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An Oral History of the 1987 Vikings By Craig Peters

30th Anniversary of 1987 Vikings Recalled in Oral History

After 15 regular-season games in 1987 — including three played by replacement players during a strike — and a pair of Vikings upsets on the road, only one quarter remained to determine the NFC Champion.

Vikings linebacker Scott Studwell, a former ninth-round draft pick who had garnered his first Pro Bowl selection, walked with Redskins quarterback Doug Williams as officials placed 15:00 on the game clock. Washington led 10-7.

Vikings Ring of Honor linebacker Scott Studwell

“End of the third quarter, we switched ends, and I was walking with Doug Williams [and said], ‘Fifteen minutes from now, one of us is going to be in the Super Bowl.’

“Unfortunately, the wrong guy went,” Studwell said with pain that still lingers during an interview for the Skol Stories radio program on KFAN 100.3-FM and this story.

The 1987 Vikings opened with a pair of wins before losing three in a row when the NFL used mostly replacement players during the strike. An agreement was reached by the end of October, and Minnesota won five of six once the roster was restored.

“It was a strange year,” said Studwell of his 11th pro season.

The Vikings, however, finished the season by losing three of four and narrowly made the playoffs. The final loss of the regular season was a 27-24 overtime defeat by Washington, with Williams filling in for Jay Schroeder after the starter suffered an injury.

Williams brought the Redskins back from 10 down in the fourth quarter, a rally that included a 51-yard pass to Ricky Sanders with 1:46 remaining to force the extra session.

In spite of the tough loss, Minnesota dismantled the Saints 44-10 in the Wild Card round and upset the Joe Montana-led 49ers just six days later with a 36-24 victory in the Divisional round.

The Redskins led 10-7 to start the final period, but Minnesota tied the game early in the fourth quarter.

Washington responded with a 70-yard touchdown drive that featured a 43-yard gain on a pass from Williams to Gary Clark on third-and-5. Williams converted a third-and-6 with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Clark three plays later.

Minnesota trailed 17-10 with 5:04 remaining and drove from its 33-yard line to the Washington 6 with 1:05 remaining, but incompletions on second, third and fourth downs gave the Redskins the victory.

Redskins quarterback Doug Williams stepped in and rallied Washington in the regular-season finale at Minnesota.

Revisiting the memory produces fondness for the triumphs and sadness for the tribulation.

“That was probably the most heartbreaking game I had ever been a part of as a player,” Studwell said. “We went to the NFC Championship game my rookie season and lost to Dallas. I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be easy. We’re going to do this every year.’

“It didn’t happen until 10 years later,” he continued. “We didn’t get it done. There was a real good chance that we probably could have won the whole thing, and it didn’t happen. There’s fond memories of that whole run, but it still didn’t end well.”

With this being the 30th anniversary of that team, Vikings.com spoke with Studwell, Chris Doleman, Carl Lee and Henry Thomas to deliver an oral history of that season and the playoff run.

Vikings coaches Floyd Peters and Paul Wiggin chat with Scott Studwell, Chris Doleman and Keith Millard.

The strike

Thomas: “As a 21-year-old man, I had very little understanding of what was going on, but I was fortunate enough to be on a team where there were enough guys that cared about the team itself and guided us along. When we were out, we had scheduled practices at high schools that 95 percent of the team would show up for. We’d go out and have practice and just kept working.

"Doug Martin, Scott Studwell, Keith Millard, Chris Doleman, Joey Browner, Gary Zimmerman were very instrumental. We had Tommy Kramer. We had guys that, for me, ‘There’s nothing stopping them from showing up, so why shouldn’t I?’ It made the young guys want to be a part of it.”

“There wasn’t a scheduled practice. You didn’t have to be there, but everybody showing up made us closer as a unit. We developed a d-line night out from that thing.”

Studwell: “We tried to organize stuff, but it was a little bit of a crapshoot, too. It was harder to keep people engaged the longer it went on, probably more so mentally than physically because guys can easily go work out on their own, can easily stay in shape, but when you’re not getting spoon-fed with game plans every day and not in it emotionally because you know you’re not playing on Sunday, that was probably the hardest part. I think Steve Jordan did a great job of letting everybody know what was going on.

“It was a tough time for the league and for us. Everybody had to go through it, and it was unfortunate. I went through two strikes as a player and never really bought into either one of them from the standpoint of employer-employee relationships. I guess I was always of the mindset that, ‘These people own the football team. Why should they give us half of the money?’ That’s OK. That’s kind of the way I was taught and the way I grew up.”

Unlike five years earlier when a labor dispute resulted in the cancellation of seven games from mid-September to the third Sunday of November, NFL teams fielded squads mostly of replacement players.

While the regular players did their best to stay connected to the game, the coaching staff was working with replacement players.

It was particularly tough for the likes of Studwell to become a spectator on Sundays.

Vikings defensive tackle Henry Thomas poses during a 21-16 Minnesota victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

A 34-19 win against Detroit and a 21-16 win at the Los Angeles Rams by the regular squad were undermined by a 23-16 loss to Green Bay, a 27-7 defeat at Chicago and a 20-10 contest at Tampa Bay, which was only the sixth time for the Buccaneers to beat the Vikings in 19 games. (Minnesota won the previous five games and following five games in the series).

