For 15 years, Bob Repin never saw a Vikings game live on television. That’s because he was at all the games.
Repin, an avid fan nicknamed “Viking Bob,” concluded the 2019 season having attended 234 straight Vikings regular-season and playoff games, home and away, not missing one since 2005. But then came last year.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Vikings did not allow fans in for games at U.S. Bank Stadium. On the road, Minnesota did play four games before small crowds.
Repin, a freelance cameraman, attended all four of those games — and he did actually make it inside for one game at U.S. Bank Stadium, landing a gig to work the end-zone camera for the in-house television broadcast Dec. 20 against Chicago. But on Sunday, Repin truly will be back in his element.
For a 3:25 p.m. game against Seattle, the Vikings will play in front of fans for a regular-season home game for the first time since Dec. 29, 2019 against Chicago. That’s a span of 636 days.
“I’m excited,” said Repin, 51, who grew up and still lives in the Chicago area and has been a Vikings fan since the 1970s. “I would go to the game if they allowed 10 fans in there. But sometimes when you get an electric crowd for a playoff game or just a big regular-season game, you have goosebumps.”
Many consider Sunday to be a big regular-season game even though the Vikings are 0-2.
“It’s hard to even put it into words, I’m so excited,” said Sally Haag, 34, of Minneapolis, a longtime Vikings fan who regularly has attended home games. “I can’t believe we’re finally to this point where we can return, and we have a 3:25 p.m. kickoff (rather than noon). So, that’s a little longer to socialize and catch up with friends and really let the anticipation build.”
The Vikings are looking to make the most out of having a later kickoff. They have scheduled a free pregame concert that starts at the Commons Park adjacent to U.S. Bank Stadium at 11:30 a.m. with country music acts The Pork Tornadoes and Dustin Lynch.
There will be special events inside the stadium, including giveaways, a recorded Minnesota Orchestra performance and an elaborate pre-game introduction of players called “Showtime” that will feature lots of special effects. Vikings chief operating officer Andrew Miller is calling the return of fans to U.S. Bank Stadium a “grand reopening,” five years after the facility opened in 2016.
“The idea that people are going to be back on Sunday and we’re going to have a full house for a regular-season home opener is something hopefully our fans have been looking forward to for a long time, and we certainly as an organization, that’s all we’ve been working toward for the entire year,” Miller said. “Just can’t wait for it to happen.”
Of course, the main attraction on Sunday will be football. And the Vikings are hoping their fans can make a big difference.
During a 7-9 season in 2020, the Vikings went 3-5 at home, worse than their road record of 4-4. Some believe the Vikings were hurt more than most teams that did not have fans because U.S. Bank is one of the loudest NFL venues and because they long have had a defensive-oriented team. A loud crowd is generally regarded the biggest help to the home defense because the opposing offense has a hard time hearing signals and must go to a silent count.
“Our fans are the best in the world,” Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “They help us out big time on defense. They make it difficult on the offense. They give the defensive line a jump in third-down situations. I hope they’re unbelievably loud on Sunday.”
Or, as Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr put it, “We all anticipate it being pretty obnoxiously loud.” Barr won’t play Sunday due to a knee injury.
“It’s a big deal,” safety Harrison Smith said of having a raucous home crowd. “Honestly, I took it for granted my whole career, even going back to high school, just having fans around. Once you play without them, you realize how real fans are when it comes to impacting the game.”
Minnesota’s offensive players are just as happy to be back playing in front of fans at home. While they do stress that fans keep it down when the Vikings offense is at the line of scrimmage, they otherwise want plenty of noise.
“We’re itching to get back in the Bank,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “We’re going to compete and have that noise and all the things that affects the other team to be in our favor.”
Just as excited are some players who never have been on hand for a Vikings regular-season home game with fans. One is wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who came out of LSU in 2020 to break team rookie records with 88 catches and 1,400 yards receiving, big numbers mostly accomplished in empty stadiums.
Jefferson scored seven touchdowns last season, all at home. But when he crossed the goal line and did his notable “Griddy” dance, there wasn’t much commotion.
“To think about it, it was definitely weird for my first year ever playing football not to have fans screaming for a touchdown,” he said.
Due to a shoulder injury, Jefferson didn’t play in Minnesota’s two home preseason games last month, which were both open to fans but were played in a half-full stadium. Now, he really wants to get the taste of what a Vikings home crowd is like.
“I’m excited for it,” he said. “Finally having fans back in a full stadium and my first time playing in front of them. … I heard the fans are a little crazy, like LSU fans. Hopefully the energy is up, they’re going crazy.”
Legendary former Vikings coach Bud Grant, 94, won’t be able to attend Sunday’s game, but he’ll be watching on television.
“I think it’s great to see these games played in front of so many people again,” Grant said of full crowds back at NFL stadiums. “That’s why football is number one, because of the fandom and the great edifices they’re building for stadiums now.”
The fandom on Sunday figures to extend well outside of U.S. Bank Stadium. Local restaurant owner Jay Ettinger is counting on the first Vikings regular-season with fans since the start of the pandemic to help jump start downtown Minneapolis.
“I think it’ll be the first time that downtown feels like downtown in a year and a half,” said Ettinger, who has ownership stakes in three downtown restaurants. “The Twins bring in a nice crowd but they’re basically kind of in one segregated area of downtown. There’s going to be people everywhere (this weekend) and this is just going to feel like normal again in my opinion.”
Ettinger, 52, has been a Vikings fans since his father took him to his first game in 1977, and he said he only had only missed four or five home games since then entering last season. But the Minneapolis resident felt a bit helpless in 2020.
“It was almost traumatic for me to know that they’re playing a mile from my house and I can’t go to the game,” Ettinger said.
Repin’s home is about 400 miles from U.S. Bank Stadium but he felt the same way. Before 2020, the last time Repin missed a Vikings regular-season or playoff game was in 2005, when he did not attend an October home game against Green Bay and a Christmas Day game at Baltimore.
Repin was reduced to watching most of the games on television last season. Though the only game he actually attended at U.S. Bank Stadium was the one against Chicago, he did visit friends in the Twin Cities two other times on home-game weekends. That included being invited to a watch party for the Sept. 13 opener against Green Bay at the Blaine residence of former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer.
On several occasions, he had to seek out a sports bar in the Chicago area that agreed to put on a Vikings game.
“It was extremely weird because I hadn’t really seen a Vikings game home or away on TV in 15 years other than maybe watching a replay of a game on NFL Network or something,” he said. “So it was bizarre, for sure.”
As for his attendance streak, Repin has been a member of a group called “The Century Club,” which includes fans who have attended 100 or more Vikings regular-season or playoff games in a row. Entering last season, the members were Repin (234 straight), Bryan Obeidzinski (185), Mark Pietig (150) and Rich Young (100).
Some missed games aside, they still consider themselves “The Century Club.”
“Pretty much everybody we know chimed in and overwhelmingly the consensus was that the streaks should continue because we went to all the games we were allowed to attend,” Repin said.
So, doing the math, Repin is now at 241 straight games; Obeidzinski, 57, of Hoboken, N.J., is at 191; Pietig, 62, of Eden Prairie, is at 156, and Young, 42, of Miami, is at 106. All four attended the four road games last season in which fans were allowed, and Repin also had the one in which he worked as a cameraman. And all attended Minnesota’s first two games this season, at Cincinnati and at Arizona.
“I go to the games,” Repin said. “That’s one of the things that I enjoy in life.”