September 07, 2018 10:54 AM
In some ways, the Minnesota Vikings memorable 1998 season seems like a long time ago to Todd Steussie.
But in others, the team's starting left offensive tackle said it doesn't feel like two decades have passed at all.
"I have a 19-year-old son who wasn't born until the following year, so yes, it does hit me that it's been 20 years now," said Steussie, who will be one of more than 30 members of that year's team in town this weekend for events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of that season, including a halftime ceremony during the Vikings' season opener against San Francisco Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"But at the same time, it's still amazing it's been that long," he said. "I just spoke to (running back) Robert Smith the other day, and we both found it hard to believe it was already the 20th anniversary. These things come up though. Time passes."
The fall of 1998 remains a time Vikings fans won't ever forget, even if the season ended with one of the more disappointing losses in franchise history - a 30-27 overtime setback to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Metrodome.
Before that though, Steussie and his teammates were on a historic run, finishing the regular season 15-1 behind an offense that scored a then-NFL record 556 points.
The season marked the first as owner for Red McCombs, the San Antonio-based businessman who purchased the Vikings in the summer of that year after an agreement to sell the team to author Tom Clancy fell through.
"It was the talk of the NFL and all of sports - what we were doing there," remembers McCombs, now 90. "That team couldn't be stopped when we were on offense, and we did a pretty reasonable job on defense too. But, that offense was incredible."
The season started in impressive fashion 20 years ago this week with a 31-7 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 7 at the Metrodome - a game that also marked the start of a Hall of Fame career for a then-rookie wide receiver out of Marshall who had fallen to the team with the 21st pick overall in that year's NFL Draft.
Randy Moss caught touchdown passes of 48 and 31 yards from Brad Johnson, finishing the afternoon with four receptions for 95 yards.
"I think we all knew Randy was talented," said Steussie, one of seven members of the 1998 Vikings offense selected to that year's Pro Bowl. "It was interesting in training camp because he seemed so fast. But the league is littered with fast guys who never pan out. Fast doesn't always make a wide receiver a Hall of Fame talent. So you had to see how it panned out when the regular season started, and then we saw."
Moss went on to catch 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns that year, and the Vikings kept rolling despite losing Johnson to a broken ankle in a week two win at St. Louis. Veteran Randall Cunningham more than filled the void, throwing for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns.
"Randy is one of a kind," McCombs said. "He always has been, and he always will be. I've been an athletic team owner in baseball, the NBA and the NFL; and I've never seen an athlete who could do what Randy could do. But, that team wasn't just Randy. There were so many other really good players too."
The only regular-season setback came against those same Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week eight. Other than that, though, it was smooth sailing for the team.
Perhaps too smooth, Steussie said.
"It seemed like there were plenty of signs the stars were aligning," he said. "I wish maybe that hadn't been the case quite as much. (Head coach) Denny Green (who died in 2016) did a great job keeping our heads screwed on our shoulders. But the one lesson I learned from that year was winning the way we were every week can be dangerous too."
He added, "I would have liked to see our mettle tested a little more before we got into the playoffs."
Yes, the playoffs. No telling of the 1998 Vikings' story can avoid what happened there. After rolling past Arizona 41-21 in the divisional round, the team played host to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 17, 1999.
The Vikings were huge favorites, despite the fact Atlanta had gone 14-2 in the regular season.
But, every fan old enough to remember knows what happened next.
A 20-7 first-half lead ... a missed fourth-quarter field goal by kicker Gary Anderson who had not missed one all year that would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead ... the Falcons tying the game 27-27 in the final minute of regulation ... the Vikings taking a knee on third down just before overtime ... Morten Andersen's 38-yard field goal in overtime to send Atlanta to Miami and the Super Bowl where the Falcons lost 34-19 to John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
It all still stings, even two decades later.
"It's part of the story, 100 percent," said Steussie, who went on to play in a Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers five years later. "There's no way it can't be. There's no such thing as being almost-pregnant, and there's only one team that can say they are the best at the end of each season. We weren't it."
"Did we have the talent and pieces in place to be that team," he added. "Yes we did. But that's the most disappointing part. We didn't finish the job. It doesn't debilitate me or anything. But it's tough to come up short like that. Especially when a team has that kind of talent and that kind of opportunity."
"The best team didn't win that day," McCombs said. "But the people of Minnesota knew they had the best team. I always had a great relationship with the people of Minnesota. They really welcomed our family, and I always felt like we did a good job managing the team while we were there."
He continued, "To me, the team belongs to the fans. But I felt like we did a good job managing it while we had it. And I still support and follow the Vikings."
The 1998 team did re-energize the Vikings' fan base, creating a new generation of followers not yet born, or not old enough to remember, the team's four Super Bowl berths and losses.
That legacy will be honored this weekend, marking a reunion for players who made it happen.
"It will be the first time in awhile I've seen a lot of those guys," Steussie said. "I still talk to Robert Smith fairly frequently. And there are a couple of other guys I talk to maybe not as frequently; but everyone gets caught up in life, and they get busy with whatever they're involved in. So it will be good to see them again.
"It does mean a lot that the Wilfs (owners of the Vikings) are honoring that team," he said. "Even though ultimately we didn't accomplish our final goal, but we accomplished a lot."
Updated: September 07, 2018 10:54 AM
Created: September 06, 2018 11:30 AM
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