I have never been a huge Minnesota Vikings fan, my Uncle Bob brainwashed me into being a Denver Broncos fan at far too young an age for that, but I grew up in Minnesota, and in Minnesota you follow the Vikings.
Because Minnesota professional sports teams struggled with mediocrity for nearly all of my childhood, Minnesotans often reminisced about the teams of the past. One name that always came up was Alan Page.
Alan Page was a beast, and at 6 foot 4 and 245 pounds he anchored one of the greatest and best-nicknamed defensive lines of all time, the Purple People Eaters. He led the Vikings defense to 4 Super Bowls (but didn’t win a one), was a 9 time All Pro player, and perhaps most impressively he is one of only two defensive players in the history of the NFL to win the MVP award. Yeah, the guy was pretty good, but to be honest I never gave him much of a second thought.
When you’re a kid and the sports world is unfurling before you and there’s a hundred years of great players and teams to learn about, it’s easy to dismiss players. I can say with certainty that my thought process was: “there’s always someone who was that good. There’s always an Alan Page.” man, was I an idiot.
In 2011 I met Mr. Page for the first time, oddly enough I met him at a ski race, at the Junior Nationals in Minneapolis where he would speak at the opening ceremonies. The JN’s opening ceremonies have a long history of speakers that fail to capture the attention of many 14 year old athletes, and I’m sure that for most people, that still held true in Minneapolis, but not for me. I was excited to hear Mr. Page speak because I thought I was about to hear a legendary football player, a former NFL MVP, maybe he would even wear his old jersey!
Instead I got to see a shockingly tall and slender old man in a teal turtleneck and a grey hoodie stride up to the podium. Who was this guy and where was Alan Page? Well he answered that question, and it turns out as a sports fan, I had only head half of Mr. Page’s story.
I had missed the part where he decided to go to law school during his NFL career. I had missed the part where he graduated from Law School the same year he won the league MVP award. I had missed the part where he stopped playing football to become a Lawyer, and then an Assistant Attorney General, and finally in 1992 a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice.
I mean come on…..Who was this guy? Who leaves spring training to take a class on torts? And who leaves NFL salaries and stardom to start out on the bottom of the ladder at a legal firm? Why would an athlete like Alan Page, why would he do all that stuff?
Mr. Page told me. He took the podium and he spoke about the responsibility athletes have to do good, about how after an epic football career he decided that he hadn’t done enough for the world and that he still needed to try, so he went into law and became a judge. He told us, that all athletes have this responsibility regardless of our age, our sport, or our gender, and that we had that responsibility.
His demeanor was what struck me the most. He couldn’t have cared less about his football career. Sports were great for sure, but he wanted to talk about public service. Suddenly my whole mindset wasn’t about my races. He made being a skier seem like something more than just racing, he made being a skier seem like something cool.
After the ceremony finished up, I went up him to shake his gigantic hand. “I challenge you” he said “to go out and use your platform to do good, even if in the smallest way”
I’m a nordic skier, not exactly what you’d call a celebrity athlete, but I am an athlete and like all athletes in American culture I do have a platform, and I think about Mr. Page every day. I’ve fallen short of Mr. Page’s challenge in a million ways, but I’ve also tried to live up to it, and I’m hopeful that in the past 4 years I’ve been able to do so at least a little.
Minnesota has a law that forces mandatory retirement for judges at the end of the month in which they turn 70, which meant that just last month, Mr. Page finally retired for good. Somehow, I doubt he’ll stop trying to use his platform to better the Twin Cities.