Mick Tingelhoff was a shy farm boy from central Nebraska who didn’t get drafted. Bragging was not in his DNA.
But every once in awhile, his old friends back home got wind of a story. Sometimes it was something simple and funny, like Butkus standing over the ball and — just before the snap — spitting on Mick’s hands. (The Bears’ icon called Tingelhoff the toughest center he ever faced, which makes you wonder how he treated the weak ones.)
Sometimes it was Mick facing the vaunted Packers. A quarter through his 17-year career, after Minnesota won at Lambeau Field, Vince Lombardi told a reporter that No. 53 had played one of the greatest games he’d ever seen a center play.
When the reporter informed Lombardi that Tingelhoff had played with a torn muscle, Lombardi laughed. So the reporter persuaded the Vikings’ doctor to send Lombardi an X-ray of Tingelhoff’s knee. Lombardi was shocked.
Sometimes the story didn’t happen on the field. Three quarters through his career, Tingelhoff’s contract was up so the Vikings’ new general manager called Mick into the office. When Mike Lynn low-balled him, Mick lost it. He swiped his arm across the desk and all of Lynn’s decorations — trophies, autographed footballs and a cinnamon candy dish — ended up on the floor.
Tingelhoff punched a hole in the hollow oak door and stormed out of the office. He got to the parking lot and started digging for his keys. Uh oh. He’d put them on Lynn’s desk.
Imagine the GM’s face when Mick stormed back in, kneeled and started digging through the rubble.
Tingelhoff was one of the nicest, quietest guys on the team, former teammate Dave Osborn said.
“But you don’t wanna get Mick mad.”
As one of the NFL’s greatest iron men prepares for his Hall of Fame induction Saturday, his friends tell the stories he can’t. They try to come to peace with this reality: The attributes that made the 75-year-old Tingelhoff an all-time great are likely the same attributes that damaged his brain.
The word that comes up in almost every conversation about Tingelhoff’s induction is “finally.”
Sometimes it’s one of his older sisters. Sometimes it’s an ex-teammate. Sometimes it’s former Vikings coach Bud Grant.
“I don’t want to say this wrong,” Grant said last summer when Tingelhoff was named a finalist. “But he’s more deserving than some of the guys that have gotten in. ... Justice has finally been served.”
But football justice isn’t always fair. The reason it hurts to wait so long is that Tingelhoff, during the past 10 years, began suffering memory loss. Dementia. He started more consecutive games than any other lineman in NFL history, 259 counting playoff games. He’s paying for it now.
“I’m not sure he can fully appreciate what’s taking place,” said one former Nebraska Cornhusker teammate, who teared up talking about Tingelhoff. “Kinda makes me cry, I guess.”
* * *
It’s 1976. Season opener in New Orleans. Tingelhoff, 36 years old, has a separated shoulder.
Coach Grant prepared to start another former Husker, Doug Dumler, in Tingelhoff’s place. This did not sit well with No. 53. He pointed his injured shoulder at a Superdome locker and rammed it. See, Coach, I can play. The streak went on.
“Bud Grant always said we had two centers on the team,” Osborn said. “Mick Tingelhoff healthy and Mick Tingelhoff hurt.”
Nobody anticipated such a long career. Not the NFL general managers who drafted 280 guys in front of him. Not his old teammates and friends. Not even Tingelhoff, who joined Minnesota in training camp in 1962.
He grew up on a farm 10 miles outside of Lexington. His parents were first-generation immigrants from Germany. For part of his childhood, the family didn’t have electricity. He attended country school, listening to Husker football games in the barn while he and his dad milked cows.
Older brother Lawrence, a Marine, toughened him up. One day in high school, Mick’s mother was fixing lunch when Mick and Lawrence put on boxing gloves and started throwing haymakers. Mick’s buddy, Steve Smith, took one look and figured he’d be safer in the kitchen with Mrs. Tingelhoff.
“Mick’s brother didn’t want any sissies leaving the Tingelhoff farm,” Smith said.
Tingelhoff didn’t put on shoulder pads until 10th grade, but he joined a phenomenal class of athletes.
His senior year at Lexington, 1957, the Minutemen went undefeated, including a blowout of Omaha Westside. Entering the final game of the season, Lexington hadn’t allowed a touchdown.
The streak ended when North Platte broke a middle screen pass in the first quarter to take a 6-0 lead. Tingelhoff and his teammates were so angry, they went no-huddle and scored three quick touchdowns. They won 41-6.
Four Minutemen went on to play at Nebraska, including Monte Kiffin.
Tingelhoff’s dad wanted him to stay on the farm and work, but Mick won the battle. He played linebacker and center for Bill Jennings, lettering three years but falling short of all-conference honors. He played with a quiet tenacity, even in practice, never hesitating to knock a friend to the ground.
The summer before his junior year, 1960, Jennings connected Tingelhoff with a job opportunity in the Wyoming oil fields. He and Smith worked seven days a week (the overtime paid well).
One day, the lead tongs in the rig knocked Tingelhoff across the floor and into a steel wall. His hard hat flew off.
“I thought he was very badly hurt,” Smith said. “He just jumped up and slugged me and said it felt pretty good to have some contact. We went back to work.”
