It's hard to sneak much past Bud Grant.
Just ask his players, who pulled dorm-room pranks in Gage Hall and challenged curfew during training camp at what was formerly known as Mankato State University. Now 50 years later, those same players joined a videoconference call to surprise Grant for his 95th birthday.
The call was pitched to Grant as a '60s and '70s Vikings Decade Call, a recurring virtual gathering that first launched in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Grant wasn't falling for it. About five minutes into the call, he interjected: "So what's the occasion? What are we doing here?"
After a minute or two of others attempting to deflect, Vikings Legend Ahmad Rashad spoke up.
"We heard it was your 39th birthday, Bud," Rashad said.
The comment prompted a chuckle from Grant, who joked back, "Yeah. You missed it."
Whether 39 — which was his age when hired by the Vikings in March 1967 — or 95, Grant hasn't lost his sense of humor.
"What if I don't make it to next week?" he quipped. "I don't celebrate birthdays early."
But as always, the gruff exterior doesn't quite illustrate who Grant truly is. A proud family man and contemplative coach who loved his players … and who still jumps at the chance to throw a dig at them once in a while.
When it was suggested the virtual group ought to sing "Happy Birthday," Rashad was asked if he'd like to start it off.
"I think the person that should take it is Jim Marshall – because he's our captain," Rashad smiled. "He's our leader. I wouldn't go anywhere without Jim Marshall."
Grant replied: "I've never heard him sing before. I've heard him sing alibis and excuses, but never 'Happy Birthday.' "
Marshall quickly jabbed back, "And you're not going to hear me sing now."
The barbs were all in good fun, though, and Marshall agreed to lead off the group in singing.
With 35-plus voices joining in from computer and phone screens across the country, the harmony was questionable. The love for their coach, however, was not.
From Rashad and Marshall to Carl Eller, Clinton Jones and Gene Washington; from Rickey Young and Sammy White to Stu Voight, Nate Wright and so many more, Vikings Legends reminisced over memories – some funny, some serious – of playing for Grant.
Eller, to no one's surprise, brought an element of silliness to the call.
The Pro Football Hall of Famer logged onto the call wearing mammoth, green, foam Hulk hands, which he revealed during the off-key serenade for Grant.
"If I would have worn these when I played," said Eller, "maybe I wouldn't have gotten called for holding so much."
Fellow Purple People Eater and Hall of Famer Alan Page also referenced a humorous happening during a season in which the Vikings faced the Falcons on the road. The team stayed at an Atlanta hotel and was served a steak dinner. Eller, however, asked the server for pancakes instead of the more formal meal.
Pancakes never showed up, though, much to Eller's chagrin. When he inquired about his initial request, he was told Grant had instructed that every player eat the same steak dinner.
According to the anecdote described by Jim Bruton in his book, A Tradition of Purple, Eller flew into a rage and sent a tray of steaks flying with one good kick.
Grant did not react. But upon arrival at the Vikings next pregame dinner, each player received two pancakes, the size of a silver dollar. Grant certainly had gotten his message across.
"I just wanted to say, 'Happy early birthday. Happy early 95th,' " Page said during the call. "And I was wondering if there are any pancakes tonight? Have you decided to let 'Moose' have his pancakes yet?"
Grant may not have reacted during Eller's original outburst, but Page's one-line allusion to the incident induced hearty laughter from the former coach.
"It took a few years … but Moose can have all the pancakes he wants," Grant said.
Jones and Greg Coleman were among those who thanked Grant for his influence on their lives. John Henderson, who played receiver for the Vikings from 1968-72, also took a more earnest approach, describing the impact Grant made on him over those five seasons.
"I didn't classify Bud as a coach. I saw him as a manager of people," Henderson said. "One of the first things I noticed was that Black players and white players roomed together with the Vikings. And that was not my experience with [another] team, back in the mid-60s.
View photos of Vikings head coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bud Grant.
"You gained my respect as a good leader of men, and I respect you to this day," he told Grant.
Bob Lee, who played for the Vikings during Grant's tenure, told his former coach there were many life lessons he took away from his time in Minnesota.
"One that I've carried with me my whole life, when people came in to meet with me and had a question, I always felt – I learned from you, for sure – you might not get the [answer you're looking for], but you'll be satisfied that the man gave you an honest answer. I've carried that with me my whole life – and that's because of you," an emotional Lee shared.Young later added: "The greatest times of my life were playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Thank you, Bud."
Though the majority of Grant's birthday call featured former players of his, the Hall of Fame coach received a few extra special guests, as well. The group was joined by Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller and new GM and Head Coach Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O'Connell, respectively.
O'Connell, who had the honor of meeting Grant at the new coach's introductory press conference, emphasized the importance he places on Vikings history.
"A couple of times I've walked [into the team meeting room and said to the guys, 'Hey, just so we understand … make sure you look at the walls down here on the first floor when you're walking back to the locker room and [understand] what that means, that logo on your chest on all those T-shirts and on our helmets,' " O'Connell said.
"It was built on the backs of you guys doing really, really special things," he told Grant. "Do not think that's lost on even our youngest, newest players."
As the nostalgic call wrapped up, "Captain Jim" was called upon to break down the huddle, if you will.
The 84-year-old leaned forward in his chair and looked at Grant as if the two were sitting across from one another at a kitchen table.
"Bud, I think anything that's ever been said of somebody, of a positive nature, has been said to you tonight," Marshall said. "You've been one of the greatest mentors I think any of us could have had during that period of time. We were eager to learn, you were eager to teach, and you did one hell of a job. You taught me some lessons that will be with me always.
"You take care, Buddy, and let's have a party next year," Marshall added.
Grant smiled warmly, then let out a laugh.
"Everybody has to go home at 9 o'clock, though," he said.