What Minnesota sports stories should get the "Last Dance" treatment

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson
Photo credit © Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY, USA TODAY via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The ESPN 10-part documentary "The Last Dance" has been a phenomenon and broken ratings records for the sports network. The series focuses on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty and the break-up of the team after the 1998 championship. That got us thinking about what Minnesota sports stories should be given the same treatment. Before the final two episodes of the documentary, News Talk 830 WCCO staffers remember their favorite stories.

The player’s strike canceled one game, replacement players we didn’t know played three consecutive weeks.  Then, somehow, the team snuck into the playoffs with an 8-7 record as the last Wild Card team. With almost no expectations they go into New Orleans and blow out the 12-3 Saints which includes a Hail Mary before halftime.  Then Anthony Carter goes berserk in San Francisco (and their 13-2 record) to knock off Joe Montana and the 49ers.  The Vikings dominated that game so much, Bill Walsh pulled Montana for Steve Young.  Can you imagine pulling Joe Montana?  What was the reaction of the Vikings when they see #16 standing on the sideline?  And let's not even talk about how Steve Young broke Viking hearts.  That's a different documentary.   

Finally, it was heartbreak (as we’ve now become used to), when Darrin Nelson can’t haul in a Wade Wilson pass at the goal line and Washington goes on to win the Super Bowl after beating the Vikings 14-7 in the NFC Championship. 

For my generation that has no memory of the Super Bowl teams of the 70's, this was the start of Viking fever.  Ground Zero.  The Big Bang.  From that day forward, I refused to miss a Viking game on Sunday. 

Not to mention, those two playoff wins in 1987 raising our hopes, then the devestating loss in the NFC Championship game, would set up the 33 years of 'wash-rinse-repeat' (1998, 2000, 2009, 2017) for the Purple.  

The story of that ’87 team, with Jerry Burns leading the way.  He who was such a character, Burnsie alone would be fascinating.  The replacement players (what about THEIR experience????), the Wade Wilson/Tommy Kramer QB back-and-forth, AC becoming a legend in San Fran and the crushing loss in the NFC Championship game.  This would be my ultimate “Minnesota Sports Documentary”. - Lindsey Peterson, Director of Content

 

Before we talk about that night, let's back up to September 15th, 2009. The Twins had a summer where they had underachieved. They hovered behind the Detroit Tiger and the Chicago White Sox all season. At this point, they were 4.5 games out of the lead in the American League Central division with 17 games left in the regular season. The Twins had planned to put the Hubert H. Humphry Metrodome to rest with a ceremony on the final home game of the season on October 4th. Then, something strange happened...the Twins went on a run of epic proportions. The Twins were only two games back of the Tigers going into the final series of the season. The Tigers welcomed the White Sox while the Twins would host the Royals. At the end of the weekend, the Twins made up those two games and ended the season tied with the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. That meant the Metrodome would have at least a one-game respite before being closed for baseball as the Twins would host the Tigers in the 2009 regular season's game 163. 

Kent Hrbek was slated to speak in what was supposed to be the final Major League Baseball game held at the dome. In his speech, he said "I wrote this speech thinking this was going to be it; it's not 'it. You guys went and screwed up my whole speech. We've got to come back here on Tuesday and drink some more beer'' to a thunderous road from the crowd. 

The Metrodome grounds crew had a lot of work on their hands. Right after the Twins game and ceremony on Sunday, the crew had to prepare the dome for the Vikings to host the hated Green Bay Packers. This was a game in which former Packer QB Brett Favre would don the purple and face his former team for the first time. Then, right after that game, the crew would have to bring the dome back to a baseball configuration for the 4 pm AL Central Division deciding game 163. 

That brings us to October 6th, 2009. The Twins would host the Tigers for the right to go to New York City and play the Yankees in the playoffs. The Twins would trot Scott Baker out to the mound. Baker was the team ace that season and would battle the Tigers' Rick Porcello. 

The Tigers would put three runs up in the third inning to take the lead. The Twins would battle back and take the lead in the 7th. The Tigers came right back and tied it up in the 8th at 4-4. They would have a prime chance to take the lead in the ninth inning with runners on first and third with no one out. But, Twins closer Joe Nathan was able to shut them down. The game would go to extra innings. 

In the top of the tenth, the Tigers strung together a couple of hits and Brandon Inge doubled home Don Kelly to take the lead. The small-ball Twins would respond with Matt Tolbert bringing home Michael Cuddyer to tie it up. 

After a quiet 11th inning, the Twins came to bat in the bottom of the 12th. Carlos Gomez singled. Michael Cuddyer flew out but Gomez was able to advance to second. The buzz in the dome was electric as power hitter Delmon Young was coming up. The soon dissipated as the Tigers intentionally walked Young. Then, the light hitting Alexi Casilla came to bat. And on a 1-1 pitch, he became the hero of the 2009 Twins.

