Letters to Bud Chapter 5: From the Fans, With Love

We've spent the past three weeks showing you letters written by names that most likely were recognizable to many, but this week's chapter is dedicated to the fans. Those who may or may not have met Bud but felt a connection and deep respect for the Hall of Famer.

From Elizabeth Merrigan, a teacher who played football with her students through the years; to Jon Huss, a high school football coach who modeled his style after Grant; to Judy Riffe, a Vikings faithful from West Virginia who has never seen a game in person ... these letters are from the fans, with love.

As one of 11 children, Elizabeth Merrigan grew up with a built-in football team.

Merrigan had four older siblings, three of them brothers, and early on she became a regular tag-along to their pickup games. It didn’t take long to learn how to pass the pigskin.

“Instead of running to get the football, I learned how to throw it back to them,” Merrigan said with a laugh. “There was a family with eight children that lived across the street, so we played football and softball for ever and ever.

“There’s really nothing more spectacular than a crisp autumn day, a fleet receiver and a perfect spiral. It’s just one of those lovely moments. I guess that’s why I’m a football fan.”

The Merrigan family ran a farm 50 miles south of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and while Elizabeth did enjoy watching football games on television, she didn’t immediately align herself with an NFL team. It wasn’t until she and some friends attended a wedding and reception, during which a group broke off to check in on the Vikings game, that Merrigan found her team.

“They were playing in a serious snowstorm, and the Purple People Eaters were doing very well,” Merrigan recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh – those guys are fabulous.’ I guess that’s when I became a Vikings fan.”

From that day on, football played an even more regular part of Merrigan’s life.

She quickly noticed Bud Grant and admired his sideline presence, unable to recall a time she ever saw him rant or rave while the clock was running.

“He was just there,” Merrigan said. “It was as if he was saying, ‘All right – we’ve practiced. You guys know what to do. Now go out and do it, because it’s your job.’ I think it was his demeanor and his obvious confidence in the fact that he had prepared well.”

Merrigan trusted, believed in and looked up to Grant. She couldn’t escape her own strong personality and teacher’s mindset, however, both of which often reared their heads during Vikings games.

While Grant wasn’t one to rant and rave, Merrigan often was.

“I have been known to make loud proclamations [during or after games],” Merrigan said. “Family and friends got sick of me saying, ‘I ought to write to that man and tell him what’s what.’ And they would say, ‘Well shut up and write him, then.’ So finally I did, and then that was that. I told them I wrote to Bud Grant, and they just laughed, like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”

Added Merrigan with a laugh: “I’m sure Coach Grant read the letter and said, ‘Well that’s a lot of nerve of that woman.’ ”

Spend a few minutes over the phone with Merrigan, now in her 70s, and you’ll quickly recognize the spunk and character that drove her letter to Grant. She laughed at hearing that her letter remained in the coach’s office, and in hearing her words read back to her over the phone, she claimed surprise at not including more specific critique of Tommy Kramer.

“I didn’t talk about his dancing feet?” She questioned. “I’m surprised, because that’s what always irritated me about him. It’s like, ‘Geez – drop back, count three and throw.’ ”

Merrigan fondly recalled her school-teaching days in Wisconsin and in Lincoln, Nebraska. While most teachers would look on from the safety of the sidewalk during recess football games, Merrigan regularly joined in the rowdiness – and occasionally paid the price.

“I dislocated my left shoulder in Lincoln playing football with my [students],” Merrigan said. “That was really something – I guess our game of touch degenerated into tackle.”

Following four years in Nebraska, Merrigan relocated to Shorewood, Wisconsin, where she taught sixth grade.

Photos from 1982 courtesy of Elizabeth Merrigan

“I played touch football with my kids probably until I was about 56 years old,” Merrigan said. “Then my arm went, and I had a total shoulder replacement two years ago.”

Added Merrigan with a smile in her voice: “My football throwing days were over. But I’m still practicing. I can only get about 20 yards right now, but I’m working on it.”

Jon Huss has never met Bud Grant, but he sometimes feels as if he knows him.

