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."

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.

"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.

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."

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.

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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