“Oh yeah, it was awful. It was bad. We didn’t put together a very good strike team,” said Studwell, who has worked in the personnel department since 1991 after retiring as a player in 1990. “I guess maybe there was a mindset around here, ‘This strike isn’t going to happen, and we don’t need to be as proactive’ as some of the other people were.”

Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings players shake hands before the game, the last before the 1987 NFL player's strike, to show solidarity before a 21-16 Vikings victory on Sept. 20, 1987, at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California.

Coming back better

When Vikings players returned to Winter Park, they found that the experience had brought them closer together. Their appreciation of what it meant to play for each other increased.

Studwell: “The strike, it could have very easily torn apart the locker room if we didn’t have enough people down there to help people understand what’s going on and why this is happening. It could have very easily gotten away from us, but there were just so many highs and lows during the course of that season with starting off strong and losing those three games and playing well in the middle of the season and maybe underachieving a little bit at the end.”

The Vikings won five of six to improve to 7-4.

Doleman: “The strike affected all of us differently. One of the things we kind of missed was each other. We missed the locker room, the camaraderie, knowing that ‘I’m playing for the man next to me.’ Those are some of the things you miss when you’re outside the game.

“We were all young, we all had plenty of football left in us, and we were all hungry, so to be able to bounce back and show the way we did, it’s a tribute to the guys who played well, the guys who were journeymen and stayed ready in case they were called back to play.”

Lee: “One of the most amazing things for me at that time was seeing a chemistry that I had never been part of. I had never been part of a team where your d-line is talking to you as a cornerback, saying, ‘Hey man, if you can just hold ’em a little longer, I can get a sack,’ and us as a secondary talking, ‘Man, keep putting that pressure on them. It makes it easier for us. We appreciated what everybody was doing, and that chemistry was so special. That’s what pushed that team.”

It doesn’t, however, mean that the rest of the way was smooth.

Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman sacks Green Bay Packers quarterback Randy Wright during an NFL game on Dec. 13, 1987.

Consecutive six-point losses against Chicago and at Green Bay were slightly remedied by a 17-14 win at Detroit heading into the final game of the season.

Minnesota’s defense was causing problems for Schroeder, who was 9-of-17 passing for 85 yards with two interceptions and a passer rating of 27.5 when he suffered an injury. Williams stepped in and threw a 46-yard pass to Ricky Sanders in the third quarter for a 14-7 lead.

The Vikings bounced back with 17 points, including 1-yard runs by Alfred Anderson and Wade Wilson for a 24-14 lead, but Williams rallied the Redskins for the three-point victory.

Minnesota finished the campaign with 336 points for and 335 points against.

Thomas: “I think we were our own worst enemy, playing Washington in the last game of the season and having a great game, inadvertently knocked out the quarterback. Doug Williams comes in, and the rest is history. They have a run through the playoffs that is just legendary, and he beat us again. We had a lead going in to that last game and he came in … and just lit us up.”

Jerry Burns served as the Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 1986 through 1991.

The playoff push

Back then, only five teams — three division winners and two Wild Cards — made the playoffs, and Minnesota’s 8-7 mark was good enough for the final postseason berth. The Vikings had a chance, a slim one, but a fighter’s chance.

San Francisco earned the No. 1 seed and a bye in the NFC with a 13-2 mark. New Orleans finished 12-3, which was the second-best mark of any team in the NFC or AFC, but was the runner-up in the NFC West.

The NFC East Champion Redskins (11-4) and NFC Central Champion Bears (11-4) advanced to the Divisional round, with Chicago set to host Washington if the Vikings defeated the Saints.

The Saints, who began play in 1967, recorded their first winning season in franchise history, thanks to closing ’87 with a nine-game winning streak.

Studwell: “I don’t think anybody gave us a chance other than us. We went to New Orleans and kind of caught fire.”

Thomas, a native of Houston who played collegiately at LSU, loved everything about the opportunity, particularly the 44-10 score.

Thomas: “Being a rookie and going down there and New Orleans being a hot team, first time in the playoffs, nine wins in a row, the whole Mardi Gras behind it, and to go in there and destroy them was just phenomenal, especially for me, getting to go back home. I had guys from college at the game, coaches from college, family from Houston. It was just incredible.”

The Vikings started terribly, suffering a sack on their first play and a fumbled snap on their second play to give New Orleans the ball at the Minnesota 11. The Saints scored on their second offensive snap, but it was the only time they reached the end zone.

An 84-yard punt return by Anthony Carter late in the first quarter gave the Vikings the lead for good. Minnesota added a 5-yard touchdown pass from Wade Wilson, who relieved Tommy Kramer, to Steve Jordan, a 10-yard halfback pass from Allen Rice to Carter and a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Wilson to Hassan Jones in the second quarter. The deep heave occurred on an untimed down after New Orleans was penalized for having 12 players on the field.

Wide receiver Anthony Carter returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown to give the Vikings their first lead against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card playoff game.