Over 37 years of coaching football, Huss rarely came across someone that related entirely to his coaching philosophy. Huss also had himself for a number of coaches over the years, but none seemed to fit the mold of his own beliefs… until he started watching the Vikings.

When he followed Grant and his stoic presence on the sidelines of Met Stadium, Huss saw a lot of himself in the eventual Hall of Famer.

What stood out to Huss was that Grant never seemed to need to be the center of attention.

“In that era, and today it’s even more so, the head coach is sort of a show-business person. But with Coach Grant, it was never about that,” said Huss, who coached at Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, California, before becoming the head coach at Arroyo Grande High School for 25 years. “He obviously motivated his players, and he had outstanding teams, but from his attire and presence on the sideline, he was very low key.

"I just identified with that," Huss added. "That was my philosophy and life belief, and it was a nice reinforcement to see somebody at the highest level have that same kind of a principle."

Huss, who will soon be celebrating his 72nd birthday, watched and admired Grant for years. A trio of Vikings under Grant – Randy Pohl, Gary Zimmerman and Jeff Siemon – all had a connection with Huss in one form or another. Siemon played for Stanford just after Huss, who hosted the linebacker on his recruiting trip to the University as a high school senior; Huss coached Pohl in high school; and Scott Shephard, an offensive line coach at Arroyo Grande, introduced Zimmerman to Huss as a close friend.

Huss said he modeled his teams’ defenses after the feared Purple People Eaters of Minnesota’s defensive line.

“They had so much pride,” Huss said. “They were ‘the team within a team,’ we used to say.”

(Photo courtesy of Jon Huss)

The Arroyo Grande high school team strived to have a defense that reflected the Vikings, especially at the goal line.

“We had what we called ‘goal-line pride,’ ” Huss recalled. “We could not wear our helmet stickers or call ourselves a good team until we had a successful goal-line stand. Whatever that was, whether the first game or the third game, with a successful goal-line stand, our kids really took pride in that.”

Huss also shared Grant’s approach to special teams, especially when it came to kicking.

While it wasn’t a popular assumption that teams could control games simply by the changing of field position, Grant’s emphasis on such was clear.

“He always had good punters and field goal kickers that would give them a chance, and you could play with that strategy,” Huss said. “The Vikings took real pride in the kicking game.”

When Huss watched Minnesota capitalize on special teams play, he felt a sense of satisfaction at his understanding of Grant’s methods.

“I felt, ‘That’s right. If you emphasize kicking, you can win a game even [if you have less talent],’ ” Huss said. “I mean, if you have a good defense and a good kicking game, then you’re making them go the distance of the field each time, and the chances of an offense doing that [are slim].

“So it was both: ‘Yes, that works’ and also reinforcing some beliefs that I had already,” Huss continued. “I think you have the feeling innately, but then when you see someone at the highest level that’s being successful, you go, ‘OK. It works.’ ”

Less than three months after saying goodbye to her husband, Maureen Melikian carefully typed out a letter to Bud Grant and mailed it from her home in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, to the Vikings office on France Avenue.

The note, while difficult to send, weighed on Maureen’s heart to write.

“I was very young at the time; I had three little children,” said Maureen, whose 33-year-old husband had passed away suddenly from a heart attack just before Christmas.

As she slowly packed away Gary’s belongings, Maureen came across the Purple and Gold of some Vikings shirts in his drawers.

"I thought, 'Oh, I can’t really get rid of these shirts,' " Maureen recalled. "... And that’s kind of what made me write the letter."

Despite being born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Gary Melikian became a Vikings fan at the age of 15 and never looked back.

Maureen recalled living in the thick of Patriots and Giants territory, but Gary didn’t leave his family an option – they were to be Vikings fans, on the East Coast or not.

“It was just kind of a funny thing,” Maureen said. “When we had our children – we have a daughter and two sons – he made sure they had Vikings shirts so they could watch the game with him when it was on television and things like that.”

Gary would have been proud of his daughter, who supported the Vikings long past her father passing away and went on to marry a New York native who also bled Purple.

“It didn’t make any sense,” Maureen said. “But he was a big Vikings fan, too.”

