Letters to Bud Chapter 6: The Younger Generation

Vikings fans young and old were drawn to Coach Grant.

We introduced you to a number of letters from fans across the country in Chapter 5; now, to cap off the "Letters to Bud" series, I'm thrilled to share with you six letters received by the legendary coach that were sent from the hearts of youth.

From a plucky Vikings fan in the heart of Packers territory, to a young lady disclosing her crush on Tommy Kramer and a mother who helped her son send letters to his athletic heroes ... these are letters from the younger generation.

When most of his friends lived for the green and gold, Chip Ek swam against the current.

Ek, born in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, became a Vikings fan in Packers territory at just 6 years old. He and his family moved to a small town just north of Green Bay and lived across the street from Bob Mercer, a longtime friend of Bud Grant.

“I became a Vikings fan because of Mr. Mercer’s relationship with Bud,” Ek said. “My brother Jeff had an opportunity to go fishing with Mr. Mercer and Bud, and at that time he made a bet with Bud [about Bill Brown's production] that year.

“He lost that bet,” Ek added with a laugh. “I think it was a dollar, so my brother mailed Bud 100 pennies.”

Ek’s father worked for a boat manufacturer from whom he received Packers season tickets to take each of his sons to a game of their choice.

“I had chosen the Vikings-Packers game, of course,” Ek said. “I was so excited about it. I wrote a letter to Mr. Grant, and I asked him if I could meet him after the game.”

Following a Vikings 28-17 win at Lambeau Field, Grant and the other coaches and players exited through a fenced-in area that led to the team bus. As Grant walked along the pavement, Ek caught his attention through the chain links.

“I yelled, ‘Hey Bud, Bob Mercer says hello!’ ” Ek recalled. “And he walked over and said, ‘Oh, you must be one of the Ek boys.’ ”

Grant proceeded to sign a game program for Ek and his friend, and other players also stopped to provide autographs for the boys as they walked past.

(Scan of program and Polaroid photos courtesy of Chip Ek)

It wasn’t the only time Ek received autographs from his favorite coach.

“I had written him in another letter, and he had sent me autographs back,” Ek said. “He’d sent me autographs from Fran Tarkenton, Fred Cox, Alan Page, Bill Brown. He was really nice about that.”

Years later, Ek’s love for the Purple and Gold continues.

Ek kept each signed item he received, and he’s now passed them – along with the Vikings team spirit – on to his godson. According to Ek, it was important to him to pay it forward, and he appreciates seeing his autographed, framed photo of Grant carefully placed on his godson’s nightstand.

When Ek received word in the early 2000s that Mercer had passed away, he made arrangements to attend the funeral. During the service, Ek turned around to exchange the Sign of Peace and found none other than Grant standing behind him.

“It kind of brought that whole relationship full circle,” Ek said.

“He was a god to me,” Ek added of Grant. “He was ‘the person.’

"Besides my dad, he was my biggest hero. I just loved everything about the Vikings and Bud Grant.”

Ask Connee Campion what her first real passion was, and she'll tell you that it was the Minnesota Vikings.

She was born into a Vikings-loving family and soon latched on to the team herself.

“We would have viewing parties every week for the games,” Campion recalled. “All the parents would be in one room, and they would set up the little black-and-white TV for us kids to sit and watch in the other room.

“I was young, and it’s like you kind of grab on to something, and it was just, ‘Yes! Purple everything!’ ” she continued.

“I would hold a magic marker and ‘speak’ to Bud [Grant] through the TV and send him plays. I was a very crazy fanatic; I was so geeky about the Vikings.”

She remembers writing letters to players, addressed to the old team office off France Avenue, and said it was common to receive return mail.

“They wrote back and sent autographed pictures or bumper stickers or button pins,” Campion said. “I had tons of autographs, and I used to buy all the football cards.”

Calling plays from the living room soon became attending games at Met Stadium with her friends.

Junior-high babysitting money was carefully scrimped and saved for afternoons braving outdoor football.

“We would scalp tickets from Giggles – he was a [well-known] scalper at that time,” Campion said. “We would always go to see him, get our tickets and go sit outside in the freezing, freezing cold.”

Following the game, Campion and her friends would rush down to a ramp leading out of the stadium where players would exit the locker room. She remembers it as a different era of football, when several players would sign autographs, mingle with fans and even join them in the parking lot for a tailgate meal.

