When Monte Reiner of Minot listed his framed 1969 Vikings schedule with a picture of running back Dave Osborn for sale in the Union Farmer classifieds, he expected to field calls about purchasing the item.
One particular call started off that way too, but Reiner quickly learned it was of a different nature.
“The gentleman was asking where I got this, and how much I was asking for it,” Reiner recalled. “And then he said, ‘This is Dave Osborn.’ I was kind of shocked he would notice it in the back of the magazine. The odds of that seemed really weird.”
But Reiner was right on, as Osborn has been a North Dakota Farmers Union member for many years. He has Farmers Union Insurance on a house he uses as a hunting cabin in Cando, his home town.
On the football field, Osborn starred at Cando High School and then for the University of North Dakota before being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings 176th overall. He played 12 seasons in the NFL — the first 11 for the Vikings — and led Minnesota in rushing four times including the 1969 NFL Championship season.
Reiner may have been shocked that the former NFL running back was combing through the Union Farmer classifieds, but Osborn said there’s nothing to be surprised about.
“I often look at the for-sale stuff on farms,” said Osborn, who resides in Lakeville, just south of the Twin Cities. “I usually don’t look at all of the ads, but I was looking through them that day.”
So why did Osborn call? To ask a question.
“Why don’t you send it to me and I’ll autograph it and you’ll get more for it,” Osborn said. “He sent me the plaque, and I signed it for him, and he sent me a copy of it.”
What was an amazing moment for Reiner was just another day for Osborn, who estimated he gets five or six items a week through the mail to sign — be it for charity or otherwise. It’s part of his conscious effort to give back to the fans.
“I guess I always felt like when I played, the fans were the ones that paid our salaries,” Osborn said. “I always figured the fans are the ones that deserve to get something back.”
Osborn likes to leave his grandchildren in disbelief when he talks about the family farm near Cando and attending country school.
“I used to have to ride horseback to school,” Osborn said. “You tell your grandkids about that, they think you’re making it up.”
Though his family history is rooted in North Dakota, Osborn himself was actually born in Everett, Wash. The family worked the farm seven or eight months of the year, but then headed to the state of Washington to work in the winter.
“My dad worked in the shipyards — that was his winter job,” Osborn said. “That’s when I was born, in March. I just happened to be born out there. Other than that, we worked the farm. When I was six, we got electricity. Before that, we had lamps, candles, ice boxes till I was in first grade. My grandkids don’t believe that, either. They can’t fathom not having electricity.”
Osborn’s hunting cabin wasn’t always for hunting. Originally, he and his wife would visit her parents in Cando for long periods of time and stay at the residence. It also gave him a chance to re-engage with his old stomping grounds.
When he goes back these days, he can’t help noticing his home town continues to shrink, a significant problem throughout rural America. He recalls a community of nearly 2,000 people and a school with good-sized classes. Now, it’s consolidated with area schools, and the town has dropped to around 1,100 people, though it still remains a vibrant community in North Dakota.
The consolidation that has struck small-town schools has hit family farms as well.
“There used to be a farm in this corner, and a mile down from that was another farm, and two miles from that was another farm,” he said. “Now one guy lives in town and farms the whole thing. Less people and less kids. Back then, if you had three or four hundred acres, you had a big farm. Now if you don’t farm five or six thousand acres, you can’t make it.”
RECRUITED FOR COLLEGE
At 74, the 6-foot Osborn scurries about his Lakeville home with quick feet, reminiscent of his days on the gridiron. The walls in multiple rooms are covered in signed pictures and old plaques from his playing days. Downstairs, his UND jersey hangs on the wall — a green beacon in a sea of purple.
It’s more than just a jersey, though. It’s a significant link to his home state, and it almost didn’t come to pass.
“My high school coach went to Jamestown (College), and he wanted me to go, and that’s where I planned on going,” Osborn said. “Last game of the season, we played at Cavalier. Of the two refs, one was UND’s previous football coach and (then) track coach Frank Zazula, and another was a major in the Air Force. I had one of my better games, probably scored four or five touchdowns. Within a week, I had a full scholarship to UND and an appointment to the Air Force Academy.”
Osborn didn’t feel comfortable leaving the family farm for three months in the summer, as the Air Force Academy is year-round. Plus, he didn’t like the idea of leaving girlfriend and now-longtime wife Beverly.
At UND, he caught fire as a junior, helping the team to a 6-3 record. A year later, UND went 8-1 to win the North Central Conference, defeating previously-undefeated North Dakota State for the 13th year in a row to win the conference title.
His success had drawn the interest of many NFL teams including the powerful Dallas Cowboys, but not even a letter from the Minnesota Vikings.
LIFE IN THE PROS
Osborn was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the 1965 draft, which was good news. He planned on using a trip to training camp on his resume when he applied for teaching and coaching jobs back in North Dakota. First, he’d go back to school and get a master’s degree. Then he’d work as a teacher for a while, until he had enough experience to become a principal or superintendent. He preferred that to spending all day in a classroom, and to him, it fit better with coaching.
But after the first day of training camp in Bemidji, Minn., he realized he wasn’t as out of place as originally thought.
“I came in not knowing what to expect,” Osborn said. “But after being there for a day, I said, ‘Hey, I’m as good as anybody out here. I’m here to make this team.’”
At the time, the coach was Norm Van Brocklin, an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback that led the Vikings through the first six seasons of existence.
“He liked hard-nosed guys — if he said run through that wall, I’d run through that wall,” Osborn said.
