Sorting through the mystery of the Vikings' past

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Sometimes the untold story isn't necessarily the whole story.

That's the lesson of a piece we recently ran about the origins of the Minnesota Vikings' uniforms. In that piece, I reported the previously untold story of how Los Angeles cartoonist Karl Hubenthal had designed the Vikings' original helmet, uniforms and Norseman logo back in 1961, and how he had used the colors purple and gold under instructions from the team's first general manager, Bert Rose, because those were the colors of Rose's college alma mater, the University of Washington. All of that was spelled out in notes and drawings that Hubenthal's family saved after his death in 1997 and then donated to the Vikings in 2016. There was no reason to doubt any of this; Hubenthal had been a highly respected professional, and the Vikings themselves thought enough of the donated materials to showcase them in an exhibit at their stadium.

The piece generated a lot of positive response. But there were also some Vikings fans who got in touch with what might best be described as counter-narratives -- stories that contradicted the one I had presented. These counter-narratives had not turned up in my original reporting, so I went back and began digging deeper. The resulting research shows how myth can sometimes blend with reality; how difficult fact-checking can be when all the principal figures in the storyline are deceased; and how pro sports teams often have no idea about their own visual histories.

It also shows how time frames can be fairly relative. By most historians' standards, 1961 is the fairly recent past. But in the world of sports uniforms -- a world that has only started to become well documented over the past 15 years or so -- 1961 was an eternity ago.

There were two primary counter-narratives that emerged in the wake of the original article. Let's take a closer look at them and try to sort out what's what.

1. The colors

Hubenthal's note stated that Rose told him to use purple and gold as a nod to Rose's college days at the University of Washington. But several Vikings fans said they'd always heard that the team received its colors -- and perhaps its name -- from Ole Haugsrud, a colorful character from the NFL's early days. Haugsrud originally owned the Duluth Eskimos and later became one of the Vikings' founding owners, holding a 10 percent stake in the team. He grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, and attended Superior Central High School, where the football team was called the Vikings and wore purple and white. So Haugsrud, the story went, made sure those were the colors and name for his new NFL team.

I've been writing about uniforms for nearly 20 years, and I had never heard that story before. Then again, I'd never heard the Rose and Hubenthal stories until a month or two ago.

Rose died in 2001. But his sons, Scott and Stephen Rose, who both now live in Texas, confirmed that their father had chosen the Vikings' colors at least in part because of his alma mater.

"My father chose purple for two reasons," said Stephen Rose. "First, there were no other purple teams in the league at the time, so that was an opportunity to come up with a unique look. And No. 2, on a personal level, he was partial to purple and gold because he'd gone to the University of Washington. He told Hubie [Hubenthal] that, but he didn't tell a lot of people. He didn't tell Pete Rozelle, because the NFL wouldn't have liked that. He didn't want a lot of publicity about it. It was mostly something between our family and Hubenthal."

Stephen Rose provided further evidence of how his father had been close to Hubenthal. It turns out that Hubenthal created a second Vikings uniform presentation storyboard identical to the one currently being exhibited by the Vikings. Bert Rose kept it, and Stephen Rose now has it framed on his wall. Stephen Rose also has original Hubenthal artwork with notes from Hubenthal to Bert Rose. All of this lends credence to Hubenthal's note about the color scheme's origin.

And what about the Haugsrud story? "Ole was only a 10 percent owner, and he was really a silent owner," said Stephen Rose. "Choosing the colors and the name and all that, that was part of my father's job description. I'm sure Ole agreed to it, but did Ole generate the idea? No."

Is it possible that both stories are true? Could Rose and Haugsrud have discovered during conversations that they both had purple in their backgrounds and decided to base the team's colors on that?

Haugsrud died in 1976. Superior Central High School no longer exists. But Ray Kosey, activities director for the town's current high school, confirmed that Haugsrud had attended the old high school and that the football team's colors had been purple and white. But did that provide a chromatic connection to the Vikings?