The Vikings defense limited the Saints to 11 completions and intercepted Bobby Hebert and Dave Wilson twice each.

A San Francisco team with double-digit wins for a fifth consecutive season was next. The roster was so talented that it included two future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

The Vikings sacked 49ers quarterback Joe Montana four times on Jan. 9, 1988.

Montana and Steve Young played that day, but neither did much toward their Canton claims on Jan. 9, 1988.

Montana finished 12-of-26 passing for 109 yards and threw a pass that was intercepted and returned 45 yards for a touchdown by Reggie Rutland in the second quarter. He also was sacked twice by Doleman, once by Studwell and once by Thomas.

Young completed 12 of 17 passes for 157 yards and also threw an interception nabbed by Lee.

Jerry Rice totaled 28 yards on three receptions.

Lee: “I know at least for the defense and the secondary, the thing we were hearing was ‘Joe Montana-Jerry Rice, how do you stop that?’ It just got to a point where you’re like, ‘They’re human, too.’

Wade Wilson, meanwhile, outdueled Montana and Young, completing 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards with two scores. Anthony Carter recorded 10 receptions for a Vikings and NFL record of 227 yards, which has only been topped once since (Buffalo’s Eric Moulds on Jan. 2, 1999).

Thomas: “The media would come around, ‘Joe Montana, Joe Montana, Joe Montana. Jerry Rice. Roger Craig.’ Everybody pretty much said, ‘What are you guys going to do? How are you going to keep them from getting out of control?’

Anthony Carter recorded 10 receptions for a Vikings and NFL record of 227 yards, which has only been topped once since (Buffalo’s Eric Moulds on Jan. 2, 1999).

“We went in with a chip on our shoulder, ‘They don’t know what the Black-and-Blue Division is. Let’s go show them.’

“The first part of the game, we just were more physical than they were. We went in and exerted our will that, ‘You’re not going to beat us.’ To have the greatest performance in playoff history by Anthony Carter, it was just unbelievable to watch. Every time we were sitting down, he was doing something spectacular. It fueled the fire for the defense to get the ball back to him, ‘Let’s see what he does next.’ ”

Lee: “We didn’t know Anthony Carter would show up as big as he did. As big as he showed up, everybody was trying to prove that we belonged. One of the things you always knew was against the best teams, you’ve got to play the best, and everybody was thinking to themselves, ‘I’ve got to play the best I can play. This is my opportunity.’ The biggest stage that any of us had been on at that moment, and we just showed up.

“We were supporting each other and picking each other up. No one was complaining about a bad play. We were looking to make big plays. Before you knew it, the game was over, and we did it.”

Lee had a better view of Carter’s talents than most because of going against him in practices.

Lee: “I would see A.C. every day in 1-on-1 and I understood how great he was. … When you’re looking at the guy you know is so good and you see him in practice, now he got a chance to be on that stage and go after their secondary and literally shred it to pieces. I wanted A.C. to have that game, and he essentially pulled us through it.”

Defensive backs Neal Guggemos, Carl Lee and Joey Browner on the sideline during the Vikings 36-24 upset of the San Francisco 49ers.

The aftermath

The magical run by the Vikings through the NFC Playoffs was topped in improbability and reality by Williams, who became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

He was able to line up in victory formation for a pair of kneel-downs after a pass from Wilson to Darrin Nelson at the Washington 1-yard line bounced off the dual-threat running back’s hands with 52 seconds remaining.

Thomas: “I remember many of us being sick that day. We got some bug or something, and I was one of them. To go in and out of the game and be so close to it, it was just heartbreaking. They show that last play, it was like, ‘How close were we?’ ”

Washington defeated Denver 42-10 in San Diego on Jan. 31 to claim Super Bowl XXII behind a 340-yard, four-touchdown day by Williams.

The ’88 Vikings (11-5) outscored opponents 406 to 233 and defeated the Rams in a Wild Card game but lost in the Divisional round to Super Bowl XXIII winner San Francisco. The ’89 Vikings (10-6) outdid foes 351 to 275 on the scoreboard, recorded 71 sacks (21 by Doleman) and won the NFC Central but again lost to the 49ers in the Divisional round before San Francisco claimed Super Bowl XXIV.

Studwell retired after the 1990 season, shifting into a scouting role with the personnel department in 1991.

Lee played through the 1993 season in Minnesota and finished his career with New Orleans in 1994.

Joey Browner, Scott Studwell, Chris Doleman, Steve Jordan, Anthony Carter and Gary Zimmerman represented the Vikings at the Pro Bowl after the 1987 season.

Thomas remained with the Vikings through 1994 and continued his career with two seasons in Detroit and four with New England, wrapping up in 2000.

Doleman’s first run with the Vikings continued through the ’93 season. After two seasons in Atlanta and three with San Francisco, which included playing in the NFC Championship after the 1997 season, Doleman finished his career with Minnesota in 1999. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

Doleman: “One of the hardest times in my life, I played in [the NFC Championship] game twice and never made it to the Super Bowl, but it was also one of the happiest times. You realized how important your teammates were and how important it is to have that unity, the support of the community and the fans across America that support the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings.”

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