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The Last Game at the Met: The Last Hurrah for Three Friends

It is a distant memory now, but in December 1981, my two best friends from high school—Grant, and Mike—and I went on an unforgettable trip to see our first NFL game (and my only one to date) to the last game played in Metropolitan Stadium in greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. The Vikings hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in the last game of the season, and literally, the end of an era for the venerable stadium where the Vikings and Twins played for many years.

What were three young men from Charleston, Illinois—almost 600 miles away—doing going to THIS GAME you might ask? Well, it was Christmas break of our freshmen year of college, and I was home from Nashville, Tennessee where I attended David Lipscomb College. Grant and Mike both attended Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. A fourth guy named Jeff was slated to go with us, but he backed out at the last minute.

Out of the three of us, only Grant had any vested interest in the game, since he had been an avowed Vikings fan from an early age, and it was he who received the tickets as a gift from the punter of the Chiefs, Jeff Gossett, whose father happened to be a close friend of his mother’s. Gossett had been a star athlete at EIU in football and baseball, and also a student of my Dad in speech communication. I was a big football fan, and though I didn’t support the Vikings, I had a keen appreciation for the gravity of this game. I had seen many Vikings games on network TV and joyfully jumped at the chance to see the stadium where Fran Tarkenton and the famous “Purple People Eaters” defense played. My most memorable moment watching a televised game from the Met was watching my favorite team, the Cowboys, beat the Vikes in the NFC divisional playoffs in 1975 with a last minute Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson for a 17-14 upset. (Incidentally, I lost interest in Pro-Football in the late 1980s, but then I became a fan of the Tennessee Titans in 1999 when they went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl) Mike, on the other hand, was not what you would call a big football fan, but he was interested in the novelty of the adventure and went along with much gusto.

We left early Saturday morning December 19th in Grant’s parent’s large red four-door car and headed north on the Interstate towards Chicago. Grant was behind the wheel, I in the passenger seat, and Mike was sprawled-out in the back. We had agreed to take turns driving, but Grant reserved the right to say who drove when, and for how long. My parents were a little bit reluctant to see me go on the trip without an older adult, but they acquiesced to our general sense of responsibility and good character. I felt a certain amount of pride and triumph in their decision, but kept it mute until we were well on our way. My parents trusted me to drive back and forth from Nashville by myself, but I knew that going way up north with two close buddies was another matter.

After just one fall quarter at college—away from Charleston, and from Grant and Mike—I was already detecting a lot of change in our respective lives. I felt like we were being pulled apart and that things would not stay the same between us. Our care free days of grade-school-through-high-school-camaraderie had suffered an alteration and I was the odd one out. Even though Grant and Mike would eventually share an apartment for a year or two in Charleston, they would ultimately part ways to different graduate schools and we would see less and less of each other. This was our last hurrah.

By the time we made Chicago, Mike was driving and he seemed like a natural. This kind of brisk traffic was out of my comfort zone. Though I’d been to Chicago a handful of times, I’d never driven it and was content to wait my turn to drive the long stretch of countryside north of Chicago. As the hours whiled away, we talked about a lot of things, most of which I have completely forgotten. We listened to the radio a lot, and I remember Mike was usually the most adamant about what stations we listened to. He would implore Grant to change the station when a song came on that he didn’t like.

By the time we rolled into Wisconsin, I was attuned to the fact that I had never been there before and I was anxious to have my turn at driving. North of Chicago we had begun to see snow on the ground, and now in Wisconsin it was looking all-the-more wintry and foreign to my sensibility. Finally, getting my turn and seeing little development along the Interstate, I thought we were in a wilderness of tundra, and I wanted to move things along a little faster before dark. Grant and Mike’s willful adherence to the speed limit did not appeal to me, and since I had not seen a highway patrol car in quite a while, I thought I could cruise along 5-10 miles above the speed limit.

After about forty-minutes of blissful driving—from out of nowhere—came the flashing light of a patrol car, and I pulled over. Grant and Mike were in the back seat and I was alone in front. The patrolman asked for my license and the car registration. Grant pointed to the glove compartment and I pulled out the registration, handed it to the officer, and he took it to his car. After about five minutes—which seemed like forever—he came back. I don’t remember what I said to the officer, but he didn’t say much, just indicated that the documentation was checked and satisfactory. He then let me off with a warning and I proceeded to drive more humbly.

Next, Grant drove the rest of the way to St. Paul, where we checked into a motel that we thought looked cheap. We were not experienced travelers on our own, like this, so we made up our minds as we went. I don’t remember when we got there, but it was probably around 8:00 p.m. Grant phoned Jeff Gossett for directions, and then we went to the hotel where the Chiefs were staying, because we had to go see Jeff in-person to get the tickets for the game.

