Sports Legend Revealed: Did the Vikings' Jim Marshall survive being trapped during a blizzard by burning his money?
Quite often in the world of professional sports you will see references to a team that has "money to burn." This is used to describe those teams that have a lot of excess money that they eagerly wish to spend on increasing the payroll of the team. Teams will often "burn their money" during the off season, signing free agents. Well, during the off season following the 1970-71 NFL season, Minnesota Vikings defensive legend Jim Marshall was literally burning money - only he was doing it to survive!
Read on to learn Marshall's bizarre tale of survival on what was supposed to be a straightforward (albeit challenging) snowmobile outing in January 1971 that ended up being a fight for survival - a fight that not everyone in Marshall's party would win!
James Marshall was born in 1937. He played his college ball at Ohio State University where he was an All-American and part of two national championship teams. He left school early and played Canadian Football for a year before declaring for the 1960 NFL Draft. He was taken in the fourth round by the Cleveland Browns, for whom he played for one season. He then joined the Minnesota Vikings in 1961. Upon joining the team, the defensive end started every single Vikings game from 1961-1972, 270 games in total! When you count his year with the Browns, Marshall also played in 282 straight games (302 if you count playoff games, including all four of the Vikings' Super Bowl appearances) from 1960-1979. Both the 282 games played in a row and the 270 games started in a row were NFL records for decades until Jeff Feagles broke the consecutive games played mark in 2005 and Brett Favre broke the consecutive games started mark in 2009. Marshall's streak was particularly impressive when it is noted that he actually shot himself once in 1964, while cleaning his gun and still played football that week for the Vikings. Marshall later noted that he needed to carry a gun because he kept a lot of money on his person at all times (this will be important later).
Outside of being part of the famed "Purple People Eater" defensive line of the Vikings (and having his #70 retired by the Vikings and being part of the Ohio State and College Football Halls of Fame), Marshall is likely most remembered for something else that happened in 1964. In a game against the San Francisco 49ers in October of 1964, Marshall picked up a fumble by a Niner player and ran sixty-six yards to the end zone. The problem was that he ran to his own end zone by mistake! When he threw the ball down, thinking it was a touchdown, it went out of bounds and was thereby ruled a safety. The play remains the shortest play in NFL history (-66 yards). Luckily for Marshall, later in the game he helped force a game-winning turnover with a sack of the 49ers quarterback, thereby securing a Minnesota victory, so his gaffe did not lead to a loss, at least. Instead, it is just one of the most embarrassing NFL plays of all-time.
Marshall's hard luck continued on that fateful trip in 1971, just after the end of the NFL season. A group of sixteen snowmobilers were organized for a trip along the snow-covered mountains of Montana and Wyoming (the trip would criss-cross them along the border of northern Montana and southern Wyoming). The idea would be that a semi-trailer would carry their snowmobiles to the first checkpoint- they would get out and ride their snowmobiles from one point to another, then meet back up with the trailer and load the snowmobiles and drive to another point where they would then get the snowmobiles out again and ride again. They were planning to do this about three times. However, during the very first thirty-five mile ride from Montana into Wyoming, they were caught in a blizzard!
The group contained a Minnesota reporter, two members of the Vikings (Marshall and his teammate, Paul Dickson), a Minneapolis insurance salesman and his teenage son, a Yellowstone Park Ranger, a director of a school for problem boys, a grocer, a bank president, two photographers, two snowmobile mechanics and a husband and wife guide from the nearest lodge (the Red Lodge).
The group encountered issues even before the blizzard became a major factor, as Marshall's snowmobile rode off of the cliffs they were traveling on. Luckily, the cliffs were sloped and did not just go straight down, so Marshall was able to grab hold of rocks before he slid 800 feet to the bottom. He climbed back up and continued the journey.
The key problem in the journey is that the blizzard conditions ultimately split the sixteen people into four separate groups. This was a big mistake because it kept the mechanics apart from each other, so that when the awful weather eventually broke down most of the snowmobiles, the mechanics were unable to get to them to fix them. Now do note that this wasn't a mistake of planning, but rather a freak weather situation that split the group up - so it was no one's "fault," but it eventually led to most of the groups ending up on foot and, when it got dark, being forced to make camp in the wilderness.
In one of those camps, Hugh Galusha, the 51-year-old president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, ended up dying from exposure.
Marshall was in a group that was further ahead than most of the others. It was he, his teammate Paul Dickson, Bob Leiviska Jr (the son of the insurance salesman mentioned before) and Vern and Marilyn Waples, the aforementioned guides from the Red Lodge. The two gigantic football players had particularly difficult time walking in the snow, as while the teenager and the wife were able to walk on top of the snow, Marshall and Dickson sank into the snow every time they took a step.
Leiviska found a patch of trees and they chose there to make their camp. The snow was about 10 to 15 feet deep in this area. Dickson had his lighter, so they began to make a fire starting with cash from Marshall's wallet, candy wrappers plus Marshall's checkbook and his billfold. The snow began to melt a bit, giving them a sort of cave-like environment. They kept the fire going with more cash and later with stripped bark and branches from nearby trees.
After spending Saturday night hunched together, Leiviska and Marilyn Waples set out to get help (since they could traverse the snow easiest) on Sunday. After some time passed after their compatriots had left for help and with night growing closer, the men feared their chances of lasting another night, so they decided to try to set out on foot themselves. Luckily, after a mile or so of walking they discovered the rescue crews that had been sent out for them.
In an interview with Sid Hartman, discussing whether his football training helped him survive, Marshall responded:
It was more the lessons of determination and competition one learns in football that helped me the most. I never worked so hard in my life to stay alive. It reached a point where I thought it was virtually impossible to go on. Yet I was able to catch my second, third and fourth wind and go on another two or three miles when the going was the toughest. This is where football helped.
Pretty amazing story, huh?
Strangely enough, nearly thirty years later, Marshall was once again caught up in an unlucky situation, when the retired player was renting a lakefront property on Madeline Island (which is in Lake Superior). He was walking on the dock when a board in the dock broke, dumping the 62 year old Marshall into the water, injuring his knee and shoulder. For one of the most durable players in NFL history, Marshall sure gets his durability tested a lot!
Thanks to Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar (the reporter on the snowmobile trip) for the information about the tragic snowmobile journey and thanks to Sid Hartman for the interview with Marshall that provided the quotes in the above piece. This story is particularly interesting considering the Vikings recently had a game snowed out after the Metrodome’s roof collapsed!
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Photo: Jim Marshall tackles Larry Csonka during his playing days. Credit: Associated Press.