The ultimate comeback story of the NFL season includes all the most compelling elements -- drugs, sex, ticket scalping and an extended winning streak.
The Minnesota Vikings, those anti-heroes who introduced football fans everywhere to the Whizzinator and Lake Minnetonka, are now giving the sports world its latest reminder that the fastest way to forgiveness is through the playoffs.
If the 2005 Vikings do not make the postseason, they will be remembered mainly for the tailback who was caught with a prosthesis used to beat drug tests, the head coach who scalped some of his Super Bowl tickets and the group of players accused of lewd behavior with strippers on a party boat.
But if they do make the playoffs, Minnesota will undoubtedly be hailed for its perseverance in the face of adversity, even if the adversity was self-inflicted. The Vikings, with just a few more victories, can go from a source of civic shame to a source of civic pride in record time.
"We've gotten some people back on our side," linebacker Keith Newman said. "We haven't gotten them all back. But the more we win, the more we think we can get them behind us again."
Even the prosecuting attorney deciding whether to file criminal charges against some of the players for their alleged lascivious activities on Lake Minnetonka in October has detected a shift in public sentiment. Steven Tallen, the attorney investigating the so-called Love Boat, received some legal advice recently from a member of his family. The advice, it should be noted, came in the midst of the Vikings' current five-game winning streak.
"I was told," Tallen said, "that I better not do anything anymore."
Such is the fickle nature of football fans, moralizing one Sunday and cheering the next. When Minnesota had a 1-4 record and was seasick from its nautical misadventure, a 42-year-old fan named Bryan Rice attended a home game dressed in drag. He wore platform shoes, a cheerleading skirt and a sailor's hat on top of a blonde wig. He carried a sign that read: "I was on that boat."
"Trust me," Rice said. "It was ugly."
Since that day, when the Vikings came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Green Bay Packers, the costume has hung in Rice's closet and the team has won six of seven games. At 7-5, the Vikings are in second place in the National Football Conference North behind the 9-3 Bears.
"I'm still sick and tired of seeing what goes on with young athletes who have all this money," Rice said. "But I'm back on the bandwagon."
Rarely has a team evoked more conflicting emotions than the Vikings. Their off-field indiscretions make them easy to root against. But their obvious talent makes them difficult to ignore. "I am a big Red Sox fan, and if what happened with us had happened to the Red Sox, I would have been mad," Vikings tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "But you don't turn your back on your team."
Minnesota's loyalty has been tested many times before. Starting in the mid-1980s, the Vikings began cultivating their renegade image as the Raiders of the NFC. In one five-year period, nine players were arrested for drunk driving. This region known for its long winters and heartland values became numb to assault charges and sex scandals.
Trading Randy Moss last off-season was supposed to rid the organization of embarrassment, but the controversies became more colorful and harder to stomach. When tailback Onterrio Smith was caught in an airport with a drug-masking device - famously called The Original Whizzinator -- he spawned enough jokes to fill late-night talk shows. Those quips were soon enriched, of course, by any and all references to Viking ships.