Getting in was more straightforward than expected, for the hotel’s atmosphere was subdued and mostly empty. We hardly saw anyone in the corridors until we knocked on Jeff’s door and he let us in. I scarcely believed an NFL team was on the premises until I saw Jeff and his roommate, place kicker Nick Lowery. They were just as relaxed and friendly as could be, and I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I had never actually met Jeff before, but Jeff exchanged pleasantries with each of us, and even remembered my Dad as one of his college professors. The transition from being an anonymous football fan, to someone with NFL connections, was amazingly smooth, yet jarringly unreal!

Meanwhile, Nick Lowery chimed in and talked to us for a few minutes; showed samples of his autographed photo he sent to fans, and then we decided it was getting late and must be going. Incidentally, Nick had an excellent career, was considered one of the most accurate kickers of all time, and was All-Pro seven times. We returned to our motel room across town, and though we spent an uneventful night, I was still quite mesmerized about being there and felt excited about tomorrow.

I don’t remember when we got up on Sunday morning (December 20th) but I know we were thinking about the cold outside; dressing warm for the day we would spend out in the elements; and getting a good breakfast. I brought plenty of layers of clothing to wear and did not hesitate putting them on. Grant, who always prided himself in his northern physiology, wore less than I did, but didn’t make much of an issue about it. Mike was experienced at skiing, so the weather was not a problem for him. We ate breakfast at a fast food establishment and took note of all the characteristically different customs and features of this very northern environment. Minnesotans looked familiar, yet otherworldly in some respects. This was exactly what Scandinavia was like in my overactive imagination.

Then, it was time to drive to the Met, which was actually in Bloomington, a little south of Minneapolis proper. Crossing the Mississippi River in St. Paul was a bit astonishing. It was a lot smaller here than at Davenport and St. Louis further south where I’d crossed it before. Grant was behind the wheel, and I remember nothing of the drive other than snow covered industrial topography, but when we exited the Interstate and approached the Met, the scene before us grew ominous for me. I knew that for every Vikings fan this land was hallowed. The huge parking lot was invisible except for automobiles and pedestrians forming orderly rows over compacted snow. The stadium looked crooked and haphazard against a gray overcast sky, but as people poured into it, the hulk came to life.

The Met was built in 1956 for a minor league baseball team. The Vikings franchise was born in 1960, and their first game in the Met was in 1961. The Major League Baseball team, the Twins, also played their first season at the Met in 1961. The Met was expanded a couple of times in the 1960s to a total capacity of a tad fewer than 50,000, but for two decades it was home to some great Vikings teams.

The temperature was cold, perhaps in the high teens, but not windy, with an occasional burst of sunlight. Without much thought, I’d put on a scarf with the colors red and yellow—our high school colors—which happened to be the same colors as the Chiefs, but nobody gave me a hard time about it, except for a little friendly competition with Grant. Coincidentally, I was born near Kansas City, Kansas (while Dad was in graduate school, but we moved away when I was one), so I was a little partial to the Chiefs, but not seriously. The game was basically meaningless, as both teams had mediocre records and were eliminated from the playoffs. The significance of this day had everything to do with the Met. A new domed stadium was already under construction for next season and this was mainly a day of nostalgia. The fans wanted a victory for the Met, obviously, but also something more symbolic; a souvenir—a piece of the Met—but more about that later.

When we found our seats—they were end zone seats—I slowly panned the stands and the field with my eyes to see if it resembled the way it looked on TV. I expected to see Bud Grant, legendary Vikings head coach, watching the players warm up, but could barely see him. It was a bit surreal. To the best of my recollection, the stands were full—a sell out. Since the stadium was originally built for baseball, you could easily tell where home plate was supposed to be. Somewhere in the vicinity of first-base there was a small round ice-rink, and a woman skater was performing a routine to music. The preliminary activities and most of the game are just a blur to me. Too bad none of us had the foresight to bring a camera. I didn’t even own a camera back then, what a shame it is that we have no pictures, or notes from the game or trip! Today, I would most certainly have a video camera and a digital camera with me for sure, but back then a basic camera was a luxury item and you had to be very responsible to use one.

From the end zone, our view of the action on the field was somewhat skewed, as everything was vertical. We got a kick out of looking at the fans though, a few of which were going shirtless. Even if it had been a good game, we wouldn’t have gotten the full impact. Since it turned out to be a low scoring affair—Kansas City won 10-6—it didn’t have much excitement. Every now and then, I detected a low murmur of dissatisfaction from the Minnesota fans, but it didn’t really matter much. At half-time they brought Fran Tarkenton out onto the sideline to address the fans from a microphone, as the skater skated on the ice behind him. He tried his best to stir things up a bit, and succeeded in getting an ovation or two with some encouraging words, but it didn’t help the Vikings. I think they had a chance to win at the end, but “two-minute” Tommy Kramer, the quarterback, was sacked or threw an interception—I don’t remember. Jeff Gossett punted a few times, but modesty prevented us from cheering too loudly for him. It would have only confused the people around us!

