Vikings have been NFL ‘pioneers’ in playing overseas. Next stop: Back in London
Minnesota has played games in Sweden, Germany, England and Japan
After the announcement in May that the Vikings would play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in London, the team quickly went to work making arrangements for the trip. Plans got underway to ship food overseas, fill out customs forms, consult sleep experts for advice on adjusting to the six-hour time difference, and for much more.
As far as former Minnesota tight end Steve Jordan is concerned, let’s just say such a trip was much simpler four decades ago. Jordan was on the Vikings team that defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 28-10 in an Aug. 6, 1983 exhibition that was the first NFL game played in the United Kingdom.
“We got in at like 7 in the morning and went right to a practice, and I remember being so tired when we were stretching before the practice that I literally fell asleep when I was stretching,” Jordan said.
And the food back then in London?
“Very greasy,” Jordan said.
And the beer?
“It was not cold, almost like room temperature,” he said.
Things have changed since then. NFL teams have been coming regularly to London for regular-season games since 2007, and players apparently no longer fall asleep on the field. The food is better in the city, whether teams bring their own or not. Cold beer is plentiful.
And Jordan is back in London.
Jordan, who played for the Vikings from 1982-94 and made six Pro Bowls, is the father of Saints star defensive end Cameron Jordan. He arrived in London on Thursday and will attend Sunday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium along with his daughter-in-law Nikki and grandson Tank, 7.
This is actually Jordan’s second trip back in recent years to watch a game in London, having attended the Saints’ 20-0 win over Miami in 2017. So he has some additional perspective there. And when he’s sitting in the stands Sunday, Jordan figures he will reflect on how far the NFL has come in playing international games.
“We were pioneers back in 1983,” Jordan said. “I remember the first game we played there, they would put on the scoreboard, ‘A field goal is worth three points, an extra point is one point,’ and that kind of thing. Somebody might make a diving catch and the crowd would be silent but then if somebody was blown up going across the middle, the crowd would go wild. I kind of juxtapose that with what it’s like 30-some years later.”
Now, many Brits really know their football. NFL games are shown regularly on television. The internet, with social media, has aided in the continued growth of the game.
And it’s not just in the United Kingdom where interest in the NFL has blossomed, it’s in many other parts of the world. And the Vikings deserve some credit in getting it all started.
Not only did the Vikings take the field for the first game in London, they also played the first game in continental Europe, a 1988 exhibition against Chicago in Gothenburg, Sweden. They went to Germany in 1993 for a preseason game in Berlin against Buffalo and in 1994 to Japan for an exhibition against Kansas City in Tokyo. Three decades after the Vikings were in Germany, the NFL will play its first regular-season game there when Tampa Bay faces Seattle on Nov. 13 in Munich.
The Vikings on Sunday will play their third-regular season game in London over the past decade. They previously defeated Pittsburgh 34-27 in 2013 at Wembley Stadium and Cleveland 33-16 at Twickenham Stadium.
Put it all together, and the Vikings have become a popular team overseas.
“It was exciting that we went and played a football game in a country that had not seen live American football,” said Carl Lee, a Vikings defensive back from 1983-93 who played in the London game as a rookie in 1983 and later suited up for the Sweden and Germany games. “When you look back on it, I’m happy to say that I was part of the start of that, and the Vikings organization has been kind of a pioneer in overseas games.”
Lee said it helped the franchise initially gain international fans because, from a historical perspective, there always has been “kind of a mystique about Vikings.” When running back Rickey Young played in the 1983 game, he said British fans “thought we were Norsemen, like we were real Vikings from the ship.”
That game was dubbed “The Global Cup” and played at the old Wembley Stadium, which closed in 2000. A crowd of 32,847, which was about half capacity, showed up. Many of the fans were curiosity seekers.
Goalposts had to be shipped in by the NFL for the game, and the Vikings were responsible for bringing the first-down chains. But Minnesota equipment manager Dennis Ryan, who has been with the team since 1975, said only about 7,500 pounds of equipment was taken to London for that game compared to 20,000 pounds for Sunday’s game. Players in 1983 dressed in a band room at the stadium and each one got a chair for gear.
“When the truck did arrive, (then head coach Bud Grant) had the players all help us get the gear to the band room, which was at the top of the first level of Wembley Stadium,” Ryan said.
One of Ryan’s favorite stories from that game long has been about the miscommunication with game officials when Vikings officials said their coaches needed to go to the press box at halftime. The word “coach” in England is used to refer to a large bus.
“They said, ‘You want your coaches up in the press box? We have an elevator, but our lift isn’t big enough for your coaches,’ ” Ryan said. “We said, ‘Well, we can take them through the stands.’ ”
Game officials soon suggested a crane could be brought in for the Vikings’ coaches. It was then that Ryan realized “they had thought we wanted our buses up in the press box.”
Five years later, the Vikings headed to Sweden and the NFL still was trying to get a foothold in Europe. Another half-capacity crowd of 33,115 was on hand when Minnesota defeated the Bears 28-21 at Ullevi Stadium.
