Purple Stain

Securities scams, karaoke-bar brawls, and the occasional boozy ride: At least there's one championship the Vikings might be winning

On March 14 a 49-year-old man, a bit bookish-looking in his round wire-framed spectacles, appeared in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where he entered a plea of guilty to a single count of mail fraud. The event made the papers the next day, in part because the man's legal woes were linked to a much-publicized federal investigation into a real estate scam known as "flipping." But for local football fans, there was a more compelling cause for curiosity than the latest vogue in mortgage rip-offs. The accused was Chuck Foreman--Number 44, a revered veteran from the greatest era in the history of the Minnesota Vikings.

Back in the Seventies, Foreman was among the most electrifying running backs in the game, a five-time Pro Bowler with a silky 360 degree spin move that always seemed to make the highlight reels. If you stay up late watching ESPN, you can still catch Foreman in reruns of the old NFL footage, where his balletic feats and those of his famed fellow Purple People Eaters are immortalized in delicious slow motion. The basso-profundo narration of John Facenda details each exquisite triumph against the backdrop of memorable scenes from the old Metropolitan Stadium--grounds crews thawing the turf with flamethrowers, purple-clad Goliaths exhaling dragonlike vapors, the steely gaze of head coach Bud Grant. It all evokes a seemingly better time for the NFL: a time when the league was not yet despoiled by millionaire crybabies and common criminals, when the Vikings kept making it to the Super Bowl and when, perhaps, fans didn't feel like suckers after a close reading of the sports pages.

Of course, news of a football player tumbling from gridiron glory to civilian disgrace hardly comes as a surprise to any NFL fan--especially in Minnesota. In their 1998 book Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, journalists Jeff Benedict and Don Yeager opined that, during the Nineties, the Vikings "may have been the most out-of-control team in the NFL." It was a weighty assertion, considering both the notoriously lawless Dallas Cowboys teams of the same era and the authors' most frequently cited conclusion--that one in five active players in the league had been charged with at least one "serious crime."

Jeremy Eaton

While the findings of Pros and Cons were widely ignored by the major television networks, and hotly disputed by the NFL's front office, the league's burgeoning reputation for bad behavior has generated plenty of howling and handwringing on other fronts. Newt Gingrich once went so far as to propose that any NFL player caught with drugs be banned from the league if he failed to roll over on a dealer. Columnists from major dailies across NFL-dom have contributed the predictable squawking about role models.

Last month the NFL commissioner's office got into the act with some tough talk of its own, for the first time handing out suspensions for violent off-the-field conduct. (In the past the league was quick to suspend players for offenses like gambling and steroid use, but wife-beating and bar brawls often resulted in little more than a trip to a counselor's office.) The league's new, and widely praised, posture emitted more than a whiff of damage control, coming as it did in the wake of the sensational arrests last season of two active players: The Carolina Panthers' Rae Carruth faces the death penalty in connection with the November slaying of his pregnant girlfriend, and the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis was indicted in connection with two stabbing deaths outside an Atlanta nightclub on the eve of the Super Bowl.

In comparison Chuck Foreman's troubles with a couple of mortgage companies seem downright quaint--a curiosity, easily forgotten. But the headline triggered vague recollections of the many Viking arrests, convictions, dismissals, acquittals, and civil settlements that have dotted the news capsules over the years. Poring over those old accounts, we found ourselves wondering: Does something in the nature of the game demand a healthy percentage of crooks, cretins, and con men on the roster?

In short order, we laid aside Purple Pride and set out to compile a list of Vikings new and old who have just one thing in common: off-the-field misadventures. Intriguing patterns soon emerged. For instance, we found that Vikings quarterbacks seem to spend a lot of time in their lawyers' offices--from the legendary Fran Tarkenton, whose dubious post-football business doings sparked a federal investigation, to Warren "Yes, this was a case of domestic violence" Moon, to the thrice-busted, once-convicted DWI poster boy Tommy Kramer. Defensive linemen appear to attract trouble (drug dealing, bigamy, assault, you name it), as do running backs. But offensive linemen seem to keep their noses relatively clean--with the exception, perhaps, of former Viking guard Bernard Dafney who, unhappy at a joke over his girth during a joint appearance at a karaoke bar, broke teammate Everett Lindsay's beak back in 1995. And punters, it seems, strive for sainthood.

As we forged on with the research, all sorts of other questions arose: How do the lost boys from head coach Bud Grant's days stack up against Dennis Green's wayward minions? Or the wild Jerry Burns bunch? What's more embarrassing--the venal (Walker Lee Ashley accused of taking money from a kids' program), the foolish (Keith Millard's 'Vette mishap at the Hardee's drive-through), or the flat-out cruel (Keith Henderson's dangerous liaisons)? And how come you never read about stuff like this involving, say, the Twins?

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