Personal Essays

High-Fives So Hard They Hurt

January in Minnesota can be harsh, though rarely more than in 1999, when a Vikings playoff victory slipped away. From his vantage point next to a stack of commemorative newspapers, one man almost saw what could have been.

It cost an awful lot for us to eat a free lunch—six-foot sub sandwiches, potato chips, pop, a premature and oily Super Bowl sheet cake—on the first and only afternoon I worked for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It was a Minnesota January, the Sunday of the NFC championship game, and I got paid 15 bucks an hour to eat the “Strib’s” food, huddle in a delivery van outside the Metrodome, and not distribute special Super-Bowl-edition prints of the newspaper.

As any Minnesotan knows, it was Jan. 17, 1999. The Vikings had just played one of the greatest regular seasons in NFL history, finishing 15-1. During games, especially against the detested Packers, Minneapolis streets were as quiet as a Christmas morning. I remember going to a Monday Night Football party where people’s hands were curled in red, raw pain by halftime, so loud and forceful were the high-fives. Yet they felt obligated to continue to give them. Badass rookie Randy Moss, video-game-worthy Randall Cunningham, Brad Johnson, Cris Carter, old fart Gary Anderson. The state lost its mind.

And that’s what the Strib was counting on. Economic irrationality. The plan was this: If the Vikings were in position to win the championship game by the end of the second quarter, the big editors would give the go-ahead to print up thousands of four-page commemorative newspapers. The content would naturally be thin: an action photograph from the first half, a vague lede (“The Minnesota Vikings have beaten the Atlanta Falcons to qualify for Super Bowl XXXIII…”), and a generic headline. Something like “Finally!” If there were no disasters in the game’s third quarter, this print run would be rushed up the empty interstates from the suburban printers (everyone was at home watching the game), at which point we newsies, who numbered over 40, and who were gathered for lunch, would take over. After being shuttled to the Metrodome in green Star-Tribune delivery trucks, we were to lurk until the final gun, pop out, and hawk the fishwrap to the mobile vulgus for five bucks each. Fans would be so inebriated with relief—and alcohol—that the rational portion of their brains would be AWOL.

Just to tease the Heartland, the Vikes were up at halftime—and proceeded to play a lackadaisical third quarter, letting Atlanta hang around. Then, caught in the tarpit of thinking they might actually lose, the Vikings played tight in the fourth. Nevertheless, up by seven with minutes to play, they had a chance to seal the game with a field goal. Mr. Gary Anderson trotted onto the field.

I tried to peel back the brown parcel-paper wrapping instead and slide one free, to steal it. More than that, I just wanted to see it. Gary Anderson—who stepped onto the Astroturf that afternoon a fan favorite; who wore a helmet with a single comical bar, like yellow orthodontic headgear, across his William H. Macy face; who was nearly 40 years old; and who was a real nice guy, as they say in Minnesota, a real nice guy—and who had set an NFL record, practically untouchable, for consistency and accuracy by not missing a single kick all season, not one!—biffed it. Wide left, and he trotted off the field.

We workers, suddenly feeling our lunches, listened on the radio as the buoyant Falcons took over. They tore a hole through the Vikings defense and scored a touchdown in the last few seconds.

Gasps. Overtime. A guillotine.

A few minutes into overtime, Atlanta’s kicker Morten Anderson (unrelated to Gary, also not far from 40, and who had missed plenty that season) lined up for a field goal at virtually the same distance from which his counterpart had just missed.

Atlanta 30, Vikings 27 (OT). The Super Bowl cake was for naught.

Anticipating those doomed final minutes—I knew too well the character of Minnesota sports teams—I’d been trying to slit the plastic binding strips around the bundles of the newspapers we were sitting on in the truck. (Our drivers had ordered us not to touch them.) When I realized that breaking the plastic would make too much noise, I tried to peel back the brown parcel-paper wrapping instead and slide one free, to steal it if I could. Even more than that, I just wanted to see it. See what it might have looked like. I got my fingers onto the soft, ragged edges of the papers, but wasn’t bold enough in my thievery. Practically before Morten Anderson’s kick hit the safety net behind (and between) the uprights, our Star-Tribune minders ordered the bundles seized. One of my coworkers asked what was going to happen to them.

Our driver started the truck. “They’re going into the incinerator,” he answered.

Minneapolis is one of the most ecologically conscious places in the United States, and doubly its newspaper. That Sunday night, every copy burned.