Purple Power

“How’s your night?,” I asked the Somali woman filling up at the gas pump across from me.

“Good, it’s good,” she said.

It was Sunday. The town was abuzz about the positively psychedelic crop of fall colors exploding absolutely everywhere, the just-run Twin Cities marathon, and the young and hungry Minnesota Vikings, who’d beaten Tennessee a few hours earlier in downtown Minneapolis.

“Did you see the game?” I said, looking for a bridge between our worlds.

“No, I did not. I’m not a…,” she said in halting English, her eyes rolling skyward and searching for the word, “fan.”

I wouldn’t have it. I explained to her that the local football team plays once a week, usually on Sundays, and that as a Minnesotan she had better get with it, because these Vikings are hot, young, finding their groove, and the whole state is very excited — for the first time in quite a while. 

Her face brightened with a wary smile. She finished at the pump and got in her car without a word. Just before driving off, she gathered herself and turned to me with an excited nod.

“OK!,” she said, eyes wide and illuminated by the neon gas station sign, “I will be a ‘fan’ next week!”

And so it begins — the long journey of hope and heartbreak that is the fate and legacy of every Minnesota Vikings fan. And while I wouldn’t wish some of the more knuckle-headed strains of NFL fanaticism on her, my encounter with our new purple convert proves that when all else fails, when political, personal, familial, geographic, big and little differences divide, the Vikings provide as true a tribal bond as the team’s Nordic namesake itself, and gives us all something to talk about.

Or complain about, as it were.

What I didn’t tell the woman in the flowing white lace hijab is that earlier that evening I was lucky enough to partake in the age-old Minnesota tradition of gathering around the HD campfire with family, and sharing decades’ worth of laughs and memories about our long strange trip together as slaves to those stupid horned helmets, which have promised so much unfulfilled glory for so long.

How do you say “suckers” in Somali?

My brothers and I have been watching football with our dad since the ’60s, most memorably the four Super Bowl losses, the Favre years, and everything in between. We never actually go to the games (see: NFL knuckleheads, above), opting instead for the comfort and clickability of the old man’s basement in West Bloomington, which last week drew a full house of damaged fanatics, true believers, and football-oblivious kids and womenfolk.

Inevitably, the conversation veers off into other topics, but for the most part our peanut gallery spends its time sizing up the announcers, coaches, players, local media celebrities and the latest music news. I often wonder where we’d be without this little Sunday church of our own making, because the fact is we are men, and being men we need ice-breakers and a reason to get together. 

The truth is, no matter what’s going on in our personal or professional lives, no matter how much reality bites, no matter how many elephants sit in the middle of that shag-carpeted rec room, those stupid purple helmets provide an escape, some father-son-brother dialogue, and a key to all sorts of conversations that start with, “How ‘bout those Vikes?”

Which is what I said to my friend and Nigeria native Martin Onuh, owner of C&K Food & Fuel, the day after the Tennessee game. One of the main reasons Martin wanted to move to America 10 years ago was to watch football and baseball, which he now does seven days a week behind the counter at C&K.

“I love [safety] Harrison Smith, he really hits. And [scatback/receiver] Percy Harvin — unbelievable,” said Martin, his beaming smile looking very much like the lights of a growing bandwagon. “I am really really surprised, because I thought we were going to be really really bad this year. Now I’m thinking playoffs, at least.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.