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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 20 2010

Schnepf: Viking great Osborn has no sympathy tonight

You can forgive Dave Osborn for not expressing sympathy for the professional football players who tonight will be playing in the arctic air of Minneapolis.

Osborn has been there, done that.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, it was common for Osborn and the Minnesota Vikings to play in subzero temperatures and on frozen turf. If Osborn has his way tonight, he’ll slap on his snowmobile pants and boots and roam the bone-chilling sidelines of the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium – where the Vikings will host the Chicago Bears instead of the comfortable indoor environment of the Metrodome, which as the entire nation knows, lost its roof from the weight of an 18-inch snowfall.

“I would just as soon be on the field and watch the game from there,” said Osborn, the Cando, N.D., native who along with 49 other Viking greats will be honored at halftime as part of the Vikings’ 50-year anniversary. “It just depends on what the other guys are going to do.”

It’s somewhat ironic that the anniversary will be celebrated outside. After all, the Vikings haven’t played an outdoor game in Minnesota in nearly three decades – a 1981 game at the old Metropolitan Stadium where the Vikes lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 in 10-below wind chill temperatures.

Already retired from football then, Osborn was at the game – trying to roast a pig in the parking lot.

“The wind was so cold, it was taking the heat off the cooker … we had trouble getting it hot enough to get the pig cooked,” said Osborn, now 67 years old and retired in a Minneapolis suburb.

It remains to be seen if fans will be trying to roast any pigs tonight. And it remains to be seen if some of the players who were whining about the move to the great outdoors will adjust to the cold or the grass that will probably freeze up by halftime.

Bears’ cornerback Charles Tillman, who was born in Chicago but played high school football in the warmth of Texas, said: “If the field is frozen, who the hell wants to play on that?”

Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler, who was born in Santa Claus, Ind., of all places, said he didn’t want to play on a “concrete-type surface.”

Vikings’ kicker Ryan Longwell, who had his fill of booting frozen footballs as a Green Bay Packer, was worried about losing his traction on a frozen turf.

“It’s certainly hard to stay in the Christmas spirit when you’re getting the information that we’re getting about the field,” Longwell said, referring to the TCF Bank Stadium turf that has been covered with snow for nearly a month.

Vikings’ linebacker Ben Leber, who had to deal with some cold growing up in Vermillion, S.D., joined a number of players who were concerned about player safety.

“And we’re talking about going to 18 games and then they’re going to say: ‘Hey, go play on some concrete and enjoy yourselves,’” Leber said.

Poor, little professional football players. Call the waa-mbulance. They might get frostbite on their noses and cut their elbows on the jagged, frozen turf.

Welcome to Osborn’s world when he played for the Vikings from 1965 to 1975, an era with no Under Armor, no heated fields, no hand warmers. Were players tougher back then?

“We had to be,” Osborn said. “They don’t have to be anymore. We had no options. The tough survived. We had to be survivors back in those days.”

They survived back-to-back, 25-below wind chill games against Chicago and Green Bay one season. They survived the strict rituals of head coach Bud Grant, who didn’t allow any heaters on the sidelines. Nor did he allow his players to wear their long underwear down to their ankles.

“You had to cut them off at the knee,” Osborn said. “The biggest thing was trying to keep your hands warm. I would loosen my belt, slide my hands by my stomach and when the quarterback said set, I would pull my hands out of my pants.”

At halftime in the warmth of their locker room, Osborn and his teammates would take their football cleats off and put them in the 10-man sauna.

“They got so hot, it almost burned your feet,” Osborn said. “But you were good for at least another 10 minutes.”

To this day, Osborn will tell you that he had some of his best games as a running back in bitterly cold weather. That’s because he and fellow back Bill Brown were straight-ahead runners.

“I wasn’t a fancy high-step runner,” Osborn said. “We were bulldog type guys. Here we come. We are going to plow you over.”

That’s exactly what Osborn did in a 1969 NFC playoff game played in subzero temperatures at Metropolitan Stadium. Osborn scored two touchdowns from near the goal line, flying over a pile of tacklers in the Vikings’ win over the Los Angeles Rams. One such flyover was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

“That was a really, cold day … a brutal day,” Osborn said.

Prior to a cold-weather game like that, the Vikings grounds crew would cover the field with a giant blanket and pump heat underneath. By game-time, the turf was wet and muddy. By halftime, it was frozen solid.

That’s why Grant would tell his players that “losers fall down, winners don’t slip.”

“You just didn’t want to fall down or else you would rip yourself up,” Osborn said. “It was terrible. It was jagged. It was like playing on an ice field. It was like playing out on the gravel road.”

Tonight, four decades later, Osborn will be a spectator trying to stay warm during the return of outdoor football for the Vikings.

“I look at it both ways,” Osborn said. “A lot of people have been spoiled with the Metrodome and won’t go out there. Then others, since they haven’t done this for 29 years, they’ll just want to be a part of it … part of something that may not happen again.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com