Minnesota Vikings Training Camp in Bemidji 50 Years Later: Vikings arrive in 1961 and lay foundation for big upset over Chicago Bears

Hugh McElhenny, 1961 Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl running back. The Minnesota Vikings held training camps on the campus of Bemidji State University from its inaugural season in 1961 until 1965. Submitted Photo.

(Note: This is the first of a three-part series that is running in the Bemidji Pioneer. Part II runs Tuesday, Aug. 23 and Part III runs Wednesday, Aug. 23. For more information on the series, visit the Pioneer’s website here. Visit this link to see a PDF of past Pioneer coverage, view historic documents and see player photos from the 1961-65 camps.)

Gale Falk recalls standing behind the end zone watching an exhibition between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys nearly 50 years ago in Bemidji.

“I watched Fran Tarkenton – Sir Francis – and can remember looking down the sideline seeing Tom Landry and his hat,” said Falk, a former Bemidji High School teacher and swimming coach.

That controlled scrimmage on Aug. 4, 1962 was played in front of 5,503 fans at what is now Chet Anderson Stadium. The Vikings held training camp at Bemidji State University from the inaugural season in 1961 to 1965 before moving to Minnesota State University, Mankato where it remains today.

The Bemidji two-month, two-a-day practice training camps were run under abrasive head coach Norm ‘The Dutchman’ Van Brocklin and were considered brutal by accounts from former players. The camp opened the week following Independence Day in July and ended around Labor Day – far longer than the 10-day practice schedule the 2011 Vikings recently completed in Mankato.

Stu Voigt was a Pro Bowl tight end for the Vikings from 1970-80 under head coach Bud Grant and said some his older teammates at times shared memories of the Bemidji training camps.

“I heard the great stories from Bemidji and I am fascinated by the history of the Vikings,” Voigt said. “The stories that really enthralled me were the stories of Norm Van Brocklin. On his good days he was everybody’s buddy and on the bad days he would want to fight guys. The coaches would go to one bar at night and the players would go to another bar. It sounded kind of like the wild west up there.”

Building the roster

The first training camp in Bemidji 50 years ago brought together a group of 1961 NFL Draft selections, league castoffs from an expansion draft and trade acquisitions.

The Vikings selected Tulane running back Tommy Mason with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft and Georgia quarterback Fran Tarkenton was picked with the No. 29 pick in the third round.

Fran Tarkenton at BSU.

Tommy Mason at BSU.

Veteran quarterback George Shaw was acquired from a trade with the New York Giants for a 1962 first-round draft pick. The Cleveland Browns traded Jim Prestel, Jim Marshall, Dick Grecni, Jamie Caleb, Billy Gault and Paul Dickson to the Vikings for draft picks.

The roster was filled in the expansion draft when the Vikings selected three players from the rosters of all but one of the 13 teams in the league. Every team except the Cowboys, which began NFL play in 1960, gave the Vikings a list of six available players to choose from.

Offensive lineman Grady Alderman was selected from Detroit and he went on to play 16 seasons including five Pro Bowls. Future Hall of Famer and veteran running back Hugh ‘The King’ McElhenny was taken from San Francisco.

There were also players with Minnesota connections picked. Former University of Minnesota player, International Falls native and New York Giants defensive end Frank Youso was taken. Also selected was former Minnesota-Duluth player, Grand Rapids native and Green Bay Packers cornerback Dick Pesonen.

Van Brocklin played quarterback 12 years in the NFL and retired after leading the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFL Championship over the Green Bay Packers in 1960. He came to the Vikings to be the first head coach of the franchise and called the 1961 Minnesota Vikings a group of ‘36 stiffs.’

Tarkenton declined to be interviewed for this series, but wrote about the inaugural season last September on his Moving Forward blog at frantarkenton.info.

“We got the old players, the slow players, the players who were not quite good enough,” Tarkenton wrote. “There was no free agency in those days, although we were allowed to take part in the draft, just like everyone else. But the league did not want some upstart team that was brand new to the league getting an advantage over the established teams, and the Vikings didn’t have any advantage.”

The first camp

The Vikings came to Bemidji and trained for more than four hours a day on the Bemidji State campus in morning and afternoon sessions. The practice field was located south of Chet Anderson Stadium and on the shore of Lake Bemidji where Hagg-Sauer Hall now stands.

