In Week 2, ABC opened Monday Night Football with a 90-second promo that featured former Minnesota governor and avid Vikings fan Jesse Ventura saying that night would be “Fly Eagles Fly over my dead body.” The game did not exactly go as Ventura had predicted.
Philadelphia trounced the Vikings 24-7 at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 19. And while Ventura said the spot went over quite well, he considered it unfortunate it wasn’t a good outing for the franchise he has followed since it was founded in 1961, when he was growing up in south Minneapolis.
“I felt bad that I brought them bad luck,” Ventura said in hour-long interview with the Pioneer Press this week.
But Ventura, 71, did claim he has helped the Vikings before. He pointed to a playoff game in 1969, when he was 18 — well before he became famous as pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and before he served as Minnesota’s 38th governor from 1999-2003.
“I actually believe I helped the Vikings win a playoff game against the Rams,” Ventura said.
On Dec. 27, 1969, the Vikings opened the playoffs with a 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. As Ventura tells it, he had enlisted in September following his high school graduation to join the Navy and was due to report in January.
Ventura and a friend, who also was joining the Navy, wanted to have a big party before they headed out. So they booked some rooms at a hotel near the stadium the night before the game along with some other buddies prior to attending the game.
“We got out there and we started partying all night, and it turned out that was the same hotel that was housing the Rams,” Ventura said. “And we kept them up all night out (running around) in the hallway raising hell and making noise. We got big offensive tackle Bob Brown (who was listed at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds and later made the Pro Football Hall of Fame) in the hall in his boxer shorts.
“He comes out, and he’s so big he has to turn sideways to get out the door. He’s bigger than Godzilla. He looks at us and says, ‘I know you boys are having a fun time tonight, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I’ve got a big game tomorrow and need my sleep.’ We all said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
But did the partiers indeed settle down?
“We kept it down a little bit, but we managed to still bother them all night long,” Ventura said. “So we kind of felt somewhat responsible that we helped the Vikings a little bit by keeping the Rams up all night.”
Bud Grant, then the Vikings coach, said Friday he has known Ventura for many years but had never heard that story. But he added, “We had a lot of people who helped me, and probably him, too,”
After that game, Ventura served in the Vietnam War, became a wrestler, showed up in movies and on television, and got into politics, serving as mayor of Brooklyn Park from 1991-95 before going on to become governor. And he continued to attend Vikings games when he could at Metropolitan Stadium or the Metrodome, the two stadiums where they played for four decades, from 1982 to 2013.
But until two weeks ago, Ventura, who lives in White Bear Lake, hadn’t attended a Vikings game since his days as governor. And he had never been to U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016. So why not?
“They’re on TV,” he said.
In recent years, Ventura has developed a friendship with former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer and Buddy Becker, a real estate agent who has a home in Blaine where Kramer lives in the spacious basement. Due to the friendship, which started when they all began playing golf together at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Becker invited Ventura to Minnesota’s 28-24 win over Detroit on Sept. 25.
“It’s phenomenal,” Ventura said of the Vikings’ new home. “The stadium is better than I even anticipated. It’s a great stadium. … I had a great time there.”
Ventura is known, of course, for providing critical opinions, so he did offer up some negatives. He was surprised to find out that the Vikings, like most pro sports teams, no longer have paper tickets.
“I’ve never owned a cell phone,” said Ventura, who once hosted the TV show “Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura.” “I’ve made it this far without one, and because everyone says you have to one and they follow you wherever you go if you do have one. I just prefer for Jesse Ventura, it’s harder to them to know where I’m at. But I don’t know who ‘they’ are.”
Ventura was able to make it into the game thanks to Becker’s tickets on his cell phone. But then it came time for the security check that all fans attending pro sports events must go through.
“I’m the governor of Minnesota,” Ventura said. “I’m not a terrorist. I’m the fricking governor, 38th. I carry that title. You can put it on my gravestone. I’m offended I need to be searched.”
Ventura said he used to have Timberwolves and Lynx season tickets but gave them up because he didn’t want to go through security checks and “got tired of being treated like a common criminal.”
Nevertheless, Ventura hasn’t ruled out attending another Vikings game, and he figures to be watching on television when they play Chicago on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He likes what he sees so far out of first-year coach Kevin O’Connell, 37, who replaced the fired Mike Zimmer.
“I think he’s a good, young coach,” said Ventura, who wore a windbreaker during the interview that he got years ago at a golf outing that reads “Vikings Celebrity Tournament” on the front. “He’s got a better rapport with million-dollar players than I think Zimmer did. Zimmer may know X’s and O’s but he’s old school in a way. He’d probably have better success being a defensive coordinator for Vince Lombardi in that (1960s) era of football.”
