He arrived as an afterthought, a no-name throw-in. Think of him as the player to be named in a trade for a first-round draft pick.
But before Gary Larsen played his final game as a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, he started in two Super Bowls, was named to two Pro Bowls and was part of what might be the NFL’s best defensive front ever – the famous Purple People Eaters.
It’s been a wonderful life for Larsen.
“I never dreamed of playing in the NFL,” said Larsen, who now lives in Lacey. “It’s not like kids today who start preparing for the NFL in high school. In high school, I played 8-man football in Northern Minnesota. I went to a small college.”
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In November, Larsen, aka the “Norse Nightmare,” was named as one of the Minnesota Vikings’ all-time 50 greatest players.
“That was something I was wasn’t expecting,” Larsen said. “It’s
quite an honor.”
In 1964, after he played football and basketball at Concordia College, Larsen was picked in the 10th round of the draft by the Los Angeles Rams, starting his 11-year career.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say how much they offered me,” Larsen said. “What one player gets paid today could have paid the payroll for our entire division.”
The Rams offered Larsen $9,500 with a $500 signing bonus, twice what he was offered to be a teacher.
“I didn’t have an agent. Nobody had an agent,” Larsen said with a chuckle. “I talked with my wife. She said sign. So I signed.”
Larsen played one year with the Rams and was a reserve behind the original Fearsome Foursome: Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy. Larsen backed up Olsen.
“I’d play Merlin Olson’s left tackle spot. Merlin would move over to Lamar’s left end spot,” Larsen said. “The front four and me was all we had. In those days there were only 40 players on the team.”
In the last game of the 1964 season, Larsen started at left defensive tackle against the Green Bay Packers, going up against All-Pro Forrest Gregg.
“I played the whole game. Kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return and the whole game on defense against Gregg in the L.A. Coliseum,” Larsen said. “I was whipped. That was probably the hardest game I ever played.”
After the season, the Vikings drafted Notre Dame wide receiver Jack Snow in the first round. But Snow didn’t want to play for Minnesota, so Vikings coach Norm Van Brocklin traded for the Rams’ Jimmy “Red” Phillips, at one time an All-Pro wide receiver.
“”Of course, they needed something else thrown in,” Larsen said. “So, Norm said he’d make the trade if they threw in that Larsen kid. That’s how I got to Minnesota.”
It was a homecoming for Larsen. He grew up on a wheat farm outside of the little town of Moorhead in northern Minnesota and attended Concordia College one year before joining the Marines in 1958, playing on base football teams as he served three years. He then returned to Concordia and played football and basketball three years, taking care of his class work this time.
With the Vikings, Larsen, Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall formed the “Purple People Eaters,” the Vikings’ feared defensive line.
Eller and Page are in the Hall of Fame. Marshall, who played one season with Cleveland and the next 19 with Minnesota, played in 282 consecutive games, once the NFL record. Page, Eller, Marshall and Larsen started ever game from 1968 through 1973.
“You just didn’t want to miss a game,” Larsen said.
In 1969, the season the Vikings went to their first Super Bowl, Minnesota’s entire defensive front was voted to the Pro Bowl. Page, Eller and Marshall started. Larsen was a reserve. It was the first time that four defensive linemen from the same team made it to the Pro Bowl.
The 1975 Super Bowl, a defensive slugfest that the Pittsburgh Steelers won, 16-6, was Larsen’s last game. The Steelers led at halftime, 2-0, scoring on Dwight White’s sack of Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the end zone. It remains the lowest halftime score in Super Bowl history.
When the game was over, Larsen, who had been replaced in the starting lineup by Doug Sutherland, knew his career was finished.
“I was 35 years old,” Larsen said. “I had a foot injury. My knee was bothering me. There were four of us that went out the same year.”
Larsen played in Super Bowls in 1970, ’74 and ’75, losing to Kansas City, Miami and Pittsburgh. Most of his Vikings memorabilia is now with his four grown daughters (one of them Kelley, starred for the University of Washington volleyball team from 1988-91).
In one room of his home, there hangs a framed purple Vikings jersey, with his number 77 on it. There’s also a photo of Larsen leaping to knock down a pass from Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. The picture is autographed by Unitas.
“He threw that pass right between my arms,” Larsen said.
When his playing career ended, Larsen, and his wife, Wende, moved their family to Bellevue, where he worked as a manager of a Ford dealership. The Larsens moved to Lacey a couple of years ago. He’s still does autograph shows, plays in golf tournaments with former teammates and looks fit, despite cranky knees.
Larsen, who at 70 is the second oldest of the Purple People Eaters, can go out in public and not be noticed. He’s at times confused with Gary Larson, the cartoonist of The Far Side. But in Minnesota they haven’t forgotten the Norse Nightmare.
“They love their football in Minnesota,” Larsen said.