When I was younger, people used to stop me on the streets of Mankato during the month of August and ask me for my autograph.
I was black, with a trim athletic build. And they assumed I was a member of the Vikings. I could have told them I was just an English professor. But instead, I'd smile and sign the scrap of paper as the ecstatic fan thanked me profusely and ran off, my autograph clutched tight in one hand.
I barely mind being mistaken for one of Minnesota's favorite sons. Notice, I say favorite, not good.
The good sons of Minnesota sports are and always have been the Minnesota Twins. The Twins are the very model of a successful, small market sports franchise. They've gone to three World Series and won two of them, and they've been perennial contenders with few off years. They are beloved by their Minnesota fans for all the good grace they've bestowed on the region.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have a dubious on-field record matched only by the players' off-field scandals. The Vikings have gone to four Super Bowls and they lost all of them. They've blown a number of championship games when heavily favored. I was there in the stands in 1999 when the wholly underwhelming Atlanta Falcons beat one of the most formidable Vikings teams in franchise history.
But I've also witnessed first hand the religious fervor the Vikes inspire when they come to Mankato. The players can try to steal away from training camp for a quiet meal at a local diner. But soon their presence will set the place abuzz with high voltage electricity, as a crowd of diners surrounds them.
People down here have an abiding faith in this team, in spite of all its troubles on and off the field. The Vikings are like our first-born yet ill-starred son. They may disappoint us, but every year our prodigal sons return home to the river valley, and all past transgressions are quickly forgotten.
So now as training camp approaches, I feel that old fervor rising once again in the valley. Bad or not, all here anxiously await the arrival of the prodigal sons of the gridiron. We still hope against hope that this will be the year they can turn it around, win a Super Bowl and become not just our favorite sons but our very good ones as well.
Who knows, maybe the hopes of the Vikings faithful will be so high that someone will stop me on the streets of Mankato this weekend and ask me for an autograph. As always, I'll gladly give it.
Philip Bryant is a professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College.