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Ahmad Rashad: Finding True North

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Ahmad Rashad took pride in representing the North. 

He did so in cold, snowy and windy games at Metropolitan Stadium after joining the Vikings in 1976, and when the team moved into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in 1982.

Rashad will continue to do so as the 23rd inductee to the Vikings Ring of Honor, a designation that he described as "the most important thing that's ever happened to me."

"I've won Emmy Awards. I've won receiving titles, all of those things, but this is closer to my heart," Rashad said this summer when his selection was announced. "I've always said that, 'Once a Viking, always a Viking.' You don't ever get out of that, and [the Wilf Family ownership group] has shown that; that it is a wonderful fraternity. We respect everybody.

"We really are the North, and we take that with pride," Rashad continued. "Looking at this, I don't think there's anything in my athletic career that can top this honor. There's just absolutely nothing else."

Rashad's route from starring collegiately at Oregon for his home-state Ducks to Minnesota wasn't a linear path. Instead, there were twists and turns during stints with three other NFL franchises before Rashad suited up in Purple and shined. 

Originally drafted as Bobby Moore by the St. Louis Cardinals with the fourth overall pick of the 1972 NFL Draft, Rashad was traded to the Buffalo Bills in 1974, less than a year after changing his name. After playing for the Bills that season, he missed all of 1975 with a knee injury and was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1976 expansion draft.

'You can't let this guy go'

Fran Tarkenton was the reigning League MVP heading into his 16th season. The quarterback couldn't believe what he saw. 

Between the preseason finale on Sept. 5 and the 1976 regular-season opener on Sept. 12 at New Orleans, the Vikings brought in Rashad for a workout.

"I put him through his drills, and he was magnificent," Tarkenton recalled. "I came home and told everybody, 'This is the best receiver I've ever thrown to.' He was just fantastic."

When Tarkenton walked in to practice at Midway Stadium the next day, Rashad was "still in his street clothes sitting on the trainer's table in our locker room while everybody else was getting dressed."

Tarkenton investigated and was told there was lingering worry about Rashad's knee. Tarkenton called former General Manager Mike Lynn and told him, "You can't let this guy go." 

Tarkenton said he told to Lynn, "If you don't call right now and tell Ahmad he's on the team, I will not play next Sunday."

More than 40 years later, Tarkenton insists he wouldn't have taken the field without Rashad.

The Vikings didn't have to find out.

"They signed Ahmad, and that's how Ahmad came to life," Tarkenton said. "If that doesn't happen, you know what happens to Ahmad? He never plays. Nobody else would have picked him up, right? His career would have been over and what a shame, which makes you think about how many times this happened to other guys that weren't so lucky.

"But then he played great for us," Tarkenton said. "He's one of my best friends, and I have lobbied for him to get into this Ring of Honor for years, and I lobbied for him because he deserves to be there as much as anybody that's up on that wall." 

Minnesota worked out terms of the deal with Seattle, and Rashad caught three passes for 20 yards in a Week 1 tie with the Rams. The receiver totaled three receptions for 48 yards in his next two games before busting out a seven-catch, 109-yard game in a 20-19 win over Chicago.

Vikings Historian Fred Zamberletti, who was the team's head athletic trainer at the time, said Rashad had "a real big, flexion contracture of his knee, couldn't straighten it out," significant enough that he likely wouldn't pass a team's physical.

Zamberletti said Rashad was smart and a good athlete in spite of the knee issue who had the skill to "separate from defenders and play with the grace of [Mikhail] Baryshnikov."

"Tarkenton had a lot of confidence in him," Zamberletti said. "That's the main thing in the passing game."

Zamberletti vividly remembered seeing Rashad for the first time as a rookie with the Cardinals who caught four passes for 67 yards, including a pair of 24-yard touchdown catches from Gary Cuozzo. The scores were the first two of his career, and the second won the game for St. Louis.

"He caught a couple of passes and was like a deer running," Zamberletti said. "I never saw that speed out of him again, but he had tremendous hands, good moves, was very smart. His ability to get open and be in the right place at the right time was great."

'The ultimate of smooth'

In seven seasons with the Vikings, Rashad totaled 400 receptions for 5,489 yards and 34 touchdowns. He became the first Vikings receiver with consecutive seasons of more than 1,000 receiving yards and was selected to four straight Pro Bowls (1978-81).

"He is probably the most under-sung great receiver that's ever been," Tarkenton said. "In his era, there was nobody anywhere in football that played any better at wide receiver than Ahmad Rashad. What made him so great is he was faster than he looked, he jumped higher than it looked. He made everything look easy.

"He was the ultimate of smooth, with great hands, great instincts, knew how to work a defensive back, and nobody could cover him," Tarkenton added. "Beyond that, he's just such a quality human being, but he's in the select group because he was as great of a football player as we've ever had in our history."

Rashad was the Pro Bowl MVP in 1978 and also caught the final touchdown pass thrown by Tarkenton against the Rams in the Divisional round of the 1978 NFC Playoffs.

In addition to catching a team-record four touchdowns (vs. San Francisco on Sept. 2, 1979) and a Hail Mary (against Cleveland on Dec. 14, 1980) to clinch a division title, Rashad was a hallmark of consistent production in Minnesota. He posted at least 51 receptions and 671 yards in six straight seasons. It might have been all seven here, if not for 1982 being shortened to nine games (he played seven).

Rashad's favorite memories aren't seen in highlight reels or on stat sheets. Instead they are in his heart and mind of the brotherhood he forged with teammates, including previous Ring of Honor inductees like Tarkenton, Alan Page, Paul Krause, Jim Marshall, Ron Yary, Mick Tingelhoff, Carl Eller, Chuck Foreman, Scott Studwell and Matt Blair.

"I fell in love with this place, I fell in love with the people, with the Vikings," Rashad said. "There was a certain pride. We had Marshall, Page, Eller, Tarkenton. We had household names, and you must understand that the Minnesota Vikings were one of the premier teams in all of football." 

Rashad's name will forever be in the household of U.S. Bank Stadium on the façade of the stadium's upper level. He will receive his Purple Jacket during a ceremony Friday, and his legacy will be celebrated during halftime of Sunday's game. 

Tarkenton, who said Rashad is "richly deserving of this honor" is unable to make today's game but sent a text to explain the schedule conflict and express that he will be here today "in spirit."

"He said, 'OK, thanks brother. Always feel your spirit. Much love.' That's what it's all about, isn't it? My buddy Ahmad can come up with that, and it's the truth," Tarkenton said. "It doesn't diminish. We've had so much time since we've played to be together in person and over the phone; you get too old to play, but you don't get too old to be a good teammate."

Dominant in Division

Ahmad Rashad totaled 400 receptions, 5,489 yards and 34 touchdowns in 98 games with the Vikings. He did much of his damage against former NFC Central foes:

Vs. CHI: 13 games (9-4), 43 Rec., 649 Yds, 3 TDs

Vs. DET: 13 games (10-3), 52 Rec., 774 Yds, 2 TDs

Vs. GB: 13 games (7-5-1), 60 Rec., 815 Yds, 8 TDs

Vs. TB: 10 games (7-3), 37 Rec., 479 Yds, 2 TDs 

Total: 49 games (33-15-1), 192 Rec., 2,717 Yds, 15 TDs

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