It was a moment seared into the minds of long-time Vikings fans:
On November 7, 1976, the talented but star-crossed Vikings played the Detroit Lions. Legendary quarterback Fran Tarkenton flung bomb after bomb down field to fight off the Lions' dreaded blitz.
One of Tarkenton's targets: Standout rookie wide-receiver Sammy White.
As the game clock wound down to two minutes, Tarkenton found White with a
pass over the middle. White caught the ball three strides from the end zone
looked to be in the clear.
An excitable kid, White held the ball in the air as he crossed the ten-yard
White didn't see the Lion's defender who raced across the field to cut
White's legs from beneath him.
As White tripped, the ball rolled into the end zone. Lion defenders fell on
it for a touchback. The play caused a nine point swing against the Vikings.
White's path back to the bench led him past legendary no-nonsense Vikings
coach Bud Grant.
As legendary sports columnist Jim Klobuchar wrote at the time, White's trek
had to be "one of the longest and saddest miles in the history of human
The 50 million viewers on national television assumed White would be
disciplined severely by the taciturn Grant.
He was not. Grant told a devastated White, "there's a difference
between show biz and show boating. What you did was show boating, and it cost us a touchdown. You will get another chance."
Within minutes, White did get a second chance. He caught a spectacular
touchdown pass. The Vikings won. And White was given the game ball.
Eventually, White would be named NFL rookie of the year.
However, if you talk to Vikings fans, the redemption part of White's story is usually left out.
The sad legend of Sammy White doesn't include his rookie of the year award,
or his reward of the game ball after a humiliating screw up.
No, by the next morning, a different legend had already taken shape, even in the sixth grade classroom where this non-football fan listened to wiser heads discuss the great issue of the day: Sammy White, idiot showboat, had spiked the ball on the 10-yard line without realizing he hadn't yet arrived in the end zone.
Can you imagine the fury of the great stone face, Bud Grant! Grant didn't
countenance celebrations after any touchdown, much less a touchdown that was not yet complete.
White was not only guilty of stupidity, but he also committed a breach of
To this day, when Sammy White comes up in conversation, talk turns to the
time he lost the ball on the 10-yard line because he celebrated too early.
White is unfairly remembered for committing an un-Minnesotan act under the
steely glare of the ultimate representative of Minnesota stoicism, class and dignity, Bud Grant.
In the last week, debate has erupted over the proper way to commemorate the
death of the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
The president himself said, "We don't spike the football."
But others, both liberal and conservative, thought a little celebration was
in order and that the president was being downright unpatriotic by not
sharing the rah-rah enthusiasm of those who wanted to gloat.
As a bleeding heart liberal, I think celebration over the death of any human being, no matter how notorious, is unseemly.
As a cautious conservative and glum Minnesotan, I think celebration will just jinx things and cause a karmic backfire.
Both conservative and liberal impulses lead me to believe that celebrating
the death of an enemy is just plain unwise, especially when the broader goal of ending terrorism has not necessarily been achieved.
"Speak softly and carry a big stick," said President Theodore Roosevelt. Bud Grant would probably agree.
Amazingly, many politicians and editorialists have demanded that the
president gloat. They want to see the photos of the mutilated body. They want to shove bin Laden's death in the enemy's face. Anything less, to quote Sarah Palin, is "pussyfooting."
But the advocates of spiking the football should remember the lesson learned by Sammy White: Over the long term, one moment of adolescent gloating can obscure an entire career of exemplary accomplishment.
Instead, it is wise to remember the Bud Grant way: Always keep it classy.
Always be humble.
Spiking the football doesn't win ball games.