For Ragnar, former mascot of Minnesota Vikings, Super Bowl week is bittersweet

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

Before he was Ragnar, the most iconic Minnesota Vikings fan of all time, he was a young man named Joe with a double-bladed ax.

Joe’s dad ran a machinery company that marketed sharp blades to process meats, and one of the ways products were promoted at trade shows involved the use of axes.

Father and son would have a competition: Who could shave his beard fastest with a double-bladed ax?

“You better know what you’re doing,” Joe Juranitch says now, decades later. “Where it really gets difficult is on the throat. If your edge isn’t perfect, if it’s tipped either way, you’re going to pay for it.”

Joe got his time under nine minutes – 8:43 to be exact – and he says it would be in the “Guinness Book of World Records” if double-bladed ax shaving wasn’t so dangerous.

He is 56 now, still with the beard, but no plans of trying to beat his old record.

“I would attempt it again if the Vikings win the Super Bowl,” he said. “Think I’ll have the beard for a while.”

It has been a bittersweet past couple of football seasons for Joe, who was once as famous as a Vikings fan can get (other than maybe Prince). Ragnar was a symbol of the team, riding around the old Metrodome on his motorcycle and ginning up the purple pride of the hometown crowd. He did that for 21 years.

Then there was a falling out over a pay issue in 2015, followed by a very unfortunate TV spot in which Ragnar put on a Packers-style Cheesehead. No less than Randy Moss voiced his displeasure at the sight, although he sided with him in principle. Local fans and media weren’t as understanding.

“After the crap he pulled Sunday before the Vikings battled the Green Bay Packers for a division title,” wrote CityPages, “the former sideline staple is dead to us.”

The Vikings beat the Pack that day to win the NFC North, and “Viktor the Viking” plundered the spot once reserved for ol’ Ragnar.

Now the franchise is in a gleaming new stadium, with a team set up to contend for years, and will host Super Bowl LII on Sunday.

Ragnar is frozen out.

“I still watch the games,” he said. “Is it something I have to do? No. I don’t know that I have watched a full game in its entirety. It’s difficult. It is difficult, bottom line. They literally destroyed the whole character. I’ve not been able to do anything with the character.

“I know how NFL players feel after they’re no longer wanted. It’s a tough pill to swallow. One minute you’re on top of the world, everyone loves you. The next minute, you’re an SOB.”

In a statement to Yahoo Sports, the team said: “The Vikings greatly appreciate Ragnar’s contributions to the organization and to our fans over two decades. We will always consider him an important piece of Vikings history.” 

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The Vikings have moved on. Ragnar has tried to do the same.

“I didn’t think it would be so hard,” he said.

It will likely get harder this week as the Super Bowl gets closer. Asked if he would be involved in the festivities if not for the falling out, Ragnar said, “Would I? Oh, heavens yes. Something I’ll never be able to do now, ever. When is there ever going to be another Super Bowl in Minnesota? Never. I’ll miss out on that, and for what? Why?”

*****

It was Ragnar’s wife, Laurie, who changed Vikings history. “You know,” she told Joe one day in 1994, “the Vikings are looking for a mascot. You should apply. You love to entertain.”

Laurie sent in the application. And one day, her husband went to check the mail and there was a letter from the Vikings. The team wanted a photo. He obliged, and it wasn’t hard to see he looked the part: a brawny, bearded guy originally from the town of Ely, located about 250 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

The Vikings got back to him again: he was one of 16 finalists out of 3,000. He would have to compete for the part at a draft party at the Mall of America. It was a reality show before that was a thing.

Joe had an idea: he worked security at Minnetonka High School, located in the Minneapolis suburbs, and he told the principal about the competition. And when he tried out for the part, in a furry costume, he had a mob of kids rooting him on. You could say he rigged the vote, but you could also say he had a knack for knowing what people wanted.

He won the gig. And he made it his own, riding his own motorcycle onto the field and revving it to a deafening roar. He was a mainstay as players moved in and out, from Mike Tice to Jim Kleinsasser to Kyle Rudolph. He was sort of a blend of wild child and family-friendly – “I don’t look like mainstream society,” he says now – but it was perfect for the team. He was generous and compassionate with children (especially children with special needs) and yet he looked like a throwback rocker or the dude you hung out with at the biker bar. The familiarity needed during the down years, including in 2005, when a sex scandal plagued the team – the infamous Love Boat – and embarrassed the franchise.

