Take a look back at some classic pictures from Vikings Training Camp in Mankato and TCO Performance Center through the years.
Generations of Vikings fans have trekked to Mankato from near and far, enjoying up-close interactions with their favorite players. Patriarchs and matriarchs have shared their love of the team as the torch has been passed through waves of players.
In celebration of the 52nd camp hosted by Mankato, Vikings Legends shared some of their memories for the following story that is in this year's "Training Camp Playbook." Pick up your free copy at training camp or ****view the digital version here***.*
Jim Marshall loved going to Mankato for training camp so much that he'd arrive in town a week early.
There was quite a bit for the original Viking and perennial captain to enjoy.
The Vikings were greeted with significant fanfare, and players used every bit of their free time after practice to leave campus and explore the town. Plus, there were more than six weeks of bonding with teammates on and off the field.
After surviving five harsh training camps (1961-65) under first Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin — and even a few Bemidji summer mornings when it was cold enough to see his breath — Marshall and the fledgling Vikings turned to Mankato in 1966.
Dr. Melvin G. Scarlett, who was acting president at Mankato State College, and former Vikings General Manager Jim Finks made a joint announcement in a press release on Feb. 24, 1966, establishing contractual dates for July 13-Aug. 31 of that year.
John Thompson, a former Vikings public relations director, commented in the release that the "opportunity to give the Vikings exposure to the populous south state area was an important factor in the decision."
The press release outlined the plans for the Vikings to "use a portion of Gage Center for living quarters as well as the Gage Center dining area." It also referenced the use of Blakeslee Field and three practice fields, saying, "It is anticipated that sizeable crowds will attend afternoon practices."
Van Brocklin coached the Vikings through their first camp in Mankato, where overhead banners spanning downtown streets declared the city the "New Summer Home of the Minnesota Vikings."
It took another year — and the arrival of Head Coach Bud Grant — for the enjoyment of Marshall and others to reach new levels.
Marshall said Grant's philosophy — marked by "discipline and coordination with everything, so that you knew what you had to do and carried out your job" — contrasted with Van Brocklin's stressing of "toughness over the position you need to carry out your job."
Grant's focus on execution and rules didn't stifle players who saw the purpose in everything he asked, and they knew the eventual Hall of Famer was always watching and making assessments.
Grant, who even made time to play bocce with assistant coaches along the way, didn't want players cutting corners with improvised paths through grass. He installed "Keep off the grass" signs, and Bob Lurtsema said the coach had a good reason to do so.
"Bud would find out that the people who would go through the grass were more apt to make mental mistakes," Lurtsema said. "Bud would jot that down. He was grading you all of the time."
Grant's steely eyes observed more off the field than players initially thought. Chuck Foreman learned quickly after Grant busted him for breaking curfew. Foreman thought he had parked far enough from the dorm to allow himself to sneak in, until he opened the door and saw Grant.
Foreman recently met with fellow Legends Paul Krause and Carl Eller, and the following exchange was part of their recollections:
Krause: "We used to play cards about 1 o'clock in the morning. Bill Brown was always playing cards, and Bud's room is right below us. It's 1:30, 2 o'clock and he comes up, walks in and says, 'You guys aren't real smart. You should get some sleep. Go to bed.' He didn't say much. That's just the kind of guy he was. Bud knew how to treat everybody."
"And he knew eeeevvvverything," Foreman said. "Who told?"
Krause said: "He knew because he was there before."
"Right, right, that's why he wore those Hush Puppies," Eller roared in reference to Grant's shoe choice.
"It was fun," Eller said. "There were a lot of gimmicks, there were a lot of things you had to do to out-cage Bud, and that was a trick because he would always somehow know what was going on."
Marshall, who was selected a captain through a team vote proposed by Grant, excelled in leading teammates through hits on the practice fields and high jinks around the dorm. Marshall would receive a master set of keys from the late equipment manager Jim "Stubby" Eason so he could grab a late-night snack from the kitchen.
"If the guys wanted something, they would come, 'Captain Jim, you want to go down to the cafeteria?' So I knew they wanted to raid the refrigerator," Marshall recalled. "We always left things the way it was supposed to be so we didn't get in any trouble."
Jake's Pizza, which is still Marshall's favorite, "had the best pizza and the coldest beer" between the afternoon practice concluding and the 6 p.m. requirement for players to be on campus for dinner.
"Dinner was 6 o'clock, and we would stay until like 5:59. We had to make it up that hill in Mankato for dinner by 6 o'clock," Eller said. "If you're familiar with Mankato, it's like S-curves everywhere, and then you get to the top of the hill, it flattens out and you zoom."
Numerous pies from Jake's even made their way into the dorm after curfew. Players were skilled at lowering sheets or towels to delivery boys to hoist the pizzas in through dorm windows after the 11 p.m. curfew.
"Football is a very demanding sport," Marshall explained. "You've got to have some levity in doing your job because it's tough."
The Vikings antics drew inspiration from NASA, prompting players to blast-off rockets skyward and see who could build the best model airplanes. Marshall recalled Dale Hackbart's plane making a flight all the way into downtown. Hackbart even dressed the part, donning a World War I-era pilot costume.
"We had little contests, or I would say, we would think of fun things to do," Marshall recalled. "It was back in the time when the astronauts were going up [in space], so we thought we would do that, too. We decided there was going to be a 'manned' space event, so to substitute for a human, we got a frog."
The players fashioned together a capsule out of Plexiglass and made a parachute for the frog's return to earth.
The frog wasn't the only animal on campus back then. Marshall said running back Clinton Jones brought a couple of boa constrictors to his dorm room, much to the dismay of Offensive Coordinator Jerry Burns during bed checks.
"He'd get to Clinton's room, 'Don't open the door. Are you in there?' Clinton would say, 'Yeah, let me open the door.' Jerry would say, 'No, you've got those snakes in there.'
"Clinton said, 'They're my pets.' [Burns] said, 'Well, do they come when you call them?'
"Snakes don't have ears, so Jerry didn't have them classified as pets," Marshall laughed in recollection.
The comedy and camaraderie were joined by success. By 1968, just Grant's second season, the Vikings claimed their first NFC Central Division title.
Marshall, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Eller took a knee on the turf at Blakeslee for a group photo at camp in 1969, before a run of demolishing teams and limiting 14 regular-season opponents to a total of 133 points en route to the NFL Championship. The 133 points allowed in 14 games set an NFL record, and all four members of the defensive line were awarded with selections to the Pro Bowl.
In Krause's 12 seasons (1968-79) with Minnesota, the Vikings won 10 division titles and appeared in four Super Bowls. He credited Grant and teammates for arriving in Mankato with the postseason on their minds instead of the preseason.
"Bud knew how to bring the team together," Krause said. "We had a lot of fun. You can tell. We're all still friends. It was a coming together of the Vikings for a long, long time."
Eller said he "always looked forward to Mankato," recalling how he'd run past golf carts at Theodore Wirth Park to prepare for camp.
"I would always think about what we were there for," Eller said. "The idea wasn't just to go into the season and stuff like that. It was really to make the playoffs. We had the idea we were going to make the playoffs and the Super Bowl."
Foreman, the 12th overall pick in 1973, caught on to the winning culture quickly. In addition to earning Rookie of the Year honors, Foreman helped the Vikings make three Super Bowls in his first four seasons.
"With this team, there was a certain level that they expected everybody to come to," Foreman said. "I knew and understood when I got out of my car and walked out on that field that there was a standard that was expected of everybody, whether it was football, off the field, there were standards you had to meet. It was not the coaches who set that standard. It was the players, and you came here to play because it was expected to get to the playoffs."