Letters to Bud Chapter 3: Vikings Connections

Over 18 seasons at the helm of the Vikings ship, Bud Grant earned the respect of countless players — whether they spent a decade-plus or merely a preseason under the head coach.

In this week's installment of "Letters to Bud," enjoy an exclusive look at letters received by Grant from four of his former players, along with a dedicated young member of the Vikings equipment staff.

The Vikings clung to a slight advantage, but the Packers seemed to be driving down the field faster than the clock could wind down.

Thank goodness for Bobby Bryant.

With Green Bay closing in on Minnesota’s end zone, Bryant leapt up and snagged an interception. The pick returned possession to the Vikings, who were able to maintain their lead and seal a victory over the NFC North rivals on Nov. 16, 1969.

As Bryant walked off the field and onto the sideline, Bud Grant offered up a comment: “Bobby, you played a really good game.”

Those seven words stuck with Bryant through the rest of his 14-season career in Minnesota and now more than 30 years since hanging up his cleats.

“He normally didn’t say anything like that,” Bryant recalled of the stoic coach. “I’m sure he said it to more players than just me, but that was the only time [I heard it from him]. I knew that he appreciated the way that I played, because he had stated before that one of the reasons he kept me in there was because I had the tendency to make big plays at critical times.

"But to have him say it – 'Bobby, you really played a good game' – that let me know that maybe I was good enough to be playing. That meant a lot to me," Bryant added.

At 170 pounds and 6-foot-1, Bryant was somewhat of an anomaly. For reference, only six defensive backs are listed at 170 pounds or lighter by NFL team rosters in May 2018 – and all six of them stand under six feet.

Bryant called himself “a misfit in pro football.”

“I was a skinny little player from the University of South Carolina that had a real poor football program at the time. But I had had some success, and [Bud] was willing to give me a chance,” Bryant said. “And then when he found out I could play, even with all the injuries that I had, he stuck with me for a long time. So I really appreciated that and respected him for it.”

Bryant wrote the following in a card to Grant when the coach retired:

When asked about his penned words three decades later, Bryant said that playing for one coach and for one team over his entire career was special because Grant’s coaching philosophy differed so much from the norm.

“Bud had his core principles that he really believed in, and he really knew from experience what it took to be successful as a football player and as a coach,” Bryant said. “He knew that there were certain things that you could do that would help you achieve success, and he stuck to those things.”

Bryant added that Grant cared more about the number on a player’s jersey and how he performed than of the number of years that player had been in the league.

“He knew that veteran players or guys that were older would not necessarily be the team’s best physically, but with their mental ability and discipline they’d developed, they could build a winner. And he proved that year after year with guys that played, some of them, into their late 30s,” said Bryant, who stepped away from the gridiron at age 36.

Unrestricted free agency didn’t begin in the NFL until 1992, meaning that during Bryant’s era, players only changed teams if they were cut from the roster or traded.

Grant opted for neither with Bryant.

Bobby Bryant's look changed over the years, but his team allegiance did not. (Photos courtesy of AP Images)

While Bryant – who finished his 14 seasons with 51 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and 14 fumble recoveries – believes free agency would have likely redirected his career and possibly even enabled him a larger paycheck, he is forever grateful for the way things played out.

“When you can’t offer your services to more than one team, even when you’re at the peak of your career, sometimes you might lose the ability to make more money,” Bryant said. “But I think the things that we gained [with] a team for most of our career far outweighed that money that we might have made.

“I loved Minneapolis,” Bryant added. “The people in Minneapolis were great fans, and I had some great friends here. It was fun playing for the Vikings the whole time because you got to know your teammates well, and we loved and respected each other, for the most part.”

Over 161 games with the Vikings, including 127 starts, Bryant has many memories of Grant – and they weren’t all warm and fuzzy.

In contrast to the interception against the Packers and Grant’s compliment of Bryant that meant a lot to him, another instance sticks with the cornerback to this day.

Bryant recalled a game in which he got into position to receive the opposing team’s punt. Before he could reach it, the ball hit the ground, bouncing up at an awkward angle and causing Bryant to change directions at the last second in attempt to field it.

