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THE COLD, OLD DAYS : Minnesota Wins Are Frozen Moments in Ram History

December 25, 1988|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

There's a 7-letter word that best describes the Rams' relationship with the Minnesota Vikings over the years.

It's t-o-r-t-u-r-e, and it's almost always preceded by 4-letter words. The Dallas Cowboys may think they're the all-time Ram bashers, but nothing they've done compares to the pain inflicted by the Vikings of Minnesota, land of 10,000 aches.

So where were you the day Nate Allen blocked Tom Dempsey's field goal in 1976, crushing another Ram Super Bowl dream?

Kicker Mike Lansford, who this week will attempt to exorcise the ghost of Christmas past, was a student at Arcadia High School when Viking safety Bobby Bryant picked up the loose ball and ran 90 yards for a touchdown, changing the course of Ram history.

"The all-timer was the Dempsey block," Lansford said. "It was the all-time heartbreaker. I think I cried. I've lived and died like all Ram fans in the playoffs."

The Rams and Vikings will meet again this week in the NFC wild-card game, and although it has been 10 years since the teams last met in the playoffs, the agony lingers. In 1969, it was Carl Eller sacking Ram quarterback Roman Gabriel for a safety to clinch the Western Conference championship for the Vikings.

In 1988--last Monday night to be exact--the Vikings were at it again, dragging their fingernails across another Ram blackboard. Needing a Chicago win over Minnesota to gain home-field advantage against the Vikings, the Rams watched in shock as linebacker Walker Lee Ashley returned an interception 94 yards for a touchdown with 2 minutes 37 seconds remaining, rescuing the Vikings from almost certain defeat.

Carl Eller, Wally Hilgenberg, Bobby Bryant, Walker Lee Ashley--the names run together after a while.

It started 19 years ago in a frozen Metropolitan Stadium--a redundancy late in any football season--when the Vikings bounced the Rams out of Western Conference title game. Gabriel was the league's most valuable player that season. The Rams had a wonderful team. Minnesota won, 23-20.

The Vikings also defeated the Rams in the NFC championship games of 1974 and 1976. Both games were lost in agonizing fashion, in freezing weather. Then came 1977, the real killer. The Rams finally got the Vikings in the Coliseum for this one, and watched as the skies opened from above. Minnesota won in a driving rainstorm.

"Me and Jack (Youngblood) have sat and talked about that game for a long time," said Larry Brooks, former all-pro defensive tackle. "We finally got them in our own back yard, and they beat us with (quarterback) Bobby Lee. They got up on us early and the game turned to slush."

The Rams finally beat the Vikings in a first-round game in 1978, but by then the damage had been done.

Memories of the road losses were the hardest to die, because you remembered the Vikings every time you opened your freezer. The Rams were 2-10-2 in Metropolitan Stadium. Viking Coach Bud Grant created an aura of invincibility about cold weather, a brilliant psychological ploy that had some believing the Vikings really didn't mind if their toes turned blue.

While the thin-bloods from the West Coast, the Rams, wrapped themselves in scarfs and huddled around portable heaters, the Vikings stood bravely on the sidelines, bare-armed and smiling, breaking icicles off their face masks.

"You felt you were going back with fingers crossed, even if you had a good team," said Pat Haden, quarterback in 3 Ram-Viking playoff games. "They did have that aura. Bud Grant didn't allow heaters on the sidelines or his players to wear gloves. They did play it to their advantage. We constantly got asked about weather, and we constantly said, no, it didn't bother us. But maybe subconsciously it did."

Ram fans always figured the Vikings were playing with a few loose nuts.

Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, who inflicted his share of pain on the Rams during the blunder years, says he never wore an undershirt beneath his shoulder pads during those sub-zero temperature home games.

"I made up my mind I wasn't going to to overdress," Hilgenberg said, still getting in his digs. "The fear of the unknown was the worst part. Teams hear about the cold. Once you play in it, it's not that bad out there."

After all these years, though, Hilgenberg admitted that the Vikings' tolerance to cold was largely myth, created and perpetuated by Grant.

Hilgenberg said he once wrapped a hot rock in a towel at halftime and sneaked it out to the sidelines, making sure Grant never saw it. So it can now be told that Hilgenberg was actually cold. He just never let anyone know.

"A lot of guys that I knew would have liked to be on bench with the heat warmers," he said. "I remember Carl Eller saying once, 'I may be a Viking on the field, but I'd really like to be a Bear on the sideline.'

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