The “Purple People Eater” is a novelty song from 1958 about a strange fictitious creature that descends to Earth because it wants to be in a rock and roll band. For the better part of a decade, there was nothing imaginary about the front four of the Minnesota Vikings, who came to be known as the “Purple People Eaters.”
After declining an offer in 1960 to become a charter member of the American Football League [Daily Dose, 8/2/16], the Vikings joined the NFL as an expansion team for the 1961 season, becoming the league’s 14th team. Prior to the start of the season, Minnesota acquired defensive end Jim Marshall and five other players from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for two picks in the 1961 NFL Draft. Marshall had skipped his senior year at Ohio State to play the 1959 season in the Canadian Football League [Daily Dose, 11/25/15] and spent the 1960 campaign with Cleveland. On September 17, 1961, the 6’4”, 248-pound Marshall started at defensive end for Minnesota in the franchise’s inaugural game. He would not miss another start for the rest of his 19 year career. The two-time Pro Bowler recovered 30 career fumbles [including one that he infamously returned 66 yards for a safety after running the wrong way], had his “70” retired by the Vikings, and was a 2004 finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Jim Marshall started 270 consecutive games in his career: second only to Brett Favre on the NFL’s all-time list.
Carl Eller followed in the footsteps of Bobby Bell [Daily Dose, 6/16/16] at the University of Minnesota. Like Bell, he left North Carolina for Minneapolis, was a two-way player and two-time All-American, and was the Golden Gophers’ team MVP. In 1963, he finished second in balloting for the Outland Trophy, an award Bell had received the prior year as college football’s best interior lineman. The Vikings selected Eller with the sixth pick of the 1964 NFL Draft. A superb pass rusher, he played 15 seasons for Minnesota and had ten or more sacks in seven of them. Eller played in six Pro Bowls and is the Vikings all-time sack leader with 130 ½. He was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Minnesota obtained Gary Larsen from the Los Angeles Rams prior to the 1965 season. Larsen played collegiately at tiny Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, alma mater of Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent that saved Jackie Kennedy’s life by climbing onto the back of the presidential limousine in November 1963. The “Policeman”patrolled the line of scrimmage and focused on stopping the run while his teammates pressured the quarterback. In 11 seasons playing defensive tackle for the Vikings, Larsen recorded 38 ½ sacks and played in two Pro Bowls.
The Purple People Eaters became complete with the arrival of Alan Page in 1967. A two-time national champion and consensus All-American at Notre Dame, Page was the 15th player selected in the 1967 NFL Draft. At 248 pounds, Page was extraordinarily quick and nearly unblockable. He was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and played in nine Pro Bowls. Like Eller, Page recorded ten or more sacks in seven separate seasons. Alan Page played a dozen years in Minnesota and four more with the Chicago Bears. He recovered 22 career fumbles and recorded three safeties, second-most of all-time. Mr. Page was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1971, the only time in league history that a lineman has won the award. Page started 234 consecutive NFL games [fifth most all-time], recorded 148 ½ career sacks and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. He is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame and had his “88” retired by the Vikings.
With the motto “Meet at the Quarterback,” the Purple People Eaters were one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history. From 1969 to 1971, the Vikings led the league in sacks while allowing the fewest points and yards in the NFL. In two of those seasons, the entire defensive line went to the Pro Bowl. Page, Eller and Marshall played in four Super Bowls, while Larsen played in two. In 1971, Page was named NFL MVP, while Carl Eller earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. On Thanksgiving Day 1969, Page tipped a pass from Detroit Lions quarterback Greg Landry which fell into the hands of Jim Marshall, who raced toward the end zone before being caught at the 15 yard line. As he was being dragged to the ground, Marshall alertly lateralled to Page, who carried the ball across the goal line for a Minnesota touchdown. Against the Lions two seasons later, Page sacked Landry on first down. He tackled halfback Altie Taylor for a four-yard loss on second down and nailed Landry after a two-yard gain on third down. Forced to punt, Page burst through the Detroit line on fourth down and blocked the kick out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
All four of the Purple People Eaters are members of the “50 Greatest Vikings” team. Collectively, they played in 19 Pro Bowls and 14 Super Bowls. Marshall, Eller and Page have had their numbers retired and are in the Vikings Ring of Honor. Mr. Eller and Mr. Page are in both the college and pro football halls of fame.