Maureen fondly remembers Gary’s excitement about Fran Tarkenton, Chuck Foreman, Carl Eller and others.

“He was always so impressed,” Maureen said. “That was back in the day when they didn’t play in a dome or anything, and to see the team out there in the freezing cold, he was really impressed with that. That they weren’t sissies – that they could play in those elements.”

Added Maureen: "He really liked Bud Grant. He always thought he was a 'man’s man' and that kind of thing."

Gary attended Vikings games on two different occasions, neither of which was in Minnesota. His job required regular travel, including consistent visits to Wisconsin, and he once went to a Packers-Vikings showdown during a trip to Milwaukee.

The game Maureen most remembers, however, is one she joined him for against the Patriots.

“We had to get tickets as soon as he heard the Vikings were coming to New England,” Maureen said. “We got there hours and hours before the game started because he was so excited about seeing them come out on the field [for warmups].

“Our seats weren’t that great,” she continued with a chuckle. “But we walked down to the field level so he could watch them practice pregame and get a glimpse of these guys up close. It was just fun.”

Gary never met the head coach he so strongly admired, but Maureen felt it important to let Grant know how dedicated her husband was to the Vikings, even long-distance.

Maureen said that Gary often quipped that he should one day have his ashes spread over the Met Stadium field. While his family did not in actuality pursue the idea when Gary passed away, Maureen appreciates the way Gary’s tongue-in-cheek request captured not only his spirit of humor but his passion for the team he loved.

“It was always his little joke,” Maureen said. “If he could end up anywhere, that’s where he wanted to be.”

Not long after Joshua Patt found an interesting newspaper article about his grandfather, Joe Proksa, and legendary Vikings Head Coach Bud Grant, another decades-old piece of paper surfaced.

Among letters that Grant received upon his initial retirement was a note from Proksa.

Proksa’s letter, typed on personal stationary, was dated Jan. 30, 1984, in the wake of Grant’s first retirement announcement. The newspaper article ran just one day later.

Scan of Daily Mail newspaper article provided by Joshua Patt

Proksa’s letter includes the following:

Let me take you back in memory to ’44 and The Great Lakes Naval Center … I remember that we used to walk together from practice to the barracks.

Grant’s book, I Did It My Way, chronicled memories of that basketball team and of Coach Ewbank, who coached the Baltimore Colts (1954-62) and then the New York Jets (1963-73), becoming the only coach to win NFL and AFL titles. In 1978, Ewbank was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Grant recalled in his book:

After football ended, basketball began. I also played on the Great Lakes team and really learned a lot from that experience.


We played 30-something games during the season. With practices and games, it seemed to me as if all we did was play basketball. Our coach was Weeb Ewbank. He might have played some basketball as a student, but he didn’t know very much about the game. Weeb was much more of a football expert.

The newspaper article in Patt’s possession is clipped from The Daily Mail, a publication of Hagerstown, Maryland. Having an affinity for basketball, Proksa is quoted as remembering Grant’s days on the hardwood.

“He was a very low-keyed person in the service, very easy going and had a great personality,” Proksa told Larry Yanos at the time. “He was also a hell of a basketball player. Some people forget that he played professional basketball (Minneapolis Lakers) before he got into coaching. He was really something on the basketball court.”

Proksa had been a standout at Penn State prior to his time in the service, and in 1945 he played a single game in the NBA, suiting up for the Pittsburgh Raiders. He went on to coach high school basketball and teach driver’s education, and he also spent time with the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses, a team in the Eastern Professional Basketball League.

(Scan of 1936 Penn State Yearbook page courtesy of Penn State)

Proksa passed away in October of 1999.

While Patt was too young to remember his grandfather’s recollections of his old pal at Great Lakes Naval Academy, he assured that Bud Grant is a familiar name within the family.

"[My uncle, Joe. Jr.,] said that Joe liked to talk about knowing Bud Grant and Weeb Ewbank. [My grandfather] thought those were exciting times, being part of the war effort, meeting people like them."

When Sally Ward watched the 1976 Vikings lose to the Raiders in Super Bowl XI, it hit home.