In his pre-game spot for ABC, Ventura talked about the Vikings’ playoff failures over the years and he left a mock voicemail for O’Connell, saying, “This is desperation calling.” But Ventura, wearing a Vikings No. 98 jersey with his name on the back, later said that “last night Bud Grant came to me in a dream (and) whispered ‘we have the offense this year’ “” to do some damage.
O’Connell said Friday he never has gotten an actual voicemail from Ventura and that he has yet to see the promo. But he said he’s heard from others it “was a pretty cool deal” and that the Vikings need to “keep that tape and make sure we have that in the archives for me.”
Ventura said he was pitched the idea by ABC/ESPN officials shortly before the Sept. 11 opener against Green Bay. He agreed to do it, and two versions were filmed in a warehouse in Minneapolis, one to use if the Vikings beat Green Bay and one for if they lost. The Vikings beat the Packers 23-7.
“The reaction to it has been phenomenal,” Ventura said. “I enjoyed doing it, but I heard the Philadelphia people were outraged over it. Not mad at me. They were jealous. They said, ‘How come our team doesn’t get a promo like that?’ ”
In the promo, Ventura made note of the Vikings’ devastating 30-27 overtime loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 17, 1999. That was just 13 days after Ventura took office as governor.
Throughout Ventura’s time as governor, Red McCombs owned the Vikings, and Ventura did not have a good relationship with him. Ventura said when he took office that he wouldn’t build a stadium for the Vikings using public money, but that didn’t keep McCombs from making a pitch to get such money to build a replacement for the Metrodome.
“The worst meeting I had as governor was with Red McCombs and only because you would think that when someone wants something from the governor, that you would come in prepared and that you figure you’re only going to get one shot at it,” Ventura said. “He was the worst prepared person I ever dealt with. He came in with nothing. He plopped in the chair and says, ‘Governor, I need a new stadium.’ ”
Ventura said McCombs came in with no ideas other than he wanted public money for a stadium. He said McCombs was making about $4 million a year in profit then while other NFL owners were earning between $10 million and $12 million annually.
To close the gap, Ventura said he suggested McCombs raise ticket prices by $10 a game, figuring that would bring in more than $6 million annual additional revenue. Soon after, he said he told McCombs, “Get out of here.”
With talk of a possible new home for the Vikings prevalent during Ventura’s time in office, Ventura said he suggested to then-attorney general Mike Hatch that the state legalize sports betting and put a tax on it to help pay for a stadium. He said he had been told there was an estimated $3 billion per year being illegally bet on sports in Minnesota.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we legalize sports betting?’ ” Ventura said. “We become the bookies, bookies get paid 10 percent generally. I said, ‘That means we’d make $300 million a year by being the bookie to sports betting. It’s going on anyway. Bring it above board, make it legal.”
At the time, Nevada was the only state with legal sports betting, and Ventura said he would have been willing to sue the U.S. government on that being unconstitutional if it tried ban a law allowing sports betting in Minnesota. But Ventura said he didn’t get any backing on his idea from the state legislature.
Now, roughly 30 states have legalized sports betting, though Minnesota is not one of them. Ventura said he was 20 years ahead of his time while in office.
When he was in office, Ventura attended some Vikings games. He said the last one he saw before last month’s game against the Lions was against the Packers at the Metrodome, although he doesn’t recall what year.
But Ventura does remember what he once thought about doing to Packers fans who attended games in Minnesota and then drove back to Wisconsin.
“I had a great idea but my security guys talked me out of it,” Ventura said. “I wanted to take my troopers and go set up on I-94 and bust the Cheeseheads as they’re all driving back because you know they’re all drinking. And I wanted to personally get out and do it.”
Ventura grew up in the 1960s when the Packers won five championships and the Vikings were coming of age. He became a big Vikings then, and said he closely followed the era of the Purple People Eaters, the legendary Minnesota defensive linemen from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.
Later, he was a fan of Kramer, who played quarterback from 1977-89. Ventura remembers him as a “gunslinger” on the field. And he also liked linebacker Scott Studwell, who played from 1977-90 and used to go see Ventura wrestle. The two would get into mock fights, with Ventura saying fans thought they were real.
“I used to have fun with Scott,” Ventura said. “I called him ‘Spudwell,’ and I challenged him to come into the ring. And Scott was great about it because these guys would hold him and Scott would make it look like he’s trying to get in there.”
Now, Ventura is following a new generation of Vikings players. He likes that the Vikings have gotten off to a 3-1 start but doesn’t deny that “luck is breaking our way this year.” The Vikings have come from behind in the fourth quarter in the past two games against lesser teams Detroit and New Orleans, which they beat 28-25 last Sunday in London.
Ventura closed his ABC promo by saying in his mock voicemail to O’Connell, “Call me back when you get a chance.”
Ventura said this week he actually does welcome a call from O’Connell. And the head coach said Friday there just may be one coming.
“I just need to track down his number,” O’Connell said. “When I’ll be able to do that, I’ll go ahead and give him a shout back.”