Vikings fans' optimism turns to disappointment
Steven Vukelich started laughing when he was asked at what point he started losing hope during the Minnesota Vikings' game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Probably three touchdowns. You start to lose hope, but you gotta keep on — as a Vikings fan, we always say, 'Next year's our year,' so there we go. Start planning for next year. Next year's our year," the Duluth resident said.
With the Eagles leading with only a few minutes to go in the game, Vukelich said it was like a rollercoaster.
"It's being a Vikings fan. Sometimes you're flush, sometimes you're bust, you know?" he said.
Mr. D's Bar and Grill in West Duluth was a sea of purple at the start of the game Sunday night. But by the fourth quarter, entire tables began to empty. For those who remained until the end, disappointment clouded their faces as it became evident that the Vikings wouldn't be Super Bowl-bound.
"Why?!" a man screamed as the Eagles headed toward a 38-7 win over the Vikings.
Dustin Labarge found Sunday's game "a little upsetting" and anticlimactic after the Vikings' season. He said he was hoping the team could pull off a chance at the Super Bowl this year.
"Definitely thought this was the year. It would have been great to see them play at the Super Bowl — the first home team playing at the Super Bowl," he said.
Labarge is a born-and-raised Vikings fan, but he was starting to lose hope in the team. He previously worked with C.J. Ham in Duluth and now that Ham is a Vikings fullback, it has given him a reason to cheer for the team.
"Since C.J., since he got on the team, I really thought we were going to do something this year and it was looking like it. I was thinking that maybe it was lucky, you know?" he said.
A trip to the Super Bowl was on the line on Sunday for both the Vikings and for Cloquet resident Brad Vanderwerff, a season ticket holder for four years. If the Vikings won on Sunday, he would have found out Monday whether he would get a ticket to the Super Bowl on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
He was in the crowd at the Vikings game against the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 14 and wanted to leave early when it seemed like a defeat was imminent.
"I was experiencing a lot of emotions and I was frustrated. I was tempted, yes," he said.
But he was talked into staying until the end of the game — and saw the Vikings win with Minnesota's Stefon Diggs catching a 61-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Case Keenum on the final play. Vanderwerff explained that "you could feel the noise" in the stadium after the catch and the streets in Minneapolis were "wild" with fans after the game.
"The emotions of everybody at that stadium was just incredible. I thought it was over. I was like, 'It's happening again. We're going to lose.' ... They elevate you just to bring you down," he said.
Among all the purple clothing, Vanderwerff blended in with his purple jersey and large purple and yellow football-shaped beaded necklace. Perched on his nose were purple sunglasses with the word "Skol" written across the lenses. Despite the purple attire and season tickets, his friends joked that he was secretly a Green Bay Packers fan.
"That's not true. I was never a Packers fan," he responded.
Camaraderie is the best part about being a Vikings fan, he said. He has been a fan since he was a kid when his father passed down the love of the team.
"He passed a year and a half ago and he never got to see the Vikings win a Super Bowl. Part of me just wants to give that to him," he said. "Eventually it has to happen. Someday, it has to happen. If the Cubs can win a World Series, then the Vikings can win a Super Bowl."
Clad in a Cris Carter jersey and a Vikings hat with horns, Vukelich was hopeful during the game's first quarter, when the score was tied 7-7, saying, "We're going to the Bowl!" He was hoping the Vikings would win by a wide margin on Sunday to avoid the last-minute drama of the Jan. 14 game. Sticking with the team as a fan means going through both the highs and lows.
It would have been "crazy" if the Vikings finally made it to a Super Bowl, he said, adding, "We'd be partying." The team's last appearance at the Super Bowl was 41 years ago. But it's still a big deal to have the Vikings in a playoff game, he said.
"I've been rooting for them for 30 years. We've been through the heartache of '98 and '09," he said.