MINNEAPOLIS — Joe and Kathy Line bought tickets for $1 apiece, in section 237, two rows from the top of the Metrodome. They just wanted to be in the building.
Neither knew what to expect Friday night. They had been watching their son play football since seventh grade, but never professionally. Never with his future hanging in the balance. Kathy sipped a beer to calm her nerves.
Most of the first quarter of the Vikings’ preseason opener against the Texans was a “Where’s Waldo?” exercise, the Lines straining their eyes to locate No. 48, Zach Line, the Vikings’ undrafted rookie fullback and their oldest son.
Zach was in there. … He was not. … You sure? … Well, your eyes are better than mine. … There he is, running off right now. … Running on or running off?
Then, early in the second quarter, came a play the Line family will never forget. And for this one, they didn’t need binoculars.
High up in the upper bowl, it all seemed to take place in slow motion. Vikings’ ball, second-and-5 on their own 39. Line took a free release, and ran into the flat. Backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw him a short pass, about seven yards in the air, and then Line turned upfield. One Texans defender, rookie safety D.J. Swearinger, whiffed on the tackle, spinning around Line at Minnesota’s 40.
The former Southern Methodist running back kept going. His parents clenched their fists.
Receiver Stephen Burton sprinted in front of Line, blocking another defender. At Houston’s 20-yard-line, Line cut back inside, slipping behind a pair of Texans. His parents jumped to their feet, willing him into the end zone. There was just one last defender, safety Eddie Pleasant, diving at Line’s shoulders. Line took a hitch-step out of Pleasant’s grasp and ran across the goal line. Touchdown.
Joe and Kathy looked at each other, mouths wide open, their faces paralyzed in disbelief. They high-fived. Joe turned toward the field, both arms raised triumphantly in the air. Kathy, who had already cried during the national anthem, dabbed the corners of her eyes with her fingers.
Joe sat down, and said under his breath, “Good job, Z.” Zach couldn’t hear, but Joe wanted to say it out loud.
It was one of those moments parents wish they could hit pause on, then rewind and relive. And because this moment happened in the NFL, the Lines got their wish when the replay flashed on the stadium’s video scoreboard.
“Top-six moment of my life,” Joe said, looking up at the screen. “The five births were the top five.”
“What about marrying your wife?” Kathy teased.
“I love you, 26 years later, but that was better,” Joe said.
* * *
Like all undrafted rookies, Zach Line faces long odds in his attempt to make an NFL roster. The MMQB is chronicling his quest this season, from his preparation for training camp through the Super Bowl. It’s a journey that can turn on a single practice, or even a single play. So yes, maybe this is just the preseason, but the first time Line touched the ball in an NFL game, he took it to the house. Now, he hopes, his odds might not be quite as long.
The 23-year-old might have underestimated his nerves for such a big night. A little after 4:30 p.m., about five minutes after the rookie bus arrived at the Metrodome, he pulled into the players’ parking lot in his Ford pickup singing along at the top of his lungs to old-school rock. When he got out, he realized he had just locked his keys inside.
Or, maybe his head was just somewhere else. He had a lot to figure out once he arrived at the stadium: how to get to the locker room, for starters. And then, how to get to the field. An hour later he followed a couple of the other running backs down the tunnel, receiving a friendly tap from veteran linebacker Chad Greenway on his way. Line only stayed on the field for a few minutes, testing his cleats on the artificial turf, and staring at the ceiling. At the Combine in February he’d lost a few passes in the lights of the Colts’ dome, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here.
He jogged back out at 6:18 p.m., his purple No. 48 jersey a little bunched up on his back, for pregame warm-ups. Most nights at the Metrodome belong to Adrian Peterson, but the reigning NFL MVP sat out this first preseason game. A different star would have to emerge here tonight—but Line didn’t think it would be him.
The Vikings ran out of their tunnel behind Ragnar, a Norseman on a motorcycle, and Line thought this was the coolest thing he’d done. But that feeling lasted less than two hours—incomparable to running up the sideline with the football tucked in his right arm and 62,306 fans cheering him on.