“I should have let it go … just as I reached to catch the ball, my cleat slipped out from under me,” Bryant said. “Bud used to hate to see players slip; he’d say, ‘You can’t play if you’re going to be on the ground.’ But anyway, I touched the ball and fumbled it, and I ran off the field.

“I had to walk past Bud on the sideline, and he said, ‘That was a stupid play,’ ” Bryant recalled. “I didn’t say anything. I should have said, ‘Yes, you’re right Coach.’ I could have said, ‘Yeah, well you think I don’t know that?’ But I didn’t; I had more respect for him than to say that.”

A less light-hearted story, to be sure, but one that illustrated to Bryant a piece of Grant’s character that he still can’t help but admire.

A common phrase used by his players to describe Grant was “no-nonsense,” and Bryant echoed the masses.

“He was fair to everybody,” Bryant said. “He wasn’t going to blow a lot of smoke … he was going to tell you the truth.”

Added Bryant: “Bud has never changed. Bud was who he was, and that was a real strong but real good character – honest.”

Jeff Siemon learned a lot from Bud Grant, but it wasn’t all tackles and toughness.

Siemon, who spent his entire 11-season career in Purple and Gold and under the guidance of Grant, said the most important lesson he gleaned was to keep football in perspective.

“It wasn’t that football wasn’t important or that he didn’t give all he had on a given Sunday,” Siemon said of Grant. “But it didn’t dominate, rule or control his life.

“I think Bud, more than any coach I think I’ve ever had, kept the game in perspective,” he added. “I think it was down the list of priorities in his life, and he’s to be commended for that.”

Siemon played 156 games for the Vikings, starting 123 of them, from 1972-82. He totaled 1,375 tackles (1,002 solo) over that time, placing him third all-time in franchise history behind Scott Studwell (1,928) and Matt Blair (1,404).

Under Grant, Minnesota led the league in passing defense three times (1972; 1975-76), rushing defense once (1975) and was in the top 12 of overall defense six seasons in a row (1972-77).

According to Siemon, Grant’s defense wasn’t a complicated one, but it was a feared one.

“He had some great players,” Siemon said. “Before I got there, there was the great defensive line and some excellent linebackers and defensive backs – the team was loaded with some great players.”

It wasn’t only the players who were well-known, however.

“Bud was a great coach,” Siemon said. “Along with everything else that he was good at, he was a great evaluator of people – and not just their playing ability but their intellectual and emotional makeup.”

Added Siemon: “He was able to say the right word at the right time to the right person.”

Known by his players as a man of few words, Grant spoke with intentionality.

Siemon recalled an old commercial for a stock brokerage firm whose slogan was, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

“Bud had that same effect on people,” Siemon said. “They knew that whatever he said would not be off the cuff – he had thought through what he was going to say. […] You knew there was a lot going on between his ears, but he often didn’t reveal what was going on. He remained a mystery, and I think he liked it that way.”

In more than a decade playing for Grant, Siemon witnessed the “fun side” of the head coach from time to time, but more often than not, Grant’s conversation and instruction took a serious tone.

“Because of that, he could very easily intimidate people,” Siemon said. “Although not intentionally.”

Added Siemon with a chuckle after a brief pause: “Although, I guess maybe it was sometimes intentional.”

Nearly two decades after hanging up his cleats, John Henderson pulled Bud Grant aside for a conversation he felt was long-overdue.

When several former coaches and Vikings gathered at a team-related function, Henderson saw an opportunity to finally articulate the impact Grant had made on Henderson’s life.

“I had the chance to express my appreciation and deep gratitude to him as a person, as a leader and as a coach,” Henderson recalled. “I don’t know that Bud had the greatest deal of strength in terms of the Xs and Os, but he had strong skills in psychology, he was an athlete himself, and he treated us like we would have wanted to be treated.”

As an African-American, Henderson said he’s often felt sensitive about equal and fair treatment. It wasn’t always the norm in the ’60s and ’70s for black players to be treated the same as white players, and Henderson was struck by the Vikings culture under Grant.

