It took 37 long years (about 32 years too long) from the time Mick Tingelhoff played his final NFL game – a 34-10 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams on New Year’s Eve 1978 – but on a sunny day Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio, the Vikings ironman center was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At his side was one of his best friends from the game, fellow Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, to present him for induction. Tarkenton spoke for Tingelhoff, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, which is truly the tragedy of his delay in being voted into the Hall of Fame.
As the inductees were preparing to take the stage Saturday night, their career achievements were noted. Tingelhoff’s were as impressive as anyone’s whose bust was being added among the legends of the game.
An undrafted middle linebacker from Nebraska, it was only after he signed with the Vikings and showed up for practice that he was informed that the team had a need at center and the plan was to switch him from defense to offense. The rest was Hall of Fame-worthy history.
In 17 seasons, Tingelhoff played in all 240 regular season games and 19 playoff games as a member of the Vikings. But perhaps his most enduring ironman legacy was that he never missed a practice – despite playing in an age of legalized headhunting and chop blocking that cut hundreds of careers short. He was a centerpiece of a Vikings team that won 10 division titles from 1968 to 1978. From 1965-70, he was named to six straight Pro Bowls. The teams he played for won one NFL championship, three NFC titles and appeared in four Super Bowls.
“He did everything,” Tarkenton said in his presentation piece. “He called the blocking. He made the blocks on the defensive tackles or go up against the great linebackers like (Dick) Butkus or (Ray) Nitschke that were in our division. He played against the best. He was the quickest center I’ve ever seen. He had a jolt, a motor, a capacity to hit people that was stunning.”
Tingelhoff’s dominance at his position on a Vikings team that had a decade of sustained excellence as the class of the NFC Central and an annual favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl was almost unprecedented.
He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t seek out the spotlight. But the coaching film didn’t lie. He was as good a center as the NFL had from the time he started his 240-game consecutive start streak to the time it came to an end in 1978. Tarkenton bore witness to the elite level of play that Tingelhoff brought to every game and every practice.
“I never knew Mick Tingelhoff to have a bad day,” Tarkenton said. “He played hard with great skills every time he went on the football field. He helped make the Minnesota Vikings a great team of that era. He helped us get to those Super Bowls. We could not have done it without Mick Tingelhoff. This was truly one of the great offensive linemen of our era.”
In what will be remembered as the shortest Hall of Fame induction speech ever, Tingelhoff didn’t speak and Tarkenton spoke only three sentences – having them split up because Tark became emotional when he told the crowd how long Tingelhoff had to wait to get the honor he so richly deserved.
“Mick’s a man of little words, but a lot of action,” Tarkenton said. “He’s so proud to be in the class of 2015. He waited 37 years to get to the Hall of Fame.”
As Tingelhoff smiled and waved to the crowd, Tarkenton said the “thank you’s” for Mick, going as far as to even thank the fans of the Vikings opponent in the Hall of Fame Game tomorrow night.
“He just wanted me to tell all of his teammates that are here (that he) thanks them for being here and our great head coach and fellow Hall of Famer Bud Grant, all the Vikings fans who have come from all over the country and all of the rest of you fans – and even you Steelers fans who beat us in that Super Bowl,” Tarkenton said.
The travesty of keeping Tingelhoff out of the Hall of Fame wasn’t based on numbers. Until Brett Favre surpassed him on the all-time consecutive starts list, Tingelhoff had been locked in at the No. 2 spot for 35 years – trailing only fellow Viking and non-Hall of Famer Jim Marshall.
The rationale most often cited clearly wasn’t based on individual achievements. Tingelhoff measured up and beyond all those metrics. Instead, it was the lack of winning a Super Bowl that was noted most in Tingelhoff’s delay.
It’s an old refrain. Tarkenton wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame until his third season of eligibility, despite owning every significant passing record at the time of his retirement – records that wouldn’t be broken until the advent of the passing era in the NFL almost two decades later.
Bud Grant didn’t get inducted until a decade after he coached his final game and in his seventh year of eligibility despite being a four-time finalist.
Alan Page didn’t get selected in his first year of eligibility despite being the only defensive player in history at the time to be voted league MVP.
Paul Krause, who still leads the NFL in interceptions despite not playing in an era in which teams threw nearly as much, had to wait 14 years.
Ron Yary had to wait 14 years despite a resume that matches or exceeds most offensive linemen in NFL history.
Despite being a finalist 14 times, it took 20 years for Carl Eller to enter the Hall of Fame.
Slowly but surely, all of the great Vikings – with the notable exception of Marshall – have received their call to the Hall.
It can be argued that Tarkenton, Page and Grant should have been elected on their first ballot. It can also be hard to comprehend that Krause, Yary and Eller were forced to wait far too long to get their due recognition.
It’s almost a crime that Tingelhoff had to wait 37 years.
The one thing all those other former Vikings greats got to share was that they were able to say their “thank you’s” to those coaches, players, family and friends that help mold the person they became while standing at the podium. They were able to share stories – both humorous and heartbreaking – that helped forge their legacies.
Tingelhoff was denied that opportunity.
Had he been elected 20 years ago, he may have gone on for 20 minutes with his long list of those he wished to thank and the stories that came with those memories, because his journey to the Hall of Fame was almost unfathomable from the outset.
While Vikings fans past and present and the players and coaches who knew and played with Mick all raise a glass to his achievement and his placement among the immortals of the NFL, the bittersweet aspect to it all is that it came much, much, much too late – and there’s no logical explanation other than the lack of a Super Bowl ring to account for it.
From those of us at Viking Update who have had the chance to work with Mick over the years on stories of the Purple People Eater days, we all congratulate you on the honor you so richly deserve. As Coach Grant similarly said in his Hall of Fame speech 21 years ago, it took a long time, but “the kid finally made it!”
Tingelhoff takes place in the Hall
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