I feel like I have played in a very rough football game with no hitting above the waist.
Grandma's Marathon start reads the banner strung from two birch trees and flapping over Old Highway 61, which follows Lake Superior southwest to Duluth, Minn. No buildings are to be seen, only birch trees and pine, on this particular stretch of Old 61, which happens to be 26 miles and 385 yards from Grandma's Saloon & Deli. Behind the banner some 1,700 runners are milling in rows of yellow and red and blue. Then the gun sounds on this chilly Saturday morning in late June, and the runners begin to bounce forward, hunching up in caterpillar fashion. The ones in the rear whoop in their excitement and they barge up on those ahead of them.
Alan Page—well-muscled and 6'3"—slows to avoid a collision with another runner. He is in a gray T shirt, black shorts and a white cycling cap that is smudged with rust where the sweat has soaked through to his "Kennedy '80" button. His wife Diane, slender in the manner of distance runners, is just ahead of him, wearing blues and greens, also be-capped and Kennedyed. It is a full minute before they pass beneath the starting banner, and another minute before they are able to gain their normal stride. There. Now run, Alan, run.
At 33 Alan Page is looking forward to a football season. Behind him are those last stale years with the Minnesota Vikings, a time his wife calls "Alan's grumpy period." Behind him is last October's bitter parting, when the Vikings unceremoniously placed the eight-time All-Pro defensive lineman on irrevocable waivers; he subsequently signed with the Chicago Bears. Behind him are law school, four Super Bowl losses and the stormy period when he picketed and cajoled for players' rights. Page is wearing a beard now. He is healthy. And he is playing for a team that does things, well, a little more rationally than was done in the frozen Northland. "One of the first things I learned with Chicago," says Page, "is that you don't have to be cold to play football." Indeed, the Bears allow heaters on the sidelines when the mercury starts to retreat into its bulb.
As Page prepares for his 13th training camp—his first with the Bears—he wears the varied hats of a Minneapolis attorney, of pro football's most prominent marathoner, and of Chicago's best defensive lineman. He is also armed with a new two-year contract that will pay him substantially more than the $100,000-plus he earned last season. "Not too bad for a guy who they said couldn't play anymore," Page says.
That is what Bud Grant, the Vikings' coach, maintained last Oct. 10 when he broke the news to a shocked Minnesota press that Page, who had started 160 consecutive games for the Vikings, had been released. "Alan can no longer meet the standard he set for himself," Grant said at the time. "He just can't make the plays anymore."
It was widely reported that Page's weight—through running, he trimmed down from 245 pounds to the 222 he weighs today—was a major factor in the alleged erosion of his skills. Grant said as much when pressed to defend his decision: "Here is a man we had to take out in short-yardage situations, who was not strong enough to rush the passer. He averaged 10 tackles a game for years, and now he was down to one or two. He was not doing the job."
Although Page had also weighed 222 in 1977, when he tied for the club lead in tackles (109), most members of the Twin Cities press did not take Grant to task over this small point. If Grant said Page was through, then he was through. "In Minnesota, Bud Grant is like Mom and apple pie and the flag," Diane Page says. "It's fun to be able to sit back now and call him a turkey."
Because this time the old gobbler was wrong. There was still a lot of football left in Page, who had been the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1971—the only defensive player ever to win the award. And the Bears, whose general manager (Jim Finks), coach (Neill Armstrong) and defensive coordinator (Buddy Ryan) had all been in Minnesota with Page, knew it. They paid the waiver price of $100. "A hundred dollars more than the Vikings deserved," says Page, who responded by melding an inexperienced, injury-beset line into a strong, proud unit. Though playing in only 10 games at right tackle, Page led the Bears in sacks (11½) and was tied for second among linemen in tackles with 50. Chicago's defense surged from 22nd in the NFL to 12th, passing, among other teams, the Vikings, who dropped to 14th.
Page's presence was most felt in rushing the passer. His quickness is legend; in fact, Page is credited with pioneering the technique whereby a defensive lineman watches the snap of the ball rather than the reaction of the blocker opposite him. "Alan wires himself into that ball, and when it moves, he knocks," Ryan says.