Bud Grant is among the rarest of men. He is a true legend. The "Ice Man" stood firm on the sidelines of the Minnesota Vikings for 18 wonderful seasons of winning football. He commanded respect because he earned respect.
Grant had his players practice standing in perfect order for the national anthem. He urged them to show no weakness to an opponent. His players never spiked a football or did an end zone dance. He was a marvelous leader who put the team ahead of all else. Fans and players loved him for it.
That Grant was successful in the NFL should have come as no surprise to anyone. He participated in baseball, basketball and football at the University of Minnesota. He was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA and the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. He chose the Lakers, playing two seasons and getting an NBA championship.
Minnesota Vikings Hall-of-Fame football coach Bud Grant, 85, relaxes with his dog “Boom.” Grant says he has owned Labradors since his wife gave him his first one in 1950.
Grant then joined the Eagles, leading the team in sacks from his defensive end spot as a rookie. The following year he demonstrated how special an athlete he was, being voted to the Pro Bowl at wide receiver after finishing second in the league in receiving yardage and leading the Eagles in touchdown catches.
The now 85-year-old Grant was in Minot recently, participating in one of his passions - duck hunting. He says ducks communicate in ways not understood by men and believes ravens to be the smartest of all animals he's ever encountered. He's had several ravens for pets and has carefully observed their behavior. The following is a conversation with Grant, who talked both hunting and football, mixing his keen intellect with a wonderful sense of humor.
MDN - What got you started in hunting?
Almost a legend lost
The man who became the most revered coach in Minnesota Vikings' history nearly didn't make it past his 14th birthday. A young Bud Grant survived the most lethal winter storm to ever strike the Midwest - the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. One hundred-fifty deaths were blamed on the storm with 49 lives lost in Minnesota alone, many of them duck hunters.
The Nov. 11-12, 1940, blizzard is still rated by the Minnesota State Climatology Office as the No. 2 weather event of the 20th century, surpassed only by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Grant and a friend were on a point of a Wisconsin lake south of Superior hunting ducks, when a bluebird day turned sour. The weather change put ducks in the air and hunters in peril.
"I was thrilled to death," recalled Grant. "The fellow who drove us down went back to a cabin for nap. Suddenly the wind shifted and the storm came. There are records for how the barometer fell so fast and caught everybody unaware. The waves got so high that we couldn't retrieve the ducks."
Dressed lightly and recognizing the storm would soon get the best of them, Grant and his friend decided they must make it back to the cabin to survive.
"My friend, Bill, was wet up to his waist and said he couldn't make it any farther," said Grant. "His pants were frozen. His legs were frozen, but I told him he couldn't stay there. I tried to reason with him but he just didn't make sense."
Grant helped his friend make it to a nearby railroad track which he used as a landmark to find the cabin that had become obscured by wind-driven snow.
"I got back to the cabin where Phil was delighted to see me," said Grant. "I told him Bill was back on the tracks and he went and got him and brought him back. I tried to start a fire but was so cold I couldn't even strike a match. I took a kerosene lantern off the wall, dumped it in a pot-bellied stove and almost blew the cabin down. Then Phil used vodka and orange pop to warm us up."
The following morning the three men got into a car and attempted to return to Superior. Their journey came to a halt when they came upon two other vehicles stuck in a drift crossing the roadway. They were stranded.
"There were four people in those two cars, so we all got in one car and ran the motor on and off to keep warm through the night. We got through it," said Grant. "At daylight it had stopped snowing but the thermometer was way down. People just weren't prepared for this."
Grant agreed to go for help, not knowing where he would find it.
"I just started walking. About three miles later I came to a one-pump gas station and stayed there for two days. Remember, there was no communication. Electricity was out. Power was down," recalled Grant. "Two and a half days later a snowplow came and behind the snowplow were my friends. We were tickled to death to see one another. I thought they had expired on the road and they thought I never made it.
