In a glorious season stained only by that hideous loss in the NFC Championship Game, the Minnesota Vikings seldom lacked for heroes. The reborn Randall Cunningham and the redeemed Randy Moss made most of the headlines, as the Vikes scorched opposing defenses for a record-setting 556 points. But all the gaudy numbers would have been impossible were it not for the ample improvement of the Viking defense, which went from one of the league's worst in 1997 (29th ranked) to downright respectable in 1998 (13th). The only new starter on the unit? That would be cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, obtained last April in a then-scantly noticed trade with the New England Patriots. The price? A paltry third-round pick in the 1999 draft. At the time, the move looked like a stopgap measure born primarily of the team's inability to sign better-known free-agent corners. Fans and pundits alike were quick to express their frustration. Yet the undersized Hitchcock proved to be a tremendous improvement over his oft-burned predecessor, perennial scapegoat Dewayne Washington. A steadying presence in the locker room, an easy quote, and a famously hard worker, the modest Hitchcock provided the Vikes with good karmic balance to trash-talking fellow corner (and now ex-Viking) Corey Fuller. More significant, the fourth-year pro from North Carolina established himself as one of the team's legitimate tough guys, returning for the second half in one midseason game despite a gruesome injury which left the tip of his ring finger dangling from the bone. Oh, and did we mention that Hitchcock led the team in both interceptions (seven) and defensive touchdowns (three)? That he averaged an astonishing 34.6 yards on interception returns? The Vikes' burgeoning reputation for savvy personnel moves may have been exaggerated some in the euphoria of the season's many triumphs, but the trade for Hitchcock was pure brilliance.


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