Carl Lee came to the Vikings in 1983, their second year playing in the Metrodome. He played 11 seasons for the Vikings and was often left out on an island with an opponent’s No. 1 receiver. He was one of the most consistent players in the history of the Vikings at the cornerback position. Drafted in the seventh round out of Marshall, Lee didn’t know how long his NFL career would last. As he was honored as a member of the All-Metrodome team, he reflected back on his days with the Vikings and how he earned his spot on the roster.
Lee played his college ball at Marshall, which was still in the rebuilding phase of the program years after a 1970 plane crash killed all 75 people aboard, including all players except the freshmen that didn’t make the road trip. The program struggled, but Lee had a dream and his favorite memory from the Metrodome came early on. Many would have thought it was a critical interception against the Bears when the sideline was littered with replica barnyard animals – a dig at Bears coach Mike Ditka – but his lasting memory is from his rookie season when he earned the trust of the coaching staff.
“My favorite memory was a game against the Detroit Lions,” Lee said. “It was the first start of my career. I didn’t even know I was going to start, but John Swain was hurt and I got a chance and got the game-winning interception and was awarded the game ball. It launched my career and got me going. That was my prized moment.”
Like many players from the draft classes that immediately followed the move from Met Stadium to the Metrodome, Lee was part of a locker room concerned that the mystique the Vikings had developed over the years would be marginalized by the move inside.
“I came in the second year of the Dome and that was still the conversation – the belief that we were going to get softer playing inside and wouldn’t be as strong when we had to go into Green Bay or Chicago late in the season,” Lee said. “I think they wanted us to go through the misery that they did. But I don’t think it followed along with that line of thinking. I think the bigger challenge will be for these guys playing now. They’ve been inside and will spend the next two years playing outside. I think it would be easier for a cold-weather team to go from being outside to inside than the other way around. It’s going to be a test for those guys.”
Lee felt that the Vikings of his era could have made the transition from inside to outside more smoothly because they knew all the players that helped make Vikings history playing outdoors in Minnesota winters. The current players are too far removed from those days and the legends that preceded them.
“These guys are so young, they don’t remember the Carl Ellers and Alan Pages and Jim Marshalls that paved the way early in the franchise history,” Lee said. “I think players of my era could have made that transition by saying we’re going to grab hold of the advantage we had with other teams having to come in here in December because we remembered those guys and remembered seeing those games with flamethrowers trying to thaw out the frozen ground. It’s going to be a difficult transition for those guys because almost all of them have spent their entire lives thinking of the Vikings as a dome team. They will make the transition, but it’s because they don’t have an option.”
Along with his teammates, in Lee’s second season, he endured the Bataan Death March of head coach Les Steckel, who was named as the replacement for Bud Grant. While most players suffered through the rigors of Steckel’s training camp boot camp that never let up throughout the season, Lee was able to handle it because he had been there before.
“My college coach was Sonny Randle, who used to play for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Lee said. “He had been in the military, too. I had already been through it, so I kind of knew what to expect. I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t something I hadn’t been through before. Even the losing wasn’t unusual for me. For guys like Joey (Browner) who had lost like four games in their entire career, a season like that was a shock. I didn’t embrace it, but I rode with it. I was in my second year and, to be honest, I was just happy to be there. It was a tough season, but I think it taught every guy in that locker room things that they carried with them the rest of their careers.”
As the Metrodome closes its doors Sunday, it will be something Lee is going to miss. He has a lifetime of memories in the building and made a point to acknowledge what the fans meant to him and the players and the role they played in making the Metrodome magical on Sunday afternoons, especially for a kid who never got the adulation of fans on a regular basis – much less at the decibel level Vikings fans could generate.
“The thing I liked most about the Dome was the reception we got from the fans,” Lee said. “I played at Marshall and we won like eight games in four years and I went to a small high school. We had fans, but there weren’t many of them. When I got here, it was amazing to me the noise they made. When we had big games against Green Bay or Chicago or San Francisco, the fans were hyped up and made it so loud you could barely hear yourself think. Given my experience prior to coming here, it was an experience I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”
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.