Campion listed a number of players she especially enjoyed following, including Tommy Kramer, Stu Voigt and Chuck Foreman, whom she dubbed “probably my all-time favorite Viking.”

“My mom always wore the Bill ‘Boom-Boom’ Brown jersey,” Campion said. “We used to go out to the airport after games, and we’d have signs to cheer them on. Those were the days, also, where you could just go down to the gate and wait for them.”

As players came and went and games were won and lost, Campion viewed Coach Grant as a symbol of stability.

She remembers watching Grant on the sidelines and thinking that he reflected a demeanor that was both sweet and tough. Memories of seeing Grant coach a game without gloves, no matter the temperature, came rushing back in January 2016 when the legendary coach again braved the Minnesota weather in a short-sleeved polo during the pre-game coin toss.

Campion still remembers her excitement when Grant came back to coach a final season in 1985 after initially retiring following the 1983 season.

“Oh my gosh, everybody just loved Bud … He was kind of the larger-than-life icon, almost. THE Bud Grant,” Campion said.

“People never said, ‘We need a new coach,’ ” she added. “It might be, ‘We need a new quarterback,’ or ‘We need a new receiver,’ [when fans got frustrated], but everybody was always behind Bud.”

Writing a letter to Grant was something Campion is glad she did, although she laughs at herself when she hears the penned praises read back to her over the phone.

“I can’t believe he saved people’s letters,” she says now, growing a bit more serious. “It really brought back a ton of emotion – that was so long ago.”

Sundays were spent watching football at the Jensen home.

As far back as Jill (Jensen) Swofford can recall, she watched Vikings games along with her parents, who in their mid-80s continue to religiously follow the team.

For Swofford, it was second nature to be settled in front of the television before kickoff.

“I clearly remember having some of my girlfriends come over on a Sunday, and I looked at them and asked, ‘Well, where should we watch it?’ And they responded, ‘Watch what?’ ” Swofford said. “They looked at me, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that, ‘Oh. Not everyone watches the Vikings on Sunday.’

“That hadn’t even occurred to me until then,” Swofford added. “I grew up that way, and my parents grew up that way.”

It’s not often that she recalls specifics from the matchups, but one game in 1977 particularly jumped out to Jill at age 9.

On Dec. 4, the Vikings played the 49ers at Metropolitan Stadium. San Francisco racked up a 24-7 lead over Minnesota heading into the fourth quarter, but that’s when Tommy Kramer entered his fifth NFL game.

Grant subbed in Kramer with just over 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and his first play was a 22-yard gain to wide receiver Ahmad Rashad.

Kramer went on to make three touchdown passes, including a 69-yard bomb inside the 2-minute mark to receiver Sammy White, who caught the ball at the 49ers 29-yard line, evaded a tackle and crossed into the end zone to give Minnesota the 28-27 lead over San Francisco.

Swofford was sold.

(childhood photo courtesy of Jill Swofford)

“I wrote the letter to Bud Grant on that Sunday, after one of Tommy Kramer’s first games that he did extremely well in,” Swofford recalled. “He had a couple of really dramatic touchdowns at the very end of the game.

“It was the week before my birthday, and I wanted Bud Grant to play Tommy Kramer against the Raiders,” she added. “He was young, he wasn’t well-known yet, and I felt like I needed to stick up for him in the letter.”

The Jensens lived near the Vikings office at the time, formerly on France Avenue, and Swofford’s parents opted to hand-deliver the message to the team office rather than sending it through the mail.

After dropping off the letter, Swofford’s parents were walking back through the parking lot when they crossed paths with Grant himself.

“They ran into him in the parking lot, and they told him that their daughter was a huge fan,” Swofford said. “They just chatted with him. So of course, my parents have never forgotten that.

“My mom would say, ‘I was surprised we never heard back from the Vikings,’ ” Swofford said before adding with a laugh, “But all we had to do was wait 40 years.”

The Kosteckys are a football family.

Paul Kostecky – now living in Arkansas after relocating from the Twin Cities at the age of 11 – and his family have stayed true to Purple roots that were first planted in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

Clockwise from top left: Joe and Dan Kostecky; Paul Kostecky and son Harris; Reta Kostecky with her Legacy Brick (photographs courtesy of Kostecky family)

Paul’s mother, Reta, grew up without a television and was first introduced to the Minnesota Vikings as a young student at Moose Lake High School.

There Reta took a history class taught by Mr. Bob Youso. In between lessons and exams, Mr. Youso often told the students about his brother, Frank, an offensive lineman who became the first player to sign with the Vikings when the franchise was founded in 1961.

