No playoffs, no problem for the most devout Minnesota Vikings fans who ventured to U.S. Bank Stadium amid subzero temperatures Sunday for a hollow season finale where face coverings were necessary because of the resurging COVID-19 pandemic.
“To be a Vikings fan is to always be hopeful,” said Debbie Danich, 51, of Eagan, who “absolutely” approved of the mask mandate implemented last week by the city of Minneapolis ahead of the game. She wore two masks; purple cloth over the surgical grade covering.
Committed as Vikings fans may be, there are, apparently, limits. The team sold 66,625 tickets to the game, but the stadium appeared to be no more than 80% full. Plenty of purple seats remained unoccupied, especially on the upper levels.
The uneven performance of the hometown team kept the energy and noise levels decidedly subdued even as the Vikings took the lead in the second half. Fans’ expectations had long ago been placed firmly in check. The Vikings got off to a grim start, trailing division rivals, the similarly woeful Chicago Bears, 14-3 at the half.
Going into Sunday’s game, Vikings fans knew they would once again be waiting until next year for the thrill of chasing a championship. Instead of bantering about prospective playoff opponents or hugging and high-fiving strangers after improbable game-winning receptions, fans could only speculate about the extent of off-season upheaval on the team’s roster and among the staff.
And yet despite the abysmal season, the vicious cold and the mask mandate, some heavily layered fans brought big energy to the pregame party in the few remaining tailgating spaces north of the stadium.
“How many more months until we get football again?” a cheerful 32-year-old Isaac Schweer of Bloomington said as he stood with friends in the surface lot around a portable table dotted with cans of rum, beer, seltzer and Moscow mules.
“It’s no stress today. We already know our fate. It’s probably (coach Mike) Zimmer’s last game,” Schweer said.
Neither he nor his four friends considered selling their tickets and staying home.
“Not for one second,” said Jordan Obermiller, 27, of Milaca, who was celebrating her birthday and attending her first Vikings game.
Fellow reveler Nick McElhone, 32, of Big Lake insisted on the outdoor party despite the deep freeze. “To get the full Vikings experience, you’ve got to tailgate,” he said. “You can’t hold anything back now, it’s the last game of the year.”
The quintet of friends dressed for the weather. Obermiller said she had hand and foot warmers buried in the layers. The crew was similarly prepared to wear face coverings at the game, saying masks are now a way of life.
“It will be hard for them to enforce, but we’ll do our best and wear them,” McElhone said.
He and his friends called out to a passerby, fellow tailgater Jeff Mills, 31, of West St. Paul. “Lifetime Vikings fan,” Mills responded, ripping open his jacket to reveal he was wearing a jersey with the number of wide receiver Justin Jefferson. “Jettas!” Mills yelled, using a nickname for the dazzling player.
Mills said he’s been vaccinated and had COVID-19 an astonishing three times with minor symptoms. “I’m going to wear a mask in there,” he said, nodding to the stadium.
Inside the stadium, masks could come off while eating and drinking, a wide exemption open to exploitation. Compliance was largely voluntary. A few stadium employees could be spotted on the concourses carrying signs that read, “Please keep your face covering on while in your seat.”
Standing behind the double-masked Danich in a concessions line were four friends carrying drinks and not wearing masks.
Ben Siegfried, 26, of Prior Lake, said he was unvaccinated. The Bears fan, wearing a Brian Urlacher jersey, shrugged off the mask requirement. “Nobody’s told us we have to,” he said.
His friend Matt Sloan, 27, of Shakopee, was similarly not masked, but said he’s vaccinated. Wearing a Randy Moss jersey, Sloan said going to the game was something to do on a cold winter day. He waxed philosophical about the tradition of disappointment after a Vikings season. “We can’t figure it out in the end. And it’s not just this season, it’s the last 10 years,” he said.
The Vikings ended up winning the game 31-17, but that was beside the point for the committed crew of fans who weren’t deterred by a losing season, a viral pandemic or a mask mandate. They say they will be back.
Of her season tickets, Danich expects to continue buying them. “I think we’ll always have them because it’s my husband’s passion,” she said.
Sloan expressed similar devotion. “I’m a die-hard fan,” he said. “I’ll always be here.”