The room was filled with the sound of laughter and memories.
Dozens of Dennis Green’s family, friends and former players gathered at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday night to honor the late former Vikings head coach as he was being celebrated in the team’s Ring of Honor.
Green’s widow, Marie, couldn’t get more than a few steps without someone giving her a hug. Former Vikings players told old tales of Green, busting up at memories that were at least two decades old.
It seemed everyone had a story to share about Green.
“So many stories, oh my goodness. I’ve been hearing lots of stories,” Marie Green said Saturday night before a Purple Jacket Ceremony at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I’ve been smiling and laughing, and it’s just a lot of fun to hear about a lot of the shenanigans and things that have gone on. But also very heartwarming stories about how Dennis really helped them get to where they wanted to be and how he saw potential and helped so many people develop and be their very best.”
“He helped different people through personal issues, not just on the field but off the field. What he meant to people because of that, it makes me so proud,” Marie Green added. “It’s great to hear things that I haven’t heard before … to hear stories that I didn’t know about. It makes me more in awe of him.”
Green became the 24th member of the Vikings Ring of Honor over the weekend. He joins Bud Grant and Jerry Burns as the three former head coaches in the exclusive club.
Green was the Vikings Head Coach from 1992 to 2001, and his 97 regular-season wins ranks second in franchise history. His teams won division titles four times and advanced to NFC Championship Games after the 1998 and 2000 seasons.
Green made the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons in Minnesota, with his most memorable campaign coming in 1998. The Vikings went 15-1 that season and racked up 556 points, which set an NFL record at the time.
Those who coached with him recalled a loyal and compassionate leader.
“There’s nothing that I’ve done, before or since, that doesn’t have Denny Green’s fingerprints all over it,” said former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick. “Not only from obviously the opportunity and the platform that Denny Green provided me and so many others, but the mentoring that he would give you.
“And it was genuine,” added Billick, Minnesota’s offensive coordinator from 1994-1998. “He really was interested in you, in your career and what he could do to help further your career. That is really rare.”
Gary Zauner, Minnesota’s special teams coordinator from 1994 to 2001, added: “I loved coaching for the guy. I owe my entire career to him. He took a chance on me.”
Green’s former players recalled similar memories of a coach who wasn’t afraid to put an arm around them in tough times.
Former Vikings safety Robert Griffith said Green’s players never had to question whether or not their head coach had their backs.
“We throw around the term ‘players’ coach.’ He embodied the true sense of that because you knew he had your back, whether it was in the media or another team or just fighting for us and the integrity of the game,” Griffith said. “He was on the competition committee or fighting for minorities and different genders to be in the coaching profession, the Rooney Rule.
“It’s kind of hard not to like a guy that is fighting for all of those things and knowing they represent you,” Griffith added. “That’s why I worked so hard for him.”
Green also paved the way for others to follow him.
When he was hired by Northwestern University in 1981, he became just the second African-American head coach in NCAA Division I-A history.
Green’s trailblazing continued when he was hired as Minnesota’s fifth head coach and became the second African-American head coach in the modern NFL, and third overall. Now, eight of the 32 NFL head coaches are African-American.
Former Vikings punter Greg Coleman was the first African-American punter in the NFL. And although he didn’t play for Green, Coleman saw firsthand how much Green impacted the NFL.
“We’re all in that same fraternity when you’re talking about African-American quarterbacks, African-American coaches, and the other novelty is African-American punters and kickers,” Coleman said. “Because there were so few, we tended to gravitate toward each other, appreciated each other because we all went through some of the same struggles, some of the same biases, some of the same stereotypical comments that were made.
View images of the halftime ceremony at U,S, Bank Stadium as the late Dennis Green was inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor.
“It was just incredible to see the influence that Denny had. Denny changed the shape of the National Football League,” Coleman added. “So when I think about Denny and the influence he had on this league, his DNA is all over the National Football League, and I am proud to have called him a friend.”
Green was inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor at halftime of Sunday’s game against Buffalo when his name was unveiled on the façade of U.S. Bank Stadium.
But for all of the memories shared Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, those closest to Green were saddened they couldn’t create more unforgettable times with the man they were honoring.
Green passed away on July 22, 2016, making this weekend’s celebration bittersweet for those who knew and loved him.
“We miss Denny deeply, but he would be so proud of this,” Billick said. “It would have been great for him to recognize just how much everybody appreciated him and the impact he had on the organization and the city.”
Added Marie Green: “I think it would be so much better if he was actually here. But obviously he is in a better place, and we honor him and cherish him every day and live the way he would want us to live. I know that Dennis is in, not just my heart forever, but really the hearts of all the fans and people that are here. It shows that he is really in everybody’s hearts forever. To have his name now in this stadium forever, it’s really amazing.”