“That’s how I first became interested in the Vikings,” Reta recalled. “And then I went on to marry a man that was a complete Vikings fan.”

In fact, football nearly caused the two to miss their own wedding.

Reta and Dan were married on Dec. 20, 1970, coincidentally the same day that Minnesota played and defeated the Falcons in Atlanta to cap off the regular season.

“It was cutting into our time,” said Reta, who recalled rushing frantically to make it to the church on time. “I was getting nervous.”

When Dan and Reta’s first son, Paul, was born, it seemed only natural to teach him the ropes to the sport they loved.

“We explained football so that he’d know the ins and outs,” Reta said. “Every time a game was on, Dan and Paul would watch. I remember going to a few games at Met Stadium because our brother-in-law had season tickets, and we got to go and freeze to death.”

Some of Paul’s fondest – and earliest – memories revolve around watching the Sunday weather forecast when they had tickets to a game.

“They weren’t the best seats in the world, but it didn’t matter to me,” Paul said. “If it was a nice-weather day, my mother would go; if it was a bad-weather day, I would go. So I was always praying for a pretty bad, snowy day, of course.”

Football bonded Paul with both his father and his mother and later with his younger brother, Joe.

“My dad worked hard, and so did my mother,” Paul said. “The times that we did have together, that’s what we did. It became our way of growing closer as a family. The Vikings were a part of that.”

Dan drew up plays on scrap pieces of paper, and he and Paul would spend time in the backyard reenacting their favorite Vikings.

“He would always play Fran Tarkenton,” Paul said. “I would play Ahmad Rashad when I was the receiver, and if there were any pitchouts, then I would be Chuck Foreman.”

Added Paul: “Of course, all of the plays were coming in from Bud Grant.”

Paul remembers watching Grant on the sidelines and, even as a child, feeling a sense of awe around the head coach.

“I almost epitomized him with a higher ranking, like a general,” Paul said. “You could tell he was the man in charge. He was tough. He was one of those guys that you couldn’t help but to respect – there’s just no way that you couldn’t.”

After Dan and Paul finished their imaginary gridiron battles, Reta would often help Paul write letters to his favorite coaches and players. Paul would dictate the message, and Reta would type it out, seal it up and send it on its way to the Vikings office.

The letter to Grant, however, was written by Reta in secret, in advance of Paul’s seventh birthday.

It wasn’t until 2017 when he received a phone call from Vikings.com that Paul became aware of the letter his mother sent in 1977. While Grant was unable to respond to the hundreds of letters he received, it means the world to Paul just to know the letter was sent and read by the eventual Hall of Famer.

“My mother and I have had such a great relationship my entire life … it doesn’t surprise me, let’s put it that way, that she did that,” Paul said, emotion in his voice. “But looking back 40 years ago, it brings tears to my eyes thinking that she would try to do that and really make my birthday special for me.”

Even at 8 years old, Brandon Vincent recognized the tenacity of Coach Grant and his Vikings.

More than 30 years later, Vincent still recollects his admiration of his hometown team and its steely eyed coach.

“I don’t know that I had these well-thought-out ideas as an 8-year-old. I certainly didn’t, but his teams were always tough, and they were always sort of old-fashioned. I know and remember that I really liked that,” Vincent said. “My coaches growing up had that sort of old-school, ‘Be tough, play tough. Don’t mind the weather – if it’s raining or snowing, you play hard, you run hard.’ And I know I liked that about him, and I still do to this day.

Added Vincent: “You know, we grew up in a small town, and it’s all about work ethic. ‘Work hard, and you’ll get there.’ … That’s one thing I think about with [Bud Grant]. That old adage that, you know, work hard and you’ll get where you want to be.”

From a young age, Vincent found himself enamored with the game of football. He’s even holding a pigskin in one of his baby photos, which is ironic in and of itself because neither parent, both of whom have since passed away, were particularly football fans.

“They would have really thought this was cute,” Vincent said of his letter to Grant three-plus decades after writing it. “They were both teachers ... My dad was a high school English teacher, and I grew up around a lot of teachers and a lot of coaches. I don’t know where I got the bug for football, but it’s everything in my past. I just fell in love with the sport.”

In addition to the letter he sent to Grant upon the coach’s first retirement in 1984, Vincent mailed messages to other coaches, as well, including former Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne and Lou Holtz, who coached the Golden Gophers from 1984-85.

