
I spent the next 30-45 minutes sobbing inconsolably. I had never done that before. That, as my father put it, was the moment I, a St. Paul native before relocating in 1996, became a true Vikings fan.
Some say the franchise as a whole went wide left as well after that Anderson miss. Among the hits:
There was the five-turnover performance in a 41-0 blowout loss to the New York Giants for the 2000 season’s NFC championship. There was Josh McCown finding Nate Poole on fourth-and-25 on the last play of the regular season to knock them out of the 2003 season’s playoffs. There was the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal in the 2009 season, with Brett Favre on the receiving end of the punishment. That game happened to be for the NFC championship, where had the NFL changed the overtime rules before and not after that season, Minnesota might have still had a shot at going to the Super Bowl. Most recently, there was Blair Walsh missing a chip shot against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2016 playoffs, and Teddy Bridgewater’s freak injury that led to a desperate trade which led to a surprising 5-0 start that ultimately nosedived to an 8-8 finish.
You can make a case for other fan bases being more tortured, but it’s hard to argue there’s a team that gets their fans’ hopes up as late in the season as Minnesota does only to have it snatched away the moment you even think of what celebrating a momentous victory would be like. That’s why my demeanor is always the same. It’s of cautious optimism with a thick layer of pessimism. I’m as passionate a fan of the purple and gold as you’ll find, but I can’t bring myself to feel that swell of pride. For that leads to hope and that eventually leads to heartbreak in the Twin Cities.
I certainly don’t speak for all Vikings fans but it’s hard to argue with history no matter how fluky you want to pretend it is. The Super Bowl being in our home state is a huge deal in its own right. Nobody wants to go there in February. That’s what makes this season unique from the Moss air raid seasons to the Favre gun-slinging one. The Vikings not only have a chance to get a huge monkey off their back, but make history in the process. And for once it feels things have bounced their way.
Sure, they lost Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook early in the season, but they took advantage of an easy early season schedule, benefitted from Green Bay having a down year (in large part to the Aaron Rodgers injury) and have remained relatively healthy, a far cry from their injury plagued 2016 campaign. This team also feels different. So many times I’ve thought, “Well, here’s when the wagon will fall apart,” and every time, sans the Carolina debacle, they’ve proved that last season was last season.
Now they sit with the NFC’s No. 2 seed, getting an extra week to get healthier before hosting a game in what might be the best home field in football. A win gets them to the NFC championship and if the Philadelphia Eagles falter (plausible given it’s Nick Foles in a playoff game atmosphere) they could very well host that, too. It would make it the first time they’d earn such honors since that fateful day in 1999.
I’d like to believe that if that scenario presents itself, Vikings fans would enjoy a different outcome. That Keenum would cap off a season only Disney could write. That the buzz during Super Bowl would be so hot people would forget about the single-digit temperatures outside all week.
I’ve wondered what it might be like to watch, on Feb. 4, my childhood dream possibly becoming a reality. I know there’s no cheering allowed by the media, but what about shedding a tear?
Whether they’re good or bad this postseason rests on Keenum’s decision making in a territory he has never ventured into. It’s going to take a team that’s known for getting so close yet being so far away to play three near-perfect games in succession. It’s going to be nerve-wracking and stomach-churning and most of us are likely going to lose five years off our lives. Such is the life of being a fan of the Minnesota Vikings … and I wouldn’t have it any other way.