After reviewing the names of the players acquired in the expansion draft for his team’s inaugural season, volatile Minnesota head coach Norm Van Brocklin didn’t sugarcoat his assessment of the original Vikings.
“They gave me 36 stiffs for a football team,” the Dutchman complained.
As was the case often enough during his rocky six seasons with the Vikings, Van Brocklin was wrong. One of those “stiffs” turned out to be stellar and proved to be one of the finest players to don purple in the 50-year history of the franchise. That player was offensive tackle Grady Alderman.
Plucked from Detroit’s unprotected list, Alderman spent the next 14 seasons protecting the blind side of Minnesota’s quarterbacks as the team evolved from a stumbling cellar dweller to perennial Super Bowl contender. Now 36 years removed from his final game in his No. 67 jersey, Alderman says specific memories of his playing days are fading a bit, but his feelings are quite clear.
“I enjoyed it all,” he says.
Alderman, 71, is enjoying life as a semi-retired financial consultant in Evergreen, Colo. The tiny community nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver has been Alderman’s home for 30 years. When he’s not enjoying family time, fishing or his cabin in the mountains, the former left tackle helps broker asset-based loans for companies who are new to the process.
“I like to tell people that I’m not retired, but at this time of my life nobody will hire me,” he says with a laugh.
In truth, many entities have hired Alderman over the years, including financial firms, broadcast outlets and NFL franchises. The Detroit native prepared for life after football when his career was in its infancy, becoming a certified public accountant just a few seasons into his Vikings run.
“I knew that playing wasn’t going to last forever, and I expected to live a lot longer than I played,” he says. “I figured I needed something to do later in life. And there wasn’t a lot of money in those early years. We all needed to work in the offseason as well.”
For proof, Alderman reveals his first Vikings contract paid him a whopping $8,000 a year. As a “bonus,” all players received $50 for each preseason game. Today’s stars complain about four preseason games. Alderman was happy in his day that there were six preseason contests because that meant an extra $300.
“When I retired, I was making $60,000, so the money wasn’t great then either,” he says.
The average NFL salary for the 2010 season is $1.9 million and the minimal salary is $325,000. The Viking who now holds down Alderman’s old left tackle post,
“They earn every nickel,” he says. “Look at the size of the guys out there and the strength and the speed they crash into each other. There are going to be consequences to those types of collisions. They are going to learn that they will pay the price somewhere down the road.”
Alderman is paying the price in mid-October when he has back surgery to “clean up” his spinal column.
“It’s not too hard to stretch my mind and think about where the problem came from,” he says. “When you play 15 years, you have a couple hundred thousand miles on your body. But it was worth it.”
Since the pay for the pounding he received every Sunday was paltry, Alderman worked as an accountant throughout much of his time with the Vikings. He would do the same in Colorado before venturing full time into asset-based lending in 1992.
“I met with customers, looked at their numbers, decided whether or not we should loan them money and then tried to convince the underwriters that we should or should not,” he says. “I would then continue as a liaison with the customer.
“It wasn’t as self-serving as football was. I would provide a service to a client who would really need it during a time in their company’s history when things weren’t going well. I would help them find a lender who would loan them money based on their past performance and the current value of their assets. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it was very rewarding when I put together a loan that made sense to both sides, the borrower and the lender.”
Between his financial positions in Minnesota and Colorado there was still plenty of football in Alderman’s life when his playing days ended in the summer of 1975. For four years, he served as the color commentator on the Vikings radio network before assuming administrative posts in the NFL.
“Broadcasting was actually more fun than playing because if you won it was a happy day for everyone and if you lost, you didn’t have to face the coach on Mondays,” he says with a chuckle. “I just watched the game and made comments on what I saw. I don’t think anyone can argue with that approach. Back then none of the media, even television, was as critical as they are now. These guys today actually act like they know something.”
Alderman’s knowledge of the lending community helped him transition from the broadcast booth to the director of planning and development for the Vikings. In that position, he oversaw construction of the team’s Winter Park complex and managed the $25 million investment earmarked for the Metrodome’s construction.
“I had some expertise in construction accounting so it was a natural fit to work for the team and provide that service for them,” he says.
A position for which Alderman had little experience lured him from Minnesota for good—general manager of the Denver Broncos.
Shortly after Canadian financier Edgar Kaiser bought the Broncos in 1981, he cleaned out the front office and sought fresh blood. Enter Alderman.
