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?

Frank Gilliam, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel who runs what one national magazine recently called "one of the best and most consistent personnel departments in football," is the man most widely credited for most of the aforementioned moves. In 1994 Gilliam, a 28-year employee of the club, was promoted to the top talent-scouting post--by Roger Headrick.

Unlike a lot of other NFL teams, the Vikings haven't spent much time or effort raiding the rosters of other teams. Of all the current starters, only cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock (a former Patriot) and kicker Gary Anderson (an ex-49er) played elsewhere in the league last year. Neither was considered the sort of big name that fans and sportswriters have demanded for so long. Both have contributed to the club's unblemished record, but, by the standards of the league, they represent modest additions. Headrick says the emphasis on developing younger players and retaining veterans was part of a broad plan to maintain continuity. Interestingly, a lot of the teams that spent the most heavily to recruit free agents last year--including the winless Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers--are struggling.

WCCO radio broadcaster George Chapple, a.k.a. Dark Star, is one of Headrick's few staunch defenders. "Roger got screwed," Chapple asserts. "The reason this team is winning is Roger Headrick did a masterful job of putting it together. Roger Headrick was the architect of this entire project.

"Everybody perceived him to be something he wasn't," Chapple continues. "They perceived him to be some late-20th-century conniving corporate tight-ass. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a guy people should have loved. I know Roger Headrick better than anyone in the media and better than any fan, and this guy was as honorable a man as I know."

Fellow broadcaster Mike Woodley agrees that Headrick hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves. "The truth isn't really being told. Nobody's lying, but nobody's considering who put this team together," says Woodley, who covers the Vikings for KFAN radio and WFTC-TV (Channel 29). "He certainly had more of a role than Red McCombs." Woodley does, however, note that McCombs did make one unexpected and very significant move, one that Headrick had resisted since January: The day before the season started, McCombs awarded Dennis Green a three-year contract extension. Some Vikings, including veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham, have cited Green's deal as a big relief to the players.

One would be hard-pressed to name two more dissimilar characters--at least in the rarefied world of former owners of professional sport franchises--than the prim Roger Headrick and the blunt, plainspoken Calvin Griffith. Yet Griffith, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins, notes a common bond. When Griffith sold his team to Carl Pohlad in 1984, he handed over an organization that in three short years would go on to win the first of two championships. The vast majority of players on both the 1987 and 1991 championship teams--Puckett, Gaetti, Viola, Gagne, Blyleven--were pure products of Griffith's system. Still, few noted the team's promise, and Griffith was often lambasted. "Oh, they all criticized the hell out of me, being a cheapskate and every damn thing," Griffith says from his home in Indialantic, Fla. "But in my farewell I said, 'Carl, I'm giving you a championship-caliber ballclub.'"

Watching the '98 Vikings get off to their best start since their 12-2 season in 1975, Griffith predicts similar good fortune for Red McCombs. "Just like Pohlad," Griffith says. "He hit the jackpot and he didn't have a damn thing to do with it."

These days Headrick has plenty of time to contemplate such ironies. Since emptying out his Winter Park office, he has cast about some for consulting opportunities. Maybe, he says, he'll line up some financial work with other teams in the league. Nothing's definite. But despite his obvious disappointment at how it all ended, he remains proud of his time with the Vikings. Summing up his feelings on the subject, he chooses his words carefully. "I left this team in far better condition, as a football team and as an organization, than when I got it," he says.

With victory sealed in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Lions, the phone rings in Roger Headrick's den. During the brief conversation that ensues, the former Vikings owner's face lights up. "Thanks so much, I really appreciate it," he says, accepting a round of congratulations for the team's performance.

That's happening a little more often these days, according to Lynn Headrick, who says her husband deals well with letdowns. "I think he is more accepting than I am and the kids are. I think he is, and should be, proud of what he did. This is what he worked for. This is what he put together.

"We move on," she adds. "We're not sitting here moping and crying."

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