"Then, from the other direction, comes my dad in a fire truck. He was out looking
for us. We had a happy reunion. My dad was just ecstatic. He was a happy guy. When we got back home my mom was a happy lady. For three days we had no contact. Of course, my mom had been listening to reports of storm damage and casualty rates. Some of the people they found frozen to death were still sitting in duck boats."
The experience may have played a role in Grant's famously stoic sideline demeanor as coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He never let his team use heaters, which he regarded as a sign of weakness. At 83 years of age, true to his belief, he stood in shirtsleeves in a cold outdoor stadium in Minneapolis while he was honored as one of the 50 greatest Vikings ever. Former Viking players were there, dressed warmly. The fans gave Grant a standing ovation.
Grant - I've kinda got a theory about hunting. I don't think because you are exposed to hunting that you are going to be a hunter. By the same token, if you are not exposed to hunting you can still become a hunter if you have an interest in the outdoors.
I was born to hunt. I have two brothers who don't have a passion for hunting. I'm 85 years old and hunt a lot. I think it is something you are born with.
MDN - So you believe hunting is in your system?
Grant - I was a player and a coach for 36 years. They play football in the fall. If I ever reincarnate and come back, I'm going to be a baseball manager because then I'd be done in October and have all of the rest of the time to hunt. I missed a lot of time. I'm trying to make up for it. I don't know if I'm going to live long enough.
MDN - I've got to ask you about shotguns. What have you used and what do you use now?
Grant - My first shotgun I bought for $5. It was a single-barrel, single shot with a hammer, electrical tape around the stock to keep it steady, 12-gauge, full choke, 30-inch barrel. A box of shells was 95 cents.
I'm a hunter, not a shooter. I haven't broken a clay pigeon in my life. I like to hunt.
I moved up to a double-barrel by the time I got out of high school. Now I was upper class. From then I went into the service. After the war I bought an Ithaca pump which I shot for a number of years.
I went to Canada, playing and coaching at Winnipeg, and hunted bluebills on the prairie. I couldn't pump fast enough to hunt bluebills so I went to an auto-loader, a Model 50 Winchester that I had for 36 years. Now I shoot a Benelli.
MDN - Why ducks?
Grant - Let me tell you, first, I hunt everything. I'm an expert at absolutely nothing, but I enjoy it. I can shoot good enough to get something, but that's not how I judge success.
Ducks are the biggest challenge of all the hunting. I enjoy pheasant hunting, but the pheasant hunter gets up at 8 o'clock, has a nice breakfast and goes hunting at 10. That's enjoyable, nice. A duck hunter gets up at 5 o'clock, prays for bad weather, windy, cold, dark, you've got to put out decoys if that's your thing. The challenge is much greater for a duck hunter.
MDN - When does it get exciting for you?
Grant - When I can see a duck's eyes. Most of the time they are too far out. If you've hunted ducks long enough you can read body language, read what they are doing.
I don't believe in calling. I've been with a lot of guys who call, but the ducks are coming in anyway. The calling made the hunter feel good. It's all enjoyable though, I love to watch ducks.
MDN - During your years in Winnipeg you spent a lot of time at the famed Delta Marsh.
Grant - I did. I spent a lot of time at the research station and hunted the marsh with my canoe and dog and whoever else wanted to go. I hunted there a lot. That was my bonus to signing with Winnipeg.
MDN - OK, let's talk football.
Grant - Winnipeg paid me 30 percent more than Philadelphia did. I led the league in receiving three of the four years and then somebody had the bright idea to ask me to coach. To make a long story short, I accepted at 29 years of age with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Now, the advantage to that is, I'm on the prairie where all the ducks are! That's the bonus of this whole thing!
It came to pass that the Vikings needed a coach. They were an expansion team. I turned them down because I couldn't think of any coach that took on an expansion team that lasted very long. I had a good job too. We won a championship in Winnipeg and I wasn't going to go to Minnesota and get fired after three years, which Norm Van Brocklin did. That's when I took over and benefited from all the progress he'd made.
