At the doorstep of greatness

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- The snowmobile suit from a charity event the Minnesota Vikings hold each February had already been marked down by 50 percent to $200. The panels of deflated footballs that Bud Grant had signed? There were stacks of those on a table in the Hall of Fame coach's driveway. And the origins of the fishing lure Greg Carlson had bought were too specious to make it anything more than a stocking stuffer with a good backstory.

"He opened it up, and I asked him, 'Is this yours?'" Carlson said. "He goes, 'Do you know how old I am? Do you know how many fishing lures I had?' He seemed to think it was his. This is probably going to go as a gift."

Carlson wasn't rummaging through boxes in Grant's driveway last week on a hunt for collectibles so much as he was on a mission. His father, Paul, died last year at 67, and when Greg Carlson heard about Grant's three-day garage sale -- and how the greatest coach in Vikings history had promised an autograph to anybody who bought at least $25 worth of his stuff -- he remembered a conversation with his dad from a few years back.

"I had asked him, 'Is there anybody you'd really like to meet?'" Greg Carlson said. "He said, 'You know, Greg, if I were able to go fishing with Bud, just sit in the back of the boat, be quiet and listen to him talk, that'd be the tops for me.'"

What possessed Carlson to buy a couple hundred bucks' worth of Grant's keepsakes last Wednesday night, returning the next morning to have the items signed? What drove more than a hundred people to congregate on the edge of the 87-year-old coach's driveway last week, waiting for his whistle blast to signify they could step onto his property? For a few, maybe it was the chance to score a keepsake either rare (a signed photograph of the Minneapolis Lakers' 1950 NBA championship team) or bizarre (a walking stick fashioned from a bull's penis).

But for most, it seemed, the attraction was the chance to spend a few minutes with a man who's led a unique and historic life of sports achievements.

Grant is the only man to ever play in both the NBA and the NFL, winning the first championship in NBA history with the Minneapolis Lakers. While he was enlisted in the Navy during World War II, he played on a football team coached by Paul Brown. After finishing second in the NFL with 997 receiving yards in 1952, Grant became the first player in league history to play out his option, leaving the Philadelphia Eagles for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He later won four Grey Cups as a coach, returned to Minnesota to coach the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances and became the first man inducted into both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Grant's 158 wins are the 14th most in NFL history. Add his 132 CFL wins and four Grey Cups and he's won more professional football games than anyone but Don Shula and George Halas. The Vikings' four Super Bowl losses probably kept Grant from being lionized nationally like Shula, Halas or Lombardi, but in Minnesota, he is an icon. His stoic visage on wintry days at Metropolitan Stadium, his ban of heaters on the sidelines and his insistence on a certain code of conduct -- down to making players practice standing at attention during the national anthem -- are all sources of deep local pride in a state of hardy and self-effacing people.

And yet, he's Grandpa Bud, who's lived in the same house since the Vikings hired him in 1967, who still keeps his old office at the team's facility (though he doesn't work for the Vikings in any official capacity) and whose son Mike has become the state's most successful high school coach. He is one of Minnesota's most visible outdoorsmen, hunting and fishing all over the Midwest and spending much of the summertime at his cabin in Gordon, Wisconsin, 40 miles south of his hometown on the shores of Lake Superior.

Grant maintains a loose grip on the artifacts from his life in sports, matter-of-factly dismissing the notion that they -- and he -- are worth the fuss they've received. He's passed along mementos to his six children over the years, and sold some others at his nine previous garage sales. Last week's event, which Grant promised would be his biggest and last, saw him part with what were presumably the final items he'd decided not to keep.

"There are things you've hung on your wall for 25 years," he said. "Well, maybe you don't want to look at it anymore. Are you going to put it behind the furnace, or are you going to sell it?"

But the stuff came with stories, so many that people stood in line to meet Grant for 90 minutes while he signed autographs and casually relayed his memories of the things they were buying. It was a fitting snapshot of a relationship between a coach and a community that still feels both reverent and familiar.

"I've been in the public domain for a long time," Grant said. "Everybody's really respectful. These are good people. They're good-hearted people. ... This is a little different here. I haven't coached since 1985. I still have an office with the Vikings, and I'm well-received there. I know everybody there. It's a family kind of a thing."

Blankets, coats and memories

Taken as a whole, the unique items at Grant's garage sale told the story of his distinct career, of a man who did what he wanted -- and succeeded at most of it -- at a time where the path to success in American sports was much less rigid than it is now.

Grant sold a plaque with a photograph of the Lakers' 1950 championship team, signed by himself and Basketball Hall of Famers George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and John Kundla, as well as a piece of the Lakers' practice floor from the old St. Joseph's Home for Children.

He sold a wool blanket he used to keep himself warm on the sidelines at the University of Minnesota's Memorial Stadium while he was an All-Big Ten receiver there in the late 1940s. Grant's oldest daughter, Kathy Fritz, said she and her siblings used to build forts under it, and added she was a bit surprised to see her father part with it. His Hudson's Bay wool coat, which Grant wore on the sidelines in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the 1960s, was priced at $345. And Grant's banner from the Vikings' Ring of Honor -- which was returned to him after the Metrodome was demolished last winter -- fetched $2,100 in a silent auction after being displayed in his yard for three days to welcome shoppers.

