There was a time when you just didn’t mess with Mick Tingelhoff or anyone under his protection on or off the football field.
"We had this crabby neighbor when we lived in Edina,” said Pat Tingelhoff, Mick’s son. “My brother Mike and I were running across his lawn. He grabs Mike and throws him into the bushes. We ran home crying and told Mick.”
Mick was a quiet, mild-mannered introvert most of the time. He also was one of the toughest players in the 95-year history of the NFL. As center and co-captain on Bud Grant’s four Super Bowl teams, he never missed a start during a 17-year career (1962-78) that finally will reach Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame during Saturday’s enshrinement.
“Mick just nods, real quiet, and says, ‘OK,’ ” Pat said. “Then he walks down, knocks on the guy’s door. Guy opens the door, and boom! Mick dropped him.”
This was the early ’70s. Problem solved.
“But Mick did call the Vikings and say, ‘You better get a lawyer ready,’ ” said Phyllis, Mick’s wife of 54 years.
“Mick says to me, ‘What if this guy calls the cops?’ ” said former Vikings running back Dave Osborn (1965-75). “Eventually, someone told him that if the guy didn’t file a complaint in 24 hours, Mick would be OK.”
“I sweated it out for 24 hours,” said Tingelhoff, laughing as he sat across from Osborn over a cup of coffee at one of their weekly get-togethers with old friends at the truck-stop McDonald’s just off Interstate 35 in Lakeville.
Mick started the next week. Mick always started the next week. In fact, in the history of the NFL, only Brett Favre (297) and former Vikings teammate Jim Marshall (270) started more games consecutively than Tingelhoff (240).
He is the ninth center to reach the Hall of Fame. An undersized but quick and tenacious blocker, the 6-foot-2, 237-pounder was a five-time first-team All-Pro, long snapper and tone-setting co-captain. He and Marshall ruled as Grant’s undisputed leaders on teams that went 112-42-2 and won 10 division titles in Tingelhoff’s last 11 seasons.
“Mick Tingelhoff wasn’t a Minnesota Viking,” said Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame quarterback and Tingelhoff’s Hall of Fame presenter. “Mick Tingelhoff IS the Minnesota Viking.”
Don’t lowball Mick
Mike Lynn was hired as the team’s general manager when Jim Finks left after the 1973 season. It wasn’t long before the new guy got a full understanding of Tingelhoff’s powerful presence throughout the organization.
“Mick’s contract was up, so Lynn told Mick he had to come in and talk,” Osborn said. “Mick drove in, walked into his office and sat down.”
Tingelhoff had a habit of setting his keys on the desk. Lynn’s desk was always decked out with football memorabilia and a big bowl of cinnamon candy.
“They start talking, and Lynn says, ‘Mick, you’re really not that good anymore, so we can’t really pay you because you’re overpaid now,’ ” Osborn said. “So Mick took his arm and swept the desk. Trophies and that bowl of cinnamon candy and everything went flying.”
Tingelhoff stormed off, punching a hole in Lynn’s door on the way out.
“Mick gets to his car and remembers that he set his car keys on the desk,” Osborn said. “So now he has to come back in. He walks in and everybody is silent, thinking, ‘Boy, Mick’s really going to bust things up now.’ ”
Tingelhoff walked into Lynn’s office and got down on his hands and knees to search through the rubble for his keys.
“I found them, got up and walked out,” Tingelhoff said. “I guess he must have paid me, because they didn’t get rid of me.”
Grant wouldn’t have allowed that.
“Mick and Jim were our two leaders,” Grant said. “It’s hard for me to talk about Mick without Marshall and Marshall without Mick. Mick was an introvert. Jim was an extrovert.
“They were different personalities, but really respected and our best players. They bought the program when I came in . If I said, ‘Jump,’ they would be the first ones to jump and everybody else would have to jump with them.”
Nebraska’s ‘mean Germans’
Henry Michael Tingelhoff was born May 22, 1940, in the small town of Lexington, Neb. He was the sixth child and second son to grow up working on the 230-acre family farm whenever he wasn’t in school or playing sports.
“I remember milking cows in the morning in the dark,” Tingelhoff said. “We didn’t get electricity until I was a senior in high school.”
Tingelhoff played center and linebacker at Lexington High School. He went 0-9 as a sophomore and 9-0 with only one touchdown allowed while winning the state title as a senior.
Naturally, he didn’t miss a game. But his parents never saw him play.
“Dad thought football was a waste of time,” Tingelhoff said. “Mom and Dad were from Germany. Mean Germans. They weren’t real happy that I got a scholarship to Nebraska. They wanted me to stay on the farm.”
Tingelhoff and the right side of Lexington’s offensive line earned scholarships to Nebraska. The right tackle was Monte Kiffin, a longtime NFL coach and a former Vikings assistant.
“Mick very well could have quit football,” Kiffin said. “Our sophomore year, we got a new coach who was so tough on us that we all thought about quitting. And Mick was this farm kid whose dad wasn’t a football fan at all. Mick had to be extra tough to stick with it.”
Tingelhoff shrugs when anyone mentions how tough he was.
“I’m not tough,” he said. “I’m ornery.”
Tingelhoff played center and linebacker very well on Nebraska teams that weren’t very good. He never missed a game, naturally, and met the love of his life when Phyllis arrived on campus from Indiana with her purple Oldsmobile convertible.
