Hope, even after heartbreaks: Vikings fans explain their dedication to a team with frustrating history
WEST FARGO, N.D. — Mark Berntson got to be creative when his new house was being built here in 2000.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can paint my walls and I can do whatever I want. And what do I really care about? I really care about the Vikings,' " he said, explaining why nearly every surface in his bedroom is purple and gold.
That includes a painted Vikings team name that covers three walls, not to mention a Vikings lamp, chair and framed game-used jersey. He's single, so there wasn't a spouse around to tell him no, he said.
But because Berntson is a lifelong fan of an NFL team connected to heartbreaking losses and a 41-year absence from the Super Bowl, not to mention a lack of Super Bowl wins to its name, his room doesn't shy away from symbols of football tragedy.
That's especially the case with the framed photo of Gary Anderson, a gift from his well-meaning sister and brother-in-law just before the former Vikings kicker became infamous for missing a key field goal during a painful 1999 NFC championship game loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
If the Vikings can beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Jan. 14, and become conference champions Jan. 21, they'll be Super Bowl contenders for the first time in 41 years. And if that happens, Berntson said he just might be able to retire that framed Anderson photo and put that dark chapter behind him.
Still, the lifelong fan who grew up with Vikings boosters in his family said he keeps things in perspective. That's the lesson he learned after Anderson's missed field goal while discussing his "heartbreak" over the play with a co-worker a couple days later.
He said that friend asked if the Vikings had entertained Berntson that season, even if they ultimately lost. He couldn't deny that they had, and his friend pointed out that's all that matters.
"That sort of turned me around," he said. "They give me something to do, and they're something to invest in. I know they're not going to win the Super Bowl every year—heck, who knows when they'll win the Super Bowl?—but they don't have to be the very best team in the world for me to enjoy watching them and to have it be a big, fun part of my life."
Derrick Lewis' first vivid Vikings fan memory happened Jan. 17, 1999, when he and his family were at the Metrodome in Minneapolis to witness the "Falcons debacle" as Anderson missed his first field goal all season.
He was in nosebleed seats with his mom and sister while his dad sat in another section with a friend. From his angle, the now-28-year-old said he thought Anderson's kick was good.
"You rejoice briefly, and I just remember hearing the sigh over the crowd and recognizing he missed it," he said.
Lewis was just shy of age 10 at that game, and said it had a profound impact on how he approaches each football season, even all these years later.
"The quintessential Vikings fan just knows that it's going to end poorly," he said. "That's unfortunately the mentality of my 28 years of life: This isn't going to end well, but ..."
His father's philosophy isn't quite so pessimistic. Todd Lewis said he's been a fan for 52 years, becoming a childhood supporter just a few years after the team was formed, and said he grew up keeping his own stats at home with his dad.
He has his own vivid memories from the "Falcons debacle," recalling a grown man sobbing behind him when the Vikings lost. When Todd Lewis met up with his family after the game, his daughter asked through tears why they had to lose.
But he said he's been through heartbreaks like this "too many times," which is why he keeps things in perspective, and said this year could finally be different.
"It'll be nice to see my son be able to see it happen, them at least getting to a Super Bowl," he said.
Much like Berntson, Michael Malbon became a Vikings fan at an early age because of the fondness his family had for the team.
The 36-year-old West Fargo resident goes to his father's house in Fargo each game day to watch the Vikings, and said he thinks the winner of this Sunday's playoff game between the Vikings and Saints will eventually go to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
His fandom has made him maybe a bit too optimistic at times, like his belief that they were destined to win it all during their 2016 season. In reality, they ended with an 8-8 record and did not qualify for the playoffs.
But he said he's never felt the Vikings deserve the bad rap they get as a team known for an uncanny ability to get hopes up before losing it all, a sentiment that his father, Ron Malbon, echoed.
"It's too easy to lose a game," he said.
The 76-year-old said he's been a fan since returning home from military service in 1965. He had always liked football, playing in a touch football league in Minneapolis as a child.
"I've never just totally given up on them," he said. "I get mad at them sometimes."
Jim Johnston admits he's more of a North Dakota State University Bison fan than a Vikings supporter. The 94-year-old grew up in Forest River, N.D., and became a lifelong Bison booster after attending NDSU in the 1940s.
Still, he's cheered on the Vikings ever since the team first took the field in 1961, and said it gave him a chance to have a closer hometown team than his previous favorite, the Green Bay Packers.
Johnston said he's impressed with the overall strength of this year's team, and said that depth rather than a focus on one star player has allowed the Vikings to make it to the playoffs this year.
"They've got as good a chance as anybody else at going all the way," he said.