For a while, she had felt somewhat connected to Bud Grant, the steely eyed head coach who maintained his stoic stance as he led Minnesota through successful seasons – and four Super Bowl appearances – but repeatedly fell short of the championship.

Ward, a coach herself, felt Grant’s pain from more than 800 miles away.

A Pennsylvania newspaper article printed in 1977 chronicles Ward’s own experience. Her Hickory High School girls basketball team had just fallen 59-44 to Oil City, effectively knocking the Hornettes from the District 10 Class AAA Playoffs.

Ward was quoted in the paper: “We just can’t win the big ones … I know how Bud Grant feels.”

And later in the article: “I think Bud Grant and I will go off fishing somewhere in Minnesota.”

“I can remember reading an article when the Vikings had lost in the playoffs, and Bud Grant said something to the effect, ‘I think I’m just going to go fishing now’ – I can’t remember the exact words,” Ward said. “And I also used to fish – I used to tie flies and go out on the first day of trout season. That’s kind of a big thing in Western Pennsylvania.”

Forty years later, Ward still recalls the parallels she drew between the two teams’ sagas.

“We’d win. We’d win the county, we’d do very well, and then it would come time for the state playoffs, and we were 0-6 in six years,” Ward recalled brusquely, as if the losses still sting.

She remembered rooting for the Vikings in their fourth attempt at a Lombardi Trophy and watching it slip away.

"And it was like, 'My [gosh]. Every time Bud Grant loses, we lose.' And I can remember telling my friend who taught biology, 'I swear, I’m going to sit down and write Bud Grant a letter and tell him I know how he feels. Granted, it’s not quite as big as the NFL, but I certainly know how he feels.' "

Ward held off on writing. But the following season, Ward’s star center was sidelined just before the postseason with a broken leg. In November, Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton suffered a broken leg – along with a broken thumb – when he was sacked by Bengals defensive end Gary Burley.

She could no longer hold back from following through on the letter she had always promised.

At the end of an in-depth note to Grant, Ward wrote the following:

Perhaps I exaggerate the similarities (there are many more than I have mentioned) because I am a Viking fan. But, none the less I still identify with the Vikings and you, Mr. Grant. I believe in hard work, discipline, the fundamentals of sport and God.

She then capped it off: P.S. I love fly-fishing.

As if Ward’s proverbial ties to Grant weren’t unique enough, her journey to Vikings fandom was also an unlikely one.

Never having lived in Minnesota, Ward remembered a poster that hung on the wall of her childhood bedroom in Maryland. The poster depicted Tarkenton, who at the time played for the New York Giants after starting his career with the Vikings.

“He was kneeling in the end zone with blood running down his face,” Ward said. “That was my first connection [to the] Vikings.”

Tarkenton returned to Minnesota in 1972, but Ward really started rooting for the Purple and Gold when the Vikings drafted running back Chuck Foreman in 1973.

Ward and Foreman had been acquaintances as youth in Frederick, Maryland, where Ward was a member of the local AAU track and field club and Foreman was a member of the football team.

“Chuck Foreman played football, and our sprinter had the world record in the 100,” Ward said. “He used to try to come out and try to beat her, but he never could.”

She followed Foreman’s football career through the University of Miami and on to the pros. When he joined Tarkenton in Minnesota, Ward’s allegiances were set in stone. She quickly came to admire Grant, as well, and respected his coaching philosophy that closely resembled her own.

"He never pulled any punches," Ward said. "He was a very fair man. If you were good, he told you that; if you stunk, he told you that."

“He was a very standup, [straightforward] guy,” she continued. “I don’t know him personally; I don’t know any NFL coaches personally. But I always felt that he was right on point, he didn’t make things up, he didn’t have to grandstand.”

To this day, Ward holds Grant in high esteem.

She was saddened at his retirement in 1983 – and again in 1985 after returning for one season – but celebrated his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

While not in the professional ranks, Ward has quite the resume herself.

As a member of Frederick’s AAU track team, she competed nationally and internationally. She was a long jump finalist in the 1964 United States Olympic Trials. She went on to have a standout collegiate career in basketball and softball and in 1995 was inducted into the Slippery Rock Sports Hall of Fame.

