Football 101: No. 28, Alan Page
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OK, I want to share with you one of the most amazing endings in professional football history. The esteemed Justice Alan Page played almost his entire career before 1980, when sacks became an official statistic. Thanks to the incredible work of historian John Turney, among others, we now know that Page had 148.5 sacks in his career, the most for any defensive tackle in NFL history.
But nobody knew that then. They weren’t counting sacks before 1980. In 1976, when Page had an incredible 18 sacks in 14 games — a pure impossibility for an interior lineman — people barely even noticed. He wasn’t even first-team All-Pro that year.
In 1980 and 1981, as mentioned, they did start counting sacks … those were the final two seasons of Page’s career. He was 36 years old. He was also playing for the Chicago Bears. This is the first part of the ending — Page, of course, was for most of his career the heartbeat of the famed Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters. He was the first defensive player to be named NFL MVP for the Vikings. He was a true legend for Minnesota.
Then, in 1978, pretty much out of nowhere, the Vikings unceremoniously dumped Alan Page early in the season. This has to be one of the most cold-hearted moves in American sports history.
“The reason was basic,” Vikings coach Bud Grant said. “Page had many seasons of 100 tackles a year. That production has fallen off dramatically.”
“Alan served the Vikings well,” team president Max Winter added in his own punch to the face. “But he came to the end of his career as far as the Vikings were concerned.”
When you dug down deep, the move seemed to come down to two things. One, the Vikings did not appreciate Page’s individualism. He was brilliant and outspoken on issues of importance to him — he graduated law school in 1978 and soon after passed the bar and as you probably knew eventually served as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court— and he felt like Minnesota management simply didn’t like any of that.
And then … there was his running. Page believed in long-distance running. He ran miles and miles every day. And the effect was that he began to shed weight. Out of Notre Dame, he weighed at least 260 pounds and pushed that up to 270 or so when he was NFL MVP — even that was perhaps slightly undersized for an interior lineman but certainly he had enough weight to stand up to guards and centers.
But by the end of his Vikings career, he was down to 220 or 225 — he was lighter than most linebackers. The Vikings were not happy. They began taking him out on short-yardage situation. They told him they didn’t see a future for him at 220 pounds.
“But,” Grant said, sadly, “he said he was going to stand or fall at 220 pounds. Alan and I have been through it all. Alan has had as much to do with our success as any player. Nobody did more than Alan.”
Page wasn’t sure if he wanted to quit or play on — the only team that showed interest in him was the Chicago Bears. He thought hard about the decision; he really was ready to begin his law career. But, in the end, he decided he still had something left to give in football. And at 225 pounds, Alan Page started 58 straight games for the Bears and recorded 40 sacks.
Which leads us to the final game of Alan Page’s career, Dec. 20, 1981, in Denver. It was another lost season in Chicago, the Bears were 5-10 coming in. The Broncos were playing for a playoff spot. Before the game, Page was presented with a plaque from George Halas. He responded, as only Alan Page would, with a quote from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
“I am a part of all that I have met. Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.”
Ah, Alan Page.
Then came the game … and Page, 225 pounds at most, was unblockable. He kept breaking into the Denver backfield, harassing quarterback Craig Morton, blowing up the Broncos offense. When it was all done, he had three and a half sacks and a couple of pressures that led to Morton throwing a pair of pick-six interceptions. The Bears won the game, the Broncos missed the playoffs and Morton, one of the few players in the league older than Page, gave him the ultimate compliment.
“The only reason I’m not retiring,” he said, “is because Page is.”
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