SOUHAN: Gone too soon, Chris Doleman was much more than just a tremendous football player
Chris Doleman wanted to talk about wine.
This was a surprise.
The former York High athletic standout returned to his original NFL team in late September of 1999, in what would become his last season. The Vikings had started poorly, so Dennis Green signed Doleman, 37, out of retirement to bolster the team’s pass rush.
Doleman had announced his retirement at the end of the 1998 season, when he played for the San Francisco 49ers and recorded a remarkable 15 sacks, the second-highest total of his career.
He had made his reputation in Minnesota, where he became a legendary pass rusher for a franchise known for them. The Vikings made him the fourth pick in the 1985 draft out of Pitt and slowly developed him into a key player on the late-’80s teams that almost went to the Super Bowl following the 1987 season.
Vikings defensive coordinator Floyd Peters believed in maximum pass rushes, often exhorting his linemen to “meet at the quarterback.” Doleman, playing alongside Keith Millard, was built for Peters’ defense. Fast and agile, Doleman learned to lean low while bursting past offensive linemen, like a motorcycle racer touching his knee to the bending track.
Remarkable athlete: He was a remarkable athlete, and he could be tough.
In those days, many interviews in the Vikings’ locker room were one-on-one, catch-as-catch-can enterprises. As the Vikings beat writer for the Star Tribune, I arrived in 1990, in time to chronicle the unraveling of a powerhouse team that had not fulfilled its goal of winning, or reaching, a Super Bowl.
After the playoff run of 1987, the Vikings won 11 games in 1988 and 10 in 1989. Frustration led General Manager Mike Lynn to trade for Herschel Walker, and that deal doomed the franchise in 1990 and ’91, prompting a change in ownership, the front office and on the coaching staff.
Proud and intelligent: Doleman, in his prime, found himself answering questions about the Vikings’ woes. Proud and intelligent, Doleman sometimes tried to intimidate with his size and his wit.
His days helping the Vikings win weren’t over, though. Doleman helped Green’s first two Vikings teams make the playoffs, in 1992 and ’93, then left in free agency for Atlanta. He would make his home there, and finish his career playing three years for the 49ers. At least, he thought that was the end.
Returning to Vikings: When Green called in 1999, Doleman admitted he had not been training. “I haven’t been doing anything but hitting the driver, the sand wedge,” he said then. “I don’t even walk on the golf course. I ride.”
Nevertheless, Doleman returned to the Vikings, signing a one-year contract for the veteran minimum of $400,000.
“It is basically a chance to win a Super Bowl,” he said then. “I watched John Elway lift his finger and walk off in the sunset. I felt I would like to have that opportunity. You know, 14 years and I’ve never had a chance to win a championship.”
Not just a football player: During his first stint with the Vikings, Doleman often would carry an expensive-looking briefcase into the lockerroom. Teammates would tease him, saying he was carrying an apple and a newspaper. When Doleman would read the Wall Street Journal, it seemed as much to send a message as to gather information. He didn’t want to be seen as one-dimensional.
He wasn’t. Doleman loved golf and fine wine, and that’s what he wanted to talk about when I reintroduced myself in September of 1999.
He invited me to sit next to him and quizzed me on my knowledge of wine, which was minimal. He offered wine and book recommendations. As fierce as ever on the field, Doleman wanted to let me know that he knew there was more to life than football, and that he had used football to give himself a good life.
A life cut short: That good life did not last long enough. Doleman died on Tuesday at the age of 58, less than eight years after his induction into the Hall of Fame. Brain cancer ravaged that inquisitive mind.
Life isn’t fair. Neither is death.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org