When Henderson signed with the Vikings in 1968, one of the team captains was defensive end Jim Marshall – a future Pro Bowler and one of the 50 Greatest Vikings.

“I was proud and pleased that Jim was our captain,” Henderson said. “That would not necessarily have been the case had I been with another team that might have been led by a different type of a coach.”

Added Henderson: “Bud led by example, and I was very, very impressed with that.”

Grant wasn’t an easy coach, but he was a fair coach. Throughout the years when Henderson had conversations about Grant with family and friends, he’d joke that “Bud treated us all like dogs, but he treated us all the same.”

Grant often reminded Henderson of his own father, whom he had a close relationship with. The two were similar communicators.

“Bud wasn’t a preacher. You get some coaches that will preach to you, but he didn’t preach,” Henderson said. “My father was a man of very few words, but when he did speak, it was important that you listened. Bud was the same way.”

Among the many lessons Henderson learned from Grant was one that stuck with him long after he retired.

Met Stadium at one point garnered negative publicity due to its unfavorable field conditions, and Henderson fell victim to the loose sod during a Sunday afternoon game. While running an out route, the receiver lost his footing and watched as the intended pass sailed over his head and into the sideline.

When the team gathered to review the game’s film the following Tuesday, Grant had something to say.

“Henderson, if you can’t find a way to keep your feet and catch the ball, we will have to find someone else who can.”

Henderson recalled the incident in a letter written to Grant years later:

I thought I had found the perfect excuse – a whole roll of sod just rolled up under my feet while attempting to make that cut, and I had at least 60,000 witnesses who saw the whole thing. [But] the message was, ‘it could be done, our team didn’t need excuses. We needed results.’

“I would often times use that example with young kids when I went to speak with them,” Henderson said. “They felt sympathetic toward me, but they also understood that you can’t go through life giving up a bunch of excuses. That was one of the key lessons that I learned from Bud.”

Henderson echoed other teammates’ experiences that Grant worked to keep football in perspective.

While he was tough on his players and held them to high standards, Grant didn’t turn a blind eye to their outside livelihoods.

Henderson recalled former teammates Grady Alderman and Alan Page, both of whom were working just as hard off the field to further their respective careers as they were on it.

“Grady was studying for the CPA exam, and Alan Page was preparing for the bar exam, and we’re going through the season,” Henderson said. “Normally, there was no room to miss a practice or a game. You needed to conform to the team norms.

“They went to [Bud] and talked to him about that, and his feeling was that their future was also important,” Henderson continued. “He was flexible enough to do the right thing, and we saw that. If you were going to miss practice, you better have pre-approval and good reason to do that.”

A couple of years after Henderson thanked Grant in person, he received a letter from the former coach that was delivered to him via former teammates at a gathering for the NCAA Men's Final Four .

In the letter, Grant recollected a handful of Henderson’s key plays with the Vikings, thanked him for being a part of the team and then added the following:

There are many players who have worn purple, John, and for a lot of them it washes off. The purple will never wash off John Henderson.

Henderson responded with a letter of his own the following month. In closing the lengthy and detailed message, he typed:

Sincere letters from friends or people whom you respect always mean more to me than plaques from people I hardly knew. The memories of my relationship with you and our team will be something that will always be with me.

“I wanted to share my feelings in a letter that I might not have been able to share in that brief conversation at the Vikings event,” Henderson explained to Vikings.com. “He may not be a perfect man, but he’s a man that I highly respected during my time with the Vikings organization.

“And I’m so glad I have a copy of his letter,” Henderson added. “It was important for me to keep it, as Bud kept this one. That was incredibly meaningful.”

When longtime Vikings equipment manager Dennis Ryan first saw the letter that Bobby King sent to Bud Grant more than 30 years ago, he wasn’t surprised.

That’s just who Bobby was.

Ryan has overseen countless ball boys in his four decades with the Vikings, but something about Bobby just made him special. Ryan described Bobby as “a really outgoing kid” who talked to anybody and everybody and didn’t shy away from sharing his opinions.

“Everybody liked him,” Ryan recalled. “He was a friendly kid.”