Line celebrated the touchdown with a spike, but he was too gassed to really propel the ball properly. Before he could do it over he was mobbed in the end zone by his teammates, rookies and veterans alike. He made his way to the sideline through a gauntlet of high-fives and butt-pats. The equipment managers saved the ball for him, a keepsake of his first NFL touch.
Line had to come back down to earth quickly, though. Veteran fullback Jerome Felton was done for the night with the rest of the starters, and the Vikings still had nearly three more quarters to play. Line went straight to the oxygen, because he remembered that in college it helped him recover once after a long drive.
“You got fuel left in the tank?” running backs coach James Saxon asked Line. Then he asked him again. “You’ve got to finish the game,” Saxon reminded him.
Turns out, of the 21 snaps Line would play on offense and special teams, his touchdown was the only time he would touch the ball. To make a roster led by Peterson, who is aiming for 2,500 rushing yards this season, Line must prove himself as a blocker—quite a change after rushing for 4,185 career yards at SMU, second in school history to only Eric Dickerson.
“We always knew he had the ability to run with the football, but that was exceptional,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Line after Minnesota’s 27-13 loss. “He showed his open-field running, the ability to catch the football, so that was encouraging. Now we’ve just got to keep working with him as a lead blocker and see if he can fulfill that role as well.”
After the game, in the tiny auxiliary locker room unofficially designated for the undrafted rookies, more than just the touchdown was replaying in Line’s head. So, too, was a botched assignment in the second quarter. Line had missed a block on a linebacker, taking a slide-step instead of locking onto him right away. The player shot through the gap, along with another linebacker, and running back Joe Banyard was stuffed for a loss of three yards.
“I hadn’t experienced that yet,” Line explained.
When Line reported to camp, he vowed to make good on the advice he had received from a veteran teammate: Stand out by making “splash plays.” And on this night he had. “Pretty perfect,” he said, the bridge of his nose bleeding where he’d had hasty stitches last week to keep the skin together. “Something that’s going to help me down the road—I just have to keep making more of those.”
* * *
The right pocket of Joe Line’s khaki shorts started buzzing as soon as Zach crossed the goal line. He was besieged by text messages, from his other four kids, and a niece, and a sister-in-law. Zach’s fiancée, McKenzie Redman, who was down in Section 108 with 23 of her family members from Clear Lake, Iowa, wrote, “Holy S—!” Redman had invited the Lines down to their section, where they wound up having an extra seat or two, but after the touchdown Joe was too superstitious to move.
Even the people who believe in Line the most understand the uphill climb he faces to make it in the NFL. After landing in Minnesota on Friday morning, Joe and Kathy hit the Marshalls at the Mall of America for some Vikings gear. “We were careful not to buy too much,” Kathy said, “because you don’t know…”
That uncertainty made this night even more significant. His family had just hoped to see him on the field making a block or two. They didn’t expect that he’d make the biggest play of the game, or that even the security guard in the elevator would learn his name, or that his picture would lead the sports section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the next morning.
“Seeing him live out his dream,” Joe said, “is just the coolest thing ever.”
There is a lot more left in Line’s dream. But this was a good start.
Line was the last player out of the locker room on Friday night. He was always the last one out at SMU, too—but who could have predicted that Line would have to entertain a media cluster at his locker? Each time a reporter approached, fellow rookie running back Bradley Randle announced, “Got another one!” After Line had dressed in a gray Vikings T-shirt and cleaned the blood from his nose, he realized he didn’t know where the players’ families were waiting. For that he got a little help from that same security guard in the elevator.
By the time Line walked through a set of double-glass doors well past 10:30 p.m., there were just four people in the waiting area: Joe and Kathy, and Redman and her sister—but theirs were the cheers Line had been waiting to hear. Joe and Kathy embraced their son, and Redman jingled the keys to his truck, which a stadium employee had retrieved while Line was inside having the night of his life.
After Line kissed Redman, she told him, “I’m so proud of you.”
There was one more surprise left. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman happened to be leaving the stadium at the same time. A former star linebacker at Southern Illinois who had two invites to NFL camps but never made a roster, Spielman has been around the game long enough to know the kind of moment this family was having. He smiled warmly at the group, then extended his hand to Joe Line and patted him on the back.
“You’ve got a heck of a football player,” Spielman said.