One of the greatest, if not the greatest, football teams I ever saw.
—GRANTLAND RICE ON THE MINNESOTA GOPHERS, 1934
There is something wrong in the land of giants.
—BEAR BRYANT ON THE MINNESOTA GOPHERS, circa 1970
—TYPICAL MINNESOTA FAN'S COMMENT ON THE MINNESOTA GOPHERS, 1983
The word uffda is probably the most popular expletive among Scandinavians, no matter where they live. It's pronounced with the accent on the uff, a sound that's produced by an outrushing of air, as if one had just received a thumb-poke in the stomach. The da is made with a soft touching of tongue to palate, followed by a short sigh—"Ah!"—of resignation. Uffda doesn't mean anything literally, but the sound is uttered to express an enormous variety of negative attitudes, ranging from momentary exasperation to ongoing melancholy. Thus, one can employ it to evince intense feeling about everything from a stubbed toe to the prospect of nuclear winter.
In Minnesota the word is widely used because the citizenry is largely Scandinavian, and the environment is, to say the least, unforgiving much of the time. Over the years, uffda-producing subjects or situations have included taconite tailings in Lake Superior, rodent droppings in grain elevators and the umpteen feckless presidential campaigns of Harold E. Stassen, who was Minnesota's "Boy Governor" back in 1938. Many other things have inspired great choruses of uffdas (see Giants in the Earth by O.E. R�lvaag and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis), but nothing in a long time has put the expletive on so many lips as the plight of the University of Minnesota football team in recent years.
To an outsider, this may not sound like a subject worthy of R�lvaagian despair or even Stassenesque embarrassment. But it is. Though a lot of Americans aren't aware of it, Minnesota, my alma mater, used to be one of the mightiest powerhouses in college football. Between 1934 and '41 the Golden Gophers won five national championships and six Big Ten titles. They had four undefeated seasons and an overall record of 54-9-1. They outscored their opponents 1,442 to 396.
As a kid I worshiped those guys. Their leather helmets sprouted halos. Their big black, cleated clodhoppers grew wings. During the Gophers' glory seasons, I lived in a farming hamlet in southern Minnesota called Medford. Most people in Medford were poor, uneducated, unsophisticated. They called my father "Professor" because he was superintendent of the school and had a college degree. A highway ran through the village, and we kids fed our longing for faraway places by sitting along the road and counting out-of-state license plates. No Martian could have aroused our curiosity more than the people who rode by in cars from California or New York. Alas, we couldn't examine these exotic specimens because none of them so much as slowed down.
So we felt bypassed, ignored, as insignificant as a speck of dust in the prairie sky—except when it came to our God-blessed Golden Gophers, who were known everywhere, even in New York and California. I never saw those Gophers play a game. I had to rely on the newspaper, the radio and my imagination—except once, when I actually confronted one of my heroes in the flesh. He happened to be the most golden of them all, Bruce Smith, captain of the 1941 team. That season the Gophers won the national championship, and he won the Heisman Trophy. Smith was from Faribault, a town 10 miles from Medford.
One spring Saturday in 1942, while my father and I were in Faribault, we went into the Olympia Caf�, a fountain that was a popular hangout for kids. There at the counter, sitting on a stool, was Smith. My father asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said no! The idea that my father would even think of approaching this deity left me dizzy with apprehension. My father introduced himself, calling Smith "Bruce"—not "Your Majesty," not even " Mr. Smith"—and then he introduced me.
I tried to meet Smith's gaze, but it was like looking at the sun. I had to turn away. My father asked Smith if he would give me his autograph. "Sure, where shall I sign?" he said. I was wearing my favorite outfit, my Cub Scout uniform. My father removed my neckerchief, spread it on the counter and handed Smith a pencil. With a little difficulty, he wrote his name on the yellow cloth. He smiled at me and turned on his stool to talk to his friends. Much as I loved my Scout uniform, I never wore the neckerchief again, lest it be soiled and require washing.