By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
Mankato, MN - Next year marks the 50th consecutive season that the Minnesota Vikings have held their annual Training Camp on the campus of Minnesota State University Mankato. Understandably, things have changed quite a bit over the years from the way that it used to be to the way it is today. Looking for some comparison to the way it was back in the day to what it has become in recent years, "Benchwarmer" Bob Lurtsema took some time out of his day earlier this week to share some memories from his time with the Vikings in Mankato for Training Camp.
When Lurts called Mankato his training camp home from 1972 to 1976 the players and staff stayed in Gage Hall (demolished in 2013). They didn't have the luxury of queen beds like players today have, they didn't have mini fridges in their own rooms and they surely didn't have air conditioning.
"I remember walking up the stairs carrying my 11" black and white television," Lurtsema told me. " There was no air conditioning so we had to open the windows but it was paradise. We had so much fun in Gage Hall."
Players couldn't afford to complain about the accommodations or the temperature because, after a few bad apples set the precedence, the rest of the team knew that if they wanted to put up a stink, their time with the team could be cut pretty short.
"Very seldom did we ever complain about the dorms," Bob explained. "If there was a lot of complaining by one player, Bud Grant wouldn't say anything at all. But all of the sudden, the guy was cut and nobody [in the media] could figure out why. But the players knew why. Bud didn't have to say anything at all. He would tell them, 'Unfortunately such-and-such can't be with us anymore,' and we were happy he was gone too because you can't count on those guys."
The facilities were equipped with the three practice fields from the get go but the condition of the field was regularly suspect. Two-a-day practices were kicked off early in the morning and every practice required the players to be wearing full pads.
"We started out practice with live blitz pickup everyday because that's what Bud wanted," Lurtsema explained. "We went out there, did our calisthenics and then went and did live blitz pickup to get your engine going. We hit all the time it wasn't a big deal. It's just like anything else in football, if you want to get your skin real hard, just slap it, slap it and slap it with a belt. After about ten days of slapping it with the belt it would be like leather. It's the same thing that Bud felt, you've got to get used to hitting. You're going to get some bruises obviously, build up your pain tolerance. We all had high pain tolerance."
Giving it everything they had on the field gave the players a little extra leeway off of the field. Head trainer Fred Zamberletti regularly scheduled bocce ball tournaments in the back lawn at Gage that would go deep into the night, only lack of visibility would push the games to end before a champion was crowned. After the sun would set, it was inside to play cards.
"You'd have to fight to get a chair at the table," Lurtsema said. "Those games were almost as competitive as it was on the field."
But off days were the times that the players remember most. Splitting time between the dorm areas and Jake's Pizza just down stadium road, the players would get into hijinks that would only be possible for adult men who were paid to play a kid's game.
" We used to have rocket contests in the back of Gage," Bob remembered. "With the rockets, one night Jim Marshall put a red baron hat on and went out there with his massive 3-foot rocket. We bet a lot of money saying that it would never get off the ground. That night, Jim decided to up the ante and put a frog on his rocket! We named the frog "Freddy" after Fred Zamberletti. We took the frog, put a 6-inch parachute on him and then we bet on whether he would land or not. It was a three-phase rocket so we watched phase one lift it into the sky, then phase two was a one-second delay before the third rocket kicks in and it was pointing straight to the ground. Nobody saw Freddy the frog eject, but we all searched the ground for him. We never found Freddy the frog. During the implosion of Gage last year I asked them to please, please look for Freddy the frog because we know he's out there somewhere!"
If they weren't shooting rockets or gambling on their card games, Lurts and the boys were sneaking out of the residence hall after curfew.
"We used to sneak out quite a few nights," Lurts continued. "Stubby Easton, the equipment manager knew where we were going and he had us holler at him when we got back. Fans would come up to us at the restaurants and say, 'it's curfew, don't you have curfew?' We would tell them Bud gave us the night off! Bud loved it because we were bonding. He always felt that if we were doing something sneaky, we were bonding. We would come in the back door of Gage Hall and we'd come running in the door and we'd look at Bud and he'd look at his watch and we'd have like 10 seconds before a meeting would start. There was a good 15 of us who pulled this trick all the time. He loved it, because that was our time, we maxed it out but we gave him everything we had on the field."
There's not too much sneaking out of Sears Hall (the newly opened residence hall) for today's players, but some things never change. Instead of bocce ball tournaments, they compete with Mario Kart and Call of Duty. Instead of rockets and frogs, it's Netflix and naps. While Coach Zimmer does not have the track record of Bud Grant, their style of coaching may be one of the only links between this year's team and Vikings' teams of the past.
"He's got a lot of Bud in him," Lurtsema said of Zimmer. "Win, lose or draw I love his attitude."
Aj Mansour covers Minnesota Sports for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Vikings updates and breaking Vikings news, follow Aj on Twitter. @AjKFAN