BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Darrin Eilertson canceled his Minnesota Vikings season tickets months after the team's loss in the 1999 NFC Championship Game and hadn't been to a Vikings game since the loss to the Atlanta Falcons when he paid $345 for Bud Grant's old Hudson's Bay coat at the Hall of Fame coach's garage sale two years ago. In frigid temperatures at TCF Bank Stadium for the Vikings' playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks in January, the coat was supposed to do no less than perform an exorcism.
Eilertson bundled up in the coat to tailgate in the minus-6 temperatures on Jan. 10, and ventured into a Vikings game for the first time since one of the most painful losses in the team's heartbreak-laden history. When Grant tossed his coat to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and strode to midfield in a polo shirt for the coin toss, Eilertson's cell phone reverberated with text messages and his hopes soared.
Three hours later, the Minneapolis attorney stood crestfallen again, after Blair Walsh's 27-yard field goal broke to the left of the goalpost, landing in a neighboring compartment to Gary Anderson's 1999 miss in the temporal lobes of Vikings fans. And on Wednesday, for some reason, Eilertson knew he had to come back to Grant's garage sale and tell the soon-to-be 89-year-old coach what had become of his old coat. Perhaps it was because Grant's act of bravado that day had given Vikings fans so much hope. Perhaps it's because no other coach in Vikings history has left fans with so much.
There's an element of communal suffering that's central to the experience of being a Vikings fan, and Grant -- who became the first coach to lose four Super Bowls in 1977 -- still is revered in Vikings history in part because no coach after him has taken teams as far as he did. Five NFC Championship Game losses since then -- including three in heartbreaking fashion -- have sanded off the rough edges of the Super Bowl teams for some Vikings fans, reframing those teams as a dynasty of sorts that just never got the final prize.
Grant, then, remains perhaps the most revered figure in Vikings history, and as the years have delivered fresh wounds to the coaches that followed Grant, Vikings fans continue to return to the front yard of their team's greatest coach, who got them closer than they'd ever been to the ultimate prize.
Grant, who turns 89 on Friday, said two years ago his 10th garage sale would be his last. He's kept it going for an 11th and 12th installment, in part because he finds more things to part with and in part because people keep asking if he's going to do it again.
"There are times when I look at something day after day, and it's hanging on the wall, then you say, 'Enough,' and you put it away," Grant said. "Well, now you dig it out, and it's maybe worth something more to somebody else than it is to me. It's not to get rid of stuff; it's not to get rid of junk. If somebody else can utilize it and enjoy it, like I have, that's fine."
When the coach began the sale on Wednesday afternoon as he always does -- with a reminder of his one rule ("No smoking!") and a blast of his coach's whistle -- roughly 75 fans spilled onto his property from the edge of his driveway.
Some, like Eilertson, had been to the sale before. Others, like Ron Rogers, had made it a pilgrimage, driving 17 hours from Dallas to have Grant sign a pair of helmets. They sorted through his old clothes, bought his used hunting rifles and fishing lures and leafed through scrapbooks containing every local newspaper mention of the Vikings from Grant's final few seasons coaching the team. Several scrapbooks made up solely of fan mail to the coach were selling for $300.
Grant's Twitter account promised on Wednesday night there would be more new items unveiled on Thursday, the longest day of the sale, and there figured to be a market for them. The forecast called for idyllic spring weather, and the love affair between Vikings fans and their legendary coach could continue in temperatures much warmer than the ones that made them fall for Grant in the first place.
"I couldn't miss it," Rogers said. "I really wanted to come up here and have a chance to meet him, and it did not disappoint."