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

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Outdoors

On his first day in Minnesota in 1967, Grant breezed into the team's Bloomington offices toting a snazzy briefcase. Friends question whether anything was in it. Never obsessed with X's and O's -- Jerry Burns and other assistants focused on that -- Grant believed his fundamental job was to assess accurately the team's many moving parts, and from these divine a winning strategy.

The tone Grant set would be critical. He required players to wear their uniforms exactly the same, including the height of their socks. He insisted they toe the sideline stripe at attention when the national anthem was played before a game. And he famously ruled out heaters on the Vikings side of the field at the old Met Stadium.

Some of this was image polishing. But most of it was Grant being Grant. And the message was clear: The Vikings were a team, not a collection of individuals. And they'd play tough.

"At first, some of the players thought the uniform requirements and standing at attention for the national anthem were Mickey Mouse," Grant says.

Jim Marshall was an All-Pro defensive end who played for the Vikings from 1961 to 1979, appearing in a then-record 282 games.

"Bud had a simplicity to his approach that some of us at first thought was kind of humorous," Marshall said. "But we learned he had reasons for everything he did. All of it was designed to make us successful. He took a team I loved and turned us from an also-ran into a champion. I respected that."

Grant also had a life outside of football, which was unusual even then for NFL coaches. He owned and trained hunting dogs. He had pet ravens, seagulls, owls, woodchucks, foxes -- and a monkey, "Chico." He counted migrating monarch butterflies during August practices in Mankato. He collected deer antlers and animal furs. And he sometimes showed up for work with muddy waders and dead ducks strewn in the back of his station wagon.

Grant also had close friends who were distinctly not football groupies, including retired Minnesota state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls -- the original "Old Trapper" -- the late Buzz Kaplan of Owatonna, Minn., a businessman and floatplane pilot with whom Grant regularly traveled the sub-Arctic in summer; and Norb Berg of Mendota Heights.

Like Grant, they were passionate hunters and anglers, and their friendships allowed Grant to go places he hadn't been and learn things he didn't know, which he valued.

"When Bud came to the Vikings I read in the paper he worried about missing the great duck hunting he had in Winnipeg," Berg said. "I had a place in the Minnesota River Valley where I hunted, and when I bumped into him at a gathering, I told him if he ever wanted to hunt ducks, to let me know.

"He said, 'Tomorrow.' "

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Now it is late morning alongside the North Platte River and Grant, Smith and Highby, along with a pilot and hunting friend of Grant's, Jim Hanson of Albert Lea, Minn., and two young friends of Highby's, Mike Anderson of Grand Forks, N.D., and Josh Lundberg of Virginia, Minn., count their bounty: 14 Canada geese and nearly as many drake mallards.

Large flocks of ducks and geese winter along this part of the North Platte, about a stone's throw from the Colorado and Wyoming state lines. Shallow and slow moving, the river, early settlers believed, was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow."

Yet on this chilled winter's morning spent with like-minded friends, Grant is feeling the same fresh-air vibe he first knew so many hunting seasons ago chasing grouse and rabbits outside of Superior.

This is almost 34 years to the day that he first retired from the Vikings. He was 56 years old then, his six kids had finished college, and he had played football or basketball, or coached, every fall for 40 years.

"There are some valleys I want to cross, some mountains I want to climb, some streams I want to wade," he said at the time.

Even he's surprised he's still doing it at 90.

"To live through all the stages of life I have is quite an experience," he says. "I've been lucky."

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