Purple always present for Chatfield resident

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Art Countryman holds his favorite item in his Vikings memorabilia collection, a program from the very first Vikings' game in 1961.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Art Countryman’s got a heart of purple and gold.

“I’ve been a Vikings fan since 1969. My father was a big fan, so it trickles down. I think he liked the old Purple People Eaters, and he liked Fran Tarkenton, just like I do,” the Chatfield resident said. “Both of my boys are big Vikings fans, and I’ve got grandchildren that I’m turning into Vikings fans as they get older. My whole family bleeds purple. Like they really have a choice.”

His dog, Max, apparently doesn’t have a choice, either, because Max’s collar is purple and gold.

A sign that reads, “We interrupt this marriage to bring you football season” sums up why his wife, Sharon, warned, “Don’t call him if the Vikings are on.”

“Even if it’s my kids,” Art added. “And I let the neighbors know not to call the police. It’s me yelling at the TV.”

His downstairs neighbor is a Packers fan, so it’s a split house, although Countryman respects his choice, aware that his neighbor can’t see the Packers games on TV as often because no Wisconsin channel is available locally.

The collection of people in Countryman’s family who bleed purple and yell “SKOL!” are just the tip of his Vikings iceberg. It’s the collection of vintage Vikings items that he has accumulated over the past 50 years that is impressive and a not-so-subtle statement on his allegiance to the team.

His collection runs from the very first program from when the Minnesota Vikings played in 1961 against the Chicago Bears to current artifacts.

“With my collection, I try to stay with the ’60s and ‘70s, but my boys, at Christmas, they bought me Vikings stuff,” he said. “They still do, to this day. A lot of stuff I’ve bought myself, but some stuff, people have given to me.”

He prizes those things from his boys as equally as he does the inaugural program because he enjoyed taking his young sons to Savers in Minneapolis and sending them on trips down the clothing aisles to find new Vikings jerseys and coats like the ones they’re wearing in the photograph of them standing with him in front of a snowman when they were shorter than the snowman itself.

And going to the games, they learned early that capturing the autographs of their favorite players was a sport unto itself, as shown by the “Because It’s Football” poster that hangs in Art’s Vikings room in his Chatfield home, signed by No. 20, Tommy Mason, the first number one draft pick the Vikings made in 1961, or the helmet signed by Randy Moss.

“Living in Minneapolis, it was easier to get autographs on things, but I have 25 of the number one draft picks on these mini helmets,” Countryman said. “The poster’s signed by Tommy Kramer and by Ziggy, the owner. My favorite players are Fran Tarkenton – and Randy Moss, being one of the modern-day players. I have a signed football with Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper on it.”

The list of items he’s brought together encompasses ashtrays, pens, pins that he wore on his high school jacket, a boxing puppet, a Johnny West action figure clad in a Vikings jersey and purple pants, old stadium seats from the days when seating was just bleachers, watches, erasers, cuff links, a wooden nickel with the 1969 game schedule, a pair of mugs with a matching giant mug that he was given as a “popcorn and hot chocolate set,” posters, placemats, a piggy bank, a tic tac toe game, a ceramic Viking Minnesota Vikings Jim Beam bottle, toy cars and an airplane, thermoses, mugs and glasses – with one set given away by Mobil Gas stations — bar mugs, a Fran Tarkenton Coca-Cola bottle cap, stadium ice cream helmets that start out as bowls and end up as souvenirs, “Huddle” stuffed Viking football player dolls, matching-but-not-matching Vikings Santa figures with one holding a football helmet and the other holding a football, a Zippo lighter given to him by his brother in 1973, a helmet-shaped matchbook, a ‘70s-vintage stained glass bar lamp, a 1972 Arrow shirt poster for a Vikings jersey, a poster — and the order form to get one — a Vikes Mr. Potato Head, purple and gold Beanie Babies bears, a snow globe with a photo of one of his sons’ family, the rug in the middle of his Vikings room floor, a trash can, trading cards, a Pepsi can and just a few more things. A standup folder displays a medallion collection that was issued in 2006.

“The Star-Tribune ran a coupon out of the paper, so I went down to one of the gas stations to buy the pin for $5 – I don’t know if it’s worth anything, but I made sure to get one of those. And those,” he said, pointing to the round trading cards laid out on a shelf, “are from Taystee bread. Most of them probably got thrown away when people opened a loaf of bread, or their kids wrecked them, but I kept them. I even went so far as to save a Gatorade cap.”

Among Countryman’s trove are some custom-made items, such as the Vikings football player made entirely from flower pots, a copper relief of a Viking, a carved mask brought back to him from Mexico, a figure of him in full Vikings gear and holding a Green Bay Packers Cheesehead-clad head of a Green Bay Packers fan made by a friend of his, and a Sharpie poster of Viking lore made by the same friend.

“The flower pot guy was made by a friend of mine whose business takes flower pots and customizes them – it’s called ‘Face Plant’ – and if you want a portrait on it, she can put it there. She’s a very talented young woman,” he said. “The copper relief was made by a gent in the old soldiers’ home in Minneapolis, and a family here in town, the Franks, got me this mask from Mexico that’s carved.”

He shops flea markets and eBay for the souvenirs of his favorite team, and he can tell the difference between things made in the ‘60s, when the Vikings were just starting out, and things made in the ‘70s; it’s in the number of bars on the helmet, because in the ‘60s, there was just one bar in front of a player’s chinstrap, whereas in the ‘70s and after, there were two.

“I’m not a huge collector, but I’m a ‘rare’ collector,” he said. “When I see something, I try to scarf it up. If I don’t have it, I guess I just haven’t seen it yet. I’d like more stuff from the early ‘60s, I guess. A lot of newer stuff is mass-produced…I like to collect the more rare things.”

That includes the 1961 front cover of Life Magazine with “all the Vikings on it,” a long lineup of 1960s papier mache football player bobbleheads – including an African-American Vikings player likely made during the height of the Civil Rights era, and pennants and programs that were saved from historic moments in Vikings history.

“I have a pennant from the final game at the Metrodome, and I have programs from the last game played at the Metropolitan Stadium and the first and last programs from the Metrodome. I think my favorite is the 1961 program from the first game, and the bobbleheads,” he said.

That’s a lot of Vikings memorabilia to maintain. He spends a couple hours a week in his Vikings room, he said, “but no more than five. I’m always reorganizing and moving things around. I’m in here if the glass needs to be cleaned or I’m unpacking one of the boxes I have left. I just got this glass case from Rizzo’s in Lewiston. They called me up and asked if I wanted it. I painted the back and bottom yellow to show things off better.”

He admitted that his collection is escaping its designated space.

“It’s a small room. My wife is letting me go down the hall a little so that it keeps this stuff out of the rest of the house,” he said. “I’ve got a portrait of Adrian Peterson and this poster that my friend made with a Sharpie – see, here I am in it.”

The significance of Countryman being able to show off all these things is that last January, he and Sharon lost everything they owned in a house fire. Everything – as in, “lucky to save Max and the clothes they were wearing,” he recounted. “Everything else in the house burned…everything but the one room where my Vikings stuff was. That’s a sign.”

He added that the Vikings were very good to him and his wife after the fire as they sent sweatshirts, jackets and tickets to a game.

In addition to the closet full of purple, gold and white jerseys – including his favorite, a white Tarkenton – and all the memorabilia and collectibles in his Vikings room that survived that fire, Countryman has living proof that he’s that devoted to the Vikes, even though they’ve never won a Super Bowl. As in, they’re under his skin.

Since he’s a die-hard Vikings fan, people often ask why he isn’t wearing purple. However, he rolled up his sleeve to show a forearm tattoo of the Vikings logo to say, “I’m always wearing purple.”