Bud Grant’s Bloomington basement reveals his life’s passion: the outdoors. Hunting stories, not football memories, have dominated the former Vikings coach’s 34 years of retirement.
By Dennis Anderson Star Tribune
Some duck blinds are shaped like coffins, requiring hunters to lie on their backs, eyes upturned, scanning the skies for incoming birds. The blind Bud Grant is hunkered in on this early January morning resembles instead a World War I trench. ¶ Grant, the retired Vikings coach, three-sport Gophers standout, member of the 1950 NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers and inductee of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is 90 years old.
He walks more stiffly than he did a few duck seasons ago, sometimes shuffling, with his shoulders hunched. But his mind is sharp, and the circuitry that coordinates his eyes and hands is untarnished. The sun has not yet fully gathered over the eastern horizon and already he has downed a pair of drake mallards, his alignment with the speeding fowl fluid and assured.
Even now, 32 years after Grant’s steely visage last appeared on the Vikings sideline, he remains the team’s winningest coach. Yet for some Minnesotans of a certain age, a single word — “Bud’’ — triggers memories of the Vikings’ four star-crossed Super Bowl appearances, the fifth of which, they hoped, would have washed away those recollections in Minneapolis next week.
Super Bowls aside, Grant will tell you some people are born to play musical instruments, or do mathematics, or teach school, while others are natural athletes. “You’re just born with it,’’ he says, shrugging.
Growing up in hardscrabble Superior, Wis., Grant realized his physical gifts early: He could throw a rock into a coffee can at 20 paces. To polish this skill, he’d fling 200 or even 300 rocks a day. The country was baseball-crazy at the time, and he’d fancy himself a major leaguer, heaving so many rocks that by his teen years his right arm was longer than his left.
Years later, after leaving the U in his senior year for the Lakers as the NBA’s first hardship case, Grant turned his pitching arm into cash. “I made more money pitching town baseball in summer than I did playing for the Lakers in winter,’’ he says. This was just after World War II. Television was in its infancy, and throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, town baseball was big-time entertainment.
“For $50 a game, I’d pitch overhand, sidearm, submarine — everything — three nights a week,’’ Grant says. “Sometimes I’d ask for $100. If the team couldn’t afford it, I’d tell them to bet the $50 they were going to pay me against someone from the other town. I’d guarantee we’d win, and I’d get the $100.’’
Hunting with Grant on this overcast morning along the North Platte River in western Nebraska is Dennis Highby, a longtime friend and the retired president and chief executive officer of Cabela’s.
Also along is Pat Smith, who came into Grant’s life after his wife of 60 years, Pat Grant, died in 2009 of Parkinson’s disease. “I couldn’t get along without her,’’ Grant says of his “new Pat.’’
Notwithstanding the circuslike garage sale he hosts at his home each May, during which he peddles everything from fishing rods to bobbleheads, he’s more comfortable out of the public eye than in it.
A naturalist at heart, and a keen observer of anything that moves, perhaps especially birds, and perhaps even more especially people, Grant might begin a day watching the cardinals and blue jays that feed outside the kitchen windows of his home or his northern Wisconsin cabin. Or he might stroll into Vikings headquarters, where, now in his 50th year with the club, he maintains a small office whose scattered memorabilia suggests a life spent hunting and fishing, interrupted by football.
A day’s high point occurs if he sees one or more of his six kids, 19 grandkids or 13 great-grandkids.
Never one to look back — Grant doesn’t dwell on the Vikings’ Super Bowl losses — he nonetheless at times entertains the introspection that advancing age nurtures:
“I’ll be reading the paper, and I’ll find myself looking around and saying: ‘This is great. How did I get here?’ Of all the forks in the road I came to in my life, of all the decisions I made — and making decisions is the most important thing you do — I ended up here.’’
He almost didn’t.
As far back as his NBA playing days, when an engine on the Lakers’ team plane burst into flames over Boston Harbor after an evening game with the Celtics, and as recently as 2015 when he and a friend crashed-landed a twin engine Beechcraft in Saskatchewan while on a hunting trip, Grant could have bought the farm any number of times in airplane calamities.
And he almost froze to death as a teenager while hunting ducks during the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard.
“Luck is a big part of everything,’’ Grant says. “I’ve been lucky.’’
May 20, 1927
Harry Peter Grant Jr. is born in Superior, Wis. His mother, Bernice, calls him “Buddy Boy.” He contracted polio at age 8 but was a three-sport star at Superior Central High.
July 6, 1945
Grant enlists in the Navy. When World War II ends soon after, he stays with the Great Lakes football team and plays for legendary coach Paul Brown.
January 4, 1947
Now living in Dinkytown as a three-sport standout at the University of Minnesota, Grant and the Gophers men's basketball team opens Big Nine conference play against Ohio State.
