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Dignified, steely coach Bud Grant always had a life outside of football

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Outdoors

BRIDGEPORT, Neb. -- Some duck blinds are shaped like coffins, requiring hunters to lie on their backs, eyes upturned, scanning the skies for incoming birds. The blind Bud Grant is hunkered in on this early January morning resembles instead a World War I trench. Grant, the retired Vikings coach, three-sport Minnesota Gophers standout, member of the 1950 NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers and inductee of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is 90 years old.

He walks more stiffly than he did a few duck seasons ago, sometimes shuffling, with his shoulders hunched. But his mind is sharp, and the circuitry that coordinates his eyes and hands is untarnished. The sun has not yet fully gathered over the eastern horizon and already he has downed a pair of drake mallards, his alignment with the speeding fowl fluid and assured.

Even now, 32 years after Grant's steely visage last appeared on the Vikings sideline, he remains the team's winningest coach. Yet for some Minnesotans of a certain age, a single word -- "Bud" -- triggers memories of the Vikings' four star-crossed Super Bowl appearances, the fifth of which, they hoped, would have washed away those recollections in Minneapolis Sunday.

Super Bowls aside, Grant will tell you some people are born to play musical instruments, or do mathematics, or teach school, while others are natural athletes. "You're just born with it," he says, shrugging.

Growing up in hardscrabble Superior, Wis., Grant realized his physical gifts early: He could throw a rock into a coffee can at 20 paces. To polish this skill, he'd fling 200 or even 300 rocks a day. The country was baseball-crazy at the time, and he'd fancy himself a major leaguer, heaving so many rocks that by his teen years his right arm was longer than his left.

Years later, after leaving the U in his senior year for the Lakers as the NBA's first hardship case, Grant turned his pitching arm into cash. "I made more money pitching town baseball in summer than I did playing for the Lakers in winter," he says. This was just after World War II. Television was in its infancy, and throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, town baseball was big-time entertainment.

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"For $50 a game, I'd pitch overhand, sidearm, submarine -- everything -- three nights a week," Grant says. "Sometimes I'd ask for $100. If the team couldn't afford it, I'd tell them to bet the $50 they were going to pay me against someone from the other town. I'd guarantee we'd win, and I'd get the $100."

Hunting with Grant on this overcast morning along the North Platte River in western Nebraska is Dennis Highby, a longtime friend and the retired president and chief executive officer of Cabela's.

Also along is Pat Smith, who came into Grant's life after his wife of 60 years, Pat Grant, died in 2009 of Parkinson's disease. "I couldn't get along without her," Grant says of his "new Pat."

Notwithstanding the circuslike garage sale he hosts at his home each May, during which he peddles everything from fishing rods to bobbleheads, he's more comfortable out of the public eye than in it.

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