Preseason games, by their nature, don’t matter. Football isn’t “really” played in August in the minds of NFL fans. The third week of the preseason is like cutting a little piece of the turkey on Thanksgiving while it’s being basted but isn’t fully cooked yet. The starters play the first half and probably one drive in the second half before turning it over to the guys fighting for roster spots.
Friday night’s win over Buffalo was supposed to be the textbook second week of the preseason and, in most respects, it was. The starters played a little more than a quarter (for the Vikings; the Bills took things a little more seriously and kept their front-liners in longer) and then turned the game over to guys that casual NFL fans don’t know that well and aren’t emotionally invested in. As the game goes on, that investment becomes even less. Traffic jams in the preseason occur about a half hour before the game ends.
However, in the third quarter (and into the fourth) that all changed Friday night – with frightening potential consequences. What I witnessed (along with a generously estimated 54,000 others) was something a tad askew. Who am I kidding? It was momentary group insanity.
About four minutes (of clock time) into the third quarter, I remember mocking a group of fans in the upper deck by the goal line. Bob Lurtsema, known on the seating chart as Sardine No. 5, was supposed to be seated to my left. Because the game lacked the media enthusiasm of a regular season contest, Lurtsie parked it in the spacious back row of the press box, which would turn out to be vital to this melodrama.
Instead there was a guy named Dallas from Buffalo sitting to my left. Dallas was to become critical to the unfolding of this epic tale – as he became the Dealey Plaza of the story.
The wave being attempted by the Boys From the Boonies was picking up traction when it made its first pass in front of the press box. For those who have never experienced a wave at a sporting event with 40,000 plus wavers, it is very much like attending a NASCAR race. You hear it and see it throughout, but you don’t really feel it until it roars past you.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a fan of the wave – unfortunately that stopped about 1987. I would have slapped the taste out of Krazy George’s mouth if I had the chance. That’s how I bounced back then. Watch yourself, Ragnar. Now, I find the wave to be outdated, ridiculous tradition that defies logic. If I’m in the stands at a sporting event where a wave gets started, at best, it gets me to halfheartedly raise my hands, but never stand and yell – much less throw something. Clearly, I was not sitting among the half-empty (or half-full, but given my pessimistic nature I’m the “half-empty” guy) Metrodome crowd in the third quarter Friday night.
What first got me noting its start was the timing. It was taking place when the Vikings had the ball. If you’re going to do a wave at all, you do it when the visiting team has the ball. What followed was me simply waiting for it to stop. As an “anti-wave” guy at heart, I tend to enjoy watching them fizzle out, especially when it’s incumbent on the people sitting in the high-rent district to keep the wave going. They give up fast. About the fourth time around, they are typically waving their arms forward and mumbling, “Enough already.”
Not this time. I waited for it to die. And waited. And waited. And waited.
At the 10-minute mark, I asked, “What is this?” From there, Jared Allen takes over.
Allen claims, which I believe, that where everything changed was near the end of that ill-timed six-minute drive – 10 to 12 minutes of real time into this tsunami of a wave. On a third-down pass intended for Devin Aromashodu, it seemed clear – to everyone but the replacement referees – that Aromashodu was contacted before the ball arrived. At best, pass interference. At worst, a holding call and a first down for the Vikes. Instead, they got nothing. Just as it took a few zealots to get the unstoppable wave started, it took a non-call by the “officials” (what can I say, I miss Ed Hochuli’s guns) to get the crowd salty and turning it from a semi-interested preseason crowd into something bordering on soccer hooliganism.
The fans began throwing the complimentary programs that were draped over their seats when they arrived hours earlier. Some were pre-toss crumpled to get “sick air time.” Most were tossed up like Mary Tyler Moore’s hat. What caught the attention of everyone was the unique look of it. In its own way, it was kind of beautiful. It was certainly different, especially for those in charge of keeping the peace in NFL stadiums.
By policy, the NFL has frowned upon airborne objects thrown by fans in stadiums since Armen Terzian took a direct hit to the coconut from an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle. That prompted the move from glass to plastic bottles in stadiums – even though nobody at Metropolitan Stadium sold the J.D. Sniper his bottle after he got inside for the “Hail Mary” game. Clearly, a snowmobile suit in the mid-’70s concealed plenty.
Almost like lemmings running off the ice cap, when the programs started flying, a group mentality set it. It didn’t help that programs were placed on every seat in seat in the building. Despite the generously announced crowd of 56,430, at least 20 percent of those people came to the game disguised as empty seats – and, with them, their unused game-day programs. It started as something akin to a graduation hat-toss into a ticker-tape parade. There was going to be a lot to sweep up.
It didn’t matter that there were commercial breaks in the action, when the game started back up, the attention wasn’t on the field. It was what was going on in the stands. Programs were torn up and thrown as confetti. It rained down throughout the building and just wouldn’t stop.
Fans picked up pieces of confetti thrown from the upper level of the stadium and recycled it the next time around. But, like Woodstock II, things started getting ugly.
At this point, about 17 minutes into the surrealism, I got tapped on the shoulder by Dallas from Buffalo. He asks, “Does this happen all the time here?” I responded, “This is a first for me.” I think it may have been a first for everybody.
As if on cue, some of those from the upper reaches of the Metrodome that were out of programs started throwing empty beer bottles. Say what you want about plastic bottles, but if one hits you in the face after plummeting 100 feet, it can do some damage. Then, the unthinkable happened. On the next rotation of the amped-up wave, the press box was infiltrated.
Dallas, we have a problem.
A not-quite empty popcorn bucket sailed into our airspace and Dallas from Buffalo took it head on. The JFK irony wasn’t missed, because, sitting next to Dallas, I felt obligated to back away like the cop handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when he got capped by Jack Ruby – do what you want to him, but leave me alone. Head on a swivel, daddy. Old school. Once the initial shock wore off, I was more nonplussed by the number of un-popped kernels on his pants, computer, in his hair, etc. For the price that tub of corn cost, nobody needs to see dozens of old maids.
From that point on, the local media became unprepared war correspondents. It went from being an exercise of transforming from observer to unwitting participant. Each time the wave came back around, every media type was paying attention – and none of them on what was happening on the field. The players were rendered moot. The action was in the stands.
It took 25 minutes for the tsunami wave to roll itself out. My theory is that the crowd was made up of three-thirds that gave up at the same time – one-third drunk, one-third tired, one-third drunk and tired. History was made at the Metrodome Friday night and replication is the expectation. We may see the end of game day programs draped on seats as a result.
I now refer to the incident as a near-tragedy. I was too near the tragedy. That could have been me and, I’m man enough to admit, I’m much happier it was Dallas from Buffalo that was literally my wingman.
It was only later that the thought occurred to me that Lurts was supposed to be sitting next to me. He was my left-side wingman. What if that popcorn bucket had hit Lurts? This story would have been SO much better.
Get your popcorn ready. I’ll be the one ducking.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.