January 28, 1947
Grant scores 12 baskets and a free throw for 25 points, leading all scorers in a 66-63 overtime Big Nine loss at Purdue.
November 21, 1948
A 16-0 Gophers football victory over Wisconsin on a sloppy Camp Randall Field is sparked by a heads-up play from Grant – a lateral to Bill Thiele for a score.
December 25, 1949
The Minneapolis Lakers sign Grant less than a week after he quit school at Minnesota, and he is in uniform for the Christmas Day game vs. Fort Wayne.
January 20, 1950
Grant is selected in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. After a year on defense, he switches to offense and catches 57 passes for 997 yards and seven TDs.
January 3, 1957
At age 29, Grant is named head coach of Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In 10 seasons, he wins 122 games, six Western Conference titles and four Grey Cup championships.
March 11, 1967
Vikings GM Jim Finks – formerly in the front office of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders – hires Grant to replace Norm Van Brocklin as head coach for three years, $108,000.
October 15, 1967
After an 0-4 start, Bud Grant picks up his first victory as Vikings coach, 10-7 over the Packers at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Earsell Mackbee’s interception led to a 12-yard field goal from Fred Cox.
January 11, 1970
Kansas City jumps out to a 16-0 lead en route to an overwhelming 23-7 victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. “The Chiefs did a hell of a job, that’s all,” Grant said.
January 13, 1974
To the chagrin of a Minnesota-heavy fan base at Rice Stadium in Houston, the Miami Dolphins race out to a 24-0 lead and defeat the Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl VIII.
January 12, 1975
The Vikings manage just 21 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX, a 16-6 loss to Pittsburgh where Steelers running back Franco Harris ran for a then Super Bowl-record 158 yards and a touchdown.
January 9, 1977
In front of 100,421 fans at Pasadena's Rose Bowl, Grant and the Vikings lose their fourth Super Bowl in as many trips, 32-14 to John Madden and the Oakland Raiders.
January 28, 1984
Grant steps down as Vikings coach. He would come back one year later after a 3-13 Vikings’ debacle under Les Steckel, but retire for good again. “I was never fired; I was never cut,” Grant said.
July 30, 1994
After a 168-108-5 career record with four Super Bowl berths at the helm of the Vikings, a teary-eyed Grant arrives in Canton, Ohio, to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
October 17, 2015
COURTESY OF THE WINNIPEG SUN
En route to a hunting trip in Canada, Grant and pilot Jim Hanson, of Albert Lea, belly-flopped a twin-engine Beechcraft near Regina, Saskatchewan after the landing gear and dashboard instruments failed.
January 10, 2016
With temperatures at 6-degrees below zero, Grant walks to midfield in a short-sleeve golf shirt and participates in the ceremonial coin toss before the Vikings’ playoff game vs. Seattle at TCF Bank Stadium.
Harry Peter Grant was born in Superior on May 20, 1927, to Harry Peter Grant Sr., a fireman, and Bernice Grant, a homemaker.
Realizing soon that two “Harrys’’ was one too many in her house, Grant’s mother hung the moniker “Buddy Boy’’ on him. In time, the nickname was shortened to Bud. But not before it was emblazoned on a little red wagon he pulled around town, hawking Minneapolis newspapers that arrived in Superior by train.
“I’d meet the train at 5 in the morning on Sundays and buy the papers I thought I could sell,’’ Grant said. “The town whorehouse was on my route, and I’d knock on that door, and the women would say, ‘Buddy Boy is here!’ and sometimes they’d invite me in for hot chocolate and cookies. They’d usually tip me, too. If they were having a good night, I might get a quarter.’’
Stricken with polio as a boy, Grant strengthened his legs catching passes and shooting baskets. Always big for his age, he was a prep football, basketball and baseball star, and coaches in Madison figured someday he’d suit up for the Badgers.
Grant’s dad was athletic, too, and toiled in his spare time for the Duluth Eskimos, an early NFL club. But where Harry Sr. was voluble, a hail fellow well met, his son was more reserved. Whenever he could, young Harry would catch a lift with his dad to the edge of town or, absent that, ride a bus. There, no matter the weather — the worse the better, for Grant — he’d hike for hours, ambushing grouse and rabbits with a .22, before returning home with his quarry in a newspaper carrier’s bag.
Grant didn’t join the Badgers after high school. He joined the Navy.
“The war was on, and my friends and I wanted to do our part,’’ Grant says. “Sports were important. But I wanted to help win the war.’’
Future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown led the Naval Station Great Lakes gridiron team then, and Grant played both offense and defense for the Bluejackets, as he did later for the Gophers, Eagles and Blue Bombers.
