On the verge of renewing their status as an indoor team next season, everyone associated with the Minnesota Vikings organization has once again re-engaged the idea of taking advantage of a domed environment. For the likes of head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, their attention obviously is focused on the rest of this season. However, there are many other aspects of making sure U.S. Bank Stadium has a distinct home advantage. For four seasons inside the Metrodome back in the mid-1980s, that concept featured a “krazy” man named George.
George Henderson arrived in Minnesota amidst a bit of a circus atmosphere for the last game of the 1982 regular season. Let’s set the stage.
The 1982 NFL season was marred by a 57-day strike for which the Vikings and then-general manager Mike Lynn were ill-prepared as they assembled their “replacement” squad that went 0-3. Ultimately, Minnesota faced a proposition in the nine-game NFL season that would come down to a final contest with the Dallas Cowboys on January 3, 1983 – win and stay home to start the playoffs or lose and be forced to travel to Texas to take on the Cowboys the following week.
Things got even stranger four days before the game when a crane used in snow removal after a storm punctured the Metrodome’s roof, causing it to deflate. A section was flown in from a Buffalo firm just in time for Howard, Frank, and Dandy Don to bring us some Monday Night action back when it was truly must-watch TV.
Despite a memorable first-time NFL record 99-yard touchdown run by Dallas’s Tony Dorsett (on a play when the Cowboys only had 10 men on the field, by the way), the Vikings would prevail, 31-27, and get ready to host Atlanta in the NFC playoffs. In addition to Dorsett’s feat, Viking fans also got both a visual and audible idea of what “Krazy” George Henderson was all about.
“It was one of the greatest games I ever remember. It was Monday Night Football – Vikings versus Cowboys. Minnesota beat them and it was amazing. I couldn’t have found a better reaction from the crowd. They had never seen me in Minnesota. I was unannounced but they knew who I was. I just walked in and the fans went crazy,” Henderson recalled.
“It went over so well that they wanted me back for the playoff game against Atlanta. I did that against the Falcons and the Vikings won. From then on the Vikings wanted me to work for them and that’s how the relationship started in 1983.”
Now in his early 70s, Henderson’s occupation as the only professional cheerleader got off to an unassuming start on the amateur level as a student at San Jose State in 1968, where he was also a member of a National Champion judo team. After cheering for the Spartans, he continued at local sporting events and started using his famous hand drum.
While working as a shop teacher at Buscher High School in Santa Clara, Calif., in 1975, his talents were noticed by the North American Soccer League’s San Jose Earthquakes and the National Hockey League’s California Golden Seals and a career was born. When Earthquakes’ GM Dick Berg joined the NFL’s Chiefs later that year, Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt signed Krazy George through 1979.
Over 40 years, Henderson has worked for teams in virtually all professional leagues in both the U.S. and Canada in front of an estimated 25 million fans. He’s even utilized his talents at corporate meetings, charity events and in many commercials. It was on the NFL stage, though, where Henderson would gain a brunt of his fame and even get caught up in changing the rules of football.
“When I came into the NFL with Kansas City, there was really no fan involvement that could actually affect the game,” he said. “Then in the early 1980s, when I started with the Houston Oilers, one of the first things that happened was that Chuck Noll, (the head coach) with the Pittsburgh Steelers, tried to have me banned from football because he said it was totally unfair to have so much crowd noise that it affected the play of his team.”
Later that season in December 1980, the Vikings came into Houston and, according to Henderson, they actually wrote letters to have him “controlled.” Of course, the Oilers didn’t oblige as Houston won, 20-16, behind running back Earl Campbell’s 203 yards.
“I never thought too much about it, but then I started getting letters from the league about the noise and how it was affecting the play of the players,” Henderson said.
“Two years later, Mike Lynn, the general manager for the Vikings, remembered what I did for the Oilers. Low and behold, after he was so upset with me just a couple of years earlier, I get a call from him and he wants to use me for the Vikings-Dallas game for Monday Night Football. That was the first game I ever did for the Vikings.”
Although Minnesota fans loved him, opposing teams and even the league office continued to try and control his effect on the game.
The NFL eventually started to pass rules specifically citing noise initiated by cheerleaders, mascots, and “noisemaking specialists hired exclusively for that purpose.” Henderson even received letters from then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle, which he still has. In the end, the league passed rules around 1989 that gave visiting teams options of how to contend with crow noise during snap counts.
Even the NFL’s counterpart north of the boarder, the Canadian Football League, tried to restrict Henderson when he was with the British Columbia Lions and he was limited to staying in one spot during a Grey Cup game. Those limitations were lifted after one year. All this attention for a guy that most doubters thought was simply a sideshow early in his career.
“The first 10 years, when I worked for a team, I’d go in and say, ‘I don’t want any advance publicity. I’d go in and if I can get your 40,000 people cheering, that’s great.’”
Henderson added, “I never failed because what I was doing was so different. The crowd, the atmosphere changed so radically from what they had before. Usually, it would take one half. That second half, I’d have the fans doing anything I wanted. They’d never seen it before and they went along with it and they loved it because it really connected that 12th man.”
