America's appetite for pro football is insatiable. TV knows that. Daily it serves up its shifting sagas of heroes and villains. It's never quite enough. The football zealots crave a new story, big and unique. If you doubt that, examine the nation's TV screens on Thanksgiving. In the gloaming you'll find a game in Dallas.
Click on this one.
The visiting team will be wearing horns on its helmets. Some of its players will have prayers on their lips. Others will rambunctiously trash talk with their enemies. Practically all of them are superior athletes with no special need for public boasts or public vows of making it to Miami in January for the grail of pro football. This is a team with 10 victories in 11 games and seemingly on a collision course with the champion Denver Broncos. This is the team from Minnesota, the Vikings, who have suddenly emerged as pro football's candidate saga of the year, rising from chaos and challenging for the Super Bowl.
What kind of chaos? This is a team coached by Dennis Green, who just a year ago wrote a widely ridiculed book threatening a lawsuit against the team's owners for refusing to give him a new contract. It is a team revitalized by a rookie pass-catching prodigy, Randy Moss, who was shunned as a delinquent by almost everybody in pro football's establishment and consigned to the pro ball equivalent of the FBI bulletin board.
This is the same Randy Moss who a few days ago, in the amplified din of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, loped between two Green Bay Packer defenders to catch a touchdown pass that seemed irrevocably to bury the Packers as the dethroned power of the National Football Conference. The remarkable part of the catch was this: The fight for the ball was not a serious contest, despite the Packers' advantage in numbers. The others labored and grappled. Moss glided and almost effortlessly took the ball away from them. He is swift, tall, and nimble. He is almost impossible to outjump for a descending football and gifted with an instinct that even to the game's old guard seems uncanny.
"What he tells me is to throw the ball anywhere near where he's running," quarterback Cunningham will tell you. "Throw it as far as I can or as fast as I can or as high as I can. He's convinced he can catch anything.... He usually does. He's amazing."
And he obliterates all the precious X-and-O diagrams that are supposed to represent sophisticated football strategy. Don't throw into double coverage, the coaches tell the quarterback. You'll get intercepted. Throw someplace else.
But when the receiver is Randy Moss, the quarterbacks will tell you, throw into double coverage. Throw into triple coverage. If you throw it right, and eight arms go up for the ball, the two that come down with it will belong to Randy Moss.
Moss quickly became part of a remarkable menagerie in purple, a team transformed this year into an assembly of skilled and powerful football players who essentially had been playing together for two or three years, but had no special cohesion or spirit of the clan. There were undeniable superstars like Johnny Randle, the lippy and unstoppable defensive lineman, and Robert Smith, the graceful halfback who kept finding himself on the fans' pits list because he kept getting hurt. Beyond all these was Cris Carter, now a record-setting pass receiver and indisputable leader of the team. But years ago his personal demons made him so undesirable in Philadelphia that the team released him to Minnesota for the $100 waiver price.
As the years evolved, Carter got rid of the demons and discovered a somewhat stronger force called God. He is not exactly an evangelist on every play. Carter is an unabashed, hard-rock competitor who has been known to fume at teammates, but, like the penitent in promised land, makes sure he points to the heavens whenever he scores.
Indeed, this is a team with flourishing egos, serviceable rowdies, and, with Cunningham at quarterback, a leader who has returned from retirement to revitalize his career. And this team has won.
Yet why and how, if this is basically the same bunch of underachievers of the mid-1990s?
One reason is a breezy Texas car dealer and plutocrat named Red McCombs, who bought the Vikings this summer and put their house in order - extending Green's contract and telling fans, "We're goin' to the Super Bowl, folks."
But a bigger reason for the turnaround is Green himself, trimmer by 50 pounds this fall, ready and hungering for a Super Bowl. He had always been a superb judge of talent, loyal to the players he hired. He believed in Moss and Cunningham. And now he gave the team its cue in 1998: We're good. We can be the best. We don't have to announce it to the world. The world will discover it. Green's defense today continually delivers havoc. His offense seems irresistible with Cunningham throwing to Carter and Moss. And nobody has a kicking weapon to match Mitch Berger, who kicks off out of the end zone incessantly, punts 55 yards at a crack, and chews Snickers bars jammed into his sideline shoes to replenish his muscles and nerves.
These are the 1998 Vikings on view in Dallas this Thanksgiving Day. Not the old Vikings of the 1970s, who couldn't win a Super Bowl in four tries. Those were the great Viking teams out of the igloos of winter ball in Minnesota, of Stoneface Bud Grant and of Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page and Jim Marshall. A newspaper columnist wrote a book in those years, entitled "Will The Vikings EVER Win the Super Bowl?"
Why not? If they do, it will be with a prayer, a football superchild, a rollicking offense, swift brutes on the line, and a coach who remembers the days of chaos. The saga of the year for sure.