Bobby Bryant’s purple uniform camouflaged numerous black and blue marks during his days as a Minnesota Viking. His medical chart seemingly contained more ink than the team’s playbook. Dislocated shoulders, torn knees, broken arms, dislocated fingers and a broken leg are just some of the injuries he endured while a mainstay of the Vikings’ secondary during the most successful era in franchise history.
Bryant hasn’t donned his No. 20 Minnesota jersey in more than 30 years, but he is vividly reminded of the game’s physical impact as he recuperates from a recent left knee replacement at his home in Columbia, S.C. His time on the gridiron ravaged the knee, resulting in two operations, removal of cartilage, arthritis and now the replacement. But that’s OK with the former cornerback.
“We screwed up a lot of our bodies, but I think we’d all probably do it again,” says Bryant, 67, during a recent phone interview. “It was great to be part of building something that had quality and made a lot of people happy.”
Besides broken bones, few injuries forced Bryant to the bench during his 14-year career (1967-80). He was so determined to remain in the game that he sought medical “remedy” from the most vicious hitter on the club, linebacker Wally Hilgenberg. After making a tackle, Bryant’s bum left shoulder would occasionally pop out. Rather than run to the training staff on the sideline, Bryant relied on Hilgenberg to put his fist under the left armpit and to pull the shoulder down to “snap it” into place before the next play.
“Of course it hurt a little, but that was a lot easier than going to the sideline,” Bryant says. “I was a little, skinny 170-pounder. I knew I was lucky to be on the field. You had guys 190 pounds sitting on the sideline who could run a lot faster than me and probably were better athletes than me, but I had the experience and therefore was starting. I didn’t want to lose my job, so I played sometimes when I shouldn’t have.”
The Vikings are glad he did.
The 6-foot-1, 170-pounder was a vital contributor to 11 division titles and four Super Bowl appearances. In the 160 games he suited up, Bryant established himself as one of the most reliable cornerbacks in team history. Four times he led the team in interceptions, and his 51 picks remain second on the franchise’s all-time list behind Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause. Despite his fragile frame, Bryant didn’t shy from contact and recovered 14 fumbles in his career.
While those statistics are impressive, it was Bryant’s knack for the big play that etched his name in team lore. His 63-yard interception return for a touchdown versus the Cowboys that helped send the Vikings to Super Bowl VIII and his momentum-turning, 90-yard touchdown gallop with a blocked field goal against the Rams that propelled the Purple People Eaters to their last Super Bowl three years later permanently won him a spot in the hearts of Vikings faithful.
That enduring relationship was evident in December when Bryant was named one of the 50 greatest Vikings in fan voting conducted by the franchise to commemorate its 50th season.
“Just looking at the caliber of athletes who have played for the Vikings, I just find it hard to believe that I’m one of the 50 best of all time, but I was honored and certainly humbled,” says Bryant, also a member of the Vikings’ Silver and 40th anniversary teams. “To be one of the top 50 Vikings of all time as voted by fans, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Among the locals in Columbia, Bryant is known more for his past athletic exploits at the nearby University of South Carolina than his storied time in the NFL. A member of the state and university halls of fame, Bryant was a regular for three years on the Gamecocks’ football and baseball teams, earning first-team, All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in both sports as a senior.
“Athletes are held in high regard down here,” he says. “I had a pretty good career at the university and most of the fan base from that time, all the old-timers, remember me, which has been a benefit.”
The longtime connection has benefitted Bryant’s business dealings as part of the privately owned Quackt Glass, a mobile glass replacement service for automobiles. During the past few years, Bryant has helped develop the business and now possesses “a little bit of ownership” in the venture. His main duties are initiating and maintaining relationships with insurance agents throughout the region. In South Carolina, comprehensive auto insurance coverage includes vehicle glass. When it comes time for agents to recommend a glass replacement service to their clients, Bryant wants them to have Quackt Glass at the top of their list.
“My job is to try to get that to happen,” he says. “We’ve been pretty successful building up a good clientele. Most of them have become good friends. I really enjoy my job. The owner wants me to work as long as I want to. I’m going to plan to work until close to 70.”
