SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
February 24, 1975
World Series and Super Bowl teams were the competitors and the Dodgers were surprise overall winners, but the event that stirred athletes and spectators most was a desperately fought tug-of-war
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 24, 1975

These Vikings Were Steelier

World Series and Super Bowl teams were the competitors and the Dodgers were surprise overall winners, but the event that stirred athletes and spectators most was a desperately fought tug-of-war

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Luckily for the Vikings, Swann was supernatural mostly on the ground and in the air. Despite his valiant try on the anchor lap of the swimming relay, Minnesota won it by four seconds. "If we'd played the Steelers on a wet field, we might have done better," Wally Hilgenberg observed.

A few minutes earlier the Dodgers had really ruined Oakland's day when Steve Yaeger held off Tenace on the last lap to give Los Angeles a .73-second swimming victory.

Saturday, Bloody Saturday, was finally over, and the Vikings and Steelers were 2-2, with the brawny Athletics down 1-3 to the Dodgers.

On the second morning the action shifted to the abrasive coral sand of Waikiki, where the Athletics remained alive by edging the Dodgers 15-13 in volleyball, and the Steelers destroyed the Vikings 15-7 in a game marred (for Minnesota) by the suspicion that again Lynn Swann knew what he was doing. The canoe races that followed were decided less by the visiting pros than by the native helmsmen employed by each team. The esteemed Rabbit Kekai, winner of 11 Molokai- Oahu races, deftly engineered the Dodgers to a victory that eliminated Oakland from contention, 4-2, and Blue Makua Jr., another Molokai veteran, performed a comparable service for the Vikings, who found themselves tied once again with Pittsburgh despite their volleyball fiasco.

The stage was now set for an event that most of the team had not even considered practicing, in the mistaken belief that there was nothing to know about pulling a rope. The tug-of-war was to be fought across a 4'-by-12' pit, knee deep and filled with water. Flagged pegs were sunk into the sand, 10 feet apart at each side of the pit, like the flanges of an I beam, and another flag was tied to the exact center of a hawser 50 feet long and two inches thick. Whichever team managed to pull the flag across its own line would win.

The Athletics, furious at their elimination from championship contention, came to the tug-of-war determined to deny the Dodgers the $4,000 that went with victory in each preliminary event. Hawaii's Lord James Blears, a tugger in Lancashire before he became a professional wrestler (and father of Laura Blears Ching, fifth-place finisher in the Women's Superstars contest), was pit boss and referee.

As the A's and the Dodgers positioned themselves, His Lordship stepped into the water, took the hawser in hand and, the flag aligned with a central peg at the end of the pit, cried, "Take the strain!" Both teams began to pull, feet dug deep into the sand. Lord Blears stayed in position, tugging himself until the flag was precisely centered. Then he flung up his hands, stepped out of the pool, and the battle was on. It didn't last long. In a little more than five minutes the Athletics yanked the Dodgers almost to the water's edge, but in that short time an almost electric arc leapt from the taut hawser to the crowd and beyond. People began pushing to the pit from points along the beach 200 yards away. Nothing in the script had allowed for spectator interest in the tug-of-war, but Commentators Keith Jackson and O.J. Simpson, themselves caught by the tension, knew a grabber when they saw one and made the most of it.

The tug between the Dodgers and Athletics had meant little, since the Dodgers were already first-round winners. But the one between the deadlocked Steelers and Vikings was worth $44,000 to the winner, a possible $50,000 grand prize—and a chance to replay the Super Bowl. The Steelers put Franco Harris, L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield, Jim Clack and Ernie Holmes on their end of the line. Six men, average age 28, average weight 245 pounds, 1,470 pounds of solid power. The Vikings countered with Ron Yary, Dave Osborn, Mick Tingelhoff, Jeff Siemon, Alan Page and Carl Eller. Six men, average age 30, average weight 233. Perhaps a little less power, but perhaps a little more motivation. There was more than weight and more than money on the opposite sides of the pit. Courage, desire, pride—survival, in a sense—were on the line. The surface affability of the past few days had vanished, and something strange and frightening was in progress on Waikiki.

When Lord Blears stepped into the pit the sudden crowd this tug-of-war had unexpectedly drawn went silent. He shouted again, "Take the strain!" A rumble began among the watchers, and as he lifted his hands and stepped from the pit it grew into a scream. The Vikings and the Steelers, their faces contorted, gloved hands locked onto the hawser like metal clamps, feet digging deeper and deeper into the coral sand, fought for every inch. It is difficult to describe the emotional storm that surged along the beach with each tiny movement of the flag above the pit. Gradually, jerkily, the flag began to edge toward the Steeler side; seven minutes had passed and it was almost over the sand. Two and one half feet short of a Pittsburgh victory.

On the Viking side, Page struggled to his feet, hoisting the rope over his shoulder and driving with piston thrusts of his massive legs. The flag wavered and began to inch back. Osborn, then nearest the pit, seemed to writhe in agony, his face suffused with blood, an empurpled mask. Twelve minutes. Franco Harris was now almost entombed in sand, his black beard blacker still against a face entirely drained of color. For a moment he sank over the rope, and the crowd wailed in empathy. With 14 minutes gone, and the flag now moving steadily toward the Viking side, Holmes made a desperate lunge from his anchor position to the front of the Steeler line, his feet almost in the water as he put all his enormous strength into a heroic effort at retrieval. It wasn't enough. His seconds-long absence from the line may, in fact, have cost the Steelers their last hope, for as he moved the whole Viking team pulsed backward and the flag jerked a foot closer to the finish. At 16 minutes they took it across, to the accompaniment of a howl that must have been audible a mile away.

Continue Story
1 2 3