The Twins would go on to play one more game in the Metrodome...as the Yankees swept the Twins 3-0 in the playoffs. - Dan Edwards, Digital Content Manager

 

Culpepper was a standout quarterback at the University of Central Florida and caught the Vikings eye as a future franchise quarterback. He was made the 11th pick of the NFL Draft in 1999 and looked to be a match made in Winter Park for wire receivers Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. Culpepper had a cannon for an arm and those receivers could spread the field. 

Culpepper had a breakout season in 2000 leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. That game didn't go as well as hoped, getting blown out by the Giants 41-0. 

His next two seasons were average, but 2004 was the breakout season for Culpepper. He threw for over 4700 yards and 39 touchdowns. While the season was a bust for the team with an 8-8 record and early exit from the playoffs, it gave hope that the Vikings had finally found a franchise quarterback. 

2005 started off slow and then October 20th happened. Culpepper sustained a devastating injury to his knee, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL. That was the end for Culpepper in Minnesota. While he attempted comebacks with the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions, but was never the same. 

What could have been had Culpepper never gotten hurt? Could he have led the Vikings to their first Super Bowl win?  - Cory Hepola, host of "Hey, It's Cory Hepola" 

 

The Minnesota Lynx have achieved unparalleled success in the WNBA and set the benchmark for other franchises to try and match. The final championships and the start of a new era beyond that core is deserving of a no-holds-barred look-back.

Fueled by a monster MVP season from center Sylvia Fowles, 2017 ended with confetti flying at their temporary home of Williams Arena. Behind an incredible 17-point, 20-rebound performance from the MVP and a pristine jumper from Moore with 26 seconds left to end a late 9-0 run from the Los Angeles Sparks, the Lynx were champions once again for the fourth time in seven years.

After falling to a game-winner with 3 seconds left to the Sparks in Game 5 in 2016 in Minneapolis, the call from ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco went from “the Sparks have slain the mighty Lynx” to “title No. 4 in the Minnesota Lynx dynasty comes with the taste of sweet redemption.”

Lindsay Whalen, in her jersey retirement ceremony, said she was proud her No. 13 was hanging next to the 2017 banner in the Target Center rafters. It was her “favorite” championship. They took down the Sparks, denying them an elusive back-to-back.

In 2018 the Lynx set their sights on that same goal that eluded them during the dynasty run: a back-to-back. Sure, it was an “even year,” but coming in, fans thought this could be the season that the Lynx finally do it and send off Minnesota legend Whalen with a fifth, and record-tying ring, becoming the only franchise in WNBA history with five trophies.

The back-to-back would remain elusive.

With the same starting five that deserves its own statue at Target Center -- all-time career rebound leader and the only player with five WNBA championships, Rebekkah Brunson, now an assistant coach; the winningest player in WNBA history, Whalen, who would continue to play her final season in 2018 while simultaneously holding the role of the head coach of the Gopher women’s team; Maya Moore, one of the best competitors and talents to ever play the game; the unselfish Seimone Augustus whose dizzying crossover helped establish the dynasty; and Fowles, the newest member of the core whose hands and toughness around the rim make her one of the best centers of all time — the Lynx sputtered out of the gate in 2018 to a 2-5 record and never quite bounced back.

The Lynx squeezed into the playoffs in a league where eight of the 12 teams advance to the postseason, ending ‘18 and ‘19 with identical 18-16 records and losses in the single-elimination first round. In 2018 that team was the Sparks.

Whalen retired after 2018 and Moore left basketball to focus her energy on criminal justice reform. Augustus missed the bulk of 2019 with injury and then signed with the Sparks after 14 seasons in Minnesota. Brunson, who suffered a concussion toward the end of 2018, did not suit up in 2019 before retiring in February.

Was Moore, whose numbers were on par with the rest of her career, already thinking ahead to the future? Head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve admitted she talked Whalen into continuing to play in 2018 after she took the Minnesota job, but was it a more challenging balance than either of them thought? Were Brunson and Augustus 100 percent healthy and able to matchup against the best of the best? What could have contributed to such an unheralded, disappointing end for this group?

Fans will wonder if any future team will match the talent compiled on those dynasty teams. It’s unlikely another starting five with assuredly five future Hall of Famers (between the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith), will be assembled again.

Moore could come back to basketball. 2019 rookie of the year Napheesa Collier looks like a franchise player. They still have Fowles in her prime. But the 2018 season’s disappointment and how it set the stage for the future of the franchise would be a fascinating deep-dive. - Sloane Martin, WCCO reporter and Lynx radio voice

 

The Vikings won the NFC Central in 1976 with an 11-2-1 record. In the playoffs, Minnesota knocked off Washington and the LA Rams at frigid Met Stadium to advance to Super Bowl XI.My family traveled to the Twin Cities in 1976 and I was ecstatic when I got a ticket to the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings put the Rams Super Bowl hopes on ice, winning 24-13 on a 14-degree day. I have vivid memories of Nate Allen blocking a Tom Dempsey field goal attempt and Bobby Bryant turning it into a 90-yard scoop and score. The Met literally shook. I felt like I was back in Orange County experiencing an earthquake.