They had some players - Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Dave Osborn, Bill Brown and those guys; a pretty good nucleus for a team.
MDN - You made it 18 seasons, to four Super Bowls and the Hall of Fame.
Grant - The Hall is something you don't think about, it just comes about. Having said that, it is quite an honor when you look at all those names. It is quite a thrill to be included with those people.
MDN - You coached in a real tough guy era, players like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke and Mike Curtis and Lonnie Warwick. What was that like?
Grant - One thing you have to recognize is that today is better. It's never been this good. The players are better. They are bigger, stronger, faster, better organized. They are just better than we were. I'm amazed at what these fellas can do today. It is top-grade entertainment. I don't begrudge them a nickel for what they get paid. We only hear about the top guys. What about the guys down at the bottom earning the minimum and lasting only three years.
Too much money? What do you want to do, give it to the owners? The owners have enough money, so the players may as well have it.
MDN - If Bud Grant was coaching today would your players spike the football?
Grant - I covered that when I got there. I explained it to them. It's a team concept and not an individual show. Spiking a football would not be encouraged. I said listen to me very closely because it might mean you are in jeopardy if you do that. Act like you've been there before. Hand the ball to the official or leave it on the ground, but no spiking.
They bought it. I don't know what I would have done if they did spike it. I couldn't fire everybody. We had Ed Marinaro, a good guy from Cornell that I had some heart-to-hearts with. He wanted to be a showman. You can be a showman if you're a stand-up comic but not if you are on a football team.
As far as the greatest players? The greatest ability you can bring to the game is durability. You can never become great without durability.
MDN - Defensive end Jim Marshall was a Viking trademark. Tell me about him.
Grant - I saw him in Canada. We couldn't block him. We couldn't stop him. We couldn't do anything. I looked at film and asked who is that guy? They told me he was the guy who got tossed out of Ohio State. He was playing for Saskatchewan. When I got to Minnesota, he was there.
People ask me who was my best player or favorite player. You can't do that, but you can have special players. Jim Marshall was a special player. I mean he was a special player. He was a captain, a free spirit and bought the program. He was a leader by example and played every down full speed. He had great durability. He played every game. If he was injured he only played better. If they came in and told me Marshall had a 104-degree temperature I'd say "great," and he'd invariably have a great game. He's a special person, a special player and a special friend.
MDN - Can you tell which players will live up to their potential and which ones will not?
Grant - If you could figure that out you could go a long ways in this world. You never know what you are getting. Take Percy Harvin of the Vikings. There's not a better talent in the league right now, but there was a time when they didn't know if he was going to make it because of his personality, because of his demeanor, his individualism, if that's the right word.
Now he's probably the most valuable player on the team, along with Adrian Peterson. He has come around.
MDN - How do you want to be remembered? As a coach, a hunter?
Grant - Well, I had six kids and they all turned out good. The day my youngest graduated from college is the day I quit coaching. I had taken care of all my obligations as a father and a husband. My kids, 19 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren all live within 20 to 30 minutes of my house in Bloomington. I credit that to my wife. She was the key to that whole operation. I lost her to Parkinson's. It was tough, but even on that last day we could talk. That was important.
MDN - You are 85 and in great health. How?
Grant - You've got to pick the right parents. Really, seriously. I'm not an advocate of anything other than I eat bananas every day. Your genetics are what they are. I had a physical the other day at Rochester and they said everything is good, but that I've got a 50-year-old body and an 85-year-old skeleton and they don't go together.
I've got an arthritic back, both knees have been replaced, but I'm still upright and still can do it. No secrets. Stay active if you can. I'm not restricted in any way so I just keep plugging away.
MDN - No secrets? Then tell me about the Dairy Queen.
Grant - I'll share that secret with you. It's bad luck to drive by a Dairy Queen. If you are ever going hunting you never want to drive by one. It's bad luck.