Vikings recall NFL's first game in London: 'When we kicked anything, it was a pretty big deal.'
LONDON — Darrin Nelson has a poster that announced the game at his home in Southern California, a reminder of the day the Vikings faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the first NFL game in Great Britain.
Rufus Bess has a less-obvious reminder of the Aug. 6, 1983, preseason game at Wembley Stadium: a white suit hanging in a closet at his Eden Prairie home. He bought it a day after intercepting a pass and returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals.
He's never worn it.
"I was going to wear it that New Year's Eve of 1983-84, but it got so frickin' cold, I didn't," he said.
Bess, a Vikings cornerback from 1982-87, had a banner outing in the Vikings' 28-10 victory in London, intercepting a pass he brought back for 37 yards and returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown.
The day after scoring the only touchdown of his NFL career, Bess was in a good mood, waiting for the bus that would take the team to the airport, when he stepped into a London shop with teammates Terry LeCount, a wide receiver, and John Turner, a safety.
"They said, 'Rufus, you've got to buy this suit,' " Bess recalled. "So they took it off the mannequin and it fit. ... I never ended up wearing that suit, but it still hangs in my closet. My wife keeps saying I should throw it out, but she doesn't understand the memories."
Bess might just pull the suit out Sunday for an additional reminder when the Vikings face Cleveland in the NFL's latest game in London, a regular-season matchup between the surging Vikings (5-2) and the hapless Cleveland Browns (0-7). He won't even try to put it on because he's no longer a size 40 coat or 32 pants.
"I tried to maintain that figure as long as I could, but time changes," Bess, 61, said with a laugh.
Indeed it does.
Players who participated in the 1983 game are amazed at how much has changed since the Vikings and Cardinals met in that pioneer overseas game. After playing nine exhibition games in London, the NFL staged its first regular-season game there in 2007. That has grown to four games combined in 2016-17.
When it all started, goal posts had to be shipped to London, and the Vikings were assigned the task of bringing the first-down chains.
"I thought it was pretty different when they said were going to play a game in London," said Nelson, a running back who played with Minnesota from 1982-89 and 1991-92. "But that ended up being one of my favorite things I did in the NFL. To think that I was a part of the first NFL game played in London is pretty cool."
Nelson, now a senior associate athletics director at California-Irvine, keeps a poster from the game in his home office. The game was dubbed "The Global Cup" because it was sponsored by Global International Airways — which went out of business the next year.
In an era before the internet and the cable-television boom, the game was a novelty. British fans didn't know much about American football, although the Super Bowl was televised for the first time in England the previous January and 4.5 million stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch it.
Vikings equipment manager Dennis Ryan never will forget the curiosity exhibited by the customs officer at Heathrow Airport when the team plane landed on the Wednesday prior to the Saturday night game.
"Security was more relaxed then," said Ryan, who joined the Vikings in 1975 and took over as equipment manager in 1982. "He wanted to see two things: He wanted to see a camera case and he wanted to see a player's bag. He opened up the camera bag and said, 'OK, everything looks good.'
"Then he opened the player's bag and he pulled out a helmet and put it on and handed me his camera to snap a photo of him. Then he had a tough time taking the helmet off. He had some red ears. It was a tight fit."
Once on the ground, the players immediately drew attention because of their size. Getting more than his share of the attention was 316-pound guard Curtis Rouse.
"He asked me to defend him and keep the photographers away from him from continuing to take photos of him in his underwear after our first practice," Ryan said.
For the British, NFL players didn't exactly fit the profile of "athletic."
"They called us gladiators instead of football players," Bess recalled.
Minnesota's team name added to the aura.
"Because we were Vikings, they thought that we were Norsemen, like we were real Vikings from the ship," recalled Rickey Young, then a Minnesota running back. Young is in London for this weekend's game, his first trip back since he was a Vikings starter 34 years ago.
When he arrived the last time, Young found it difficult to stay awake. The Vikings were getting ready to play six time zones away, by far their longest road trip at the time, and coach Bud Grant had told his players to make sure they didn't go to sleep right away after arriving to help their bodies better adjust.