Two weeks later on January 9, 1977, it was Minnesota and Oakland playing for all the marbles at Super Bowl XI in Pasadena, CA. Somehow I got a ticket to that game too and was certain the Vikings would win and finally be crowned champs.

Of course, it never happened as the Raiders crushed the Vikings 32-14 on a sun-drenched day at the Rose Bowl.

On the ride home I was devastated by another catastrophic loss - but kept telling myself Minnesota would someday win a Super Bowl. That was 43 years ago. The Vikings still haven't won that coveted Lombardi Trophy." - Eric Nelson, weekend host

 

 

After a respectable regular season, they caught some teams by surprise in the playoffs.  In the first round, they knocked off the 3rd seed Colorado Avalanche in 7 games after being down in the series 3-1.  The dramatic wins in games 6 and 7 came in overtime.  Bob Kurtz radio call of Andrew Brunette series winner on WCCO Radio still rings in my head. The Wild fell behind the 4th seed Canucks in the second round 3-1 and roared back to win that series as well to set-up a showdown with The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Unfortunately, the dream ended in the conference finals when Ducks Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere stonewalled the Wild all series long with tremendous skill and bloated protective gear.  In that series, he gave up only one goal and had a shutout streak of almost 218 minutes.  What makes the story so interesting to me, the franchise hasn’t come close to matching the playoff success since. - Steve Thompson, weekend host

 

The Coaching Tree:

Dennis Green was in his fourth season as the coach of the team.  He'd go on to have a stint with the Arizona Cardinals after his time in Minnesota, finishing his career with 13 seasons as a head coach, and no Super Bowl appearances.  But his coordinators, BOTH became Super Bowl champion head coaches.  Brian Billick was running the show on offense, and five years later, he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on the back of all things, his defense, led by Ray Lewis.

The defensive coordinator was Tony Dungy, who became the head coach in Tampa Bay the following season.  After six seasons there, he set the table for John Gruden to finish the job the season after his departure to Indianapolis. Gruden did what nobody thought was possible...make the Tampa Bay Bucs, Super Bowl Champions.  But Dungy would get a ring of his own, winning the Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006 and finishing his head coaching career winning two-thirds of his games and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.​  But he wasn't the only Hall of Famer on that team, and those weren't the only NFL head coaches.

The Dennis Green head coaching tree extended to the players.  Jack Del Rio was a linebacker on the 1995 Minnesota Vikings, and now on his third stint as a defensive coordinator, this time with Washington, he spent 12 years as a head coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders making the playoffs three times.  Minnesotans won't forget Mike Tice's head coaching run, because he replaced Green in 2001 and lasted five seasons.  He was a tight end on the 1995 team.

The Hall of Famers:

We mentioned Dungy on the coaching staff.  But that team boasted four other Hall of Famers.  Cris Carter tied a career-high in catches (122) and had a career-high in receiving yards in 1995 (1371).  After scoring 130 career touchdowns and having some of the best hands the game has ever seen, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.  His quarterback didn't need his Vikings years to get into the Hall in 2006, but 1995 didn't hurt.  Warren Moon led the NFL with 377 completions on his way to his eighth Pro Bowl.  Blocking for Moon was guard Randall McDaniel.  McDaniel within his eighth season of a remarkable 14-year career in which he only missed the Pro Bowl in his first and last season.  After spending his final two years with Tampa Bay, he got the gold jacket in 2009.

The defensive side of the ball is represented in the Canton, too.  Defensive tackle John Randle had an average season...for him.  Starting every game, as he did for an eighth consecutive year stretch in his time with the Vikings, and racking up double-digit sacks (10.5) as also did eight straight years, Randle anchored the defense for the 1995 Minnesota Vikings and became a Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Secret:

Defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo played for five teams in a nine-year NFL career, including 1995 when he started all 16 games as a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings.  He went to the Super Bowl with the 1998 Atlanta Falcons that beat the Vikings in the Metrodome behind the leg of Morten Anderson.  And on October 29, 2002, he became the first NFL player to come out to the world as gay.  He did so on HBO's "Real Sports" saying that the locker room jokes drove him to depression, shame and suicidal thoughts.

Other Notable Players:

The 1995 team had a backup quarterback that went on to be a Super Bowl winning quarterback.  It was Brad Johnson, who had two stints as the Vikings starter.

Korey Stringer was a first-round pick in 1995 and was beloved by his teammates.  Tragically he lost his life during training camp in 2001 and his number 77 was retired by the team later that year.

Orlando Thomas led the league in interceptions (9) as a rookie safety in 1995.  In 2007 he was diagnosed with ALS and died on November 9, 2014, at the age of 42.

Kicker Fuad Reveiz wrapped up his 10 years in the league in 1995 and has gone on to broadcast the Spanish language version of Super Bowls. - John Hanson, Brand Manager