Vikings Battle Thin-Air Questioning

Much of the talk – at least from reporters – at Winter Park on Wednesday centered on the thin air the Vikings will play in at Denver on Sunday. How much of an effect it will have is up for debate, but the questioning provided some light moments with a number of players.

In the world of sports, there is something called "it." Great quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Brett Favre, John Elway and Tom Brady have "it." Players who bring their own mystique with them – players like Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Randy Moss and even a rookie like Adrian Peterson – have "it."

What is "it?" An indefinable quality that says you are different, you are special and, when the game is on the line, you are going to make the big play. "It" is something many want, but few achieve.

In the same vein, venues have "it." When the Vikings played in Met Stadium in the playoffs, teams from Dallas or Los Angeles were subjected to the aura that was Vikings football in January. Bone-chilling temperatures and the time-honored image of flame throwers attempting to thaw the frozen parking lot that the old Met became in the dead of winter were part of the atmosphere. Once the Vikings moved into the Metrodome, that mystique went away. It still exists in some venues in the NFL. Whenever a playoff game was played in Buffalo, it always seemed that it was frigid and snow was blowing. The Bills dominated the AFC for four straight years with that intangible factor of home field advantage in their favor. In more recent times, Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Soldier Field in Chicago have served as locations where "it" comes into play.

This Sunday, the Vikings head into Denver to play the Broncos, where perhaps the biggest "it" factor will come into play. Playing a mile above sea level, the thin air has been known to allow field goals to be kicked farther, baseballs to be hit higher and deeper and players to be subjected to a climactic change not possible in any other venue in the league. Some teams may play in hot weather, some may play in cold weather, some play on the East Coast, some play on the West Coast. But nobody has a home field advantage quite like Denver.

As the Vikings head into Denver this weekend clinging to the unlikely hope that they can win and Washington will lose to the Dallas junior varsity team, they will face the one intangible that no other stadium can have – the thin air of Denver. It's been used by the Broncos to their advantage, just as discussions of how cold it would be at Lambeau Field or Met Stadium was for the Packers and Vikings, respectively. But for the Vikings players, there are mixed feelings about what, if any, effect the mile-high atmosphere can have on opposing players not acclimated to the change caused by playing at such elevations.

"We're professional athletes, so that shouldn't bother us," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "If it does, it does. But we have more important things to worry about – winning the football game. The little things like that don't come into it."

At last check, the University of Iowa didn't play too many games in the snowy climbs of the Rocky Mountains, so we're left to take Greenway at his word that nothing will change in the body chemistry of players. For their part, the Broncos organization plays up its apparent home-field advantage, providing oxygen masks and tanks on the sidelines for opposing players who feel the need to suck in some pure oxygen.

Safety Darren Sharper has been around the NFL for 11 years and he seen many of the mind games used by organizations to play up supposed advantages. He lived through it in Green Bay, where it was alleged that visiting teams' championship dreams went to freeze and die. He believes that the mind games are just that – tricks used to intimidate opponents that somehow the air they breathe is different from that the Broncos take in.

"It is psychological," Sharper said of the oxygen availability on the sidelines. "They want to give you the idea that you can't get enough air. Your chest might get a little tight (early in the game), a little oxygen might help, but it usually wears off and your body adjusts to it. It shouldn't be a factor."

While the air is thinner, the bigger issue in playing in Denver, according to veterans, is similar to that of playing in heat. The body dehydrates when the lungs are working overtime and making sure you have enough fluids pumping through your body is likely a bigger concern than the rarified air itself.

"As a professional athlete, most of these guys are in peak physical condition," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "I think they don't have to acclimate themselves as much as the average person, but you do have to prepare for it with hydration. In the times I've played there, it's been September, October or the preseason, so I ‘m not sure how it will be in the cold. But I'm assuming it has the same effect."

Sharper agreed with his kicker's assessment. Making sure you get enough water in your system in preparation to playing in those conditions is something all visiting players need to understand.

"That is a factor," Sharper said. "You definitely have to be hydrated to deal with the high altitude."

When asked how much water he typically drinks a day and how much more he'll need to drink this week, Sharper could only laugh at the question and butcher his understanding of the metric system for an answer.

"I don't calculate my water intake," Sharper said with a chuckle. "But if I have to say, it would probably increase by one liter per gallon. Can you do that equation?"
Many players believe the tales of lightheadedness, shortness of breath and dizziness among visiting players is folklore – in the same vein as Elvis being spotted in Michigan or Bigfoot sightings. While they will accept there is a difference at the higher elevations, that isn't something that can impact the outcome of a game.

"It's definitely more hype than real," wide receiver Robert Ferguson said. "It might take a series or two to get used to it, but it isn't that bad – at least it wasn't on me. It's more something they try to put in your head, just like playing in the cold was in Green Bay. After a couple of series, you don't even notice a difference."

Others believe the myth to be a little more factual, but that it can be overcome by acclimating oneself to the elements prior to game time – especially in the pre-game warm-up rituals.

"Your body definitely adapts quickly," wide receiver Bobby Wade said. "You're in the higher elevation and you do feel that pressure on your lungs when you're running around. I think the warm-up is very important – get out there, run around and get a real sweat going so you know what it's really going to feel like. The weather might be an issue, but we hope it's a sunny day there. Sunny days late in the season can be beautiful in Denver. But it also can be bad if it's snowing obviously. Whatever the weather conditions are, we have to be ready and focused to play and can't let any of those external factors play a role in how we perform on the field and execute."

While the Vikings have never played a December game in Denver in franchise history, someone who has is linebacker Ben Leber, who spent four years in San Diego and played there under some adverse conditions. The only voice of experience, Leber only clouded the issue by admitting that, at times, he believed the thin air did play a factor in the stamina of he and his Chargers teammates.

"I've played there before where I thought it has been an issue and I've had games where I've felt great," Leber said. "I think it is kind of a state of mind. I don't think it's going to affect us that much. We're all in good condition, so it shouldn't affect us. I think the weekend warrior who goes up there to go skiing would feel it much more than us. We'll be fine."

If there is a bright side to the thin-air malaise, it could be for Longwell and punter Chris Kluwe. Part of the thin-air mythology is that the ball travels farther in flight in thin air than it does in "normal" air – which is why so many punters and kickers from schools located in the Rocky Mountains get drafted, only to see their average-per-catch drop substantially. For them, heading a mile up to play is a positive, not a negative.

"We're going to have to deal with colder weather in the kicking game, but the altitude should give us some relief," Longwell said. "The ball goes farther in the thin air if you hit it solid. They talk about the thin air in bad terms for most of the players, but for the kickers, it's kind of a blessing in a way."

So as the Vikings prepare to face the "it" factor of Invesco Field at Mile High, they will go in with the thought of ignoring the disadvantage – real or imagined – and just play football. Along the way, they will likely hear more of the old wives tales, which included someone telling Greenway – who was never elevation questions at Iowa City – that yogurt is somehow supposed to help in dealing with the altitude. For Greenway and some of his teammates, that might be the bulletin-board material they need.

"I don't like yogurt," Greenway said with a smile to the helpful non-doctor and his sage advise. "I won't like yogurt this week just because of that."

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