For Vikings fans, a rare return to frigid football

Published 10:15 am Monday, December 20, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS  — Minnesotans often brag about surviving the state’s brutal winters, but for the past three decades, their pro football team has played in the shielded warmth of the Metrodome.

With that stadium’s roof torn apart by the same elements it was supposed to protect against, Vikings fans are preparing for an icy flashback.

The Vikings host the Chicago Bears Monday night at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor TCF Bank Stadium. With temperatures forecast in the single digits, veteran fans who survived bitterly cold games at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington are sharing this friendly advice for their younger comrades: Gear up.

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“I never owned a snowmobile, but you better believe I had a snowmobile suit and I wore it to every one of those games,” said Minneapolis attorney Frank Abramson, whose family has owned Vikings season tickets since 1962.

Besides those timelessly unfashionable winter one-pieces, Abramson said most fans wrapped their lower halves in “stadium bags,” which he describes as “a sort of half-sleeping bag type of thing that kept your butt warm.”

Longtime fans have happy memories of football on the tundra: layers of winter wrapping, greasy tailgating scents on chilled air, flasks of liquid warmth, and legendary Vikings squads crushing opponents who couldn’t cope with the cold.

Jim Klobuchar, a retired columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who wrote several books about the Vikings, recalled the scene at the late-season games. “They came with their snowmobile suits — it looked like something out of a cartoon. Icicles hanging from their nostrils.”

Fans recalled that longtime Vikings coach Bud Grant set the tone when he barred heaters from his team’s sideline and wouldn’t let players wear gloves.

“He wanted them to be macho,” said Richard Ische, a retired fire-alarm salesman from Waconia and a season-ticket holder since 1977. “Of course back then there was this big rivalry with what was then the L.A. Rams. They were one of the thorns in our side, but we would love it when they had to come up here in December or January because they could never beat us in the cold. Never. The game was won before it even started.”

Former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, a member of the legendary “Purple People Eaters” who played for the Vikings from 1961 to 1979, said he and teammates in those days turned freezing weather to their advantage.

“It was our 12th man on the field,” Marshall said. “When those great winds came in, we called it the winds of Odin, the Viking god of war, and it gave us spirit. Bud Grant had the philosophy that when we went on the field we didn’t need heaters and gloves, because our concentration should be on winning the football game and not on whether we were warm or not.”

For fans, it was another story.

Ische ticked off his own pregame regimen for suiting up: “Snowmobile suit, snowmobile boots, a couple sweaters, some big gloves, earmuffs and a hat. I can honestly say I was never cold at a Vikings game. We usually smuggled a few libations into the stadium to help the blood stay thin. We’d bring a flask, or a thermos of coffee spiked with a little something.”

Frank Abramson’s brother, David Abramson, said he and many fans were disappointed when the Vikings played their final game at Metropolitan Stadium (which fell on Dec. 20, 1981 — 29 years to the day before Monday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium).

“Playing in the cold established us as the stronger foe,” said David Abramson. “Now here we were inside this warm dome, getting soft. We all got real comfortable with that pretty quick but I think something was lost.”

Still, neither of the Abramson brothers will be at Monday night’s game. Frank Abramson just had hip replacement surgery and didn’t relish the idea of climbing TCF’s icy bleachers, so he gave his two tickets to his son. David Abramson had already handed off his two tickets to a client and decided the prospect of reliving old memories wasn’t tantalizing enough to reclaim them.

“The only thing I’ll be warming up is my TV,” he said.