“I learned from watching Paul Brown how to make a team out of individual players,’’ Grant says. “We played Notre Dame and all the big schools. But we weren’t college kids. We were in the military, with military rules, and one day Brown pointed to four of our players and said, ‘You disregarded the rules about drinking. Now I want you and you and you and you to get as far away from me as you can, as fast as you can.’
“The next day, those players were shipped out to the war. That got the team’s attention.’’
Grant conferred with quarterback Fran Tarkenton during a 31-30 loss to Washington on Dec. 1, 1975. The loss ended the Vikings' 10-game winning streak.
When Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton retired from the Vikings after playing under Grant from 1972 to 1978, he held every major NFL quarterback record.
Tarkenton still thinks about Grant every day.
“I’ve never met a more interesting person,’’ Tarkenton said. “Bud brought dignity to the Vikings. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t yell. But if he said something, you listened. Because it made sense.’’
On his first day in Minnesota in 1967, Grant breezed into the team’s Bloomington offices toting a snazzy briefcase. Friends question whether anything was in it. Never obsessed with X’s and O’s — Jerry Burns and other assistants focused on that — Grant believed his fundamental job was to assess accurately the team’s many moving parts, and from these divine a winning strategy.
The tone Grant set would be critical. He required players to wear their uniforms exactly the same, including the height of their socks. He insisted they toe the sideline stripe at attention when the national anthem was played before a game. And he famously ruled out heaters on the Vikings side of the field at the old Met Stadium.
Some of this was image polishing. But most of it was Grant being Grant. And the message was clear: The Vikings were a team, not a collection of individuals. And they’d play tough.
“At first, some of the players thought the uniform requirements and standing at attention for the national anthem were Mickey Mouse,’’ Grant says.
Jim Marshall was an All-Pro defensive end who played for the Vikings from 1961 to 1979, appearing in a then-record 282 games.
“Bud had a simplicity to his approach that some of us at first thought was kind of humorous,’’ Marshall said. “But we learned he had reasons for everything he did. All of it was designed to make us successful. He took a team I loved and turned us from an also-ran into a champion. I respected that.’’
Grant also had a life outside of football, which was unusual even then for NFL coaches. He owned and trained hunting dogs. He had pet ravens, seagulls, owls, woodchucks, foxes — and a monkey, “Chico.’’ He counted migrating monarch butterflies during August practices in Mankato. He collected deer antlers and animal furs. And he sometimes showed up for work with muddy waders and dead ducks strewn in the back of his station wagon.
“We could be playing a championship game at Met Stadium and if one of us saw a duck fly overhead, we’d look over at Bud and there he was staring at that duck,’’ Marshall said.
Grant also had close friends who were distinctly not football groupies, including retired Minnesota state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls — the original “Old Trapper’’ — the late Buzz Kaplan of Owatonna, Minn., a businessman and floatplane pilot with whom Grant regularly traveled the sub-Arctic in summer; and Norb Berg of Mendota Heights.
Like Grant, they were passionate hunters and anglers, and their friendships allowed Grant to go places he hadn’t been and learn things he didn’t know, which he valued.
“When Bud came to the Vikings I read in the paper he worried about missing the great duck hunting he had in Winnipeg,’’ Berg said. “I had a place in the Minnesota River Valley where I hunted, and when I bumped into him at a gathering, I told him if he ever wanted to hunt ducks, to let me know.
“He said, ‘Tomorrow.’ ’’
Grant is still very capable with a shotgun in a duck and goose blind, having lost little or none of the hand-eye coordination that made him an All America athlete at the U and later a professional basketball and football player.
Now it is late morning alongside the North Platte River and Grant, Smith and Highby, along with a pilot and hunting friend of Grant’s, Jim Hanson of Albert Lea, Minn., and two young friends of Highby’s, Mike Anderson of Grand Forks, N.D., and Josh Lundberg of Virginia, Minn., count their bounty: 14 Canada geese and nearly as many drake mallards.
Large flocks of ducks and geese winter along this part of the North Platte, about a stone’s throw from the Colorado and Wyoming state lines. Shallow and slow moving, the river, early settlers believed, was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.’’
Yet on this chilled winter’s morning spent with like-minded friends, Grant is feeling the same fresh-air vibe he first knew so many hunting seasons ago chasing grouse and rabbits outside of Superior.
This is almost 34 years to the day that he first retired from the Vikings. He was 56 years old then, his six kids had finished college, and he had played football or basketball, or coached, every fall for 40 years.
“There are some valleys I want to cross, some mountains I want to climb, some streams I want to wade,’’ he said at the time.
Even he’s surprised he’s still doing it at 90.
“To live through all the stages of life I have is quite an experience,’’ he says. “I’ve been lucky.’’