The voice on the other end of the phone sounds quite mellow. The southern drawl easily disarms, no matter the focus of the conversation. Could this friendly soul really be Roy Winston, one of the more volatile and rugged mainstays of the storied Purple People Eaters? Is this seemingly benign personality the guy who made Hall of Fame running back Larry Csonka cry?
“I was drafted by the Chargers in the AFL and the Vikings in the NFL,” the voice explains. “I compared San Diego to Minnesota. San Diego had the beach, but Minnesota had 10,000 lakes. I figured there had to be great fishing on those lakes. I already knew there was excellent hunting there. I thought of it that way.”
Yep, it has to be Roy Winston, the ex-Viking linebacker and lifelong outdoor enthusiast. Who else would have allowed hunting and fishing prospects to dictate his pro football destination?
“I definitely enjoy hunting and fishing more than football,” he says. “Football was a job. I was fortunate, though, to play the game for a living. It was neat.”
Neat and productive. Winston suited up in purple for 190 games, ninth on the Vikings’ all-time list. His 160 starts leaves him tied for the 10th in team history with fellow defensive stalwarts Alan Page and Scott Studwell. He recorded more than 100 tackles in a season three times in his career and is one of the few Vikings to play in all four of the franchise’s Super Bowls. Yet Winston is more likely to talk about a good shot he directed at a bird the other day rather than the countless thunderous hits he applied throughout a stellar 15-season career (1962-76).
The man who retired from football after the Vikings’ fourth Super Bowl defeat on Jan. 9, 1977 is still in his prime when it comes to the outdoors. Winston, who just turned 70 in mid September, has access to hundreds of acres and numerous waterways in his native Louisiana to ply his trade.
“Since I’ve retired, hunting and fishing are my job,” he says with a contagious laugh.
Retired, that is, from his post-football careers. Winston went from crunching ball carriers on the frozen turf of Metropolitan Stadium to calculating numbers behind the counter as the owner of a sporting-goods store, specializing—of course—in hunting and fishing. About four years later, Winston sold that business in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. and began a 20-year stint in the oil industry as a sales representative for a tubing company.
“That worked out well for me,” he says. “I met a lot of real good people. I’m still close friends with a lot of them today.”
No doubt he has hunted and fished with some of those people in the eight years he’s been retired from the oil industry. In fact, his link to various hunting and fishing companions, like ex-teammates Lonnie Warwick, Jim Lindsey and Mike Tilleman, extend deep into the past. In fact, Winston still hunts with the same duo (his brother and a friend) that he first ventured into the woods with in junior high.
“I like to hunt a lot of different things,” says Winston, who enjoys his bass boat in addition to trudging through the woods and fields while targeting a variety of game, from deer to quail, near his home in Napoleonville, La., a small town in the northeastern part of the state. “It’s the excitement of the animal. It’s something when you make an excellent shot. You feel good about it.
“Part of the pleasure of the hunt is also watching my bird dogs (English Setters). To take them from puppies and train them and see how agile, strong and tough they become is enjoyable. It’s amazing to watch them run.”
Winston began hunting and fishing with his dad when he was about 9 years old. Soon after, he experienced another joy—the game of football. The future Viking started playing football in fifth grade and discovered a gridiron reality that persisted from elementary school through his entire time in the NFL. Channeling his inner Allen Iverson, Winston reveals his personal truism very succinctly: “I never did like practice, but I liked to play the games.” (Yes, that undoubtedly is the first time “Allen Iverson” and “Roy Winston” have been paired in the same sentence.)
Despite his lack of enthusiasm for practice, Winston obviously played well in the games. He was a standout offensive and defensive lineman in high school before excelling at Louisiana State University as a guard and defensive tackle. However, the All-American didn’t work as hard in the classroom during the week as he did on the gridiron Saturday afternoons. Asked if he went to LSU to play football or obtain an education, Winston, in between chuckles, is quite honest with his answer. “I went there to play football! The year after I made All-American, I believe I got kicked out of school because of bad grades. My grades were terrible. I was like a D-plus student.”
At the request of his father-in-law, Winston eventually made amends for his poor performance in the classroom.
“When I got married, he told me that he wanted me to go back to school,” says Winston, who shares three children and one grandchild with his wife of 47 years, Yvette. “It took me five more semesters to finish my degree when I was playing ball for the Vikings.”
Minnesota selected Winston in the fourth round (45th overall) of the 1962 draft. After the Chargers, who picked him in the sixth round of the AFL draft, traded his rights to Buffalo, Winston briefly considered upstate New York until the Vikings matched the Bills’ offer.
“I signed with the Vikings for $12,000 per year with a $4,000 signing bonus,” he says. “I thought I was rich. I think my dad was making about $5,000 or $6,000. It was real good money for then.”
After a shaky start with the second-year team, Winston began to earn that paycheck.
“When I came to camp, they put me at offensive guard (the position where he earned All-American honors at LSU). Back then, I weighed about 218 pounds,” he says. “In the SEC we would run the football 40 times a game and throw the ball about five times so my pass blocking wasn’t too good. And the guys on the defensive line were a hell of a lot bigger and probably a little stronger than me. I could block on the runs, but they found out pretty quick that defense was where I should be.”
Surprisingly, that defensive position wasn’t tackle, Winston’s other position in college. Instead he became a linebacker, a spot he never previously occupied.
“I was quick and that helped a lot,” he says. “I was also pretty good at picking things up as far as knowing formations and all that other stuff.”
The rookie became Rip Hawkins’ backup at middle linebacker and even started two games. By the following year, Winston was the full-time starter at outside linebacker, a status he would maintain for the majority of his Vikings career.