20 rounds, no Tingelhoff
The Tingelhoffs already were married when the NFL staged a 20-round college draft in 1962. Fourteen teams picked 280 players, including 20 centers not named Tingelhoff.
With an education degree, Tingelhoff thought he might have to get a job as a science teacher. The CFL was a possibility, too, with interest from Grant in Winnipeg and Finks in Calgary.
In the NFL, two teams called. The St. Louis Cardinals and a Vikings team coming off a 3-11 expansion season and coached by Norm Van Brocklin, one of the more volatile coaches the league has ever seen.
“Van Brocklin always had his hands in his pockets and he always had a ton of coins,” Osborn said. “And he was a nervous guy, so he was always rattling those coins around. One game, the ref made a bad call or something and Van Brocklin threw his hands up so hard that it ripped both of his pockets. Quarters and nickels and dimes went flying all over the official.”
Tingelhoff laughs from across the table.
“Stormin’ Norman,” Tingelhoff said. “Always cussing. Calling us girls.”
It was Van Brocklin who sent a scout to Lincoln with $500 and instructions to give it to Tingelhoff as a signing bonus. The scout pocketed the money, gambling that Tingelhoff would be desperate enough to sign without it. He was right. Tingelhoff signed a deal that would pay him $9,000 as a rookie.
“When Mick gets here, he misses an assignment or something,” Osborn said. “Van Brocklin got mad and yelled, ‘I gave you 500 bucks and you come up here and do that!?’ Mick says, ‘You didn’t give me 500 bucks.’ ”
“Van Brocklin ended up giving me the money,” Tingelhoff said.
He also ended up moving Tingelhoff from linebacker to center early in camp in 1962. And, as Tarkenton puts it, “the rest is history.”
“The best way I can describe Mick’s blocking is he had grit. True grit,” said running back Chuck Foreman. “He was like that fly or that gnat in your face. You try to get them away, but they stay there. He was a nuisance to a lot of people.”
Bud Grant arrives
History changed dramatically for the Vikings in 1967 when Grant replaced Van Brocklin after a fifth losing season in six years.
Grant was quiet, stoic, an avid outdoorsman. Like Tingelhoff. They hit it off immediately.
“One time, Mick and one of his teammates went hunting with Bud in Nebraska,” said Jerry Edelman, a friend of Mick’s since college and another regular at the weekly get-togethers. “They agreed ahead of time that they wouldn’t say a word on the drive down until Bud spoke first.”
They made it through Minnesota and almost through Iowa without a word being spoken.
“Finally, they had to stop for gas,” Osborn said. “Bud’s first words were, ‘It was full when I left.’ That was Bud. That’s all he needed to say to make them understand they were paying.”
There was a point in the ’70s when Marshall, Tingelhoff and Hall of Fame teammate Alan Page ranked first, second and third in consecutive games started in NFL history. Page now ranks sixth.
“Some guys are tougher than other guys,” Grant said. “Some guys get a hangnail and they can’t play.”
Phyllis said she never worried watching Mick play.
“I was always nervous watching my sons, but never Mick,” Phyllis said. “He never came home and said anything hurt. He never complained. I never thought he’d miss a game, because I never knew he was hurt.”
Page said every player was inspired by the toughness of Tingelhoff and Marshall.
“You didn’t have to hear them say anything,” Page said. “You could see it. You could feel it. You knew where they were physically, mentally and emotionally. You would be well-served to get yourself in the same place.”
Like a lot of former players, Tingelhoff, now 75, paid a price for his devotion to the game. His short-term memory is failing badly, and he was among the first wave of former players to join the concussion lawsuit claiming that the league misled players about the long-term effects of head injuries.
Tingelhoff is expected to make a short acceptance speech on Saturday. Like old times, Tarkenton will be behind him to help, and he’ll be on stage with other past enshrinees in what will be his first trip to Canton since he was inducted in 1986.
There were at least two times when Tingelhoff’s streak nearly came to an end. The team doctor told him he wasn’t playing with a shoulder separation at New Orleans, but Tingelhoff scrapped that plan while the doctor was in China at game time.
“Then there was the time they carried Mick off the practice field the day before we played the Packers,” Osborn said.
“He tore his calf muscle,” said Fred Zamberletti, the team’s head athletic trainer for the first 43 years. “I taped him from his butt to his toes because he’d fight you down to the last straw when it came to coming off the field. We went to Green Bay and, of course, he played.”
On Aug. 18, 1978, Tingelhoff did miss a preseason game in Miami. He was in the hospital with a leg infection. It broke a streak of 328 consecutive preseason, regular season and postseason games. Jim Hough started for him that week and the preseason finale the following week.
After that, it was Tingelhoff starting at center, ready or not.
“Bud always said we had two centers,” Osborn said. “Mick healthy and Mick hurt.”
It was the kind of toughness that garnered respect from athletes across all sports. The late heavyweight boxer and Minnesota native Scott LeDoux became a big Tingelhoff fan.
In fact, one of the pieces of memorabilia in the den of Tingelhoff’s home is a signed photo of LeDoux landing a punch in the ring. The personalized autograph makes reference to the day LeDoux learned of a certain swing that Tingelhoff delivered to a crabby neighbor in Edina.
It reads: “Mick Tingelhoff: God knows he won’t throw [your] kid in the bushes again.”