But Van Brocklin resigned after the 1966 season, and Bud Grant took the job on his way to four Super Bowl appearances and an enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.
For Osborn, it wasn’t until long after his playing days that he found out how Grant felt about him.
“Years later after I was done playing, we were out hunting and I told him that I didn’t know if you even liked me when I was a player,” Osborn said. “He said, ‘You were one of my favorite players.’ But you didn’t know that, because he treated all of his players the same. I think Bud could come back today and within a year, he’d have the team winning again. He has something about him. He knows how to handle people.”
Among Osborn’s many highlights was starting Super Bowl IV, after the Vikings had gone 12-2 in the regular season and beaten the Cleveland Browns for the NFL Championship. As it was prior to the AFL-NFL merger, the Vikings played the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl and fell 23-7.
Osborn still struggles to figure out that Super Bowl Sunday, considering the teams met in the opener the following season with identical rosters, and the Vikings handled them 27-10.
“It was the same starting lineups, and we dominated the game,” said Osborn, who also played in Super Bowls VIII and IX. “If we played five times, I bet we win three, maybe four. Sometimes, I wonder if we were overcoached a bit. We went there and practiced and practiced. We were so tense — I think we played the game in the middle of the week.”
Once per season, the Vikings invite former players to sit in a press box and watch the game, which Osborn takes in. Otherwise, he’ll show up to some home games and sign autographs, and then head home just in time for kickoff.
“TV is almost like being right on the sidelines,” he said. “You can see the instant replay, and it’s easier to see what’s going on.”
Former glory surrounds Osborn. Close friend Paul Krause — the NFL’s all-time interceptions leader and a Hall-of-Famer — lives across the street, while Bob Lurtsema and Mick Tingelhoff — another Hall-of-Famer — reside close by.
“I probably see Paul every day — we had such a great group of people (on our teams),” Osborn said. “You always think retirement is going to be great, but you run out of things to do. I like to hunt and fish, but when you get older, it gets to be a lot of work.”
Osborn’s greatest joy in retirement involves his grandchildren and attending their many sporting events, though that’s running out soon as well.
“We’ve gone to a lot of sporting events,” he said. “Almost all of our grandkids are out of high school. We’ve got two left.”
It’s a life Osborn appreciates, and not one he necessarily envisioned.
“We never thought of living in Minnesota — too many people down here,” he said. “We said we’d go back and live in Grand Forks. That’s our type of town. Well you get down here, have kids and buy a house, it’s hard to go back.”
FORMER VIKINGS RUNNING BACK DAVE OSBORN GIVES HIS TAKE ON TODAY’S GAME
On the current state of the Vikings:
“They’re headed in the right direction. I really like (coach) Mike Zimmer. Last year started off well and went downhill, but they had so many injuries. You can’t play in this league if you don’t have offensive linemen.”
On rookie running back Dalvin Cook:
“He can catch and block, too. That was a downfall for Adrian Peterson — he wasn’t a good blocker or a good receiver. You’ve got to have ball control and you do that by short passes and running the ball.”
On Peterson leaving the Vikings and signing with the Saints:
“Peterson is 32 years old. He says he can run as good today as he ever could, but I thought the same thing when I was 32. You can’t. You lose a little something. You’re just not the same guy you were when you were 22. Credit to Peterson, he’s a specimen and in great shape, so maybe he’s different. We hope he has a great year except the first game (the Vikings play the Saints in the season opener).”
On the NFL becoming a passing league:
“It used to be the first players teams wanted out of the draft were running backs, and now they say they’re not that valuable. Back then, you’d want linemen who were smaller and quick, so they could pull for the run game. Now, they’re 350 pounds and you don’t see them pulling. They snap the ball, make themselves big and form a wall. Also, in my day, the best players played offense. Now, they play defense. Some of these defensive ends and linebackers are the best athletes on the field.”
On NFL player safety and head injuries:
“Players are using their heads as weapons. I always say the best way to solve that problem is to take the facemask off the helmet. Do that, and they won’t stick their face in there. The new helmets, they don’t really protect you that much. Your brain still flies against your cranium. I don’t know how they can stop it. That pounding on the head, I’m sure it does cause a problem. They’ve pretty well proved that.”
On instant replay:
“Back then, we’d say, ‘I think the official made a mistake.’ Now you can see it on TV up close and in slow motion. Had they had that when we got beat by Dallas to go to the Super Bowl in ’76 when Drew Pearson shoved off (on the game-winning touchdown), we would have gone to the Super Bowl. I think it’s good for the game. Maybe we shouldn’t even have referees. Just watch the video and call it all from the booth. Don’t even have guys out there.”
On parity in the NFL:
“It used to take a lot longer for a team to (have success), and once you got there, you stayed there for a lot longer because you kept your players. Now a team gets there, they lose 5-6 guys and all of a sudden, they’re an also-ran, with the exception of New England. I think (parity) is better for the game, rather than having the same team dominate all the time.”
On NFL salaries:
“Owners make a lot of money, so you can’t blame the players. If owners want to give them all this money, anybody would stand in line and take it. But I think the whole system has gotten out of hand. Don’t pay the players as much, and don’t charge as much for tickets. TV is where a lot of the big money comes from now, and that’s fine. But don’t charge $150 for a ticket. A family with two or three kids can’t go to a game now without it costing $500 for an afternoon. The fans are still what make this game. Tickets should be reasonable.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU