They remember him as a strikingly handsom young man, a strong silent type with prematurely gray hair and a passion for a prank or a put-on. But the people who played games with Bud Grant 25 years ago remember him, above all, as a great and gifted athlete.
Long before he began stalking the sidelines, first as head coach of Winnipeg in the Canadian League and now Minnesota of the NFL, Grant was a three-sport star at the University of Minnesota, a reserve on the world championship 1949-50 Minneapolis Lakers basketball team and a starter on offense and defense for the Philadelphia Eagles.
He also was a standout baseball pitcher in the highly competitive semi-pro summer leagues in Minnesota and Wisconsin, a junk-ball specialist, according to an old teammate, who thought nothing of pitching nine innings in the morning, then another nine later that day for extra pocket money.
"He was a big strong guy, 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, and he'd stand up there on that mound and scare people to death," said William Bye, a lifelong friend and former teammate. "People kept waiting for his fast ball, but it never came. His fast ball was his change-up, and he won a lot of games just because people were afraid to stand in there on him."
He was the Eagles' No. 1 draft choice in 1950 and started his rookie year at defensive end. The following season, he switched to offense and caught 57 passes, second best in the NFL.
A contract hassle combined with Grant's devotion to hunting and fishing led him to leave the Eagles and head for wide-open spaces. He joined Winnipeg of the CFL, and led that league in receptions three times. His five interceptions in one game is still a league record.
"I've known the man ever since we played against each other in high school," said Bye, now an investment broker in Minneapolis, "and I can honestly say that I can't ever recall seeing a better athlete. Bud was a natural in everything he did."
Grant grew up in Superior Wis, the son of Harry, Grant, a gregarious, popular man-about town who supported the family as a fireman and supplemented his income by running the ball park and handling the concession stands.
Harry Jr. - Bud - did most of his talking in the playing field. He was a three-sport star in high school for three years, joined the Navy after graduation and was sent to the Great Lakes Training Center near Chicago.
Great Lakes played against major college competition and prided itself on fielding outstanding athletic teams. Grant decided to go out for football. He had been an all-state fulback in high school, a position he thought he could handle in the Navy, as well.
Paul Brown was the head coach at Great Lakes, and on that first day of practice, told his players to separate by position - tackles at the 10-yard line, ends at the 20 and so on.
Grant headed for the fullback contingent. "I'll never forget that day," said Bye, who also made the team. "Bud went over there, and the first guy he saw was Marion Motley. Here's Bud, a year out of high school, 205 pounds, and there's Motley, who had to go 240 at least. That was the day Bud decided to become an end, he just walked on over to the other side of the field. He always was smart that way."
Grant stayed in the Navy a year, then entered the University of Minnesota, where he eventually won nine varsity letters - four in football, three in basketball and two in baseball - and named All-Big 10 twice in football once in basketball.
Clayton Tonnemaker, now a grain company executive in Minneapolis and an all-America center on those Minnesota teams, recalled that Grant never was much of a practice player. "In fact," he said, "Bud didn't like to practice at all. He was such a natural, he never had to push himself.
"He was quiet, sort of a loner. He had great hands, too. He wasn't that fast, but anytime you threw the ball anywhere near him, Grant would catch it. If you had asked all the players back then who they thought would become a head coach off that team, well, Bud would have been right at the bottom of the list."
Grant's friends say the only reason he went out for basketball and baseball at Minnesota was to avoid those dreary winter and spring practice sessions conducted by Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman a strict disciplinarian.
Grant joined the Lakers aftet his college eligibility ran out, and played sparingly on the world championship 1949-50 team. His teammates included George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin, and Grant didn't play very much.
"Bud was the best dirty basketball player I ever saw," recalled Tonnemaker. "When you're playing with your friends, if a guy throws an elbow, he'll usually say he's sorry. Not Bud. He'd throw an elbow and he'd do it again, and he always had that old blank expression. But you knew he was laughing inside."
Grant scored only 91 points in 35 games his first season. But Tonnemaker recalled an exhibition game against the Harlem Globetrotters "Bud guarded Goose Tatum," he said, "and after that game, Tatum said he never wanted to play against the Lakers - especially Bud - ever again."
"He was a fine defensive player, a very physical guy who could be rough when he wanted to," said John Kundla, the former Laker coach now working in the Minnesota athletic department. "I have a picture of him setting a pick on Tatum. He didn't just stand straight up. He bent over and just wiped him out. Bud had no finesse, and he had no shot. But if you needed a tough rebound, Bud would get it for you."
"He finally decided to give up basketball," said Bye. "He saw what was happening. He was too small to play with those forwards, and he didn't have the skills to play guard. Football was always his best sport, so he decided to concentrate on that."
The first pass Grant ever caught as a professional was good for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers in 1951. "He was one of the first guys who could catch the long pass and the short one, too," recalled Bucko Kilroy, a teammate on that Eagle club and now personnel director for the New England Patriots.
"And he was always going off to hunt for fish. A lot of us would. We'd get up at 6 in the morning and go off to Bucks Country or Jersey, then come back and practice. Bud carried all his gear with him. That was his true love."
That was one of the reasons he left Philadelphia. "I remember we played the Redskins the last game that year, and on the train back he told me he was thinking about leaving," said Vince McNally, the Eagle general manager at the time.
"I don't think it was really a money thing with him. He just wanted to go back to that country. He was as fine a receiver as I'd ever seen. But he had to get back to the woods."
The rest, of course, is history. Grant played four years for Winnipeg, took over as head coach in 1957 and stayed 10 years before the Vikings beckoned in 1967. And on Sunday, he will be trying to win his first Super Bowl championship against the Oakland Raiders.
"Bud doesn't have to prove anything to his friends," said Bye. "He's been a winner all his life, in everything he has always done. If he doesn't win Sunday, it won't be the end of the world to him. He'll be disappointed, sure, but he'll be back there next year fighting for it again.That's Bud Grant. He's a competitor and he's a champion. Nothing will ever change that."