Bobby – formally Louis Robert King IV – was the grandson of Lou King, a friend and business associate of former Vikings coach Jerry Burns. Bobby initially was brought along by Burns to assist with training camp, but he quickly earned the right from Ryan and his staff to work game days throughout the season.

According to Ryan, Bobby worked with the team all the way through high school and into his first couple years of college.

“Players, coaches, whatever group he was with – whether it was the receivers or the defensive line, they would definitely gravitate toward Bobby and have fun,” Ryan said.

Bobby, who was 15 or 16 at the time of writing the letter, earned the trust of Grant and the other coaches, which in turn meant increased responsibility.

Ryan recalled that Bobby was given the unofficial role of “lead ball boy,” tasked with spotting the ball on the hash marks throughout practice.

“It was always a kid who could handle being yelled at and not getting frustrated. He was that type of kid, and he was qualified to be in that role,” Ryan said.

“Bud would just intimidate you. But the guy who could really scare a kid – that was Burnsie,” Ryan added with a chuckle. “Usually when they were yelling, it was more out of frustration with themselves or the players. They want to move the hash – even though in the script it says it’s on the left hash, now they want to move it over to the right. So they might yell and use a little salty language, maybe, and you have to have a kid who realizes, ‘They’re not yelling at me; they’re just yelling’ and not take it personally.”

The letter written to Grant in response to his retirement in 1984 is full of color and personal connections.

… it’s not going to be the same without you there on the practice field chewing your gum and blowing your whistle, telling Teddy Brown to run faster around the end, or telling Sammy [White] to cut quicker on the pass patterns …

Ryan smiled when reading Bobby’s letter and reference to specific distinctions.

“He picked up on everybody’s nuances; that was something that was fun with Bobby. You know how there are people who will notice the little quirks that people have, and Bobby picked up on that on everybody and could impersonate them, to a certain extent,” Ryan said. “Bud always chewed gum on the practice field.”

As Vikings fans know, Grant did come back for one more season in 1985, and Bobby was there.

Bobby remained a ball boy for the Vikings for several years after Grant’s second retirement, including being invited as part of the crew when Minneapolis hosted Super Bowl XXVI in 1992.

Ryan referred to the “very select group” chosen to participate in the Super Bowl equipment staff and remembered the Zubaz pants that Bobby and the other ball boys wore at the time.

Bobby King pictured on the far left (photo provided by Dennis Ryan)

Then, a number of years after serving as a ball boy, Bobby was hit hard by a rare form of lung cancer.

When the disease forced Bobby to quit working full time and go on disability, the passionate fan returned to the place he was most comfortable – the Vikings Winter Park headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

“He came back and volunteered when he was diagnosed with cancer,” Ryan said. “He would come and just kind of hang out in the equipment room. Sometimes he would maybe vacuum or something like that, but mostly he just wanted to be around people and get out of the house.

“He needed to be around people,” Ryan added. “And he always was. He was always looking to be social.”

On Oct. 23, 2004, Bobby passed away at just 35 years old.

Nearly 35 years after his letter, the past 15 years without Bobby have echoed his words – “not the same” – for family and friends of the outgoing young man whose presence Ryan will always remember on the sidelines.

Words for the legendary Bud Grant will live on, however, from the Hall of Fame coach’s friend, and ball boy, Bobby King.

When Dan Beaver entered the 1977 NFL Draft, he didn’t expect to be selected.

The league had recently cut back from a 17-round draft to a 12-round draft, and the accepted assumption was that teams wouldn’t use a pick during the truncated process on a kicker.

The Vikings, however, did just that. With the 250th overall pick in the 10th round of the draft, Minnesota selected Beaver, just 28 spots after Minnesota selected Beaver’s Illinois teammate, linebacker Scott Studwell.

Receiving a phone call that he had been drafted surprised Beaver; hearing that it was by the Vikings shocked him even more.

“Coach Bud Grant’s teams were famous for blocking field goals, and Coach Grant had been quoted as saying that soccer-style kickers – which is what I was, having grown up playing soccer in Africa – kick with the instep of their foot instead of the tow, causing the trajectory of the ball to be lower. I didn’t think Coach Grant would draft a soccer-style kicker.”

