Behind the story: Vikings training camp in Bemidji series

Photo courtesy BSU Photo Services This summer 1962 photo shows the Minnesota Vikings practicing on the campus of Bemidji State University. BSU Photo Services.

I have received a lot of nice feedback and comments from people in the community about my Vikings training camp in Bemidji series.

The three-part series ran last week in the Pioneer and you can visit the series home page here to read the stories.

The series was essentially a year in the making and there were some detours along the way.

Pioneer publisher Dennis Doeden suggested I write the story in the summer of 2010 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Bemidji camps. The Vikings were promoting their 50th season last year but it technically wasn’t the 50-year anniversary of the first Bemidji training camp in 1961.

So we decided to push it back a year.

I got serious about writing the story again in July. But there were a number of hurdles: Where can I get photos? What players can I talk to? Was there anyone around back then who could give a fan’s account?

We had one photo on hand at the Pioneer and it was the only photo Bemidji State had on file. It was a scene of a Vikings practice in 1962.

Like any modern journalist I went online to Google and typed in: Vikings Bemidji Training Camp. Outside of a Life magazine article featuring Fran Tarkenton there was little available. But it was a good starting point.

I wanted to talk to players and went through a person in the Vikings front office. I pitched the idea for the story, he gave me Stu Voight’s telephone number and suggested I start there.

Voight, a former player and broadcaster, was very helpful. We had a long chat over the phone about Vikings history and he was a good source of information. The problem was he never participated in the Bemidji training camps. He gave me telephone numbers of two players who were in the Bemidji camps – Jim Marshall (an original Viking) and Dave Osborn (1965 rookie).

Things were coming together. Then came a few more hurdles.

Marshall’s phone number was out of service. Tarkenton denied my interview request. The Vikings employee who put me in contact with Voight said he didn’t have any more time to help because training camp was about to start.

I thought trainer Fred Zamberletti would be a good interview (he was the original trainer and still works with the Vikings). But I missed a phone call he returned. His voice mail at Winter Park was not set up to take messages and I gave up that chase after making 10 phone calls to him over the span of a week.

I was ready to give up on the story. Time to cut my losses.

Then the story got rolling again.

Doeden had given me a number of a Bemidji resident Gale Falk, who said he was at the game when the Dallas Cowboys came to Bemidji.

Falk was my last chance and he proved to be an asset. He shared a few of his memories as a fan attending practices and had a Vikings Press Information Folder full of materials from the 1962 camp: roster sheets, schedules and more importantly, photos.

Later that night I gave Osborn a call. He was very nice to talk to and he was a great interview.

The next day I started writing the story and discovered it was going to get long. I made the decision to turn it into a series.

I wanted more information on the Vikings game against the Cowboys. That required a trip to the basement of the Bemidji State library where the Pioneer’s archives are stored on microfilm. It was my first experience using microfilm and what I found is shared online with the series.

Sure enough I found all the details I needed about the Vikings-Cowboys game (it was a controlled scrimmage) through the daily column by former Pioneer sports writer Ciff Morlan. He was a detailed writer and appeared to cover the Vikings most every day when the training camps were here.

The microfilm provided more information than I expected, like how the Bemidji community and the region came together to make the event possible. All of those little details made it into the second part of the series.

I got back to thinking about my conversation with Falk and his retelling of a story told by Bob Nelson about a confrontation with head coach Norm Van Brocklin at Jack’s nightclub in Wilton. I had heard many second-hand tales of wild nightlife from Vikings players and coaches.

I wanted a first-hand story.

Nelson was a former Bemidji State football player and I thought the Bemidji State Athletic Media Relations office could help me find him. Dax Larson directed me to the alumni office and sure enough, they had his phone number.

Nelson was surprised when I called him and asked him about the incident at Jack’s. He told me the story only after asking his wife for permission because she was involved.

Nelson’s story was incredible. He retold the story with such detail – including the part of Van Brocklin watching Ron VanderKelen’s touchdown in the College All-Star game on television – that I had no problem believing the validity of the story. Plus, it’s hard to deny a story when the wife needs to be asked for permission.

Nelson said the Jack’s incident happened in 1962 or 1963. After we debated a bit he was sure of 1962.

At this point I had all the material I wanted to write about. The first two parts of the story were finished in the next few days. But I wanted to double check the Jack’s incident more and make sure the year was correct.

So I did some searching on VanderKelen and discovered the College All-Star game he starred in was in 1963. Even better, Sports Illustrated had a story on VanderKelen and his arrival to Vikings camp in Bemidji.

Nelson said the incident happened after an intrasquad scrimmage. Sure enough I was able to verify it by going back to the microfilm and reading Morlan’s column.

The final pieces to the series came together quickly.

Jayson Hajdu, University of North Dakota sports information director, helped me get a photo of Osborn from the UND files. Though I was never able to pinpoint the reason why Vikings training camp left Bemidji, Morlan gave enough insight to contribute to the story.

What started out as a simple idea for a story turned into an unexpected challenge. After a month of seeming dead ends, the story – and series- came together in the span of about a week. It was a rewarding experience and I am happy to hear of the readers who enjoyed it.

After the last story was done I thought of a quote pinned to the cubicle wall of a newsroom friend of mine in Owatonna.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”
-E.L. Doctorow

2 thoughts on “Behind the story: Vikings training camp in Bemidji series

  1. Eric,

    Enjoyed the Viking’s training camp articles. In your article you mention that the players also visted the bowling alley. My Dad and Uncle owned the bowling alley at that time and they always told me stories about when the Viking’s players would come in. One was of Carl Eller who had size 21 shoes.( Not verified) He would always ask my Dad if they had size 21 bowling shoes in yet? Another was when Fran Tarkington would come in he would only drink Orange Crush Soda Pop while the other players would drink beer. Just some of the stories

    Scott Tuomala

    • Thank you for reading, Scott.

      After talking with so many people in town, it amazes me how the players just seemed to blend into town during the training camps. The NFL has so much hype and media coverage these days it is hard to imagine that past era. The players then seemed like everyday, blue-collar people.

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