In a world becoming increasingly optimized and individualized, sports fandom offers one of the last arenas in which people who are otherwise perfect strangers can come together for a common purpose.
For me, there have been a few moments in my sports life that stick out in this regard. But the one that stands above the rest is also the most recent: an NFL football playoff game last January between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints eventually dubbed the “Minneapolis Miracle.”
Suffice it to say, Vikings fans are used to getting their hopes up and then being let down, sometimes in the most spectacular ways possible. We’ve learned not to get excited about the team, because we know how the story ends. Every. Time.
I had flown into Orange County, California, that morning and had settled into a sports bar to watch the game, thanks to a tip from a buddy. This was the biggest Vikings game in eight years, and I had arrived early to scope out the place and find a good spot. As I was boarding my flight, I got a call out of the blue from a good friend who told me that Father Bill Baer had passed away unexpectedly that morning.
Father Baer was (and remains) the hero of my life. In college, he served as the head and visionary of a formation program I participated and lived in for four years. We remained friends in the years since, and it’s no exaggeration to say that every big decision (and many small ones) in my life would include a moment of reflection somewhere along the lines of, “What would Father Baer do?” Save for immediate family, there isn’t another person’s death that would impact me more than his.
It’s also safe to say that his death hadn’t properly sunk in yet, thanks in part to my whirlwind travel schedule and some good old sleep deprivation. To be quite honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the news of his death. Watching a football game on TV was surely going to be a welcome distraction. And knowing that Father Baer was an avid sports fan himself from his youth, there was something strangely fitting about it, as well.
I ended up in a sports bar with a rowdy crowd of fans mostly pulling for the Saints. Out of a couple dozen, only one guy in the place (other than myself) was pulling for the purple. Naturally, we became fast friends. Turns out that he had lived for a time in Minnesota, but even if he was an alien from outer space, it wouldn’t have mattered. He was a Vikings fan, so we were friends.
With every Saints highlight, the entire bar erupted in cheers. With every Vikings highlight, the place went quiet — except for two men, who yelled and high-fived. The Vikings led most of the game until Saints QB Drew Brees threw his third touchdown in 14 minutes of game time, putting the Saints ahead for the first time all game with 2:20 left.
At this point, Vikings Fan Guy (I literally do not remember even his first name) and I began to commiserate together about our tortured football fan lives. We’ve both been down this road before: the team gets our hopes up, then dashes them in what seems like the most excruciating way possible. To us, this was like seeing a remake of a movie we’re all too familiar with. There are sometimes different characters and plot twists, but the ending is always the same.
Surprisingly, the Vikings put together a gutsy two-minute drill, leading to an un-Vikings-like 53-yard field goal. They were now leading 23-21, and while we celebrated the make, we couldn’t feel comfortable. Brees had 1:29 to get into field goal range, at least a minute too much time. Even if Brees was playing any other team, chances are he’s going to get that done. Against the Vikings, it truly felt inevitable. Sure enough, just over one minute later, the Saints connected on a 43-yard field goal. Bad guys up 24-23 with 25 seconds left.
As I sat there in my high-top wooden bar chair, it started to sink in: We’re going to lose this game. The most promising Vikings season in almost a decade was coming to a crashing, disappointing end. A game we absolutely should have won was bumbled away. Oh, and the hero of my life died today, which I still haven’t properly mourned. It’s not an embellishment to say I felt alone in that sports bar at that moment, thousands of miles away from home, deflated and exhausted. At some point, I ended up on my feet, too nervous to sit any longer.
Twenty-five seconds is theoretically enough time, especially with one timeout left, to complete a few passes, get into field goal range, and hope the Vikings can defy all odds and kick a game-winning field goal. One 19-yard completion and two incompletions later, we were just hoping — and, in my case, actually praying — for a miracle.
And then it happened.
With 14 seconds left, Viking QB Case Keenum dropped back, threw a long pass over two defenders’ outstretched arms to Stefon Diggs who… caught it (!), and then, truly inexplicably, was able to avoid an oncoming third defender, stay on his feet, and sprint another 30+ yards to the endzone, untouched. Touchdown, no time left on the clock.
In the entire history of the NFL, there had never been a go-ahead touchdown scored with no time left on the clock. The camera panned to Case Keenum who, with hands on his helmet and mouth agape, himself could hardly even believe it happened — even though he himself threw the pass. The radio announcer, Paul Allen, declared it a “Minneapolis Miracle.” And I’m not sure he was wrong.
Back in that sports bar, I could hardly believe my eyes, and in fact, refused to. I had cried out in joy when Diggs first caught the ball, probably yelled at him to get out of bounds (because no timeouts), then literally went down to my knees wondering what the hell just happened and waiting to figure out if it actually did happen. Surely there was a flag, or the play was called dead, or something. Maybe he did step out of bounds and we still had to kick a field goal. Maybe this is all just a dream.
Once it was clear it actually did happen, I found The Vikings Guy and we hugged like we were old childhood friends. We high-fived with no regard for the well-being of our palms. We basked in the glory of a Vikings victory that had no business of happening. We speculated wildly about our chances the rest of the way that maybe, just maybe, this was the year the Vikings win the Super Bowl. Vikings Guy bought a round of celebratory shots of who-knows-what. Because it didn’t matter. The Vikings had won. Somehow.
And I thought back to my old friend, mentor, and hero Father Baer. I’m not the type to believe that God is pulling strings from above — certainly not in a football game of all places. Nor do I typically find comfort in trite “he’s in a better place now” platitudes. But somewhere, somehow, I was convinced that Father Baer was watching, and smiling. And I wasn’t the only one.
There are few events in my entire life that I remember so vividly. And every Vikings fan — in fact, most Minnesotans in general — have vivid memories of that game, that play. I want grandchildren (even more now than I did) so I can tell them about that game. All Vikings fans, whether in the stadium that day, watching at home on TV, or in a random California sports bar, are forever united by that moment. And you know what? So are Saints fans, and everybody who appreciates good football and crazy sports endings.
That’s the thing about sports. It’s become a multi-billion dollar industry, of course, but ultimately they’re still children’s games. It’s not life or death. But there is something about sports and the team allegiances, sometimes passed on from generation to generation, sometimes ingrained into the very identity of a city, state, or even country, that brings people together and breaks down barriers. That can make perfect strangers friends in foreign places far away from home. That can comfort the mourning — that can even help the living remember the dead.
Do you believe in miracles? I know I do. And perhaps now just a little bit more since that strange, beautiful afternoon last January.