Rags to Randle: DT reflects on Hall of Fame

Former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle returned to Minnesota after learning of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was still letting it all soak in, but he was all smiles when thinking back on a career that started as an undrafted rookie.

The opening line of a bio distributed on former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle summarizes his career well: Always an underdog, he fought his way to top dog.

On Friday, Randle was back in the Twin Cities after a whirlwind seven days that started with him being elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last Saturday.

"I never set out to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Randle said. "I never really thought I could accomplish that. First of all, I just wanted to play football. I enjoyed playing the game."

He almost didn't get the chance to continue playing after a career at Texas A&I. After finishing his college career in a football-factory state like Texas, no NFL team thought enough of him to draft him – and that was back in 1990, the days of 12 rounds of the draft.

He had offers to sign with the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where his brother Ervin played. Randle said the Bucs wanted him to play linebacker like his brother and they were prepared to stick him on the practice squad, but he wanted to be a defensive lineman.

With the Vikings already featuring undersized defensive linemen like Henry Thomas and Al Noga, Randle saw an opportunity to be used in that system. He wanted to go where smaller defensive linemen were appreciated.

Like many undrafted free agents, he started his career playing special teams in 1990 and watched guys like Chris Doleman (11), Thomas (8½) and Noga (6) lead the Vikings in sacks. But it wouldn't take long. His first sack was against Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham on Oct. 15, 1990, his only sack as a rookie. But in his next season, he was the Vikings' sack king with 9½ and went on to seven Pro Bowl selections, six All-Pro honors and was named to the NFL's all-decade team.

"I was a guy that didn't take a play off, played as hard as I could, but the other big factor was, coming in as a free agent, being a guy that no one really knew who I was, was a bigger factor," Randle said. "Most of the guys were from big schools, were top draft picks. The draft, I don't think anyone would have even thought about me, which they didn't."

Still suffering from the Herschel Walker trade that depleted the Vikings of a first- and second-round draft choice in 1990, the team selected TE Mike Jones in the third round, CB Alonzo Hampton in the fourth round, RB Cedric Smith in the fifth round, RB Terry Allen in the ninth and WR Pat Newman in the 10th. Those were just the 1990 draft picks that made the team. There were also players named Marion Hobby, Reggie Thornton, John Levelis, Craig Schlichting, Donald Smith and Ron Goetz that didn't make it.

And then there was Randle, a 240-pound undrafted rookie that wanted to play defensive line.

"I just knew when I was in college that if I didn't give it a try to come to the NFL I would regret it for the rest of my life," he said.

Instead, he spent his 14-year NFL career on only one losing team, the 2002 Seattle Seahawks, and played for eight playoff teams in a nine-year span with the Vikings.

"For my career, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was just the icing on the cake because without a doubt the time I spent here in Minnesota, which was almost 20 years, it's been unbelievable," he said.

Randle helped introduce a transformation of the defensive tackle position. Instead of 6-foot-4, 300-pound behemoths, he began an era of smaller interior defensive linemen that included the likes of Warren Sapp and Bryant Young.

But Randle was able to hone his skills against some of the best interior offensive linemen in the game, including one that he faced every day in practice. That was guard Randall McDaniel, who was voted into the Hall of Fame last year.

"It can only make you better or you cannot step up to their standards," Randle said of facing McDaniel and Gary Zimmerman, another Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Vikings in the 1990s. "When you go against a guy like Randall in practice, it basically makes the game a lot easier."

At the end of his career in Seattle, Randle was able to help develop another offensive guard who ended up in Minnesota, Steve Hutchinson, and they remain close today.

"You knew who he was from seeing all the highlights through the years, but what you didn't know when you first met him was how hard he worked every day in practice and how much he put into his preparation," Hutchinson said. "I was lucky to see first-hand what a player of his caliber dedicated to his day-to-day routine. You couldn't help but work harder when he was going full bore every day. He made all of us on the offensive line better by facing him in practice."

Randle said McDaniel was the first person to start telling him that his numbers were worthy of the Hall of Fame. He ranks sixth in the NFL with 137½ career sacks and is second in NFL history with eight seasons with 10 sacks or more, trailing only Reggie White's nine such seasons.

But 14 years of work in the NFL culminated with a phone call last Saturday that sent the Randle family into a frenzy. He learned of his election with his wife, Candace, screaming while watching television coverage of the announcement while Randle was on the phone. He had one hour to catch the next flight to Miami, the site of the Super Bowl, where the elections to the Hall of Fame are announced, and that tight timeframe had the Randles backing out of the driveway before realizing they left the fireplace and television on.

But once he arrived in Miami and spent time in the company of his fellow Hall of Famers, he had a chance to start letting it soak in.

"It was a little surreal. When you get there and you're in that room talking to the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for me I felt like I was numb. It felt like I just won the lottery. I couldn't breathe. I was sweating," he said. "It was an experience that I'm still soaking in. I'm still trying to get my hands around it. My wife and I were just in the room smiling and laughing. She kept asking me, ‘Can you believe it? Can you believe it?' I'm like, ‘Umm, not yet.'"

Randle said he isn't sure who will present him with the honor in August in Canton, Ohio, but he said his bust won't feature the eye black he became famous for wearing during his playing days. Instead, it he looks forward to having his likeness displayed forever for football fans and family to enjoy.

"When I'm dead and gone, my kids and my grandkids will always have a place to go see grandpa or great-grandpa and see how he played the game, and they can go there and see his ugly mug somewhere in Canton," Randle said. "I think for my legacy, that's very big for me."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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