“I’ll never forget our first training camp in 1961 in Bemidji,” Tarkenton wrote on his blog. “It was COLD! I was a southern boy, from Athens, Ga., and I thought I had landed in the Klondike!”

Falk remembers attending several practices and Van Brocklin’s big cigarette-smoking grin each time McElhenny walked toward the practice field with his rain coat draped over his broad shoulders.

“You could tell Van Brocklin really liked him,” Falk said.

Life magazine writer Marshall Smith came to the first training camp and later published a story on Tarkenton in November 1961 as part of a feature on NFL quarterbacks.

Van Brocklin referred to Tarkenton as ‘Cracker’ or ‘Georgia Peach’ and told Life he had one concern: Tarkenton might be ‘like a preacher’s son – too damned nice.’

It was the early sign of a contentious relationship between Tarkenton and Van Brocklin, who was a traditionalist and did not care for Tarkenton’s scrambling style at the quarterback position.

The 1961 Life story provided glimpses into the Bemidji training camp. Each rookie was required to stand and sing their alma mater’s fight song at the nightly team dinner.

Detailed stories of practices and other bits of camp life appeared daily in the Bemidji Pioneer by former sports writer Cliff Morlan. Coaches and players ate a walleye dinner one night at Bemidji Town & Country Club.

The Vikings held the first intrasquad scrimmage July 29 in front of an overflow crowd of 4,600 at then Bemidji State College Stadium. The offense led by Tarkenton and Shaw won the game 42-35.

Morlan, who had 20 years of experience refereeing local high school and college football, was called on to referee the game and wrote about the experience in his Sports Review column.

He wrote about botching a call on a downed play with a quick whistle and used the experience to point out a rules nuance to many fans who would be watching the pro game for the first time in the fall.

Tarkenton had memorized a complex playbook of 200 plays by the time of the first exhibition against Dallas on Aug. 5.

The 1961 preseason lasted just over a month, five games and the Vikings played four on the road. Minnesota opened against Dallas in Sioux Falls, S.D., played the Colts in Baltimore, traveled to Portland, Ore., to play the San Francisco 49ers and faced the Chicago Bears in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The lone home game was against the Los Angeles Rams at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.

The Vikings lost all five games by a combined score of 116-50 including the opener to Dallas 38-18. The Cowboys did not win a game in 1960.

The Vikings held an intrasquad scrimmage at Minnesota State University, Moorhead a week after the Dallas loss in front of an estimated 3,800 fans.

The big upset

The Vikings meshed together enough during training camp to pull off one of the most notable upsets in NFL history in the season opener Sept. 17 and one week after the 21-17 loss to the Rams.

The Vikings defeated the favored Chicago Bears 37-13 at Metropolitan Stadium in front of 32,236 on a warm day under clear skies.

Shaw started the game at quarterback but Tarkenton led the Vikings to victory with 250 passing yards and four touchdowns to Bob Schnelker, Reichow, McElhenny and Dave Middleton.

The Vikings led 10-6 at halftime, outscored the Bears 14-0 in the third quarter and added 13 more points in the fourth quarter.

“This was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NFL,” Tarkenton wrote. “I was and still am proud that I was one of the original 40.”

The Bears had a winning season in 1961 with an 8-6 record and defeated the Vikings 52-35 in the regular season finale.

The Vikings were outscored 407-285 in the inaugural year and finished last in the Western Conference with a 3-11 record. McElhenny and Alderman were the first Pro Bowl selections in Vikings history.

“The start, the beginning of the Minnesota Vikings, man, that was special,” Tarketon wrote. “I will never forget it. The players, the coaches, the owners, all of that made for a very historic occasion. In my memories, it seems like it all happened just yesterday.”

The memories are just as vivid for Falk. He has held on to a Vikings Press Information Folder full of treasures from the Bemidji training camp days.

It contains player photographs taken on the BSU campus, a score sheet from the 1961 season, player rosters and a typewritten schedule of the 1962 camp still stapled together. There are also newspaper clippings of political-style cartoons drawn by his father, Wally, depicting the Vikings that appeared in the Pioneer.

“I really don’t remember how I got this because it was so long ago,” Falk said as he looked over the collection. “But it’s great. “It was really an exciting time when the Vikings were here and it was great to have them in this town. It was exciting and it’s really a shame they are not here anymore.”

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