In fact, Henderson considers himself to have put the “12th man on steroids” in the NFL.
Some purists claim that one of the main reasons the “Krazy George” phenomenon worked was that Henderson called domed stadiums home. While he doesn’t want to diminish the fact that domes helped to some degree, the impetus to his success lies within the hearts of football fans.
“If you don’t have the crowd noise to start with, the domes don’t do anything. Even in an outdoor stadium, I can get crowd noise going to a point where it really can affect the call and signals of the quarterback. But when you get the enhancement of the domes, it really does help,” he said. “You first have to have the noise. It really becomes contagious and the fans have come to realize what they mean. They really are a part of the game, especially in football.”
The four seasons Henderson spent in Minnesota came during one of the high points of his career. At his busiest, he was working at 70 games a year, many of which were on Friday and Sunday. Back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday were the worst. With all the yelling, the running up and down stadium steps and aisles, two games per week was about all he could do as he averaged about five lost pounds per event.
“I think most fans believed that I was working harder than most players. When they saw me, I had completely sweated through my jersey. I would run up and down every aisle in the sections and cover each tier in the stadium. I was right in front of them and they could see me sweat and that was the secret. I was among the fans; I was part of them. That’s the big weakness of most cheerleading squads. They are way down on the field and nobody can see them and nobody knows them,” Henderson said.
Many NFL teams also utilize mascots to engage with fans, but not to the extent that Henderson did.
“There are a lot of mascots for teams that interact with the crowd but they don’t get the cheering going that can affect the game,” he cited.
In his book, “Still Krazy After All These Cheers,” which he started about a dozen years ago, Henderson highlights not only his time with the Vikings and the NFL, he also outlines the creation of his other claim to fame, “The Wave.”
While it started by accident in 1980 during a home game for the NHL Edmonton Oilers, it was first used as a cheerleading routine on October 15, 1981, in Oakland during Major League Baseball’s American League Championship between the A’s and the New York Yankees. It took Henderson three attempts before successfully pulling off the feat.
The fact that Henderson can precisely mark the date and the location of the first “Wave” is more important than you might realize, given the fact that people associated with the University of Washington at one time claimed its invention. Reports by The New York Times Magazine and ESPN.com helped Henderson rightfully own his role in sports history.
Still part of an in-game experience for many fans attending various collegiate and professional sporting events, the concept of sections of fans standing up and raising their hands over their heads in a continuous rolling motion around an athletic venue became known around the world as “The Mexican Wave” after it was witnessed in a 1986 World Cup match in Mexico.
“It brings the fans into the game,” Henderson stated. “They can connect to each other. It is a visual confirmation of their support for a team. That’s what made me so successful from the start over the years too.”
“The Wave,” the yelling, and the pounding of those drums over the years made Henderson a sports phenomenon (and no, he doesn’t have his original drum), but it was professional football where “Krazy George” found his greatest impact, and his four years in Minnesota were among his fondest.
“The Minnesota fans were so great,” Henderson said. “After I did that Monday night game with Dallas and the playoff game with Atlanta and Minnesota won both of them, the fans went crazy over me. Then Mike Lynn wanted me back and we finally negotiated a contract and I came back. The fans treated me like I was a rock star. Everybody knew me everywhere I went in Minnesota. I would go out on a road trip 20 or 30 miles away to a little tavern in the middle of nowhere and people would yell out, ‘It’s Krazy George!’”
The Vikings were even able to make a promotion out of his official “welcome” to the team.
“My contract was supposed to be signed at a golf tournament they had every year. When I showed up for my theoretical signing that Mike Lynn was promoting because I think we had already signed it, the fans were great to me,” Henderson said of the event that even included his ceremonial drive off the first tee.
Times change, however, and while “Krazy George” will still make an appearance every now and then in the San Jose area, he doubts he’d have the impact on an NFL game as he once did.
“If I had to go to a stadium today with as much noise and enthusiasm as you have, I probably wouldn’t stand out,” he said. “There is so much background noise nowadays, one person going in with a drum unknown and be expected to change the face of the game, it can’t be done anymore. In every stadium for every sport, it’s that much louder than it used to be. It all started with the Houston and Minnesota atmospheres, which became so much better than the other teams.”
Henderson has also seen an evolution in pro football fans.
“That attitude has changed. People go in now and they want to help the team win. They are loyal to the players and they want to see them succeed. They think if we yell loud enough, the opposing quarterback won’t be able to be heard, they will get an offsides or an illegal motion call. They think they are affecting the game and that’s grown over the years, but the seed started back in the early 1980s. If it was like it is now, I never would have become a cheerleader. I couldn’t have been heard in most stadiums.”
Thankfully for “Krazy” George Henderson and sports fans around the world, he was the right man to ride his wave in the right space at the right time.
“Still Krazy After All These Cheers” is available at Amazon.com, Kindle, and Henderson’s website krazygeorge.com. His Facebook page is “Krazy George Professional Cheerleader.”