"That's always been the story around here," said Ken Olson, sports editor of the Superior Telegram. "You know, Packers fans up here like to say that the Vikings got their colors from Wisconsin. But I don't know if it's actually true."

The story has been published here and there, but usually with qualifiers. For example, Ross Bernstein's book "Pigskin Pride: Celebrating a Century of Minnesota Football," includes the following: "Haugsrud reportedly insisted that the team adopt the colors purple and white, which were, ironically, the same colors of his native Superior Central High School football team."

Asked in a recent interview what he meant by "reportedly," Bernstein said: "I've heard it from many people, and especially from Bud Grant. He told me that many times."

Chuck Frederick, editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune and author of the book "Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos," said: "It was something Ole himself said several times. As far as documentation, I don't know how you'd prove that sort of thing. I once asked Bud Grant about it, and he said that's how he had always heard it."

Grant, the Minnesota icon who coached the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s, is now 90 years old but very lucid. By coincidence, he too attended Superior Central High (although more than two decades after Haugsrud did). The Vikings still provide him with an office in their stadium, as a gesture of respect. Did he know anything about the Haugsrud story?

"That's something I've heard," he said. "But I have no way of verifying it, other than hearsay." And did he ever hear Haugsrud himself saying it? "No. But I've heard it from other people." And the Bert Rose story? "I've never heard that one before."

The Vikings also have a team historian: Fred Zamberletti, the franchise's original trainer, who was on the sidelines for every Vikings game from 1961 through 2011. Interestingly, he wasn't familiar with either story about the team's colors, but he had an opinion on which one was more credible. "I would go with Bert Rose," he said. "Knowing Ole, he was the kind of guy who'd be happy to take credit for it. But I'd go with Bert."

Of course, Zamberletti was just giving his best guess there. But it seems consistent with the notion that the Haugsrud story might be more of an oft-repeated tall tale than a reality. The Rose story appears to be the right one.

One counter-narrative down, one to go.

2. The horn

Hubenthal's note stated that he designed the Vikings' "uniform, helmet and trademark logo." But several Vikings fans pointed out a death notice for a man named John Merritt Aldritt. According to the notice, Aldritt and his family were in the sporting goods business and had supplied the Vikings with their uniforms during the 1960s. (This was back when teams routinely cut their own uniform deals with local suppliers, long before the days of leaguewide contracts with companies such as Nike.) The death notice also had this: "In addition to providing the Vikings with their equipment, John also designed one of the most iconic symbols in Minnesota sports, the logo on the Vikings' football helmet. John had a very good relationship with the Vikings' first head coach, Norm Van Brocklin. It was Van Brocklin who asked John to come up with a design for the helmet. The one stipulation was the logo had to be a horn. Years later John would say, 'There's only so much you can do with a horn.'"

Hubenthal's daughter, Karen Chappell, who donated her father's old notes and drawings to the Vikings, said she had never heard of Aldritt. "All I can tell you is that the Vikings gave my dad a helmet, and he had that helmet on the wall of his office, along with the original [uniform] artwork," she said. "I don't think he ever talked specifically about designing the helmet, as opposed to the rest of the uniform. It was just a given in our house that he designed all of it. I don't think my dad would lie. He wouldn't have taken credit for something he didn't do." She also provided a helmet drawing from her father's files, dated March 1961.

Aldritt died in 2016. But his sons, Tom and John Aldritt, still live and work in Minnesota. They provided old news clippings and other materials showing that the Vikings did indeed purchase their uniforms and equipment from Aldritt Athletic Goods; that is not in dispute. But did their father really design the horn on the team's helmet?

The Aldritt brothers said the horn story came to light in the mid-1980s, when their parents were preparing to move from Minnesota to Florida. The family was going through some personal effects and came across an old envelope with "Viking Horn" written on it. Inside were a horn template and some horn decals. "We asked my father why he had those things," Tom Aldritt said. "He said, 'Because I designed it. I designed the horn.' We had never heard that before, but that wasn't surprising. My father didn't like to talk about himself. We had no idea, and if they hadn't moved to Florida, we probably still wouldn't know."

