I always liked Korey Stringer, but only for his hair, which exploded from his head in minidreadlocks, like novelty spring snakes from an opened can, and for the way—in his purple Vikings uniform top—he put me in mind of a hip-hop Barney the Dinosaur. Beyond that I knew almost nothing about the Minnesota offensive tackle until he died on Aug. 1 at age 27 and I learned that he had lived year-round in Bloomington. That's my hometown, and the place where all my friends and I had become, like it or not, permanently em-Purpled. As adults we can no more shake our lifelong allegiance to the Vikings than we can shed our ties to one another, or to Bloomington, or to our families. To this day my computer password is V-I-K-I-N-G, and the single item in my home that betrays my profession is a Vikings road jersey, number 88, that was signed and sent to me by my alltime hero, Alan Page. (When, as a 33-year-old, I opened the box that the jersey came in, the hair on my arms stood on end.)
So I was looking forward to last weekend with greater excitation than is perhaps strictly healthy in a grown man. Ron Yary, the right tackle on the four Vikings Super Bowl teams of my childhood, would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last Saturday, 24 hours before Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett—the most popular person, now or ever, in the state of Minnesota—would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. St. Paul native and former Twin Dave Winfield would join Puckett in Cooperstown on Sunday, making the weekend one of the most anticipated in the sports history of my home state. It was especially resonant for me that each of the athletes involved was retired. The Vikings of today, while I rooted for them, were not real. They were cartoons, almost literally so in the case of Stringer, with the Barney build and Sideshow Bob hair. I admired the preposterous talent of wide receiver Randy Moss, but was put off by his arrogance, which appeared to be equally outsized.
Those shallow assumptions changed when Stringer, in essence, worked himself to death in practice last week and, hours later, Moss stepped to a microphone to remember his friend. He got only as far as this halting reminiscence: "After the games I'd see his wife and son in the lounge...." Then grief bent him double like a jackknife, and Moss was led away from the podium, sobbing. In that instant, two comic-book figures stepped off the page and became—for the first time in my eyes—fully human.
In the days following his death, news reports revealed Stringer to be the best-liked player in the Vikings' locker room. The compliments were not the customary kindnesses that eulogists grant to anyone who hasn't been convicted of crimes against humanity. We read, rather, of countless instances that brought Stringer, in death, fully to life. A caller to a Twin Cities radio station told of Stringer's stopping, after a Vikings game, to help the fan change a tire. While visiting a youth football program in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, Stringer retrieved from his truck his $15,000 Pro Bowl appearance check and—on an impulse—endorsed it over to the organization. He was, of course, father to three-year-old Kodie, so the 335-pound Stringer sat on his Bloomington porch on Halloween and insisted that timid children take more candy from the bowl: Take a "Korey handful," he told trick-or-treaters.
He was, in other words, exceedingly difficult to dislike. Tom Powers of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press recalled a tense postgame locker room in which Moss lashed out at reporters who were waiting at his locker after a shower. "Why don't you go over there and watch Big K get dressed?" Moss told the throng. To which Big K replied, "Have to put a dollar in the G-string if you want to watch. I'm not going to perform for free." Everyone—reporters and Moss alike—roared.
"The hardest thing I had to do was ask him to be a tough guy," Vikings offensive line coach Mike Tice said of Stringer at Friday's memorial. "You know why? He wasn't a tough guy. He was a sweetheart. He was a teddy bear. He was a little kid."
Evidently Stringer tried at one time to be more menacing, getting a tattoo that read FTW (F—- the World). But he didn't have it in him, and Stringer began to tell people that the tat really stood for Find the Way. He seems to have done so before saying goodbye. Or not goodbye, really, for Stringer never said that. In parting, he always said, "Peace."
It's a tragedy that someone as young as Stringer had to speak his final Peace last week. At the same time, it was a privilege, finally, to have met him.