Welcome to lovely Minnesota, land of more than 15,000 lakes, 16.7 million acres of forest, 66 state parks.
And one quarterback charged with domestic assault.
And one coach accused of sexual harassment.
The scenery around the professional football team here is changing dramatically these days. The bright, splendid colors of champions have become the dark, bitter hues of the pursued.
“I’ve never been through this before, and I don’t know what to do,” Warren Moon said. “I don’t know where it’s headed.”
He is the Minnesota Viking quarterback. After a lifetime of documented good works, he was charged six weeks ago with striking and choking his wife, Felicia.
When Moon stepped off the Metrodome field after the Vikings’ final exhibition game last weekend, he was booed like a stranger.
Dennis Green, the Viking coach, knows that sound.
After leading his team to the playoffs in each of his first three years in Minnesota, Green was cited this winter with widely publicized sexual harassment allegations.
Although he was never charged with a crime, the stain remains like gunk after a melted snow.
“There are some people in this town who have never liked me, but you know what?” Green said. “I just don’t like them, either. So that makes us damned even.”
Today, Moon, 38, talks of possible retirement. Green talks like a man who knows he could win a third division title in four years and still be fired.
The defending NFC Central champions, once considered the only team with a chance to break the conference stranglehold of the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, are now struggling to keep from splitting themselves.
“This is the first time in my 11 years that I don’t know if we’ll go 12-4 or 5-11,” linebacker Jack Del Rio said.
Even those 12 victories might not be enough. Not for Moon or Green. Not now.
Both home exhibition games were blacked out on local television because of a lack of fan interest. The team is scrambling to sell out the home opener against the Detroit Lions in two weeks.
For the first time, some of the 10 civic leaders who own the club are being asked questions about their team other than, “How are the boys going to do this Sunday?”
And they are not thrilled.
“No one likes it,” said Jaye Dyer, one of the owners. “No one likes that kind of publicity, that kind of visibility. And there’s not a thing you can do about it.”
Viking fans would be glad to drop Dyer a few hints. In the immediate future, some of those hints will hit Moon and Green squarely on the head.
“I sense a cooling of attitudes around here toward the team,” said Sue Aumer, director of Sojourner Project, a suburban Minneapolis shelter for battered women. “There is a sense of wanting to step back and see how it plays out.”
It will play out beginning Sunday in Chicago against the Bears, where Moon will take the field with an apparently sore shoulder.
In exhibitions, he did not throw a touchdown pass or complete a pass longer than 19 yards while accumulating a 53.1 quarterback rating.
Teammates hid their eyes. Questions mounted. Could the season actually get worse before it even started?
“This is a very sensitive situation,” kicker Fuad Reveiz said. “We’re just trying not to think about it.”
Everything about Green speaks defiance. He has a small face but a big scowl. He is heavy, yet is not afraid to wear a tight white coaching shirt.
He is also one of only two black head coaches in the NFL.
Just as Moon is one of only three black starting quarterbacks.
While 94% of Minnesota’s residents are white.
For the first time, Green openly wonders if his color has something to do with his image.
“We provide people with entertainment, we provide people with business,” he said of blacks. “They have no problem with us in entertainment. But they have a big problem with us in business.”
Green’s problems started a month after the Vikings were upset by the Bears in the first round of the NFC playoffs last January.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported allegations of sexual harassment against Green dating back to his days as a Stanford head coach in 1991.
One source reportedly received an out-of-court settlement after alleging that Green grabbed her on a Honolulu hotel balcony after she refused sexual advances.
Sworn affidavits also accused Green of phoning Viking female employees or contractors as recently as 1993, offering to visit them and keep them warm.
Green denied the charges in a taped response to the Minneapolis media and has refused to give specific answers since.
But his friends say he feels he was set up by people who have been hoping to bring down a black man in power.
“When you have to battle people from your first day on the job, when people say you shouldn’t be here, when they say you don’t belong, you’ve got to think it’s personal,” Green said. “I’ve had a problem with some people from the day I took this job.”
Tony Dungy, the Vikings’ acclaimed defensive coordinator and still a beloved figure in town, nonetheless says that Green may have a point.
