Vikings say goodbye to fallen teammate Stringer
Updated: Saturday August 04, 2001 5:12 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
EDINA, Minn. -- They say that offensive linemen go uncelebrated in football. But whomever coined that cliché didn't make it to Friday afternoon's stirring memorial service for fallen Minnesota Vikings right tackle Korey Stringer.
Feted as a man who was more unforgettable than famous, Stringer was cherished as a friend, teammate and loved one in a one-hour service that drew an estimated overflow and celebrity-filled crowd of about 400 mourners to a funeral home chapel in this Twin Cities suburb.
Afterward at least another 2,000 to 3,000 fans and members of the public stood in line in the broiling sun -- some for hours -- for the chance to file quickly past his open coffin and pay their final respects to Stringer. At times, the line waiting to enter the funeral home stretched two blocks or more.
Friday's 85-degree heat and high humidity made for a somewhat cruel twist at the end of a cruel week. Stringer, 27, died early Wednesday morning of complications from heat stroke, which he suffered after a stifling hot Tuesday morning practice. He is the first NFL player in history to be lost in a heat-related illness.
But as it should be, how Stringer died was put aside Friday. Instead, how he lived was remembered and reveled in.
"I'm glad I was able to enjoy the gift of Korey's life, Oh Lord," offered Vikings receiver Cris Carter, who gave the opening convocation. "And I pray that one day when they put me in a casket that I would be like him. Not famous, but unforgettable."
Besides the entire Vikings team and organization, the service drew many headline names from around the NFL. League commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, as was NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. Former Vikings great Alan Page, now a Minnesota State Supreme Court Judge, attended, as did former Vikings star defensive end Carl Eller, and current Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife.
"When a player dies it's something you can't prepare for," Tagliabue said. "You try to anticipate everything that can happen, and you know there can be serious injuries, because we've had those. Intellectually you know that a player can die in football. But you don't really expect it and you don't prepare for it. So that's hard for all of us in the league to deal with.
"In some ways the tragedy is you only see what incredible young men you have in your midst when they're gone."
Stringer's former opposite Vikings tackle, Todd Stuessie, now with Carolina, left the Panthers' camp to be on hand. And the gathering included current and former NFL stars like Leroy Butler, Santana Dotson and Kevin Greene, as well.
"I think NFL players are a tight-knit fraternity and it scars everybody," Greene said. "I know the Vikings are scarred. But I think everybody was wounded on this one, everybody who has ever played in the NFL and strapped it on in the big league. Especially those of us who knew Korey."
Stringer's list of eulogizers went six deep: Vikings head coach Dennis Green, offensive line coach Mike Tice, fellow offensive lineman David Dixon, punter Mitch Berger, receiver Randy Moss and defensive end Fernando Smith.
But again it was Moss, like at Wednesday's poignant news conference at Vikings training camp, who provided the rawest display of emotion. Sobbing for a minute or more before he composed himself enough to speak, Moss told of standing vigil at the hospital with the critically ill Stringer on Tuesday night.
"[I asked the nurse], 'When is he going to wake up?'" Moss said. "When am I going to see his eyes? The nurse said, 'We're just going to keep him under for a little bit.' And I said, 'You go in there and hurry up and do what you got to do, but there's a family out here waiting on him.'"
Then Moss spoke of his reaction to the 2 a.m. phone call informing him that Stringer had died.
"From that point, my heart dropped," Moss said. "I didn't know what to do, because in my life I had a lot of things happen to me, but nothing like this."
Gazing toward the open casket, Moss added: "Big Fella, you ought to see how many people are out here."
Letting go of a friend and teammate who treated him with the protectiveness of a little brother has been wrenching for Moss. But he described his sorrow in terms that almost anyone can understand.
"It's like I've been with Korey these last couple days, and I was waiting to see him again," Moss said. "I would pray for God to at least let me dream a little dream. Let me talk to him again for the last time."
Moss spoke clutching one of Stringer's oversized No. 77 Vikings home game jerseys. It wound up being draped atop Stringer in his casket, but only after Moss had everyone in the room share its power.
"I want to pass this jersey around, and I want everybody to touch it, kiss it, wipe your tears on it," Moss said. "I don't care what you do as long as you feel this jersey. And we're going to send it off with Korey.
"Big K stood for really two things: He lived for his wife and son, and he lived to be a Minnesota Viking. Big Fella, I'm going to miss you, bro. I love you."
Tice helped elevate Stringer's game to a Pro Bowl level in 2000, his first trip to Honolulu in a six-year career. But it was the fun-loving Stringer who raised the spirits of everyone he came into contact with.
"Korey had a lot of gifts," said Tice, standing behind a large purple and yellow wreath that featured Stringer's No. 77. "But one special gift was he had time to give ... and he had the gift of making you feel good about yourself, making you smile.
"I've got a hole inside of me that I don't think I can ever fill. I've got a scar on my heart."
Tice finished by telling of how he and his Vikings linemen before every game go through the ritual of forming a circle, extending their hands and yelling, "One, two, three, soldiers!"
"Unfortunately for us and me," Tice said. "We lost our No. 1 soldier. And I'm going to miss the hell out of him."