Vincent recalled asking the coaches to share diagrams of plays they called during games and asking questions about their teams. He even included his own drawings or plays he wrote up for the backyard.

“I just wanted to have some affiliation with them and get to know them as leaders,” Vincent said. “I didn’t have a full appreciation for that at the time … but I really looked up to them, and I really looked up to the players. I just wanted to know more.”

Vincent may not have played in the NFL, but he did apply the work ethic he respected in Grant, and he recorded a successful football career. He played football all throughout grade school and excelled as a quarterback at Fairmont High School, where he helped lead the team to the state tournament and has fond memories of taking the field in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

(Photo courtesy of Brandon Vincent)

“I remember being there and knowing that the Vikings and Gophers played there, and scoring touchdowns there was a big moment for me,” Vincent said. “I think football has always had a special place in my heart.”

It’s fitting that Vincent created a crayon drawing of Tommy Kramer, having been captivated early-on by the quarterback position. He remembers making yearly drives to Mankato, Minnesota, with his father for Vikings Training Camp and watching Kramer.

“It was like the biggest day ever,” Vincent said.

Now a father himself, Vincent bonds over sports with his 6-year-old son, who has fallen in love with hockey after first learning to skate at age 2.

(Photo courtesy of Brandon Vincent)

“I told him about this, his eyes lit up and he said, ‘Can I write a letter to [Wild Head Coach] Bruce Boudreau?’ ” Vincent said proudly. “I was really touched when you found the letter.”

Added Vincent: “It’s fun to see my son have that same passion that I had for football.”

During a year of uncertainty, a set of football cards proved one avenue for a young girl's focus.

Carrie (Wester) Rolstad’s parents divorced not long before Bud Grant announced his first retirement from the Vikings, and her memories surrounding the difficult life change remain foggy to this day.

What she does remember, however, is a set of Vikings trading cards that her mother brought home for Carrie and her older brother after returning to work full-time at Pillsbury.

“We didn’t have all the video games to spend time on,” Carrie recalled with a chuckle. “But we had encyclopedias, and I’d look up things in them. I think I looked up [the information on these cards and] read through them.

“I saved the cards all this time, in an envelope of things that would be considered scrapbook items or that kind of thing – news clippings from high school, just random stuff,” Carrie added.

They’re the cards she referenced in a letter to Grant, written at age 11 – a time of adjusting to a new number of place settings at dinner and bedrooms at both parents’ homes.

“I wish I could recall specifically why I chose to write the letter,” Carrie said, her voice trailing off over the phone. “When I was a kid, I used to mail away for things. You could save UPCs of Kool-Aid and mail them in and get prizes. I was into giveaways and mailing things, and [I probably] was hopeful that he would write me back.”

It wasn’t the first time that Carrie had boldly penned a message.

She spoke of her childhood passion for horses and the whimsy that she might actually acquire one. At a young age, Carrie wrote a letter to a program out west with the very real hopes of adopting a wild horse.

(Childhood photos courtesy of Carrie Rolstad)

“They did send me back a packet of information about how you could adopt a wild horse or donkey,” Carrie quipped. “So it doesn’t surprise me that I would have written Bud Grant a letter.”

In the letter, Carrie told Grant that she wasn’t “really into sports” but confirms now that football was nevertheless a part of her world.

Carrie’s father grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, and her grandfather instilled in him a love for sports.

“I guess it was more of an interest in sports through [my dad]. He used to watch all the games – football, baseball – on TV and would also listen on the radio,” Carrie said. “I would sometimes watch the Vikings games growing up, and they were on the TV on Sundays.”

She remembered that her father and grandfather once met Grant on a fishing excursion – “at Lake Minnetonka or something” – and shared mutual friends with the avid outdoorsmen.

“And we all just knew him as ‘The Coach,’ ” said Carrie, who went on to attend the University of Minnesota and there developed an affinity for college football and an appreciation of the connection between Grant and his alma mater.

(Childhood photos courtesy of Carrie Rolstad)

Ironically for a child who wrote to Grant saying that “probably made the right choice” after he walked away from the gridiron in 1984, Carrie’s most significant recollection of Grant to this day centers around his return to coaching.

She recalled her brother celebrating when Grant made a one-year comeback for the 1985 season.

“I remember that my brother made a sign, and he wrote ‘Bud is Back!’ on it,” Carrie said. “I have that very vivid memory.”

Created By
Lindsey Young

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