Just before starting the Hickory High girls basketball program in 1972, Ward climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – a height of 19,340 feet – despite having no previous mountain-climbing experience.

Left: Hickory won the Grove City, Penn., tournament in the mid-70s; Right: Hickory won the District 10 title in 1983. (photos courtesy of Sally Ward)

She coached the Hornettes for 22 years, posting a career record of 324-167.

Ward continues to be involved in the program, similar to Grant remaining a team consultant with the Vikings. In 2006, she was inducted into the Mercer County Hall of Fame, for which she now serves on the Board of Directors.

This photo (courtesy of Ward) was used during her induction into the Mercer County Hall of Fame in 2006.

“It’s been in existence since 1947,” Ward said. “It’s the oldest local sports hall of fame in the country.”

Ward never did find time to seek out that fishing trip with Coach Grant. But if the opportunity ever arose, she’s sure the two would have common ground, even on the water.

On Sept. 17, 1961, the Vikings played their first game in franchise history, facing off against the Chicago Bears.

Minnesota hosted the contest that took place at Metropolitan Stadium on a balmy 75-degree day. George Shaw, a veteran quarterback with time under his belt with the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, started the game. He didn’t last long, however.

After one quarter in which Shaw completed two passes for 22 yards, he was benched in favor of newcomer Fran Tarkenton.

Judy Riffe, 15, viewed the game on television from her West Virginia home. She watched Tarkenton take the field and got goosebumps as he went on to throw for 250 yards and four touchdowns, rushing himself for a fifth, and taking the Vikings to a 37-13 victory in their inaugural game.

By the time Bud Grant was hired as Minnesota’s head coach in 1967, Riffe had long-since been hooked.

In the letter she wrote to Grant in 1978, she recalled that first game:

As a Vikings fan for many years (since the early years, when I first saw Fran Tarkenton scramble out of the pocket and complete a pass)…

Forty years later, Riffe still lives in Wyco, West Virginia. She’s never been to a Vikings game, yet she cheers religiously for her beloved team.

“I’ve been married to my husband for 55 years,” Riffe told Vikings.com in the summer of 2017 before proudly adding, “But I’ve been with the Vikings for 56.”

When Grant was added to the Vikings sideline, Riffe noticed a similarity in demeanor between the stoic coach and her husband.

“Bud Grant was just cool. He did not get excited or upset. My husband is [also] a level-headed man,” Riffe said. “Bud Grant just did Bud. He didn’t get excited, no matter what the score was, what was going on. It was just his game, you know.”

Where the two men differ greatly, however, is that Riffe’s husband doesn’t much care for football.

She explained that he was a hunter, a fisher and a coal miner who worked for 40 years in the mines. While he was never much for “ball sports,” as she put it, he’s always sure to support Riffe and ask her the game’s score.

It’s practically possible to hear Riffe’s eyes roll good naturedly as she says, “He told me one day, he said, ‘What do you mean, the first down? The way they pile up there, I can’t tell who got knocked down first.’ I’ve tried to explain it to him.”

And then there was the time in 1987 that Dolly Parton nearly interfered with the Vikings.

“My husband loved Dolly Parton, and he’d have me tape Dolly’s show when he went hunting on Sundays,” Riffe recalled. “He came home once on Thanksgiving Day and said, ‘I’m going to watch Dolly.’ At that time, we only had one TV, and Minnesota and Dallas were playing that year.

“I told him, ‘Not in this household. Not in this lifetime will you turn the Vikings off to watch Dolly,’ ” Riffe said. “The game went into double overtime. He said that was the longest ball game he’d ever seen in his life.”

The Vikings went on to win, and they were both happy.

Since writing the letter to Grant, Riffe retains the same optimism about her Vikings. She said she can’t wait until the day Minnesota makes it back to another Super Bowl, and she’s confident that they’ll win the Big Dance.

"I’m a loyal person. I took them, they were my team, and I’m with them – win or lose. Even yet, to this day. If they win, I’m elated; if they lose, I say, 'We’re going to get the next one.' "
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Lindsey Young

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