Once he became a starter, Winston initiated an annual negotiation with Jim Finks, Minnesota’s general manager. His “demands” were slightly less than the multi-million ambitions of present-day players who try to renegotiate, such as Tennessee running back Chris Johnson and New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.
“I would go in and tell Jim Finks what I did the previous year and ask for a $500 or $1,000 raise,” Winston says. “He would give it to me every time. I would walk out of that room and think, ‘He got me again. I didn’t ask for enough!’”
Winston’s performance was consistent throughout his Vikings career, through the stormy, uneven reign of Norm Van Brocklin that failed to produce a winning season and the success and stoicism of Bud Grant’s tenure that resulted in four trips to the Super Bowl.
“Bud would procrastinate and think through things, and Norm would just make a decision and stick with it,” Winston says. “I think Bud would change some. He’d look at the whole picture. He would put everything off to the last second and most of the time he did, he made the right decision.
“Norm would get hung up on personalities. He would cuss you out and rip you up and down and the next thing you know he would be hugging you or something. Bud kind of distanced himself from the players.”
Except for the ones the Old Trapper could hunt with. Grant, a few years after establishing a rapport with the veteran players, would go hunting with some of them. On a few occasions, the coach’s companions included Winston and another all-time Vikings great, the late Wally Hilgenberg.
“We would go pheasant hunting down in Iowa,” Winston says. “One time, Bud had to leave early. On his way out, Wally caught him feeling the pheasants to see which ones were shot up or not. Bud was trying to pick the ones that weren’t shot up to take home. There was one fine-looking bird that Wally knew he shot and Wally told Bud it was his. Bud let him keep it. But I told Wally, ‘He’s probably going to cut you now!’”
Of course, Grant didn’t cut Hilgenberg over the bird blunder. The coach, though, did have greater cause to jettison Winston during the 1970 training camp when the linebacker showed up drunk for a team meeting.
“They were showing some film, and I began making wisecracks,” Winston says. “Bud told me that I needed to leave the room. I went outside the room and was hollering and screaming at him. When I got back to the dorm, I called my wife and told her that I goofed up and might be getting traded. I then went to talk to Bud and he told me just to go sleep it off. It was dropped. It was over. I was the big dummy on that one!”
Winston, affectionately known as “Moonie” after the comic strip Moon Mullins, was grateful for the reprieve from Grant. The team was coming off its first Super Bowl appearance, the defense was the best in the league and he was playing alongside two of his closest friends, Hilgenberg, the right outside linebacker, and Lonnie Warwick, who patrolled the middle. The trio was inseparable on and off the field.
“We would always go hunting or fishing,” Winston says. “We would sit the same way we lined up on the field. I would be on the left, Lonnie would be in the middle and Wally on the right. If we were signing autographs anywhere, we would get in the same order.”
On the field, the trio was a key ingredient for a unit that led the league in total defense in 1969 and 1970.
“If we could get ahead, it was hard to beat us,” Winston says. “The linebackers could loosen up and we could turn the front four loose and they were going to get the quarterback. Most of the teams would try to go to the passing game, and, hell, we had Paul Krause back there intercepting passes.”
Winston, who had a nasty habit of getting nervous and vomiting before games, downplays his own contribution.
“I relied on smarts as well as physical ability, but most of all I relied on a guy in front of me named Carl Eller,” he says with a laugh. “He made my job a lot easier. He was probably one of the greatest defensive ends there ever was.”
But there is one Hall of Famer who can attest to Winston’s own ability to apply a nasty lick: Miami running back Larry Csonka. In a 1972 matchup, the 5-foot-11, 228-pound Winston hit the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Csonka so hard that the fullback later admitted to heading to the sidelines in tears.
“Ever since then he’s said that’s the hardest he was ever hit,” Winston says. “The next season, we played them in the preseason. We were out doing our drills and he looked over at me and grabbed his back. I started laughing and flipped him the bird. We just laughed. He invited me to the Hall of Fame when he was inducted and I went.”
Winston “felt good” delivering such blows but says the “best feeling” was when he knew the Vikings had won the game. He experienced that feeling a lot as the Purple captured eight divisional crowns and made four trips to the Super Bowl during his career.
Unfortunately, all four of those Super Sundays turned into Minnesota meltdowns.
“We just never got ahead in those games,” Winston says. “We couldn’t turn our front four loose. At the time, the Kansas City loss (Super Bowl IV) really ate at me. I think we were a better team, but they made some plays.
“I think about the Super Bowl losses, but then again I think of so many who never had an opportunity to play in one. Some great ballplayers never got a sniff. Losing hurts, but second is better than third.”
Even though it’s been nearly 34 years since he last donned his purple No. 60 jersey, Winston says he still considers himself a proud Viking. Many longtime fans view him that way as well.
“I still get quite a bit of paraphernalia that comes in the mail for me to sign,” he says. “It’s nice to have someone wanting your autograph. Some will send a self-addressed envelope asking for an autographed picture but they forget to include the picture!”
Knowing Roy Winston, they might receive an autographed piece of camouflage instead.
EXTRA POINTS WITH ROY WINSTON
On the best quarterback he faced …
“Johnny Unitas. Oh man, he was something else.”
On the toughest guy to tackle …
“There were a lot of them. Had everybody from Jim Taylor to Walter Payton to Jim Brown. Gale Sayers was the most elusive. When you hit him pretty good, he would go down. But, boy, did he have some moves!”
On his favorite moment as a Viking …
“At San Francisco in 1964. It was the game Jim Marshall ran the wrong way. I had three interceptions that game and no one knows. Three interceptions for a linebacker is pretty good.”
On his experience at last January’s NFC Championship game between the Saints and Vikings …
“I went to the ball game and had purple on. It was an old purple sweater. I think it was an LSU sweater. I had some guys (Saints fans) get on me. I didn’t tell them anything. I should have hit them!”