Last Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., Jim Marshall, age 41, did what has come naturally to him on autumn Sundays for the past 19 years. He lined up at right defensive end for the start of a Minnesota Vikings game. There were no marching bands or halftime ceremonies, only a brief P.A. announcement that this time would be the last time for Jim Marshall.
The big goodby had been said the previous Sunday in Bloomington, Minn., where Marshall was honored for his long service with the Vikings. After he rode around Metropolitan Stadium in an old red convertible, Marshall was toasted by his teammates at midfield before the game against the Buffalo Bills.
In that game Marshall sacked Quarterback Joe Ferguson twice, and he even played offensive tackle during the Vikings' final series. Minnesota won 10-3, and at the end Marshall was carried off the field by his teammates, with the game ball—the first one ever given to a Viking player by Coach Bud Grant—in his right hand and tears in his eyes.
So it really doesn't matter that the New England fans didn't fully appreciate what they were seeing. For against the Patriots, Marshall was playing his 282nd consecutive regular-season game—every game after the 224th, in 1975, was an NFL iron-man record. This man had been in professional football before there was a franchise in New England. He played in Canada for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1959 after leaving Ohio State a year early and then joined the Cleveland Browns in 1960. Minnesota traded for Marshall, and beginning with the Vikings' inaugural game against the Chicago Bears in 1961, he has started in every regular and postseason contest the Vikings have played—302 in all.
Marshall's record for longevity and durability may never be equaled in the NFL, where the average defensive lineman survives only 4.5 years and players other than quarterbacks don't last that long. How, then, was Marshall, who came into the league at 6'3" and 220 pounds and is leaving at 6'4" and 235 pounds, able to play pro football for 21 seasons?
"Jim would say it's the vitamins he takes or transcendental meditation or something else, but it's not true," says Fred Zamberletti, the Vikings' trainer for the past 19 years. "I've seen all that stuff come and go with him. He's just one of those people who has been blessed with a great body." Grant agrees, calling Marshall "a physiological impossibility. He just doesn't rip, bust or tear."
Marshall himself says his career endured so long because he wanted it to. "Why can't I play football until I'm 42? Only because someone my age isn't supposed to be able to. That's the mind's negative programming. The human body is the only thing we have that we can control to some degree, and the mental controls the physical. There are things we are physically capable of doing but push away from because our minds tell us to."
In his effort to "make the mind and body totally harmonious," Marshall has given a lot of thought to human behavior, and he has been able to play week after week despite the ankle sprains and concussions that might have sidelined lesser men. Twice Marshall kept his streak intact by walking out of hospitals where he was recuperating, once from pneumonia and this season from ulcers. On another occasion he played after accidentally shooting himself in the side while cleaning a shotgun.
Strangely, Marshall was regularly on the disabled list during the off-season, victim of a life-style that produced any number of close calls. He is an avid sky diver, scuba diver and snowmobiler. On one trip in the Wyoming mountains, Marshall's party was trapped in a blizzard, and the group's snowmobiles conked out. One man froze to death in the waist-high snow. Marshall and the others had to resort to burning their money to produce heat.
Throughout his career Marshall stayed out of the spotlight. In the Purple People Eaters' heyday, Alan Page and Carl Eller received most of the attention—not Marshall, not Tackle Gary Larsen. When Page left the Vikings for the Bears and Eller departed for Seattle, publicity focused on their replacements, not on Marshall.