MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Up until August 6, 1983, television was the only place the British had seen American football.
“I think, from the English people who go there, I think they would like to see what they have sort of associated with American football,” British promoter John Marshall said in 1983. “The ball being thrown a long way through the air, tackling and blocking and so on and so forth. I think they want to see what they have seen on television.”
Today, the NFL is more popular in England than ever, with an estimated 11.3 million British fans. But back then, the idea wasn’t popular with Vikings coach Bud Grant.
“I thought it was an inconvenience as a coach,” he said.
The tiny locker rooms were barely big enough to fit an offensive line, much less an entire football team, so the players dressed at their hotel.
“They didn’t understand our game,” Grant said. “They do better now, they understand our game a little better, but I remember when we kicked off, they cheered at a kickoff.”
The Vikings dominated the game against the St. Louis Cardinals, from the cheerful opening kickoff on. Rufus Bess returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, and Tommy Kramer threw a pair of touchdown passes, one of them to Leo Lewis.
The Vikings won 28-10, but the real winner was the NFL. The game opened the door to a new international era.
“It was a real great experience and it was a lot of fun to play in stadium that has all the tradition of Wembley Stadium, and I just hope we can do some more things like this,” Vikings running back Darrin Nelson said at the time.
At the time, however, it wasn’t clear whether the British experiment had paid off. The famously harsh British media didn’t care much for the game. The Sunday Times called it “organized violence.” Other papers called it everything from “two tons of imported beef” to an “organized gang fight” and commented on the players wearing “iron undies.”
Grant recently said that playing in Britain during that, his final year of coaching the Vikings, was “not one of my favorite memories.”
Vikings general manager Mike Lynn also regretted it. A few days before the game, he was quoted as saying, “Did you ever hear the expression, it seemed like a good idea at the time? Never again. Never.”
And yet, the Vikings are back at the new Wembley Stadium this weekend, 30 years since that initial match.