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?

John C. Skoglund, one of the franchise's original owners and former chairman of the board, agrees. "Roger always gave the wrong impression," Skoglund says. "Roger is aloof. He looks that way, he talks that way. Otherwise I think he did a super job. But PR is a big portion of the job. The board was worried about it. The board reads the papers."

In an airy, sun-bleached office overlooking the Vikings' practice fields in Eden Prairie, Jeff Diamond, the ballclub's newly promoted senior vice president for football operations, basks in the glow of this promising midseason. Diamond says Red McCombs, with his casual populist touch, has helped to set the tone for the organization. "I think the ownership change has been really positive," asserts Diamond, who has been with the Vikings in various capacities through four different regimes since 1976. "We've got an owner who is very enthusiastic, very upbeat."

McCombs assumed control of a young, talented, and intact team that through the first seven weeks of the season has vastly exceeded the expectations of all but the most ardent partisans. Most experts picked the Vikes to finish in third place in the NFC Central Division, behind Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Everyone expected an exciting offense, but there were big concerns about the quality of the pass defense, which last year ranked 29th in the league. It appeared the ebullient McCombs would be able to do little to alter the team's immediate fortunes. As it turned out, the car-dealership magnate had bought a franchise that was gassed up and ready to go. After the Vikings ended the Green Bay Packers' 29-game home winning streak in front of a national TV audience on a Monday night in early October, virtually everyone became a believer.

Undeniably, the pieces of the puzzle were in place when the season began. Who put them there is a different question. Diamond is not inclined to discuss Headrick's role in the team's sudden ascendance. "I'd just as soon stay away from that one," he says, then pauses. "I think the bulk of the credit should go to our players and our coaches and the scouts that are here and the people in the organization that helped to put this team together," he adds. "And that's all I have to say on the subject."

Of course, before the season began, Roger Headrick was part of the organization. "We brought back 21 of 22 starters," he recalls. "I don't think anybody else in the league brought back everyone but one starter." Significantly, the front office inked many key veterans to new deals. In February, before the Clancy bid collapsed, Headrick authorized the signings of three All Pros to big new deals: Defensive tackle John Randle was brought in for six years at $6.2 million a year; offensive tackle Todd Steussie signed for five years at $4.2 million a year; and running back Robert Smith came back for five years at $5 million a year.

According to Headrick, Clancy and some of the board members questioned the signings. "I kept saying, 'I'm operating within the budget, as I always have, and nothing's changed,'" he says.

Former board chairman Skoglund concedes that the board scrutinized the signings but says that members ultimately approved the moves. "We knew that we had some very good talent and he couldn't let them go," he insists. "I think the whole board deserves credit."

The Vikings' most visible off-season move was the drafting of wide receiver phenom Randy Moss. Once considered a surefire top-five pick, Moss was passed over by team after team because of concerns about a past conviction on a misdemeanor assault charge and a subsequent probation violation for smoking pot. The Vikings, who had the 21st selection in the first round, snapped him up. Moss is now widely viewed as the steal of the draft, already a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year.

According to Headrick, it was Dennis Green who pushed the pick, arguing that Moss would serve the Vikings' much-fretted-over defensive needs by ensuring that the defense wouldn't have to be on the field so much. In fact, Moss has come to resemble nothing so much as the belated fulfillment of Mike Lynn's ill-fated vision of Herschel Walker: the final ingredient that transforms a very good offense into a great one.

In assessing his team's success this season, Jeff Diamond emphasizes the importance of savvy draft picks and the careful cultivation of younger players. Eight former first-round picks now start for the Vikings--all of whom, save for perennial All Pro guard Randall McDaniel, were selected during Headrick's tenure.

Diamond also observes that "not all first-round picks pan out. I think the true test of a personnel department is what kind of players you're getting in the middle picks. The middle-round picks are the bigger challenge, because they're more of an unknown quantity."

The list of Viking successes here is long, too. Notable among them: free safety Torrian Gray (second round), Jake Reed (third round), Ed McDaniel (fifth round), and defensive tackle Tony Williams (fifth round). Quarterback Brad Johnson came in the ninth round. Strong safety Robert Griffith, who leads the league in interceptions and has been a key component in the improvement of the pass defense, was plucked from the obscurity of a roster spot on
the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

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