Ragnar’s love for the Vikes was uncompromising and sometimes unrewarded. He was right there when the 1998 team, with Randy Moss and Cris Carter, went to the brink of the Super Bowl and then watched it fizzle when Gary Anderson missed a late field goal after being perfect during the entire season. It was stunning: that team won 16 games and lost once in the regular season by only three points. It’s arguably the best never to make the Super Bowl.

Ragnar pumped up the Vikings home crowd for 21 years before parting ways with the team. (Getty Images)
Ragnar pumped up the Vikings home crowd for 21 years before parting ways with the team. (Getty Images)

“My wife took a picture of me on one knee, with my hands on my face,” Joe recalls. “What … just … happened? One minute you’re going to Miami, and the next you’re going home.”

Then there was the time Fox analyst and former NFL coach Jerry Glanville borrowed Ragnar’s motorcycle, rode around the Metrodome, accidentally hit a local journalist, and quipped about how he’d been “trying to kill one of those guys for years.” Ragnar panicked, thinking he would get sued and get no help from the team since he was an independent contractor.

“My wife started crying,” he recalls. “She knew we would lose everything.”

Glanville and Fox were sued, but Ragnar avoided getting caught up in it. And the relationship between the Vikings and their human mascot continued to thrive for years.

*****

How did the marriage end in divorce? As always, there are two sides to that. Media accounts have it that Ragnar asked for $20,000 a game after getting paid $1,500 under a contract that had expired. When he didn’t get it, the Vikings dropped him. The team professed efforts to make it work. On the opening weekend of the 2015 season, Ragnar posted a Facebook photo of himself watching the Vikings from home. “This is not by my choice,” he wrote. “I don’t make those decisions. At this point it was made for me.”

Ragnar says there were not genuine efforts by the Vikings to make it work. He says he was called late in July and was told the team wanted to get away from his character. He balked, out of confusion more than anything, and then he says he was not invited to the preseason opener. When he posted the Facebook photo, he says, the fans got upset and the Vikings scrambled to offer him $15,000 for two games.

“They said I was holding out for $20,000,” he said. “They said they were negotiating with me since February. They called me July 28 and said we’re going to get away from your character. My question is, ‘What were we negotiating?’ ”

On the one hand, he wanted to stay. On the other, this was his character and he didn’t want to “just give it away.”

The Vikings declined to comment beyond the statement they provided to Yahoo Sports.

Ragnar said he regrets not retaining a lawyer.

“It’s been how long, and not one call [from the team],” he said. “Not anything. Is it disappointing? It is. Is it hard not to get bitter? It is.”

As for the Cheesehead bit, he says it was a gag authored by Fox and he went along with it. Fans certainly didn’t take it that way. A Change.org petition to reinstate Ragnar as the Vikings mascot was changed to “Deport Ragnar to Baraboo Wisconsin.”

“On January 3, 2016,” it reads, “Joe officially renounced his heritage and sided with the Packers before the final game of the season which would determine the Division. This petition will officially revoke his citizenship from Vikings Nation.”

It got nearly 12,000 signatures.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

You can easily imagine this bearded giant wielding vengeance like a double-bladed ax. Instead, Joe sounds deeply hurt.

“It’s hard not to be bitter,” he adds. “Acid eventually eats the vessel that owns it.”

When asked if he watched the Vikings’ miraculous playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints, Ragnar via text message said, “Did I miss something? Was there a Miracle somewhere in Minneapolis?”

A follow-up question yielded this reply: “A true miracle would have been if the team came back to beat Philly like the Patriots did against Atlanta.”

Joe did not flee to Baraboo. He still lives in Minnesota, where he has lived all his life. During football season he spends a decent amount of time hunting deer in the northern part of the state, near Ely. He has taken over his dad’s company, and so in a way he has come full circle. He’s a businessman and a promoter. He’s also still a fan, even if he doesn’t watch the whole game. Whether he’s Ragnar or Joe from Ely, he’s still a fan.

“I wish them the best,” he said of the Vikings, who reached the NFC title game before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles.

When you love a team for so long, sometimes it cuts both ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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