Tingelhoff finished his Husker career in ’61, just as Jennings was being shown the door. Tingelhoff gave the new coach, Bob Devaney, a campus tour.
The next summer, the Vikings, a second-year franchise with a meager roster, signed Tingelhoff to play linebacker for $11,000. He left for training camp wondering if he might be home before his first game.
Then came his big break. Coach Norm Van Brocklin waived his starting center in training camp and moved Tingelhoff to offense. From that moment, he started every game. His rookie team in ’62 was awful — 2-11-1. But by ’64, Tingelhoff was first-team All-Pro.
At 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, he was no bigger than the linebackers he blocked, but Tingelhoff had quick hands and feet.
“Mick would’ve been a great boxer,” Kiffin said. “He could’ve been a Gold Gloves boxer.”
He could surge off the ball and knock a linebacker off his feet, or reach a defensive tackle when the guard pulled. Plus, he made all the line calls, Kiffin said. He was smart, fast and tough.
“That’s a pretty good combination for an NFL football player,” Kiffin said.
After Grant took over in ’67, the Vikings took off. From 1968 to 1978, they won 10 division titles in 11 seasons, often hosting playoff games at old Metropolitan Stadium. Tingelhoff lined up (gloveless and sleeveless, per Grant’s rules) against the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome.
Four times the Vikings made the Super Bowl. Four times they lost.
Tingelhoff retired after the ’78 season. He was 38. Friends expected a quick induction into the Hall of Fame. The phone call never came. Tingelhoff, like many of his Vikings teammates, fought the stigma of Super Bowl failure.
“Nobody can figure it out,” said Noel Martin, ex-Husker fullback and Tingelhoff teammate. “There was no reason that he shouldn’t have been in a long time ago.”
After retirement, Tingelhoff turned to brokering stocks and commercial real estate development. He volunteered to coach his son’s high school team. He played racquetball to stay in shape. When an old Husker teammate asked how he could help get Tingelhoff into the Hall of Fame, Mick shrugged it off. He had no interest in promoting himself.
Football had treated him well. In 17 years, he didn’t have a single surgery. Said Tingelhoff in 2005: “I was luckier than hell.”
* * *
His wife still remembers the first training camp. Phyllis and Mick had been married for two years when the Vikings signed him.
Mick took off for training camp. Phyllis returned to her native Indiana and waited for an update.
Had Mick been cut, Phyllis said, he probably would’ve finished his degree and been a teacher and a coach. She never fathomed 17 seasons in the bleachers.
They raised three kids and Phyllis never missed a home game. Mick never talked much about work. He certainly never complained about the toll on his body.
“I never even thought about it,” Phyllis said. “He just did it.”
About seven years ago, Phyllis started noticing problems. Gaps in Mick’s short-term memory. She didn’t know what to think.
Then, a few years later, she started hearing stories of other ex-players and their struggles with CTE. Concussions. She can’t prove it, of course.
“But I’m sure with his 17 years and 240 games he had some hard hits up there,” Phyllis said. “I’m just assuming that’s a big part of it.”
Said ex-Viking teammate Osborn: “Back in our days, you get dinged a little bit, you come off to the side, they give you some smelling salts, hold up two fingers and if you said three, you were back in the game.”
Tingelhoff was one of about 5,000 plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The suit, settled earlier this year, claimed that the league had covered up the dangers of concussions.
When old teammates get together at a restaurant, Tingelhoff remembers their names and faces. He still jokes about going to the library in college. But he repeats things. Did we order? What did I order? Where’s Phyllis? He feels more comfortable near family.
“It’s quite obvious that he has some memory problems, but we’re just dealing with it,” Phyllis said. “I don’t know, it’s tough to talk about it. Something you really don’t want to discuss too much.
“Everyone will see at the Hall, it’s gonna be tough for him.”
But the Tingelhoffs will make the most of it, she said. They’ll enjoy the weekend because it’s been a long, long time coming.
The support for her husband overwhelms her. It comes from back home in Lexington, where the town honored him July 18. It comes from relatives — Mick’s sister and 17 others are traveling to Canton via bus. It comes from the Vikings, who honored Tingelhoff at training camp Aug. 1. It comes from old teammates, pro and college.
“It’s hard to keep track of everybody that wants to come,” Phyllis said recently. She expected about 200.
For 30 years, Tingelhoff’s fan club has awaited this trip. For 30 years, they’ve refused to forget his tenacity and humility.
Kiffin, who ate Welsh rarebit with Tingelhoff before every high school game, will be in Canton to see his old friend in his new gold jacket.
“I’m telling you, 240 straight games?” Kiffin said. “That just shows you how tough the guy is. You just don’t realize how hard that is to do.”
Unlike his peers, Mick won’t make a speech that covers every twist and turn of his career. He won’t share the glory of Lexington’s 1957 season. He won’t detail how he kept a piece of the deconstructed goal post from Nebraska’s 1959 upset of Oklahoma. He won’t reveal what it felt like when Butkus or Nitschke stood over him, anticipating the snap count.
He’ll listen to his old quarterback Fran Tarkenton introduce him. He’ll bask in the applause, step to the microphone and, according to his wife, sum up the past 50 years with a few simple words.
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