Beaver was far from unqualified, however.

Over four seasons for the Fighting Illini, Beaver racked up 198 points. He was a two-time First-Team All-American and in 1976 broke "The Galloping Ghost" Red Grange's 51-year-old school scoring record.

A few months after setting the new record, Beaver participated in the 1977 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. There, Grange himself spoke at the Friday night banquet and publicly acknowledged Beaver’s accomplishment.

“I felt tremendously honored meeting Red Grange that night and getting to shake his hand,” said Beaver, who was also given a personalized, autographed copy of Grange’s book. “If only I had an iPhone back then for that opportunity of a lifetime, I could have taken a selfie with the man known as the ‘Galloping Ghost.’ ”

(Photo courtesy of Dan Beaver)

Despite having a leg as strong as his résumé, Beaver joined a Vikings roster that already held Pro-Bowl kicker Fred Cox. After going through training camp and the preseason in Purple, Beaver was cut from the team.

Beaver’s time with the Vikings was short-lived, but the impact Grant had on him was long-lasting.

“Obviously I was disappointed that I didn’t make the team, but I learned a lot about character and professionalism and always being prepared, which is what the Vikings were all about,” Beaver recalled. “Coach Grant was a no-nonsense type of coach. He wanted kickers to be a part of the team at all practices, film sessions and meetings. He was perhaps the only NFL coach that demanded that from kickers at the time.”

Beaver recalled participating in full-team drills – holding blocking bags and helping with the “tip” drill. The kickers and punters would line up 15 yards from the quarterbacks and were instructed to jump up and tip the passes so that receivers could practice catching the disrupted throws.

“Tipping a Fran Tarkenton pass to Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White was not necessarily all that fun, though,” Beaver quipped. “We didn’t have gloves back then, and my fingers took quite the beating.”

Grant was known by his players as someone who read people well, and he would work to catch the specialists off guard to test their mental toughness and see that they could perform under pressure.

The tactic worked on Beaver.

He recalled one training camp practice in Mankato after a hard rain. The practice schedule didn’t include kicking field goals that day, so Beaver opted for a regular shoe with longer mud cleats for blocking drills.

“Wouldn’t you know it, Coach Grant called for live rush field goals before break, and I wasn’t prepared,” Beaver said. “Looking back, I think it was my worst kicking performance in training camp.”

Beaver found himself caught off guard a few weeks later, when the Vikings faced the Rams in Los Angeles for a preseason matchup. He and another backup kicker were told prior to the game which quarters they would be assigned to kick in if the situation arose.

“Rick Danmeier was assigned to kick the fourth quarter,” Beaver recalled. “So while relaxing on the bench late in the game, the Vikings blocked a Rams punt and ran it back for a touchdown. Coach Grant decided that ‘Rookie Beaver’ should attempt the point after, even though it wasn’t my assigned quarter to kick.

“I couldn’t even find my helmet,” Beaver said with a chuckle.

When Beaver failed to make it through final cuts, he made a couple more attempts at an NFL career and sent letters to the Vikings and other clubs to request a tryout. He ended up spending the 1978 preseason with San Francisco and the next year found himself in Kansas City.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to replace the [eventual first] kicker in the Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, but was hoping to have a good preseason and get notched by another team,” Beaver said. “The Chiefs were my final try for the NFL, in the summer of 1979.”

Although Beaver was frustrated at the time, he maintains to this day that he has no regrets. He and his wife now live in the Philippine Islands, where they have worked as missionaries for more than 20 years. From 1989-2009, Beaver taught and coached at Faith Academy in the Philippines and has coached girls basketball on U.S. military bases in Guam, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

“I tell young people that God truly does want to give you the desires of your heart, but not always in the way that you think,” Beaver said. “I was hoping I would continue in the NFL, but God closed that door and opened another in sports outreach on the other side of the world.

“Looking back, I would not trade any of those experiences,” Beaver added. “And with Coach Grant, I learned to always expect the unexpected, and always be prepared.”
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