Bryant has been in the “glass business” since 1990. Before that, he helped start a garage-building business and worked in used computer equipment sales. Both of those experiences were based in Minnesota, where he remained for five years after his 1980 retirement from the Vikings. Eventually, he decided to trade in the harsh chill of the Midwest in order to soak up the sun in his native South.
“The cold weather in Minnesota was killing me, being a skinny Southern boy,” laughs Bryant, who was born in Macon, Ga. “I really missed living down here.”
However, the father of three and his wife of 35 years, Stephanie, do regularly return to Minnesota to visit their daughter, who still resides in the state. Bryant’s lasting connection to the Vikings and the state of Minnesota is ironic considering he didn’t know anything about the team or the area when he was drafted in 1967.
“I never talked with the Vikings prior to the draft,” says the seventh-round selection. “I talked with the Cowboys. They told me they were going to draft me number one. Then I heard they tell everyone that.
“To show you how much the Vikings thought of me, they had the equipment manager, Stubby Eason, call me to tell me I had been drafted. Nobody from ownership or the coaching staff called me.”
What he lacked in knowledge about his new team, Bryant possessed in confidence that football was the right professional sport for him. Unlike most individuals, he actually had a viable alternative thanks to his left arm. The southpaw was an outstanding pitcher at the University of South Carolina and was the first Gamecock to strike out 100 batters in a season.
“I was wild enough to be effective,” he says.
The Yankees selected Bryant in the 1966 draft and the Red Sox plucked him in 1967, the same year the Vikings made him the 167th selection of the NFL draft.
“I actually never talked money with the Yankees or Red Sox,” Bryant says. “By that time, I had decided that if I was drafted by an NFL team I would go to camp and not worry about the minor leagues. I enjoyed football a little bit more. I really wanted to try football and it worked out.”
It took a year to work out. Early in his first training camp, Bryant aggravated a knee injury that had hampered him his senior year in college. As a result, the rookie landed on injured reserve for the entire season.
“Maybe that was the reason I made the team,” Bryant jokes. “I got injured so they had to keep me around.”
Even though he couldn’t play in 1967, Bryant knew he was a good fit with new head coach Bud Grant.
“I grew up in a strict family and was fortunate to play in high school and college for very good coaches who demanded discipline,” Bryant says. “Bud Grant placed a lot of importance on being prepared for games and being disciplined. I fit into that mold real well.
“He always told us there wasn’t much difference between being a winner and a loser. There would be three or four plays that made the difference in who won and who lost. He believed disciplined teams made those plays. He made us believe after we started to win that discipline was important. And the addition of Alan Page didn’t hurt either.”
Page, one of three first-round picks by the Vikes in 1967 (Clinton Jones and Gene Washington were the others) elevated a good defensive line to elite status. With Page and Gary Larsen at tackle and Carl Eller and Jim Marshall at defensive end, the Vikings featured one of the greatest defensive fronts in NFL history for the next several years. The devastating performance of the front four made Bryant’s job much easier in the secondary when he started seeing playing time in 1968.
“If we didn’t have any pass rush, I wouldn’t have played for 14 years,” says Bryant, a two-time Pro Bowler. “I could see the quarterbacks dancing. They wanted to get rid of the ball. They knew what was coming.
“Occasionally we had to play man-to-man. I realized that if I played my responsibility all I had to do was cover for four seconds. Chances are that’s all I had to do. I could even cover Bob Hayes (the Dallas wideout considered at the time to be the fastest man on the planet) for four seconds. Being a slow, skinny boy trying to cover him all over the field was a lonely feeling. But, fortunately, I didn’t have to do it for long because the pass rush was great.”
Bryant, known as “Bones” in college and “Skinny” in the pros, says the Vikings played zone defense more than half the time during his career. That allowed him to read the quarterback and anticipate receivers’ routes based on his extensive tape study. Bryant believes quarterbacks were usually tempted to throw to his side of the field because, with his slight frame, he looked like an “easy mark.”