“A friend of mine referred me to him,” Alderman says. “Edgar and I talked and he hired me after one meeting. It was probably not the best thing for either of us. The job wasn’t what I expected and apparently I wasn’t what he expected.”
A little over a year later, the Broncos and Alderman parted ways.
“It turned out that moving out here wasn’t the best thing career-wise, but it was great family-wise,” says Alderman, who along with his wife of 49 years, Nancy, raised two kids in Colorado. Today, they also enjoy six grandkids.
“It looks like one of them is going to be a football player,” he says.
If that’s the case, the child should be able to obtain plenty of advice from his grandfather.
Growing up in a housing project in Detroit, Alderman didn’t play organized football until he was a sophomore in high school when his family moved to Madison Heights, a suburb of the Motor City. The future first-team All-Pro excelled as both an offensive and defensive lineman and eventually earned a full scholarship to the University of Detroit-Mercy.
“I went there with the idea of getting an education,” says Alderman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, “but my old college roommate always reminds me that the first day he met me I told him I would like to play pro football.”
Following an outstanding collegiate career as a right tackle, Alderman fulfilled that wish when his hometown Detroit Lions picked him in the 10th round (111th overall) of the 1960 draft. The rookie beat out a few veterans and earned a spot as a backup guard. But at the end of the year, he was one of eight Lions exposed to the Vikings in the expansion draft, and the new club, allowed to select up to three unprotected players from each team, pounced.
“I was disappointed to leave the Lions. That was my team growing up,” Alderman says. “On the other hand, there was a team somewhere that wanted me.”
Sort of. Asked about Van Brocklin’s infamous “36 stiffs” declaration, Alderman laughs and says, “If you’re getting a chance to play, you feel wanted.”
Plus, the new Viking soon realized that Van Brocklin was prone to negative comments.
“That never works too well in any field,” Alderman says. “Norm used to tell us that we were our own worst enemy. Well, he was his own worst enemy. He kind of acted as though he was coaching every position. That makes it very difficult if you have a position coach who is working with you and then you have a head coach who overrides his comments. You could say that Norm really wanted to win in the worst kind of way. He just didn’t know how.”
Neither did the Vikings in their early years, posting just one winning season (1964) under Van Brocklin’s reign despite the presence of future legends such as center Mick Tingelhoff, running back Bill Brown, defensive end Jim Marshall and Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
“He was not afraid to run,” says Alderman about Tarkenton, who became famous among football fans and infamous in Van Brocklin’s view for his scrambling style. “Everything he did was aimed at making the play positive rather than negative. He ran more because we allowed him to get in trouble rather than provide him with great protection.
“After a while, you learned that if you lost your man, he was probably the guy making Fran run, and if you stayed on your feet and held your ground and waited, Fran would come back and you would get a chance to block your guy.”
Alderman had a great view to watch Tarkenton’s exploits. He was the starting left tackle in the team’s first game and still held that spot when Tarkenton returned to the Vikings in 1972 after a five-season stint with the Giants.
“He was different when he came back,” says Alderman, who still considers Tarkenton one of his closest friends. “He was smarter than he had been before. He knew that some plays weren’t chicken salad; they were chicken crap. He realized sometimes you had to take your lumps and then try to overcome it. He didn’t try to win the whole game in one play.”
Tarkenton was different, as were the Vikings compared to the team who dealt him to New York following the 1966 season when his relationship with Van Brocklin reached the point of no return. Unlike the wildly inconsistent early Minnesota teams, the Vikings were now steady winners, thanks to a roster of talented players and a future Hall of Fame coach in Bud Grant.
Alderman, who played at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds (McKinnie is listed at 6-foot-8, 335 pounds), was a bit apprehensive when Grant took over for the jettisoned Van Brocklin prior to the 1967 season.
“With a new coach, there are always new things,” he says. “Coaches like different kinds of players. I was a little bit small as an offensive tackle. I thought, ‘Suppose this guy wants all these giants, I’ll be out of here.’”
Alderman wasn’t. He continued to utilize his quickness, smarts and preparation to be the starter at left tackle and ended up appearing in 194 games, good for seventh in franchise history.
“If I had any effectiveness at left tackle I would attribute it to studying my opponent and working to try to find any weakness he showed fairly regularly, something I could exploit from time to time,” he says. “But at the same time, I never underestimated anyone I played against.”
Or his coach.
