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?

Suddenly, that all seems like something out of the distant past. A slimmed-down Green has embarked on a second honeymoon with the media. The glowing profiles have been rolling off the presses nationwide. On the call-in shows, he is, once again and warmly, "Denny." As Headrick dryly notes, "Winning changes everything." Only this time, Headrick, whose own reputation always seemed to rise and fall in step with Green's, is missing the rise.

Headrick watches transfixed as wide receiver Cris Carter sneaks from the line of scrimmage at the 10-yard line to the very back of the Detroit end zone, leaps, and makes a seemingly impossible catch to ignite a second-half Vikings rally to bury the Lions. "I saw Joe DiMaggio play one game in his career. He was so graceful. He had so much presence, such an awareness of his body position," Headrick says reverently, as he watches the replay. "Cris Carter has the same thing. His awareness of where he is; his hands. He's just unique."

In the world of professional football, the poetry is on the field, not in the boardroom. Prior to the sale of the Vikings this summer, the team was owned in equal shares by 10 wealthy men and women, most of them old-money Minnesotans. Six members of the ownership group (Headrick among them) belonged to the same exclusive country club, Woodhill. They moved in the same privileged social circles and lived in close proximity to one another amid the leafy suburbs around Lake Minnetonka. "It was," in the words of Lynn Headrick, "an odd group. We were all friends, but not necessarily close friends." When the ownership board put the Vikings on the open market last October, however, they set in motion a series of events that soon had the "friends" spending a lot of time with their attorneys.

In early February Tom Clancy flew into town to announce that he'd reached a deal to buy the Vikings for $200 million. At the time, that was more than anyone had ever paid for an NFL franchise, and it easily surpassed the rival bids, including a $186 million proposal generated by Headrick and a new group of investors. Clancy, the insurance salesman-turned-best-selling novelist, was hailed as a savior, beatified as the anti-Headrick. St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman called Clancy "the best darn writer in America." In a textbook illustration of the hazards of bold journalistic pronouncement, Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray declared that Clancy was "the perfect owner." He also took the opportunity to dismiss Headrick as "brooding, disconsolate and petulant," adding, "He is so stupid, he thinks this game is a business."

From the outset, Headrick challenged the Clancy deal, asserting that he retained a legal right to match the bid under a provision of the ownership group's bylaws. His objections only provoked more vitriol. Fellow board members, some of whom hoped to partner up as minority owners with Clancy, considered firing Headrick from his post as president, and then (unsuccessfully) petitioned the league to curtail his authority. Part-owner Jaye Dyer even went on record fretting about the possibility of Headrick buying a majority stake in the team, stating bluntly, "I don't want to sell the team to somebody that the fans hate." In an often-cited "nonscientific poll," TV station WCCO reported that 98 percent of local fans preferred Clancy to Headrick. "That didn't all have to do with Clancy's popularity," former co-owner Wheelock Whitney told the Star Tribune. "It had to do with their feelings about Roger."

Despite the lusty embrace of the press, the pundits, and the politicians, Clancy didn't have the money to back his offer. But the league ruled against Headrick's claim to the right of first refusal, and after the board voted to put the team back on the open market, he never submitted another bid. He was, he says now, convinced his partners wouldn't sell to him.

Enter Red McCombs, who made what Headrick describes as "a pre-emptive bid," offering $206 for the team plus assuming more than $40 million in debt, pushing the total purchase price to nearly $250 million. As a result of the sale, each of the 10 members of the ownership group collected an estimated $20 million.

Despite the tidy profit, Headrick remains disappointed. "I think the sad part of it is we started as a group that was pretty much of one mind," he says. "I don't want to get into personalities and point fingers, but never, ever did people say anything positive in the last six to 12 months about the team. There was just all sorts of backbiting." The hostilities played out on a personal level; when Chris, the third of the Headricks' four kids, was married this past summer at Woodhill, no members of the board were in attendance. (Headrick says the decision about whom to invite was Chris's, not his.)

According to former owner Dyer, accounts of feuding among the old ownership group were exaggerated. "You can disagree agreeably," he asserts. Of Headrick he adds, "I probably knew Roger during this period as well as anybody. I know he felt he wasn't dealt with fairly. I don't believe he ever did anything that he didn't believe was in the best interest of the organization. But he didn't always sell well with the press and the public."

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