Page still thoughtful as retirement nears

Alan Page will retire from the Minnesota Supreme Court in August and kept the focus on societal issues rather than his Vikings or judicial career.

When Alan Page’s Hall of Fame football career ended, he charged into his new legal career with the tenacity that made him a feared member of the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters, eventually becoming the first black member of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

After 22 years on the state’s high court, Page is preparing for another major life change in August when he hits the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. His will be an active retirement, though, that will involve spending more time on his philanthropic work aimed at students of color, and perhaps even teaching.

“I may have to learn how to do this, but there might even be some down time along the way,” said Page, one of only two NFL defensive players ever voted league MVP.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press at his office near the Minnesota Capitol, Page reflected on his legal career, the current state of the NFL and his upbringing. Sitting near reminders of the segregation era, such as a “Colored Waiting Room” sign from a southern railroad, Page also talked about racial mistrust in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer.

“We’ve come a long way from that,” he said of the railroad sign. “But that being said, we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Page recalled growing up in Canton, Ohio, during the segregation era. He’s been pulled over, he said, for “driving while black.” He said he has had “the talk” with his four children about how to stay safe when stopped by police, as his parents did with him.

“Nothing new,” he said. “Those divisions have been there. They’re I think more visible now simply because we live in a time when news can be broadcast instantly.”

Page said he’d like to think he’s done some good with the Page Educational Foundation, which has awarded $12 million in grants to 6,000 students of color at Minnesota post-secondary schools in the 26 years since he and his wife, Diane, founded it. He said one of the “pleasant surprises” has been seeing differences disappear when students of African-American, Native American, Asian and Latino backgrounds are brought together.

“Some days you look at the way the world is and you just want to draw the shades, lock the doors and hide. And our Page Scholars, they give you hope for the future,” he said.

The roots of Page’s passion for education and young people run deep. He said his parents constantly emphasized the importance of education.

The message soaked in. Page was a first-round draft pick for the Vikings out of Notre Dame in 1967. He played in all four of Minnesota’s Super Bowls and was voted league MVP in 1971. He got his law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1978 while still playing. After the Vikings waived him in 1978, the eight-time Pro Bowler finished his career with the Chicago Bears.

When Page returned to his hometown of Canton for his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1988, the person he chose to introduce him was Willarene Beasley, the principal of Minneapolis North High School, who hailed Page as a role model for millions of black youth. Page, then a Minnesota assistant attorney general, focused in his own speech not so much on football as on the importance of giving children “the chance to achieve their dreams.”

Page has never been keen to talk about his playing days, and mostly deflected questions about today’s NFL.

When asked about concussions and player safety, Page said he’s more concerned with what’s happening to younger athletes.

“Those young people, their bodies haven’t fully developed,” he said. “They’re still kids. What does this do to them? We don’t know. We need to find out.”

The league’s struggles with players accused of domestic violence is “a very tiny piece” of what’s going on in the wider world, Page said. He noted Minnesota’s judicial system alone sees 12,000 to 13,000 cases of it a year.

“Being a woman in this society is dangerous, simply because you’re a woman,” he said.

Page also sidestepped a question about the most significant cases he handled on the high court, saying others could analyze his writings.

Peter Knapp, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who has observed the court, said Page can’t be pigeonholed. But he said Page has stood out in recent years for several dissents in which he urged the court to assert its authority even if it meant butting heads with the Legislature.

Page was the first active NFL player to run a marathon, and he still runs almost daily. The only obvious outward sign of the battering he took and dished out as a defensive tackle is his left pinky, which juts out at a 90-degree angle and was the subject of a children’s book he co-wrote with his daughter, “Alan and His Perfectly Pointy, Impossibly Perpendicular Pinky.”

“I am reasonably healthy and still find the work as challenging, and as fascinating, and as interesting as the day I walked in,” he said.

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