Flashback Friday – “Let’s Meet at the Quarterback”

1972 SEASON: Green Bay Packers quarterback Scott Hunter (16) tries to scramble away from Minnesota Vikings safety Paul Krause (22) as Vikings defensive end Carl Eller (81) closes in at Lambeau Field on Oct. 29, 1972. Vikings linebacker Roy Winston (60) and defensive tackle Gary Larsen (77) are at right. The Packers lost 27-13. 1972 2

The Minnesota Vikings stifling defensive unit of the late 60s and most of the 70s became known as the “Purple People Eaters.” The name was a homage to the song by Sheb Wooley, which was a hit in the late 50s, and the color of the Vikings uniforms. There are a handful of defenses who were so dominant that they were given a nickname that lives on in infamy – The Steel Curtain, The Fearsome Foursome, and the Purple People Eaters are some of the ones that transcend just the fanbase and spark national interest. While many have heard of the Purple People Eaters and which players comprised that group, they may not know how the group originated or what set them apart.

A Purple History Lesson

Four players comprised the Purple People Eaters: Carl Eller (who was the leader), Jim Marshall, Alan Page, and Gary Larsen. The line was built slowly between 1961 and 1967, each year as a new player was added you could feel the greatness building. With the final addition of Page, everyone knew something special was happening.  

Marshall was the first member added to the team, he was part of a trade deal with the Browns, where he played for a single season. He was one of the most reliable and steady guys to play the game. By 1979, he had started in 270 consecutive games, at the time that was more than anyone in NFL history. To date, the only player to beat that record is Brett Farve. Marshall was criticized for being a bit small for an end, but he made up for it with lightning-fast speed. 

Second, came Eller, he had played college for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and was drafted by the Vikings in the first round of the 1964 draft, incidentally, he was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the AFL, who did not sign him. He was tall, 6’6” with long arms and a vertical leap that would make a wide receiver jealous. Eller was strong enough to throw blockers out of his way but still had an elite first step. QB Bart Starr called Eller the best defensive lineman in the league. During a game in 1968, Eller sacked Starr 3 times and forced a fumble.  

[brid autoplay=”true” video=”958486″ player=”26281″ title=”WATCH%204%20takeaways%20from%20Kevin%20OConnells%20introductory%20press%20conference%20with%20Minnesota%20Vikings” duration=”160″ description=”SKIP TO MAIN CONTENTSportsnautSportsnautNFLCFBMLBNBAVIDSNHLNASCARUFCNFL·Published February 17, 20224 takeaways from Kevin O’Connell’s introductory press conference with Minnesota VikingsAndrew Buller-RussAndrew Buller-RussShare on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on FlipboardShare on RedditShare on News BreakShare via EmailEarlier in the week following the Super Bowl, some Minnesota Vikings fans began to worry about Kevin O’Connell potentially getting cold feet. Especially with the Sean McVay retirement rumors. Fans can rest easy now that O’Connell has officially been announced to the press as the 10th coach in Vikings history.In Thursday’s press conference the new Vikings coach had several interesting tidbits to share, including the likely immediate future of Kirk Cousins‘ status with the organization. Down below we break it all down.” uploaddate=”2022-02-18″ thumbnailurl=”https://cdn.brid.tv/live/partners/17660/snapshot/958422_s_1645214109648.png” contentUrl=”https://cdn.brid.tv/live/partners/17660/streaming/958422/958422.m3u8″]

The third Purple People Eater added was Gary Larsen who was acquired via a trade with the Rams where he had played for one season. Larsen did not have as many flashy stats as his other linemen but he was equally as important. He was known as the “policeman” and would control the line of scrimmage allowing the other three to cause chaos in the backfield.  

Last, but not least, was the first-round draft pick in 1967, Alan Page. Page was lightning quick and showed tremendous football smarts. Then Coach Bud Grant did not like to start rookies their first season. He felt they needed to learn their place and study behind the vets. Page showed such tremendous talent during camp that Grant gave him a shot, and wasn’t disappointed. He read offenses so well he often arrived before the ball did. Page was also known as a bit of a bulldog, he never gave up on a play until the whistle blew it dead. He seemed to have a knack for relieving the offense of the football, if the ball came loose it was likely in Page’s hands. In 1970 alone, he recovered 6 fumbles. 

Individually these players were all phenomenal but when lined up together, something magical happened.

“Meet at the Quarterback”

The slogan of the Purple People Eaters was “Meet at the Quarterback.” On every drive and every play, their goal was to get to the quarterback. They used a big-play defense that could turn a game around in one play. All four of them expressed that they did not feel successful unless they had intercepted the ball, sacked the quarterback, blocked a punt, or forced a fumble. When the Purple People Eaters were playing it did not matter much if the opposing team was in the red zone, the defense seemed to score as much as any offense. 

These men were not the biggest players on the field but their gameplay made them giants. They could be seen crisscrossing the field to get to the ball. As a unit, they stifled even the best offensive units. In 1969, they sacked Starr 8 times in one game and limited his longest play to only 13 yards. In another game they caused the Lions to fumble 11 times. During the 1969 playoffs, Carl Eller ran right over the Rams All-Pro lineman to tackle their QB for a game-changing safety. 

Purple Hearts and Accolades

This unit was like no other and they accomplished things no other unit has since. In 1968, all four of them made the Pro Bowl, no other team has sent their whole defensive line at once. These men led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances. Individually these players racked up accomplishments and recognitions.  

Player NamePositionAward
Alan PageRight Defensive Tackle9 Pro Bowl Selections, NFL MVP, 2x NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and NFL Hall of Fame
Carl EllerLeft Defensive End6 Pro Bowl Selections, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, NFL Sack Leader, NFL Hall of Fame
Jim MarshallRight Defensive End2 Pro Bowl Selections
Gary LarsenLeft Defensive Tackle2 Pro Bowl Selections. 
Individual Accomplishments

 Like most excellent players, they are better together. While the individual accomplishments are astounding the unit was exceptional. Sack data was not officially kept before the 80s although PFR initiated a project to tabulate sacks for old games and credited the Purple People Eaters with over 447.5 sacks (Page 108.5 as a Viking, Eller 130.5 as a Viking, Marshall 130.5, and Larsen 35.5 as a Viking, other defenders were contributors). The Purple People Eaters played in 4 Super Bowls, won 10 Division Titles in 11 years, and had 5 NFC Championships. 

The Purple People Eaters live on in the hearts of Vikings (and football) fans everywhere. They are part of the lore and mythology of professional football. Every defense that lines up each season gives a nod to these Gods among men in hopes of being as great.