Roger Headrick's Purple Heart

He was instrumental in building the Vikings team that's now laying waste to the NFL. So why isn't anyone thanking Roger Headrick?

At a stately old colonial-style home on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka, a certain silver-haired millionaire has taken an exceptionally keen interest in the Minnesota Vikings this season. Like most fans, whether the team is playing at home or away--as they are this Sunday afternoon against Central Division rival Detroit--he watches the games on television. He roots for the team from the comfort of a well-stuffed leather chair in the family room. With its vaulted ceiling, knotty-pine paneling, and neatly framed photos of kids and grandkids everywhere, the den radiates an aura of tasteful upper-class domesticity. A few items of Vikings memorabilia--posters, a giant football, and the like--are scattered about, but not all that many when you consider that just a few months ago the Minnesota Vikings were literally his team.

Of course, back then Roger Headrick didn't watch the games on TV. As befits the part-owner and president of a National Football League franchise, he preferred to take in the action from his glassed-in suite tucked above the Metrodome press box, insulated from the noise and the fans--and, in Headrick's case, from his fellow owners. He liked the view from up high. He could really see what was transpiring with what he likes to call "the product."

"You could focus much more without a lot of distraction," he explains now, sipping orange soda from a can and wielding his clicker. "It's amazing. People think this is a made-for-TV sport, but you miss so much on television. You don't see enough of the whole field."

Daniel Corrigan

The Vikings, rocketing off to their best start since 1975, have given fans plenty of reason to applaud this season. Back when Headrick ran the team, though, there wasn't so much cheering. Certainly, no one cheered for him. In the eyes of the public and press alike, he was seen as too arrogant, too cheap, too corporate. Now, with the Vikings en route to their seventh consecutive win, the 62-year-old Headrick regards the team's sudden flush of success with mixed emotions. And why not? In more than a few ways, this squad, which former San Francisco 49er head coach Bill Walsh recently anointed the best Viking team in at least 20 years, is his.

Look at the roster. Of the 53 players on the most surprising NFL team of 1998, all but three were brought in during Headrick's seven-and-a-half-year regime. He hired the coach, too. Yet as the winning streak has mounted and the backslapping has escalated, virtually no one has been inclined to give him credit.

He certainly bore his fair share of the blame when things weren't going right. Even by the standards of the sports world's overheated rhetoric, Roger Headrick has been singed.

In recent years, columnists from the daily newspapers routinely asserted that many of the disappointments of recent Viking seasons were due to Headrick. And while the team racked up a decent overall record of 64-48 under his reign, the low moments seem the most memorable: TV blackouts, misbehaving players, spats between Headrick and his fellow owners, squabbles with head coach Dennis Green, and, most glaringly, the team's dismal 1-5 showing in playoff games. Ironically, the preternaturally undemonstrative Headrick will likely be remembered by local fans for the noisy and very public discord of his tenure. Those, in any event, were what made the headlines, right up to the very end.

On the morning of Saturday, August 22, the day after he tendered his resignation to the team's new owner, San Antonio billionaire Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, Headrick made a final appearance at Winter Park, the team's Eden Prairie headquarters, to clean out his office. He was shocked to discover that the lock on his office door had been changed. Annoyed, he phoned a locksmith, who refused to assist him without approval from the new management. A determined Headrick finally gained entrance to his office. (He won't say how, except to insist that contrary to subsequent press reports, he "did not break anything.") Then he invited a TV crew to join him and his wife in the office.

Roger Headrick's farewell to the Vikings made the news that night, as Twin Cities viewers tuned in to see this strange scene: Lynn Headrick raising a Styrofoam cup filled with champagne and offering a toast to her husband, who stood on looking defiant, proud, and a little foolish.

Conventional wisdom has it that Roger Headrick just wasn't "a football guy." A few years back, when he appeared at the NFL's annual combine in Indianapolis wearing shorts, with stopwatch in hand, the wags all laughed. Headrick cast in the role of football talent scout struck some as evidence of playacting, a spectacle that stood in contrast with his "true" self: a buttoned-down company man with an MBA from Columbia University and scant experience in the world of professional sport. He'd spent the bulk of his career toiling in relative anonymity for multinational corporations like Exxon and Pillsbury. What did he know about the violent game of pro football? Derisive nicknames--"Mr. Football," "the Muffin Man" (a reference to his stint as chief financial officer at Pillsbury)--appeared on the sports pages and emanated from the local talk-radio airwaves.

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