After the game clock expired, most of the crowd waited in anticipation as policemen and numerous people wearing yellow jackets stood like a ring around the gridiron. Mike thought that the people in yellow jackets were popcorn venders pressed into service to protect the turf. There was an official address over the PA system to show restraint and to be careful exiting the stadium. A message on the scoreboard requested that people respect the field and not trample it. However, most of the crowd was determined to dismantle the stadium and take anything that was not physically impossible to remove as a souvenir. The ring of yellow jackets contracted, but held for a moment, then, about the 50 yard line, the ring broke and people flooded onto the field. It quickly filled with a densely packed mob, like an ant colony, and sacked and tore down the goal posts one after the other. Fans unfastened signs, loosened ropes and cables, plundered press boxes, and harvested seats.

According to Grant, fans pulled tools out of their coats and began to loosen bolts. They took light bulbs from the scoreboard, sod from the field, benches from the stands, and metal railings—anything they could take with them. Some determined folks carried benches to the top of the stands, tossed them over, and went outside to place them on their cars. On the whole, it appeared to be a safe and orderly plundering. Grant got a piece of wooden bench, some chair parts from the baseball stands; Mike and I gathered chair parts as well (folding seats and back-rests). All of these parts were dismantled by someone else, who probably had their arms full already, and left them lying around for us to pick up. Mike liked the post-game festivities the best, and he laughed a lot at the Minnesotans for their resourcefulness. Some people were earnest about what they were taking, while others behaved like, well—Vikings! After absorbing the uncanny stadium scene for a while, we carried our booty out to the car and stuffed it all in the trunk. We felt slightly alien to what was going on in Bloomington, but it was a satisfying pillage.

Next was the anticlimactic drive away from the Met. People were still busy carrying objects to their cars and vans, and going back into the stadium, as we respectfully departed to find somewhere to eat. We stopped at another fast-food restaurant and went to a grocery store, but I don’t remember in what order. The public accommodations and character of the people in this northern climate still fascinated us to no end. What a pity we had to leave our “new Scandinavia” so soon, before we had a chance to see more of it. In the following year or two the Met was razed and in its place the Mall of America—the largest mall in the country—was built.

From St. Paul, night-time was at hand, and Grant drove for several hours. Somewhere between the Wisconsin border and Madison there came a blizzard more terrifying than any I’d ever seen before. Visibility became very poor and road conditions extremely slippery. Grant slowed down and followed a truck for what seemed like an eternity. I remember those red tail-lights in front of us as beacons of hope that we would make it, but if the truck had gone astray we would have, too. Mike thought we were driving in a backwash made by the truck, but Grant thought that without the truck's tracks we wouldn’t be able to see the road at all. As snow accumulated more and more on the Interstate highway, traffic thinned and the country-side looked desolate. Conversation was nervous and halted between us as it seemed the blizzard was getting worse and worse. To our shock and surprise, a station wagon with Colorado plates zoomed past us and then veered left, off the road, into the median and came to a sudden snow-buffeted stop. They are still stranded there in my memory. We couldn’t help passing on by, wondering why they didn’t have enough sense to drive slower. You’d think people from Colorado would know better!

At some point we stopped at a rest area, while the snow let-up, and Grant called his girlfriend at home from a payphone, and told her to call our parents to let them know we were OK. When we finally saw the lights of Madison, I felt like it was a sign from God that we had made it to safety. At this point my memory is so fuzzy I can’t remember what happened. Mike and I had been lobbying for us to spend the night in a motel, but Grant wanted to keep going. I think we found a motel on the other side of Madison, but I can’t remember anything about it. It was very late. The next day was brighter, I think, as we drove the rest of the way home to Charleston without much happening. Christmas was just a couple of days later, so I must have been thinking ahead to that. It’s funny how I can’t remember hardly anything after that blizzard!

I recently found out that plans for a new football stadium for the Vikings are being promoted in Minnesota—the second one since the Met. The dome which replaced the Met, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, is no longer in vogue, so a newer, more modern design is now regarded as vital for the future of the franchise.

For many years I have looked back on the trip as a fun experience and a conversation piece whenever I meet a Minnesotan, or someone with even the slightest affiliation with that part of the country. But, always one to look for symbolic meaning behind events, I believe it was not only the end of the Met, but also the end of my reliance on familiar ties with home. At about this point I began turning my sights more and more on college and the future. Future prospects dictated that my home be transferred to other places, Tennessee in particular. Today, Mike is a programer, and lives near San Jose, California, and Grant (after a period of graduate and post graduate study in Iowa) lives in Charleston, and teaches at EIU. My parents and my sister all live in Tennessee now. I don’t even know where most of my high school mates live anymore, but before I had fully left “home” back in 1981, when everything I knew there was still unshakable and in harmony, I went on a great adventure up north, with two of my best buddies, to the last game at the Met. It may sound contradictory, but it was unforgettable; frozen in time, yet fuzzy around the edges, and diminished into a series of impressions. Memory is a vapor, and unless we do something to record it…it is gone, like the Met.