(Note: This is the last of a three-part series that is running in the Bemidji Pioneer. Part I ran Aug. 21 and Part II ran Aug. 22. 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.)
Bemidji and Grand Forks are separated by a two-hour drive on U.S. Highway 2, and they share a kind of sister-city relationship.
Bemidji is a popular vacation destination and weekend getaway for Grand Forks residents.
Bemidji was neither of those things for Minnesota Vikings rookie running back Dave Osborn, who made his first trip to town in July 1965 after graduating from the University of North Dakota to participate in head coach Norm Van Brocklins training camp.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the setting on Lake Bemidji, said Osborn, a native of Cando, N.D. The practice field was nice, had a pretty view and I remember the hard work it was. I know there were a lot of players and a lot of scrimmaging wearing pads two times a day. It was survival of the fittest.
Osborn was a 13th-round NFL Draft pick and arrived at Bemidji State University with about 70 other rookies. Staying at training camp was far from guaranteed for the fresh faces looking to make the roster of the five-year-old Vikings franchise.
Van Brocklin, who came to Minnesota in 1961 as the franchises first coach, cut anywhere from eight to 12 players every few days and replaced them with players coming to Bemidji from other NFL rookie camps. That process went on for two weeks until the 40-50 veteran players arrived at camp.
It was a constant turnover, and a bus was leaving there every day shipping people out and another bus was bringing people in, Osborn said.
The two-month camp of two-a-day practices was exhausting for Osborn. Van Brocklins camps were known to be tough rookies were called cannon fodder and Osborn said he did not realize how tough the camps really were until Van Brocklin left the Vikings two years later.
I was a rookie and I didnt know any different, Osborn said. I thought, Well, this is pro ball and this is just the way it is. Its a lot tougher than college. When I was in Bemidji they were looking for players. They needed bodies to scrimmage and they went through a lot of people. Every day you wondered if your name was going to come up and you would be the next person going home.
Coaches and veteran players were known frequent bars in town like Jacks nightclub and The Duchess, but Osborn said he never made it off campus.
There was no nightlife for us young guys whatsoever, Osborn said. We were busy morning practice, lunch, afternoon practice, team meeting by the time you get out of the team meetings you were ready to go to bed for the next day.
Camp leaves town
The 1965 training camp ended a five-year run in Bemidji and the Vikings moved to the Minnesota State University, Mankato the following summer. Training camp remains there today.
Why the Vikings left Bemidji has never been determined. The move could be linked to a few different reasons, including personnel logistics.
It (Mankato) helped for juggling people back and forth to camp because it was a long drive from Bemidji to Minneapolis where Mankato it is a lot quicker, Osborn said. If someone has an injury they can run up to the Cities and theres the airport for getting players in and out.
The proximity to the Twin Cities was also beneficial for media coverage. Bemidji Pioneer sports writer Cliff Morlan had lunch with Twin Cities sports writers Sid Hartman, Dick Collum, Bill Boyer and Van Brocklin during his first visit to Mankato camp in July 1966. Morlan wrote: The Twin Cities press really likes the close camp and the 80-mile drive.
Morlan, who wrote for the Pioneer until he died in 1979, attended almost every Vikings practice during the Bemidji training camp era and wrote daily stories in his Sports Review column.
An August 1965 Morlan column cites the Vikings displeasure with constant road construction on Birchmont Drive next to the practice field by Chet Anderson Stadium and other close campus construction projects.
After Morlan visited the Mankato camp in 1966 for the intrasquad scrimmage played in front of about 5,000 people, he wrote the Vikings were happy with housing and close proximity to the practice field, but said the new fields at Mankato were too rolly and did not compare with the BSU field.
There were other amenities to make the Vikings happy.
Jim Eason, the equipment manager, is the only Viking worker who has less room to operate at Mankato than he had at Bemidji, Morlan wrote. Trainer Fred Zamberletti was all smiles when we visited his quarters. He does have a fine setup.
Following practices, players enjoyed nightlife at the Mettlers and Rathskeller bars or attended one of three movie theatres in close proximity.
And businesses in Mankato embraced camp with informational booths at many gas stations and banners decorating the streets.
Van Brocklin era ends
The Bemidji training camp era was over and Van Brocklins tenure with the Vikings ended two years later in the winter of 1967.
Norm was a great football mind, Osborn said. He could come up with a game plan but he wasnt really good with handling people. He was a perfectionist. He played quarterback and expected everyone to be a perfectionist. It was hard for him to tolerate anybody not being a perfectionist and making a mistake.
Vikings scrambling quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the traditional-minded Van Brocklin were known to clash during their years together.
The two were ultimately unable to reconcile their differences. Tarkentons request for a trade was granted and Van Brocklin resigned in February 1967.
Tarkenton went to the New York Giants and Van Brocklin went to the Atlanta Falcons where he coached until retiring to his Georgia peach farm in 1974. Van Brocklin, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, died of a stroke in 1983.
Superior, Wis., native Bud Grant was brought in to be the second Vikings head coach in 1967 after serving 10 years as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
When Bud Grant came and took over the Vikings it was quite a change, Osborn said. He had a whole different system and it was kind of like we all died and went to heaven because he was such a different coach. I dont think he (Van Brocklin) had the great ability for managing people and that was something Bud Grant brought to the team. He was excellent at managing people. That was Buds strong point to get the most out of his players and the whole situation.
The Vikings went to the playoffs for the first time in 1968 after winning the NFC Central Division and it ushered in a successful decade for the Vikings. From 1968-78, the Vikings won nine divisional titles and lost four Super Bowls. Grant was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Tarkenton returned to the Vikings in 1972 and played in three of the Super Bowls. He was the NFL MVP in 1975 and retired in 1978 with 47,000 passing yards and 342 touchdowns both top 10 numbers in NFL history. The original 1961 Viking was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 and is now a business consulting entrepreneur.
Veteran running back Hugh McElhenny and lineman Grady Alderman played on the inaugural 1961 team and were the first Pro Bowlers in team history.
McElhenny only played one season with the Vikings and was one of 11 players to have reached 11,000 all-purpose yards when he retired in 1964. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970 and retired to the Las Vegas area.
Alderman played 14 seasons and appeared in five Pro Bowls. He went on to become the general manager of the Denver Broncos and a financial consultant before retiring to the Denver area.
Defensive end Jim Marshall was an original Viking, appeared in two Pro Bowls and played until 1979. His NFL records of 282 consecutive games played and 270 consecutive starts lasted three decades.
Ron VanderKelen, who was Van Brocklins highly touted rookie quarterback when he came to Bemidji camp in 1963, did not have much of a professional career. Wisconsins Rose Bowl MVP threw six touchdowns in a four-year career backup role to Tarkenton.
Osborn survived Van Brocklins Bemidji training camp and had 11 successful seasons in the NFL. He scored a touchdown in the 1969 Super Bowl loss to Kansas City, played in the 1974 Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh and rushed for 4,336 yards in his career a pro career that began on the lakeside practice field at Bemidji State.
Bemidji was a great place to practice, the evenings were cool and always had a breeze coming off the lake I thought it was very nice, Osborn said. The players today are bigger, stronger and faster but I dont think they are any tougher than we were back then.