Dennis Anderson
See more of the story

They claimed they could each run the 40 in 4.5 seconds, and when they ate together, or rode in a pickup alongside one another to hunt, they sat in order of their jersey numbers: Wally Hilgenberg was 58, Lonnie Warwick59 and Roy Winston 60.

They were Vikings linebackers during the team's heyday. In one four-year stretch, 1968-1971, the Vikings finished first each season in their division, and in 1970 Hilgenberg, Warwick and Winston played in Super Bowl IV together.

"That's my one regret, that we didn't win a Super Bowl," Warwick was saying by phone from his West Virginia home the other day. "Sometimes it just doesn't work out."

No. 59 was recalling a time nearly six decades ago when the Vikings were perennial champions and when — by fortunate coincidence for the three hunting linebackers — Iowa battled South Dakota for title of Pheasant Capital of the World.

Some of the trio's teammates, including linebacker Jeff Siemon, cornerback Nate Wright, defensive tackle Doug Sutherland and center Godfrey Zaunbrecher, also basked in the limelight of Vikings glory, while benefiting from Iowa's pheasants.

Together, on their days off, they would caravan to Hilgenberg's native Iowa, where they were feted as heroes at small-town cafes and motels, and where farmers near Coon Rapids, Iowa, reserved vast, pheasant-filled cornfields for them and their dogs.

Coach Bud Grant was among the traveling wingshooters.

"I'd look at the weather forecast for Monday and Tuesday, and if I needed to adjust our practice schedule so we didn't get caught in a blizzard driving to or from Iowa, I'd tell the team to work out on their own on those days, and I'd get back to them on Wednesday," Grant said.

Not everyone who made the trip was a player.

Winston and Warwick had met dog trainers and Anoka-area kennel owners Chuck and Loral I Delaney one day at the St. Paul Athletic Club, where Loral I had demonstrated her hunting dogs. Their conversation quickly turned to hunting, and the four, and, soon, Hilgenberg, became fast friends.

"Lonnie had springer spaniels at the time and of course we had plenty of hunting dogs, so soon we were going to Iowa with them," Chuck Delaney said. "Usually after a home game, if they were banged up, they'd see the team trainers Monday morning. Then, when they were done, we'd head to Iowa and hunt all day Tuesday."

Hilgenberg died at age 66 in 2008 of Lou Gehrig's disease. His wife, Mary, said Thursday that he, Warwick and Winston liked nothing more than to hunt together.

"They'd also hunt in the Minnesota River Valley near the Black Dog power plant," Mary Hilgenberg said. "Pheasants were plentiful there at the time."

Deer also were abundant. "The biggest deer I ever shot was in the Minnesota River Valley," Warwick said.

Jeff Siemon was a rookie in 1972 when he replaced Warwick at linebacker after Warwick was hobbled by knee injuries. Born in Rochester, where his dad, a medical student, studied at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, Siemon grew up in California, where he learned to hunt birds.

Selected 10th overall out of Stanford in 1972 by the Vikings, Siemon, who still lives in the Twin Cities, soon also found himself in Iowa.

Asked if hiking cornfields alongside Grant was different from being tutored by him on a football field, Siemon said any distinction was negligible.

"We had a lot of respect for Bud for what he had achieved as a player and as a coach, so it wasn't an issue," Siemon said. "And we knew he really liked to hunt."

Winston was drafted in the fourth round in 1962 by the Vikings, and when Warwick — who was once called the "meanest man in football" by Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp — joined the team in 1965, they became hunting buddies.

"I was from West Virginia and I went to college in Tennessee, so I had hunted a lot of birds," Warwick said. "Roy was from Louisiana and he was a big hunter, so we hunted together whenever we could. When Wally came to the Vikings in 1968, that's when we started going to Iowa for pheasants."

Vikings defensive back Nate Wright, who famously was pushed off by Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson, allowing Pearson to catch a game-winning Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach in the 1975 divisional playoff game at the old Met Stadium, played 11 seasons for the Vikings, beginning in 1969.

Growing up in Southern California, Wright had never hunted before coming to Minnesota. But he, too, soon found himself in Iowa.

"I still hunt," Wright said from his home. "I hunt quail down here, in Arizona. I've also hunted antelope, and in New Zealand I hunted red deer."

Wright said Grant was smarter than other coaches and more adept at time management. So the team didn't suffer if players missed a practice.

Grant was a crack shot, Warwick said. But the coach nevertheless wouldn't hunt Iowa cornfields alongside Loral I Delaney, who was a multiple-time world champion trap and live-bird shooter. Grant would also shoo his sons away from Delaney when they accompanied him to Iowa.

"She's too good of a shot, and too quick," he'd say. "Hunt somewhere else or you'll never get a bird."

Whether such away-from-football hijinks involving a head coach and his players could occur in today's NFL is an open question.

Grant doesn't think so.

"It's different today," he said. "I had six assistant coaches. Today's head coaches have 18 or 20 that they manage. It's more consuming."

Time also has wrought change for Iowa pheasants.

In 1972, hunters harvested 1,817,000 Hawkeye State roosters.

The kill last year was 284,000 — the second-highest harvest in the past 10 years.

No. 59 remembers it as a special time.

"I loved everything about being in Minnesota," Warwick said. "The fans, the players, coach Grant — and going to Iowa to hunt pheasants."