Chris Doleman was supposed to be an outside linebacker in the NFL. That was Minnesota Vikings’ intent when they picked him fourth overall in the 1985 draft.
This was at a time when every team wanted their own version of Lawrence Taylor, who was tearing up the league for the New York Giants, and the Vikings hoped Doleman could be their Lawrence Taylor.
He showed up in Minnesota and was given the No. 56 jersey, a linebacker’s number and the one he wore at the University of Pittsburgh.
Doleman had been a stand-up defensive end at Pitt, and the Vikings believed his 6-foot-5 height, quickness and speed would make him a force rushing the quarterback while allowing him to drop back to cover running backs and tight ends on pass routes.
They were wrong.
Doleman struggled while trying to do all the things asked of him. The Vikings kept him at linebacker his rookie season and into his second season.
This was back when members of the media flew on team planes and, as the beat writer for the Star Tribune, I was seated behind one of the Vikings’ assistant coaches when he told another coach after a 1986 preseason game, “Something has to change. Our 12th-round pick is outplaying our first-round pick.”
That 12th rounder, the 318th player taken in the ‘86 draft, was Jesse Solomon, and the coach wasn’t exaggerating. Solomon could play outside linebacker the way the Vikings wanted. Doleman could not.
The Vikings kept hoping Doleman would improve but it became glaringly clear the defense was better with Solomon at outside linebacker. So, Solomon replaced Doleman, who was moved to defensive end — where he became one of the most dominant players in the history of the position.
In a 15-year career that included two stints with the Vikings, Doleman had 150½ sacks, fifth-most in NFL history. He played for the Atlanta Falcons in 1994 and ‘95 and spent the 1996-98 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. His legacy already set as an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time first team all pro, Doleman returned to the Vikings to finish his career in 1999.
In 2012, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It was during his first nine seasons with the Vikings that Doleman’s reputation as a quarterback’s nightmare was born. He had 21 sacks in 1989, and he and Keith Millard formed one of the most devastating end/tackle tandems ever. In ’89 season, Millard was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and had 18 sacks, a record for tackles until Aaron Donald broke it last season.
Nowadays, media members only get to see a small portion of NFL practices. In the ’80s, media access to practices was unfettered and starting in 1988, when guard Randall McDaniel was drafted, there was nothing like watching Doleman and Millard, the right side of the Vikings’ defensive line, go against McDaniel and tackle Gary Zimmerman, the left side of the Vikings’ offensive line. Doleman, McDaniel and Zimmerman are in the Hall of Fame, and Millard would be if his career hadn’t been shortened by injuries.
Those Vikings teams were loaded with talent. Doleman also played with fellow Pro Bowlers Anthony Carter, Tommy Kramer, Scott Studwell, Henry Thomas, Carl Lee and Joey Browner.
I have many memories of Doleman sacks and plays on the field, but right up there among the recollections is watching him walk into the locker room every day carrying a briefcase. No other Vikings player brought a briefcase into the locker room, and teammates joked the only thing Doleman carried in it was his lunch. I asked him one day about that. “This is my office,” he said. “This is where I come to work. This is what you bring to the office.”
He opened his briefcase to reveal his playbook. Just the playbook.
Doleman took his job seriously, a consummate professional. Away from the field, he was friendly, accessible to the media and popular with teammates.
Sadly, he died Tuesday, Jan. 28, way too young at the age of 58, two years and three days after undergoing surgery for brain cancer.