Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)
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By The Bemidji Pioneer

Published 6:40 a.m. on July 11, 2020

In addition to the great lakes, fishing, golfing and other activities in the area, the 1961 Bemidji Visitor’s Guide promoted a new draw: Professional football.

“Vacationists in the Bemidji area this summer have the unusual opportunity to see a professional football team in the making. The Minnesota Vikings, a new National Football League team, have chosen Bemidji State College as their training camp.”

Drawn to the area by the cooler climate and the college facilities, the new expansion team was seeded with some 36 veterans sacrificed by other NFL teams (Hugh McElhenny, Frank Youso and George Shaw to name a few). Fresh draftee Fran Tarkenton would rise to NFL fame after a big-league start with first-year coach Norm Van Brocklin, who had quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles to a 17-13 National Football League Championship win over Green Bay just months before he arrived in Bemidji to put together the new team.

The rookies arrived at the Bemidji State College training facilities on July 7, 1961, but when the veterans arrived July 17, Bemidji locals were amazed at the size of the men who seemed to rival the 18-foot concrete lumberjack on the shores of Lake Bemidji.

In his book "True Hearts and Purple Heads," author Jim Klobuchar, longtime sports writer and columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune, describes that first-year Vikings crew as “a teeming roster of nonentities, tired vets, non-descript free agents, sulking second-year pros and visionary kids.” But the arrival of the Vikings in Bemidji sprouted an enthusiastic booster team of local businessmen and gave locals and summertime visitors free access to the Vikings’ daily practices. Area grocers incorporated “Welcome, Vikings” messages into their ads in the Bemidji Daily Pioneer. Cliff Morlan, sports writer and columnist for the Pioneer, included regular updates on the Vikings at summer training.

Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)

Recollections of locals

Bob Montebello and Ruth Howe were physical education instructors at BSC at the time. Howe didn’t interact much with the team, but recalls seeing them at "The Glas" as staff and students shared the facilities with the players. The college did its best to oblige them and prioritize their needs, Howe said.

Montebello recalls visiting with Don Joyce, who had come to the Vikings from the Baltimore Colts. Montebello and Joyce were fellow Stubenville, Ohio, natives and shared stories about their hometown sports. Although Montebello had minimal interaction with other Vikings, he sometimes watched their practices and was impressed by Fran Tarkenton as a true leader who spoke his mind and took charge.

Bemidji native Dennis Peterson was just a kid when the Vikings practiced in Bemidji, but he remembers Tarkenton, as well.

“The dorms were wide open to anyone back then,” Peterson recalled. His dad took him to see Tarkenton in Pine Hall, where the players were housed for $1.50 per day. (An additional $3.50 per day got them three meals from the campus food service.) Peterson’s dad didn’t know Tarkenton, but reached out to him and asked if he would be willing to speak to the young men at their church about his faith. Tarkenton obliged.

Peterson also remembers meeting players as they headed from the dorm to the field. Sometimes he’d carry a helmet for them. “I remember carrying Carl Eller’s helmet,” he said. “He was huge!”

Other locals also recall close encounters with Vikings players. Mary Kostorycz remembers cruising Beltrami Avenue, Diamond Point and Minnesota Avenue with her friend Joan when they were teenagers and seeing three hulking Vikings walking toward town.

“We should pick them up,” her friend said, and the girls stopped to offer them a ride. The three massive players squeezed into the back seat of Joan’s parents’ old Buick. Mary says the back end of the vehicle sank almost to the pavement.

Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)
Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)

Fraternizing and socializing

Coach Van Brocklin was concerned about 80 professional football players on the small-town campus and gave strict orders for “No fraternizing. Period.” By that he meant no “dating, dancing, saying hello or smiling… for the simple and selfish protection of the Minnesota Vikings.” He threatened not just to fine or suspend players who ignored his dictum, but to “kick your ass off the ball club.”

Off campus, however, both players and coaching staff socialized regularly, although not together. Van Brocklin, his staff and a contingency of reporters frequented Jack’s in Wilton, the Turtle River Restaurant, the MuniSIPal Liquor Store and the Elks Club.

After a hot and grueling practice, Vikings players often went to the City Drug for limeades served by Carole Holm or consumed large quantities of beer at Bemidji Bowl, just off campus. In the evenings, they frequented The Dutchess, which was located just west of the current FedEx and Gregg’s Plumbing locations. Klobuchar described The Dutchess as looking like “a converted stockade. … The interior décor came under the general heading of Early Period Shambles and, as a convenience, the men’s biff had been moved to the parklot bushes.”

Rita Lauderbaugh remembers going to The Dutchess with friends – against her father’s wishes. “We danced with the players,” she said, and even offered to take them waterskiing, but it was probably a good thing they didn’t accept the offer, as she doubted anyone had a boat with a big enough motor to get any of these guys up on skis.

Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)
Minnesota Vikings training camp in Bemidji (1961)

Vikings impact on northern Minnesota

In the five years the Vikings held their training camps in Bemidji, hundreds of people watched their daily practices. Intrasquad scrimmages – just $1.50 per ticket – put proceeds into BSC athletic department coffers. Their presence in northern Minnesota did a great deal to grow outstate support for the new team. At their first intrasquad scrimmage, the Park Rapids marching band performed, and some 200 Vikings boosters from International Falls came to watch the event. Sharon Valdez (Sawdey – BHS class of 1963) remembers performing with the Bemidji High School marching band at one of the Vikings games under the direction of band director Jim Kern.

On Aug. 4, 1962, the biggest event of that summer – and possibly the biggest of the five years the Vikings trained in Bemidji – was a controlled scrimmage against the Cowboys (formed in 1960) right here at Chet Anderson Stadium in Bemidji. Former Lumberjack and All-Stater Mike Falls was a starting offensive guard for Dallas, so hometown fans had another reason to attend. Four thousand bleacher seats were brought in to expand the capacity to 7,200, not including standing room. Heavy rain just before the event kept some of the expected 8,000 fans from coming, but Morlan reported that 5,503 attended. Although neither team scored a touchdown, the scrimmage ended with mostly defensive “points” and the Vikes leading 34-31.

Leaving Bemidji

Sid Hartman, sports journalist for WCCO radio and for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, was allegedly to blame for the Vikings’ leaving Bemidji for Mankato for their summer camps. Klobuchar wrote that “at least one Minneapolis sports editor (argued that Bemidji) was too deep in the tamarack groves of northern Minnesota to afford the Vikings the kind of publicity a pro football team warranted.” Twin Cities sports reporters didn’t like the distance between Bemidji and Minneapolis and complained of too many mosquitoes.

Whatever the reason, after five years of summer training on the BSC campus, the Vikings left and didn’t return. But early exposure to this new NFL team grew a lot of die-hard Vikings fans in northern Minnesota.

Written by Sue Bruns / Special to the Bemidji Pioneer