Who the Vikings Should Have Drafted: 1961


Dec 9, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears former player and coach Mike Ditka is honored during halftime during an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

And so begins a series of posts in which we second-guess every single first round pick ever made by the Vikings, beginning with the team’s first season in the NFL.

Because with hindsight and a blog on your side, you can become all-powerful. You can change history with the stroke of a key.

Let us start with 1961. The #1 song of that year was Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis. The top box office hit was the musical West Side Story. The top-rated TV show was the Western Gunsmoke.

1961 was also the first year for a new franchise in the NFL, the Minnesota franchise nicknamed the Vikings (over other proposed nicknames including Voyageurs, Miners and Chippewas).

Thank you Sid Hartman, again, for the gift of the Vikings.

Who they drafted…

We often ask the question, “If you were starting a franchise, which player would you take first?”

For the Vikings in 1961, this was not a hypothetical. This was reality.

The Vikings, as new entrants into the league, were awarded the privilege of picking first in the college draft. They had their pick of the whole field of eligible players.

Who do you take as the first ever draft selection in the whole entire history of your franchise? Which position do you target?

The Vikings looked right to the running back position, hoping to add a stud player who would develop into an offensive mainstay.

And, in fact, the guy they took did develop into a mainstay.

The Vikings’ first round pick that year of 1961 was a Tulane University running back named Tommy Mason. He would go on to play six seasons for Minnesota, rushing for 3,252 yards and 28 touchdowns in that span.

He had a nice run with the Vikings at a time when the franchise was not particularly good. Mason’s last year with the team, 1966, was their last under original coach Norm Van Brocklin. Their run of greatness would begin in 1967 under Bud Grant, the year Mason signed with the Redskins.

So Tommy Mason got to endure the suck, but never got to enjoy the glory. He was a good player on some teams that just didn’t matter.

A solid draft pick, but the result was ultimately uninspiring.

Who they should have drafted…

How different would the Vikings’ franchise history have turned out had they used their 1961 #1 overall pick not on the running back from Tulane but on a certain tight end from Pittsburgh?

What if in 1961 the Vikings had drafted Mike Ditka, the man who not only revolutionized the tight end position, but went on to become one of the true legends and characters of football history?

The reality is that, in those humble early days of the Vikings, no single player was going to make much of an impact on the won-loss record. They had future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, himself a third round pick in 1961, and it made little difference. They were not relevant. They would not be relevant until Bud Grant arrived.

One way or another, the Vikings were going to have to suffer their growing pains as a franchise.

It would certainly have mattered little in terms of immediate success had they taken Ditka instead of Mason. Or any other player instead of Mason.

But I still say it…they should have drafted Mike Ditka.

With the magic of imagination, we envision Mike Ditka not as a legendary Bears player but a legendary Vikings player, catching passes from Fran Tarkenton and helping lead the Vikings out of the darkness of their early history.

But it’s what we envision for the rest of Ditka’s career that really matters. Because years after retiring as a player, Ditka returned to the Bears to lead them as a head coach. What if, instead of coaching the Bears, Ditka had coached the Vikings?

Think about it. Instead of Les Steckel and then Jerry Burns taking over for Bud Grant, what if Ditka had taken the job?

Screw it. Let’s just transplant the entire Bears coaching staff circa 1985 over to the Vikings, including the true innovator and gritty heart-and-soul of that staff, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

In our alternative history, the mid-80s Vikings, instead of being a seemingly wayward franchise, become a defensive juggernaut like the ’85 Bears.

Had the Vikings drafted Ditka in 1961, bringing him into the fold not just as a player but as an all-time legend who would one day take over the reins as coach, would they have claimed the Super Bowl that instead went to the Bears?

A stretch? Maybe. Cheating to put Buddy Ryan on the staff of the speculative 1985 Ditka-coached Vikings? Perhaps.

Should I just give them Walter Payton in the bargain?

Like I said, hindsight and a blog…they make you all-powerful. I’m god here, I can do what I want.

I declare that in 1961, the Vikings should have drafted Mike Ditka instead of Tommy Mason. Because eventually he would’ve become coach, hired Buddy Ryan as the DC and won a Super Bowl.

So it is written, so it is done.

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