His 51 interceptions in the regular season and team-record six playoff picks prove he was anything but easy. Besides his pick-six versus the Cowboys in the 1973 NFC Championship game, Bryant’s most famous interception came in the late stages of the 1976 NFC title tilt against the Rams. Minnesota was clinging to a 17-13 lead when Rams quarterback Pat Haden lofted a pass for a seemingly wide-open Ron Jessie for the go-ahead score.
Enter a purple streak named Bobby Bryant.
“Haden never looked to my side,” says Bryant, who was in man coverage against Harold Jackson. “He was looking at Jessie. Both Jackson and Jessie ran post patterns so they went down the field for about 10 yards and cut into the middle. Jessie had Nate Wright (Minnesota’s other cornerback) beat by about 4 or 5 yards. I’m running full speed to the middle of the field anyhow, so when Haden let the pass go I just left my guy. Jessie had his eyes on the ball with his hands up ready to catch it and I just plucked it out of his hands. Fortunately, I was able to catch it.”
The Vikings scored an insurance touchdown a few minutes later and were on their way to Super Bowl XI thanks to the 24-13 win. Minnesota probably never would have been in position for the victory if not for another big Bryant play in the first quarter.
The determined Rams dominated play early in the contest and easily drove down the field. Only a terrific goal-line stand by the Vikings kept them 6 inches from the game’s first score. Rather than go for a touchdown on fourth down, Los Angeles elected for the “sure” three points off the foot of Tom Dempsey. Instead, the field goal attempt for the Rams turned into a touchdown for the Vikings after Nate Allen blocked the kick and Bryant raced 90 yards with the ball for the score.
“I was just doing what I was supposed to on the play,” Bryant says. “I was too slow to get much of a rush. My job was to wait for the ball to be blocked and to pick it up and run it. I had a little trot as I came across the line. Nate blocked it and the ball took one bounce right into my hands, like a loaf of bread. All I had to do was take hold of it and run for 90 yards. Knowing they had the ball at the 1-yard line and all of a sudden we got seven points, that was a 14-point swing.”
Two weeks later in the Super Bowl against Oakland, Bryant nearly had another opportunity to score on a blocked kick. Fred McNeill’s picture-perfect block of a Ray Guy punt deep in Raiders territory looked like a sure-fire touchdown and the Vikings’ first lead in their disappointing Super Bowl history.
“I’m running wide open about 10 yards from the ball,” Bryant says. “The grass was really thick. I’m thinking the ball will bounce waist high and I’m just going to catch it and walk into the end zone. All of a sudden, it hits the grass and bounces about seven feet high. I’m thinking, ‘How in the hell could it bounce that high?’”
Rather than a walk-in touchdown by Bryant, the Vikings had to fall on the pigskin at the Oakland 3-yard-line. Two plays later, Minnesota fumbled the ball away. Oakland drove down the field for a field goal and was on its way to a 32-14 win.
“If I would have scored, who knows how much that would have changed the game?” Bryant says.
Super Bowl XI was the second of the four Vikings Super Bowls in which Bryant appeared. He missed the 1969 game because of knee surgery and the 1974 Super Bowl due to a broken arm. To this day, he is disappointed with the team’s four Super Bowl defeats but keeps the games in proper perspective.
“I don’t suffer anguish because I was part of four losing Super Bowl teams,” he says. “I’m honored to have been good enough to have gotten there. Obviously, we weren’t the best team on those particular days. If you look at the body of work we did over the years, it was pretty good.
“It was a great feeling to play together as a team and accomplish our successful seasons and championships. I felt like I did the best job I could possibly do in helping build something that was good and really meaningful.”
Broken body and all.
EXTRA POINTS WITH BOBBY BRYANT
On the toughest receivers to cover …
“Drew Pearson from Dallas and Harold Carmichael of the Eagles.”
On some of the best quarterbacks he faced …
“John Brodie. Jim Hart. (Ron) Jaworski.”
On his rookie contract in 1967 …
“My first contract was for $12,000 a year. My bonus was $7,500. I got my bonus and went to downtown Columbia (S.C.) and bought a brand new Pontiac Bonneville for $3,500.”
On following the Vikings today …
“If they are on TV, I will watch them. I pull for them. I am a fan. I hope one day they do win the Super Bowl.”