"When we got there, I laid down on the trainer's table for just a little nap and I fell asleep," Young said. "The next thing I know, Bud Grant is standing over me, saying, 'What are you doing, Rickey?' I said, 'I don't know. I must have passed out.' "
Young said Grant wasn't too mad. In fact, Nelson recalled Grant being quite relaxed during the team's visit overseas. "Bud let us do a lot of sightseeing before the game," he said. "I guess because it was a preseason game, we didn't take it as seriously. We did a lot of touristy things like go to Buckingham Palace. We would try to mess around with the guards there, trying to get them to move. You can't touch them, but we would try to get as close to them as we could."
When game day arrived, everything seemed to be in order. The goalposts were in place, the yard lines were drawn up nicely and the first-down chains had arrived. Then Ryan attempted to explain to stadium officials that coaches needed to go to the press box for the first half, go back down at halftime and then back up for the second half.
That's when the communication broke down. In England, coaches are buses. "We were telling the stadium people how we needed to get our coaches up to the press box, and they said, 'You want your coaches up in the press box? We have an elevator, but our lift isn't big enough for your coaches,' " Ryan said. "We said, 'Well, we can take them through stands if security could escort them.' "
The talk went back and forth. Finally, a stadium official, trying to be accommodating, had an idea.
"He said, 'Well, we could get a crane,' " Ryan said. "We said, 'Oh, jeez.' They had thought we wanted our buses up in the press box."
The game at least went smoothly for the Vikings, who took a 18-7 halftime lead and cruised to victory. Tommy Kramer threw a pair of touchdown passes in the second quarter, a 9-yarder to Ted Brown and a 31-yarder to Leo Lewis.
Bess closed out the scoring in the fourth quarter with his 76-yard punt return down the right sideline. "They set up a nice wall and I just ran like the dickens," he said. "It was a game to remember for me."
The Cardinals' only touchdown came on a 12-yard pass from Rusty Lisch to Randy Love. They also had the longest play from scrimmage of the night, a 48-yard pass from Neil Lomax to Roy Green.
So what was the most exciting play of the game?
"They didn't really cheer at the appropriate times," Nelson said of the fans, who obviously were much more familiar with soccer and rugby than American football. "When we scored a touchdown, it wasn't a big deal. But when we kicked anything, it was a pretty big deal to them. They cheered the kickoffs. They cheered punts. They were pretty silent on touchdowns."
Despite plenty of promotion, the game drew a crowd of just 32,847, about half capacity. In a newspaper story after the game, a fan was quoted as saying the "seats are overpriced at 15 pounds." In 1983, that was $22.50. Seats for Sunday's game at Twickenham Stadium are about triple that, and the game is expected to be a sellout.
"I wasn't surprised," Lewis said the turnout in 1983. "The NFL back then was entering a new market and trying to entice new fans. It was a novel approach at the time."
Bess remembers, though, that every fan at the game seemed to go down to the field when it was over.
"They were trying to get whatever kind of memorabilia they could," said Bess, now defensive backs coach at Armstrong High School. "They wanted your chinstrap or your wristbands. I remember the Vikings saying that if you lost your helmet, you had to pay for it, so I was holding onto that tight."
Bess did give his chinstrap away. About 20 years later, when he was head football coach at Minneapolis North High School and attended a baseball game at Breck High School, he found out what became of it.
"I met up with this man and he was like, 'You're the one that gave me the chinstrap. I still have it,' " Bess said. "He was a young man from Minnesota who, at the time, had been studying abroad and he went to the game. So after all those years, I got a reminder from that game."
Of course, Bess already had that suit. When Young heard it was still hanging in Bess' closet, he broke into laughter.
"Oh, my God," Young said. "That was ugliest thing, the worst suit I've ever seen in my life. I think (Turner) and Terry LeCount were egging him on to buy it, and then laughing about it behind his back. We all gave him a hard time about it. But that's pretty crazy that he still has it after all these years."