EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The past, present and future of the Vikings overlapped Saturday as the organization welcomed alumni to Winter Park for practice, at events in the Twin Cities and during a reception at the New Stadium Preview Center.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer welcomed the Minnesota Vikings Alumni Weekend guests after Saturday's walk-through practice on a cold but sunny morning. The alumni also will be on hand Sunday when Minnesota (3-5) hosts Washington (3-5) at noon (CT) Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
Players whose collective careers spanned the first five decades of the Vikings said they enjoyed what felt like a family reunion. Some players continue to reside in the Twin Cities and others have returned to the areas where they grew up, but all agreed that they felt at home.
"I embraced the community, and they embraced me back so I stayed," said RB Oscar Reed, who is originally from Memphis, Tenn., and played collegiately for Colorado State. "To tell you the truth, I thought about going back to Colorado to maybe go back to school and coach, but I had such a strong connection here in the Twin Cities that I decided to stay, did some offseason work and have been here ever since.
"It's always great to see these guys that you started with, that you've been through all kinds of situations with and successes and failures and all that," Reed added. "They were right there with you. It's good to reconnect."
Reed was part of three Super Bowl teams, including the 1969 squad that won the NFL Championship at Metropolitan Stadium. He said the togetherness of those teams was visible.
"During those championship years, we knew exactly what we wanted to be and everybody got on board with it," Reed said. "You could see it in the eyes of the players that we were going to be successful. It was throughout the whole organization. There was no denying us."
Hall of Fame DT Alan Page, whose career in Minnesota included all four Super Bowl appearances by the Vikings, said the relationships he formed with teammates have significant meaning. Page, now an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, spoke of the connections Vikings alumni have.
"I think over time all of us started off as the young new guy and somewhere down the road, we became the old guy," Page said. "I think everybody recognizes that, and there's that common bond."
Frank Ori, a guard on the 1987 team, was able to take a picture with Page during a tour of the facility.
"I was Viking fan as a kid, even though I grew up in the Chicagoland area," said Ori, who lives in Winthrop Harbor, Ill. "The 60s and 70s were phenomenal. To end up playing with the Vikings was a dream come true."
Ori said he wasn't the biggest fan of the Metrodome's playing surface, but was excited about previewing the future home of the Vikings.
DT Doug Sutherland and TE Stu Voigt, a pair of Wisconsin natives who became Minnesotans together, swapped stories during lunch in Max Winter Cafeteria at the team headquarters.
Sutherland said players bonded over the years on flights, hotel stays, training camps, card games and through Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant's emphasis on eating meals together.
"It was the team concept to the nth degree," Sutherland said.
Voigt, who continues to make the Twin Cities his home, sees alumni from time to time, but said "it's great to have a weekend to see guys you haven't seen in a few years. We bleed purple, and we're Vikings for life."
While Sutherland and Voigt have had a few years to become great at the art of storytelling, WR Matthew Hatchette (1997-00) said that's a skill he wants to improve. He said he enjoyed hearing from others and looked forward to seeing his first Vikings regular season game since he left.
"It's about really catching up and listening to the old stories," Hatchette said. "That's something that never gets old to me. I was saying I wish I could tell stories like that, but I'm not seasoned enough. I've still got a couple more years to listen to the stories and then we'll see."
Hatchette was part of the 1998 team that finished the regular season 15-1 and caused sleeplessness and frustrations to defensive coordinators. That team never scored less than 24 points in a game, put up 38 or more six times that season and remains strong in Hatchette's mind.
"Most definitely, especially nowadays when you see everything that offenses are doing to score so much," said Hatchette, who flew in from Los Angeles and made sure he went to find longtime equipment manager Dennis Ryan. "We were doing that back in the day without going no-huddle. We didn't pass every down. We were balanced and still put up major numbers. Of course, it's always comparing old-school to new-school, but it makes it fun to talk about the sport. That '98 Vikings team is always at the front of my mind when I'm talking about the game."
CB John Swain (1981-84) reconnects with folks from time to time during his duties as the ambassador for Minnesota Heads Up Football, but said he appreciated the weekend's role as a family reunion.
"It's just great camaraderie, seeing all the players again, how they're doing," Swain said. "I appreciate the Vikings for still involving alumni players."
LB Jesse Solomon (1986-89), who moved back home to Florida, was happy to make his third return trip.
"Once you play this game, and it doesn't matter what honors you made when you were here, you're still part of elite company. This is the top of the line," Solomon said. "All of us were kids one day, dreaming of what it would be like to be a professional player on TV, and once you get here, you find out it's fantastic and you made it.
"You realize it's a very special time, and most of us who play the game aren't going to play it very long," Solomon continued. "That's just the nature of the game, 'Value that experience while you are here and the relationships.' It doesn't matter if you haven't seen a guy in five years or 10 years, we'll pick up right where we left off from before. It's like walking back into the locker room and you go there."
They will continue to be united by the purple they once wore and the purpose for doing so.
"It's still the same common goal of coming together, putting that purple on and trying to win a game," Hatchette said.