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?

"I was the corporate-suit guy, and that's not what they were comfortable with," Headrick says. "I wasn't a rah-rah salesman. I didn't make stories for them."

Still, the press seldom shied from an opportunity to make a story out of Headrick. Last year the Star Tribune's Dan Barreiro labeled the Vikes' president and CEO "the most reviled sports executive in town." The Pioneer Press's Tom Powers has called him "a knucklehead" and "a career bean counter." In commenting on Headrick's resignation, fellow Pi Press columnist Jim Caple authored a terse and stinging lead: "Good-bye and good riddance. Our long state embarrassment is finally over." (Caple had offered an even harsher assessment in an earlier piece: "Headrick's disgraceful management has held the Vikings back more than anyone.")

Months after his departure, Headrick's wife of 36 years is still irked by what she calls "belittling and unfair" attacks from columnists, which in her view fueled fan hostilities. "I quite frankly feel that the media played a large part in it," Lynn Headrick says. "And when it's inaccurate, that's just so frustrating. You can't do anything about it. You try to brush it off and say, 'That's part of the game,' but you just want to say, 'Does that make you feel better--poking fun at someone else?'"

Back in 1991, when the Vikings' then-general manager and part-owner Mike Lynn selected his friend and neighbor Roger Headrick to run the team, the franchise appeared to be in deep trouble. Headrick, who had purchased a piece of the club in 1989, had never so much as served on the board, and installing a novice in the front office seemed questionable, especially under the circumstances: A disastrous trade with the Dallas Cowboys for running back Herschel Walker two years earlier--engineered by Lynn with high hopes that Walker would lead the ballclub to the Super Bowl--left Headrick in charge of an aging squad and no first- or second-round draft picks for three successive years. It was, many have observed, the worst trade in the history of the NFL, and perhaps the worst in all of professional sports since the Boston Red Sox dealt Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 in 1920. While the Cowboys fielded championship-caliber teams year after year--largely on the strength of those extra picks--the Vikings struggled. In Jerry Burns's final two seasons as head coach, 1990 and '91, the team stumbled to records of 6-10 and 8-8.

The following year, Headrick made his first--and probably most significant--move as the team's president. In the league's second-whitest market (after Green Bay), he replaced Burns with Dennis Green, only the second black head coach in NFL history. The Vikings promptly went 11-5 and snared the division title. The Washington Touchdown Club named Green Coach of the Year. There was even talk that Headrick ought to be named Executive of the Year. Those were the glorious times. They didn't last.

"We were almost on top of world," Headrick recalls, then notes in the same breath that the success of Green's first season created problems down the road. "Everybody had these grand expectations that were not met. Green Bay kept getting better and we kept moving sideways. I kept thinking we were going to get better."

In five subsequent campaigns, the Vikings played well enough to make the playoffs every year except 1995. Yet the team never joined the league's elite. The Vikings were streaky and prone to letdowns. They lost a slew of star veterans--Chris Doleman, Henry Thomas, and Gary Zimmerman--to trades or free agency. "We didn't have the ability to replace them in kind. We couldn't compete in the free-agent market, so we had to go through the draft. And you can't do that overnight," Headrick explains, noting that the penny-pinching was rooted in steadily falling revenues in relation to other NFL teams--from a ranking of 17th in the 30-team league in 1991 to "28th or 29th" today.

When the critics weren't blaming Headrick for the Vikings' failure to acquire big-name free agents, they were excoriating him for discord at Winter Park. Off-the-field scandals sprouted like weeds. Headrick, it was said, was foolishly loyal to Dennis Green, who was himself routinely and vigorously pilloried by both fans and commentators. Stories about the coach's past marital problems, along with a sexual-harassment claim from his days as a college coach at Stanford, made headlines. He feuded openly with the dailies' columnists; the Star Tribune's Barreiro mockingly referred to him as "Dennis Amin Dada," while in one particularly bilious assault, Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere compared Green to a cockroach.

Increasingly, members of the Vikings' ownership group grew unhappy with the direction of the franchise. In a well-publicized but much-disputed episode of boardroom intrigue in the middle of the 1996 season, two of Headrick's fellow owners reportedly courted their old golfing pal and then-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz as a replacement for Green. Neither ever admitted to making overtures to Holtz, but the rumors left Green incensed. In his 1997 autobiography No Room for Crybabies, the head coach suggested he might sue his employers for a stake in the team; the Holtz rumors, he claimed, had damaged his professional reputation. Green never followed through on the threat, but the flap further deepened divisions on the board. When Green demanded an off-season contract extension this past January, Headrick refused, and another headline melodrama ensued. Ultimately the coach rescinded his demand and pledged to serve the final year of his contract.

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