“I don’t know if things would have been so bad for Denny and Warren around here if these things had happened to, say, Tom Kelly [white Twin manager] and another guy like him,” said Dungy, who is black. “There is a certain portion of society that is waiting for us to fail.”
Dungy sighed, saying he often gets letters referring to him with racial slurs.
“I’m sure Denny gets five times as many letters just like that,” he said.
Barbara Carlson, former city councilwoman and host of a highly rated Minneapolis radio talk show, says it is not out of the realm of possibility that racism has made a bad situation worse.
The state’s population, she said, “is ‘Minnesota Nice.’ It is Scandinavian. It is blond. And it is white.”
She added, “We are still uncomfortable talking about race in Minnesota. When a black person says something is racist, the white community recoils and says, ‘Oh, they always say that.’ I don’t think we should have that reaction. I think we should listen.”
Dyer said despite public perception, Green can survive the latest squall.
“Dennis has said he hasn’t done anything wrong, and with everything that he does in the community, on the balance, I think he’s on the plus side,” Dyer said.
The facts surrounding Moon’s problems are colder and harder.
Earlier this summer, one of his lawyers acknowledged that Moon reached an out-of-court settlement with a former team cheerleader who alleged that he forced her to have sex with him.
On July 18, it got worse. Police in Missouri City, Tex., said that upon responding to a 911 call from one of Moon’s four children, they determined Moon had struck Felicia in the head with an open hand and choked her until she nearly passed out.
Although Felicia did not file a complaint, prosecutors used their options under Texas law to charge him with a Class A misdemeanor assault with a maximum punishment of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Arraignment is set for Sept. 19 in Ft. Bend County, Tex., two days after the Vikings play host to Dallas in the third game of the season.
Moon tried to handle the incident by holding a widely televised news conference three days later. In it, he said he had asked for forgiveness and had begun counseling.
At the same news conference, Felicia said: “After many hours of prayers, tears and consultation with my husband, I feel completely safe in his presence. And I am convinced he will stick to the counseling that has begun since this incident has occurred. . . . We will survive this crisis.”
Ironically, Felicia used to volunteer in a women’s shelter.
So that was that. Or was it?
Since then, Moon has been criticized by women’s groups, questioned by fans and hounded by the media.
He should still be inducted into the Hall of Fame after his career ends. But for a man who had to enter the NFL after spending time in the Canadian Football League, his departure could be just as difficult.
“I made a mistake, I put it out there for everyone to see,” Moon said. “Our family tried to make a positive out of it. I did what I thought was right, and I’m working to fix the situation.”
Some wonder if he is working hard enough.
“The bottom line is, I’m a little disappointed,” Aumer said. “On the surface, it looks like he is doing the right things. But overall, it has been treated pretty lightly.
“It seems to be looked at like a nuisance that gets in the way of the season progressing. Seriously, it looks like a lot of lip service.”
Leigh Steinberg, Moon’s agent, wonders what will make the world happy.
“To the extent that Warren did something regrettable, he took full responsibility and made it as right as he possibly can,” Steinberg said. “It’s a very sad situation. But . . . are 20 years of being one of the sports world’s most remarkable role models wiped out by one act?
“What about the 100 children who attend school on Warren Moon’s scholarship money each year? In looking at the whole picture, do they no longer count?”
Although Moon’s future endeavors in television and the business world seem intact, he needs to show the world that the counseling is working before the incident will dim. Many agree that only time can accomplish that.
Ironically, this master of the two-minute drill may not have enough.
“I might quit after this year, sure I might,” he said, pausing. “But right now, I’m staying.”
But just for right now.
“A lot of people think it’s going to be Warren’s last year,” Dungy said. “I think he could play a couple of more if he wanted to, but I don’t know his mental frame of mind.”
If the Vikings’ first exhibition game was any indication, Moon is still strong in that department. Even though his shoulder was sore, and he had not practiced much, he whispered a prediction several days before the game.
“Everybody says I’m going to be out, but I’m going to start the game,” he said. “I’m only going to play one series or so, but I want the team to know that I’m dealing with this, and that I’m still their leader.”
Sure enough, he surprised his fans by jogging onto the field in San Diego that night, his approving coach watching from the sidelines, Warren Moon and Dennis Green furiously working a rag over smudges that may never disappear.