ST. PAUL — When NFL Films was assembling footage last year for an episode of its show “A Football Life” on Vikings hall of fame defensive lineman John Randle, it naturally included moments from the 1998 NFC championship game.
That part of the show wasn’t much fun for Randle to work on with producers. Until then, he had made a point of not watching any footage from the most devastating loss of his NFL career.
The Vikings went 15-1 in 1998, the best regular season in team history, and were 11-point favorites in the championship game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Metrodome. But Minnesota blew leads of 20-7 in the second quarter and 27-17 in the fourth quarter.
With 2:11 left in the game, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, who during the regular season made 35 field goals and 59 extra points without a miss, missed a 39-yard field goal that could have given Minnesota an insurmountable 30-20 lead. Instead, the Falcons tied the score 27-27 in the final two minutes, then won the game 30-27 in overtime.
This weekend, Randle will be reminded of that game again as the Vikings celebrate the 1998 team with a 20-year reunion. He will be among 30 players from that team introduced at halftime of the Vikings’ season opener at noon Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“There’s going to mixed feelings, good and bad,” Randle said. “You remember the season and how much fun we all had, and it will be good to see a lot of the guys. But all of a sudden, you think of the end result and what could have happened. Any time I hear that Will Smith song, ‘Going to Miami,’ it always makes me think what we could have done in ’98.”
Smith’s song “Miami” was released in November 1998, three months before Super Bowl XXXIII was to be played in the city on Jan. 31, 1999. Radio stations in the Twin Cities doctored the song to insert names of Vikings players.
It was the Falcons, though, who went to Miami, where they lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos.
The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl in the franchise’s 57-year history, and despite reaching the big game four times in the 1970s, they might have blown their best chance back in ’98.
“A lot of people look at that season both ways,” said running back Robert Smith, who will attend the reunion. “It was the most fun they ever had as a Vikings fan and the biggest devastation as a Vikings fan. But it drove a lot of people to be fans in the first place, so it’s little bittersweet. It will be fun to get together with old friends and with the fans, but our biggest regret is that we never had the chance to finish the deal.”
Smith rushed for 1,187 yards that season and was a key part of an offense that scored a then-NFL-record 556 points. He was one of seven Pro Bowl selections on the Vikings’ offense, along with receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter, quarterback Randall Cunningham, and offensive linemen Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie and Jeff Christy.
Vikings officials say Moss, Carter, Cunningham and Christy won’t be at the reunion. But McDaniel and Stuessie are scheduled to attend.
Pro Bowl selections on defense were Randle and linebacker Ed McDaniel, who is not scheduled to be on hand. Neither is Anderson, the Pro Bowl kicker from that season who said he would have made plans to attend had he and his wife Kay not already booked a trip to Tanzania, Botswana and his native South Africa.
Some of the attendees will play golf on Friday. Players will be introduced at a downtown Minneapolis pep rally Saturday and they will conduct autograph sessions on Sunday.
“It’d be nice if we were celebrating something like a Super Bowl championship, but obviously that’s not the case,” Steussie said. “Time does soften some wounds, so (how the season ended) is probably less sharp than it was six years or 16 years ago. I know the Wilfs (ownership group) will make it a class event and it will be neat to be a part of.”
Steussie remembers thinking at the start of that season the Vikings “might have something special.” They drafted Moss after he unexpectedly fell to the No. 21 pick in the first round and then blasted through the preseason with a 4-0 record.
The wins kept coming in the regular season. The Vikings got off to a 7-0 start before losing 27-24 at Tampa Bay. But then they reeled off eight more victories to close the season.
Linebacker Pete Bercich said the Vikings were plenty motivated by coach Dennis Green, who died in 2016, telling players they wouldn’t have to wear pads in practice the week after a victory.
“We practiced in full pads twice that entire season,” said Bercich, who is now the Vikings radio analyst and will take part in reunion festivities. “We were so fired up about (not wearing pads), we were like, ‘We’re not losing a game.’”
The Vikings lost starting quarterback Brad Johnson to a broken ankle in the second game. But in came Cunningham, 35, who retired and sat out the 1996 season before signing with Minnesota and serving as Johnson’s backup in 1997.
Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns in 1998. His favorite targets were Moss, who caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Carter, who had 78 receptions for 1,011 yards and 12 TDs.
Moss produced a couple of especially memorable games, catching five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-24 win at Green Bay in Week 5 on Monday Night Football and then hauling in three balls for 163 yards in a 46-36 win at Dallas on Thanksgiving.
“Randy came in and changed the offense immediately,” Randle said. “That offense was unbelievable. They scored so quickly that sometimes, as a defensive player, you were disgruntled because, ‘Can’t we at least have another minute or two more to rest.’ But then we had to go right back out there.”
At the end of a regular season during which the Vikings outscored opponents 556-296, Cunningham bought each member of the offensive line a Rolex with “556” engraved on the back.
“I knew a jeweler in Kansas City, so I helped get the price down for Randall,” Steussie said. “It was kind of weird asking what was the best price on six 18-carat Rolexes because (reserve) Everett Lindsay, he actually played a significant amount of time. Robert Smith ended up stepping up and paying for the one for Lindsay. They were about $15,000 apiece. I think they retailed then closer to $20,000.”
After the watches were delivered, the Vikings walloped the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 in an NFC divisional playoff game before a packed house of 63,760 at the Metrodome.
“It was insane,” Bercich said of the crowd noise. “But it was like that every home game. My ears Monday morning were always ringing.”
As the NFC championship game approached on Jan. 17, 1999 at the Metrodome, the state was buzzing with excitement.
“Everybody thought it was like a foregone conclusion we were going to the Super Bowl,” said punter Mitch Berger, who will attend the reunion.
Injuries piled up
But the Falcons, who were 14-2 in the regular season, were no slouches. And injuries began piling up for the Vikings.
On the final play against the Cardinals, Randle sprained his left knee when teammate Derek Alexander landed on him. He said he was at “50 percent” to start the game against the Falcons and then “25 percent” after re-injuring the knee midway through the game.
In the first quarter, guard Dave Dixon and Ed McDaniel both suffered torn ACL injuries. Dixon tried to keep playing and was in and out the rest of the game. McDaniel was replaced by Bercich.
Linebacker Dixon Edwards was limping around on a pulled hamstring late in the game. And Smith never will forget being hurt on the play before Anderson’s missed field goal.
“It was a cheap shot by (Falcons linebacker) Jessie Tuggle,” Smith said. “I checked down underneath and was out of the play, and he goes at my knee, and I got this really deep thigh bruise just above my knee and could barely bend my leg. I guess he was probably upset that he thought we were going to win and go to the Super Bowl, so he’s taking a cheap shot.”
But the Vikings didn’t win. Anderson’s 39-yard kick sailed a couple of feet wide, giving the Falcons new life. They tied the score 27-27 on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler to Terance Mathis with 57 seconds left, concluding a drive in which safety Robert Griffith came ever so close to a pair of interceptions.
The Vikings had two possessions in overtime, but weren’t the same offense with Smith sidelined. The Falcons won on Morten Andersen’s 38-yard field goal with 3:08 left in overtime.
“We should never have had to put it in Gary’s hands,” Randle said. “On defense, our job was to stop them from scoring and not allow them to get in that position, so it falls upon the defense. I think about that and all the guys that were hurt in the game. And so it all came crumbling down, that ’98 season.”
It was even more painful when the Vikings got to the locker room. Randle remembers seeing the TV lights set up for what was supposed to be the trophy presentation; Smith remembers the congratulatory banners placed on walls.
“The worst part was coming into the locker room and seeing all the plastic covering our lockers and the buckets where the champagne would have been,” Berger said. “They had all the lockers taped up with plastic so nothing would be ruined with all the spraying around. They must have done that in the fourth quarter when they thought it was a done deal.”
Two decades later, Smith said the loss “still eats at me.” Steussie said he’s “still not over it.”
Still, the reunion goes on.
“There might be a 20-year reunion for that team no matter, but when you haven’t won a Super Bowl and you haven’t been to the Super Bowl since (January) 1977, what else are you going to do?” Bercich said. “Theoretically, we were the best team to go through that place in 41 years.”