December 14, 2018 10:35 AM
Fifty years ago this week, the Minnesota Vikings closed the regular season with a 24-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a game with historic implications for both franchises, although for very different reasons.
For the Vikings, the victory - coupled with the Green Bay Packers' win over the Chicago Bears - earned the team the NFL Central Division title and the first playoff berth in franchise history.
The Vikings - who entered the league in 1961 - finished the 1968 regular season 8-6 under second-year head coach Bud Grant.
Quite a turnaround from a 3-8-3 finish the year before.
"The mindset was changing," recalled cornerback Bobby Bryant, who had been selected by the team in the seventh round of the 1967 NFL Draft and went on to become a longtime franchise mainstay. "Bud had gotten rid of a couple of players who had been prone to making mistakes. The message had been sent that if you weren't disciplined, you weren't going to fit in on this team."
Then, 1968 marked the start of a run of success that saw the team advance to the Super Bowl four times over the next decade, starting with its first appearance the following season.
"Coming out of college and joining the Vikings (that season), you could tell right away who the leaders were without anybody having to say one word," recalled Oscar Reed, then a rookie running back who went on to play with the team through 1974 before spending one season with the Atlanta Falcons the following year.
Reed cited players like longtime defensive end Jim Marshall as being important influences in the locker room.
"Guys like that just stood out," he said. "And you fell in line behind them."
The Eagles, meanwhile, began the 1968 season 0-11. But victories over the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints the two weeks prior to the matchup with the Vikings had taken the team out of the running for the top draft pick and a shot at Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson.
With the score tied 7-7 at halftime at a snowy Franklin Field, the Philadelphia fans' frustrations poured out on an unlikely target.
According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a snowstorm had reportedly kept the team's regular Santa Claus from making it to the game for a halftime appearance. So an Eagles employee asked 20-year-old Frank Olivo, who had worn a Santa suit and fake beard that day, to fill in.
The hastily chosen Santa was not warmly received as fans proceeded to boo and pelt him with snowballs, an incident that has become legendary over the decades.
"You hear the booing," Olivo, who died in 2015, told ESPN years later. "You hear it. I said 'Well, you know, I understand what's going on here. They're not booing me. They're not booing Santa Claus. They're booing everything.'"
"Then I started getting hit with (the snowballs). I remember watching a fellow make a snowball and throw it at me. I just walked up to him at the bottom of the wall, and I said 'You're not getting anything for Christmas.'"
Olivo's nephew, Joe Gothie, said his uncle was not bothered by the experience, and continued attending Eagles games over the years.
"I think he enjoyed the notoriety," Gothie said. "There was no bitterness on his part or anything like that. He was a fan. He was one of them. So he understood what their mood and temperament was at the time."
The Vikings, meanwhile, were inside the locker room preparing for the second half and missed out on viewing the whole affair.
"I heard about it later," Reed said with a chuckle. "I didn't witness it when it happened. That was crazy. The fans were actually booing Santa Claus."
"There was snow on the ground and snow all over the stands that day," added defensive tackle Gary Larsen, the former Concordia-Moorhead standout who played for the Vikings from 1965-74 and was part of the legendary Purple People Eaters with Marshall and fellow defensive linemen Carl Eller and Alan Page.
"That wasn't something you really expected to see. But those fans were angry. And the East Coast is always a little different climate."
The second half saw Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp complete a 30-yard touchdown pass to Gene Washington, then run for another en route to the victory.
"Joe Kapp was a leader, man," Reed said. "Joe Kapp was a leader. If there was a war going on, he was going to be on the front line. That was just his personality. And when you have someone who's a leader like that, it really makes a difference."
Afterward, according to an account in the next day's Minneapolis Tribune, the team gathered in the locker room as columnist Sid Hartman listened by telephone to a radio broadcast of the Packers-Bears game. The players cheered for, gulp, the Packers, then in their first season without the legendary Vince Lombardi as head coach.
"The Packers had to beat Chicago for us to win the title outright," Bryant said.
The Vikings went on to fall 24-14 on the road to the Baltimore Colts in the mud at Memorial Stadium the following week. The Colts, the NFL's most dominant team that season, would later be upset by Joe Namath and the AFL's New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
Bryant and company lost 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys in the now-defunct Playoff Bowl - a sort of third-place game - at the Orange Bowl in Miami during the first week of 1969.
"They should have called that game the Losers Bowl," said Bryant, who did return a punt for a touchdown in that matchup. "It was kind of like, 'Who cares.' It didn't mean a whole lot."
But Bryant, Reed and Larsen all say the seeds planted that season blossomed in the years to come as Grant's Vikings became one of the NFL's elite teams - advancing to four Super Bowls, even if never winning it all.
"The thing that stands out in my mind was that it was clear Bud Grant had a certain expectation of you," Reed said. "He didn't talk about it a lot. He didn't yell at you. I don't think I ever heard him raise his voice in all my years there. But you knew exactly where you stood with him and what he expected. And that rubbed off on everyone in the locker room."
"Everything that happened that season (1968) was new to us," Larsen added. "Playing in our first playoff game. Even playing in that Losers Bowl game. It was all part of the growing process so to speak. And after that season, I think we were all looking forward to the next year and picking up where we left off."
As for Olivo, his nephew said he even continued donning the Santa costume over the years - just not at Eagles games.
"He said they asked him if he wanted to do it again the following year, but he declined," Gothie said. "And he said from that point on, he never again booed any athlete. He said going through the experience of having people boo you like that was the worst feeling. So he wouldn't do that to anyone else."
Updated: December 14, 2018 10:35 AM
Created: December 13, 2018 11:45 AM
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