There were architectural drawings for a proposed joint Vikings/Gophers stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, from before the idea was scrapped in favor of new stadiums for both teams. There were printed photographs from some of Grant's playoff victories, his headset from his final year coaching the Vikings and a rifle he had used on a hunting expedition. There was even one of Grant's old canoes, which he sold to Phil Schmidt and his son Kasey after signing it, "Bud Grant HOF '94."

But most of all, there was Grant himself, sitting at a table for three days to sign autographs, pose for pictures and tell stories, rarely leaving to eat lunch or use the restroom.

"There were the sports fans who were looking for specific memorabilia and hunting equipment," said Grant's daughter Laurie Tangert. "But I think some people just kind of picked up whatever to have something to bring to connect with him and get an autograph. Somebody said, 'Do you think he really does enjoy this?' I think he does enjoy interacting with the people he meets here."

The effect can be just as cathartic for Vikings fans who are old enough to remember the team's four Super Bowl trips from 1969 to 1976. The team has lost four NFC Championship Games since Grant retired -- two in overtime -- and as the Vikings prepare to move back outdoors for two seasons following 32 years in the charmless Metrodome, the footage of Grant roaming the Metropolitan Stadium sidelines, seemingly unperturbed by the Minnesota winters, has been romanticized even more than it previously was.

Darrin Eilertson, the 47-year-old Minneapolis attorney who bought Grant's old Hudson's Bay coat last week, plans to wear it to a Vikings game at TCF Bank Stadium during one of the next two seasons. That game, he said, would be his first since the Vikings' 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game on Jan. 17, 1999. The defeat kept a 15-1 Vikings team from going to the Super Bowl for the first time since Grant coached. Eilertson canceled his season tickets a couple of months after the game.

"I'm ready to start fresh again," he said. "Now I've got some inspiration with Bud here, and we'll see if we can get locked into going to games again."

Staying young

It is not lost on Grant how rare it is as a coach to have never been fired, to have stayed in the same house for nearly 50 years and to have spent his life among people who are so much like him. But as he's gotten older, Tangert said, his stoicism has started to crack.

"He's gotten very, very emotional," Tangert said. "It seems like there have been several events over the last few years -- the 50th-year celebration of the Vikings [in 2010], they honored him at a Gophers game -- just several things where he's gotten very choked up. I think it's meant a great deal to him. [In the past], he might have been feeling it, but we didn't see it."

That change, Tangert suspects, probably has to do with her father's deepest sorrows over letting something go, and one of his brightest moments in getting something back.

His wife, Pat, died of complications from Parkinson's disease in March 2009, and was buried that spring at the family's cabin in northwest Wisconsin. The two had been married for 59 years, and Pat Grant was the linchpin of the family, throwing birthday parties for her six kids until they were well into their 40s and doting on the Grants' 19 grandchildren.

But a chance encounter at Vikings training camp -- through a mutual friend Grant was talking to about duck decoys, of all things -- introduced Grant to Pat Smith, a retired teacher who'd been attending Vikings games since Grant was the coach. She shared many of his interests, and Grant eventually asked her out to dinner, beginning a relationship that has blossomed over the years.

Smith still has a house in Mankato, where the Vikings train each summer and where she still works eight days a month as a substitute teacher. She makes the 75-mile drive from Mankato to Bloomington several times a week during the school year, and the two spend much of the summer at the Grants' cabin.

She chides his kids for not refilling ice trays; he gives her a hard time about watching too many NFL games. They travel around the Twin Cities to watch Grant's 10 great-grandchildren play T-ball, and she texts updates from Mike's football games to Grant's 19 grandchildren. "We just got into it easily, and pretty soon, it's like, I felt like I've known him all my life," Smith said.

She had plans to get married until her fiancé died in the Vietnam War, and she'd lived alone from that time until she met Grant. Now, Smith has become an important part of his family.

"He was really, really down after my mom died," Tangert said. "Even though it was hard, it was great to see him take renewed interest in life and feel that energy."

Even though she predicts Grant could live at least another 10 years, Smith worries about what life will be like when he's gone. Smith had told Grant they didn't need to get married, and she's kept her house in Mankato for the day she's living alone again. "Sometimes I'm scared that I'm going to wake up in the morning and he's not going to wake up," she said.

But that day isn't here yet. These days are filled with activity, with family events and fishing trips. "It's been a blessing to have another companion who keeps you going," Grant said. "When you've got a young family, and you're talking to your kids or your grandkids, the conversations are young. You're thinking young. You're not thinking about who died. You're not thinking about who's sick. You're not thinking about all the things you can't do. You're talking about your grandkids, you're talking about their life. It keeps you young. It's not a morbid existence at all. It could end tomorrow, but it's a great run."

The keepsakes from that run? Somebody else can have those. The memories are what mean the most anyway.