“Bud did things way differently than Norm,” Alderman says. “We were accustomed to a coach who talked all the time and directed players everywhere. Bud comes in and what does he say, 50 words a day? He only talked about things that were important to winning and playing. You learn to respect that.”
By Grant’s second year, the Vikings were divisional champs. By his third season, they were the best in the NFL. The 1969 Vikings led the league in points scored with 379, and on defense, the Purple People Eaters surrendered just 14 touchdowns, a league record.
“No question that was the most memorable season,” says Alderman, who was an offensive captain his last eight years with the team. “I remember being interviewed before playing the Giants to start the season and I was asked if I would be surprised if the Giants beat us. I said, ‘I would be astounded if they beat us and I would be surprised if anyone would beat us.’ No sooner were the words out of my mouth and we lost to those guys. Then we put together 12 wins in a row and that was good.”
The Vikings finished 12-2 and won the last NFL Championship prior to the merger with the American Football League in advancing to Super Bowl IV.
“The 1969 team did everything with a swagger,” Alderman says. “That was the difference between that team and others. We were not only good, we knew we were good. We had waited so many years to get that kind of feeling.”
Unfortunately, the Kansas City Chiefs left the Vikings with a different feeling on Super Bowl Sunday, upsetting heavily favored Minnesota 23-7.
“That hurt more than the other Super Bowl losses,” Alderman says. “We were expected to win. The world knew we were going to win. We thought we had everything put together and we actually didn’t. Truth be known, we probably needed a few more days of practice. We didn’t know a lot about the Chiefs. They used a couple of defenses that were foreign to us. It just got into our heads. Defensively for us, we were able to overwhelm everybody during the season, but the Chiefs had a good offensive line and they played very well.”
Alderman had two more shots at a Super Bowl ring in 1973 and 1974, but again the Vikings came out on the short end, 24-7 to Miami in Super Bowl VIII and 16-6 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl IX.
“We weren’t expected to win those games and I guess we played like it,” Alderman says.
The fact that Alderman played at all in Super Bowl VIII is commendable. After beating the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game that season, Alderman discovered a cancerous growth on his lower body. His doctor wanted to operate immediately, but Alderman convinced him to wait until after the Super Bowl to perform the surgery and refused to tell any teammates about his plight.
“I concluded it would be best to keep it quiet,” he says. “There was enough drama at the Super Bowl anyway. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. I was still able to focus on the game and prepare. I thought I played a decent game. I had the lump removed right after the Super Bowl.”
Alderman recovered from the surgery and returned for the 1974 season with the Vikings, which turned out to be his last. Labor unrest following the season led to talk that teams might be forced to trim their rosters from 47 players to 40. Grant informed Alderman that there was a spot on the team for him if the roster remained at 47, but if it was dropped to 40, there likely wouldn’t be room for the veteran. The two decided to be proactive and part ways so Alderman would have a chance for a fresh start with another team.
That team turned out to be Chicago, led by the Vikings’ former general manager, Jim Finks. Alderman went to camp with the Bears but was released on the last cuts of camp and decided to retire.
His one regret?
“Never having won the big one,” he says. “It’s funny how games will stick with you. I certainly dwell on the losses more than the wins. The wins you just chalk up to mission accomplished. But the losses, you think about what you could have done differently. What could anybody have done differently? I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer.”
But Alderman is more than satisfied with his career.
“Yes, indeed. I played 15 years against all odds,” he says. “By no stretch of the imagination did I see myself doing that. Yet it happened.”
Not bad, for a “stiff.”
EXTRA POINTS WITH GRADY ALDERMAN
On his favorite stadium …
“The Met. I enjoyed it there. Our fans were good. We didn’t have so many in the early years, but we certainly had a bunch at the end.”
On why the Vikings were so tight as a team …
“I attribute that to the experience with Norm (Van Brocklin). He made it so tough on us. It didn’t seem like we had a friend in the world except the other guys in the locker room. It was like, ‘Guys, we better damn well stay close.’”
On Joe Kapp and Fran Tarkenton …
“Joe not only played hard, he was a rah-rah guy in the huddle. Francis was more business-like. Joe wore his emotions on his sleeve where I think Fran kept his inside.”
On teammates he periodically is in touch with today …
“Francis (Tarkenton). (Mick) Tingelhoff. I talked to Bob Grim the other day. Milt Sunde.”
On the interest people in Denver have in his Vikings past …
“If I told anybody here that I played 14 years for the Vikings, they would say, ‘Who gives a rip?’”