The stadium was named after Ull, the Vikings’ god of games, so you better believe Minnesota players got their share of publicity in Sweden because of the team’s nickname.
“The Vikings, it was like going back to your origins,” said hall of fame guard Randall McDaniel, who played for Minnesota from 1988-99 and appeared in exhibition games in Sweden, Germany and Japan. “They even took us to this old castle and it was like it was back in the days. They brought us into this room with big, giant tables and there was food sitting in the middle, and I was sitting there with a big turkey leg in my hand.”
The Swedes didn’t know much about football, and McDaniel said during the game “all they seemed to really care about was when the ball was thrown in the air.”
By the time the Vikings played in Berlin in 1993, things were starting to change overseas. The fans, aided by the NFL Europe League starting up in 1991 and having a team in Germany, began to understand the game more. A sellout crowd of 67,132 showed up to see Minnesota defeat the Bills 20-6.
What actually happened on the field, though, isn’t what former Vikings players most remember about the trip. The game was played at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where the 1936 Olympics were held. At those Games, legendary Black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field and showed up Adolf Hilter and his racist beliefs of Aryanism.
“I was in awe going to the Olympic Stadium because I actually got to meet Jesse Owens when I was a kid growing up in Phoenix and he came to our church once when I was about 10,” Jordan said. “I shook his hand and got his autograph on a church program, and here I am in the stadium where Hitler was and where the Olympics were and where Jesse lit it up and made such a statement to the world.”
Vikings players had a chance to tour the city. They visited remnants of the Berlin Wall, which had been torn down in 1989.
“I don’t remember anything about that football game but I remember going to see the sights,” said Sean Salisbury, a Vikings quarterback from 1990-94. “I’m a big history buff. It hadn’t been that long since the Wall had come down, and I remember seeing pieces of brick on the streets that had been broken from when the Wall came down. It was just eerie.”
The Vikings didn’t waste any time before their next trip overseas. The following year, they traveled 6,000 miles to Tokyo, which remains the farthest they ever have gone for a game.
The Vikings defeated the Chiefs 17-9 at the Tokyo Dome before a sellout crowd of 49,555. The most popular players on the trip for the Vikings were quarterback Warren Moon and wide receiver Cris Carter, both future hall of famers. They signed numerous autographs, and Japanese fans often expressed their gratitude when they got one with a bow.
“When we would go out to eat, the chefs would come out and honor us for eating their food,” McDaniel said. “They came out and bowed and asked if we enjoyed the food.”
McDaniel did. What he didn’t enjoy was trying to adjust to a time zone 14 hours ahead.
“It was brutal,” he said.
The international trips for the Vikings now are not that long, but they are held in the regular season. And that makes a big difference.
“When we went over, it was always preseason, and we stayed longer,” McDaniel said. “There was no rush to come back. But now you fly over and then you play and then you fly back, so I don’t know if I would have liked to have gone over there for a regular-season game. That would truly have thrown my routine off.”
Mindful of not wanting that to happen to players, the Vikings flew to London on Thursday night, arrived Friday morning, and will fly home immediately after the game. Executive director of health and performance Tyler Williams said the Vikings don’t want players to fully acclimate to the six-hour time difference because they then would need to fully acclimate back, a problem since they have a game Oct. 9 against Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium. They are staying at a hotel an hour north of central London, so there hasn’t figured to be much sightseeing.
The Vikings had bye weeks following each of their two previous regular-season Sunday games in London, so they had longer trips and got some time to see the sights. In 2013, they left on Monday night and arrived Tuesday morning.
“We went and saw the Crown Jewels and stuff,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “It was cool. We saw Parliament, Big Ben and all of that.”
On Sunday, Smith will become the first Vikings player to appear in three games in London. Wide receiver Adam Thielen is the only other Minnesota player remaining from the 2013 trip, but he was then a rookie on the practice squad.
Thielen shined in London in 2017, catching five passes for 98 yards and being named Man of the Match before an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 74,237. After an 18-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter from Case Keenum, he thrilled fans with a soccer slide to celebrate.
On that trip, the Vikings departed for London on Wednesday night and arrived Thursday morning. Thielen said that gave players time to check out some pubs and go to a Premier League soccer game between Arsenal and Swansea City.
Both Smith and Thielen said football fans in England were more knowledgeable in 2017 than in 2013, and they are expecting to see another jump in knowledge Sunday.
“They are becoming more aware of what American football is,” Thielen said. “You could tell just from the first time to the second time, just the celebrations, the cheering was more on point.”
On Sunday, one of the fans on hand will be Jordan, who said he’ll be rooting for both teams because he “can’t lose in that situation.” Since arriving in London, he already has been talking about how far the NFL has come on an international stage since he played in that 1983 game.
“I tell people I played in the first World Bowl in Europe, and I’m pretty proud of that fact,” he said. “It was great to experience that. The Vikings have been pioneers and now the Vikings are going back to Europe again. It’s exciting, and I’m certainly looking forward to the continued progression of American football in Europe.”
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