The Aldritt brothers said their father told them that he had come up with three horn designs. Their father said he presented the designs to Vikings management -- apparently in early 1961, although the exact time frame is uncertain -- at the North American Life and Casualty building, where the team initially had its offices. Team executives apparently couldn't decide on which one to choose, at which point an assistant coach named Stan West said something like, "Here, let's just go with this one" -- the one that the team ended up using.

"I don't know what the other two designs were," Tom Aldritt said. "He just said he came up with three designs. It could have been that he positioned the horns in three different places, or he could have come up with three separate horn designs."

When the Vikings' new stadium was being built in 2015, the Aldritt family purchased a legacy brick. It reads, "John M. Aldritt, Designer of the Original Logo on the Viking Helmet." This means the stadium has two separate origin stories about the team's helmet: the Hubenthal exhibit and the Aldritt brick.

The Aldritt brothers said that shortly after they ordered the brick, they heard back from the brick contractor, an Idaho company called Fund Raisers Sports, and were told that they couldn't purchase the brick unless they verified the claim about their father, so they provided documentation. That information was then forwarded to the Vikings, who approved the brick design.

"After reviewing the information provided by the Aldritt family, we had no reason to question what they sent us, so we approved the brick," said Jeff Anderson, the Vikings' executive director of communications. "At the same time, we're not questioning what the Hubenthal family has told us. Both stories could be true, and we'll be reaching out to the Aldritts to learn more."

It's not clear whether any of the Vikings' staff members who approved the brick design had any role in setting up the Hubenthal exhibit, although it appears that the left hand might not have known what the right hand was doing.

What does the team historian, Zamberletti, think of all this? He said he had never heard of Hubenthal. As for Aldritt: "I knew John very well, but I never heard that he was involved with the helmet design." But of course, that would be consistent with the Aldritt brothers' contention that their father was not a self-promoter.

But wait, there's an additional wrinkle: The Vikings' helmet logo has always had that little gold ring where the horn is "mounted" to the helmet. Tom Aldritt said his father had nothing to do with that detail. "He told me he didn't design that little gold circle thing. He was just asked to design the horn."

So again, both stories could be true. Maybe Aldritt came up with the horn, and then Hubenthal used that as the basis for the finished helmet design, complete with the gold ring.

That possibility is particularly intriguing in light of a recollection from Scott Rose, one of Bert Rose's sons. "Hubenthal came up with multiple helmet options," he said. "In fact, we actually sat around the dinner table one time and dad laid out the drawings and we, as a family, selected the one they ended up using. I would have been in third grade at the time. As I recall, there were three designs. One kind of looked like the Rams' horns: It was a Viking horn, but it was kind of curled up. We all dismissed that, saying it was too much like the Rams. Another one was a short, stubby horn, which we didn't think looked too cool. And incidentally, the drawings for each design showed the side view and back view, and one reason we chose the one that we did -- the one they ended up using -- was that we liked how the horns wrapped around to the back and almost touched."

Hmmm, three design options -- just like Aldritts' story about their father coming up with three different horn designs. It seems plausible that Aldritt might have come up with the horn and then Hubenthal added the gold ring as part of his larger uniform presentation. With all of the principals no longer alive, it's impossible to know for sure, at least based on the information that's currently available.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the three families involved here -- the Hubenthals, the Aldritts and the Roses -- feel strongly about their respective family legacies. All sound very sincere; none of them wants to discredit or disparage any of the others; and their stories don't necessarily contradict each other. The hunch here is that all of them are right. Here's hoping that we learn more at some point down the road to help us understand how the pieces fit together -- and that teams do a better job of documenting their visual histories, so we can avoid these types of situations in the future.

(Special thanks to Joe Ojanen and Keith Grinde for research assistance.)

Paul Lukas looks forward to telling the untold stories behind other uniform designs. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.