https://vimeo.com/109249764

There are two minutes left on the clock at the Metrodome. Tommy Kramer drops back, surveys the field, and desperately tries to find an open receiver. He spots Hassan Jones streaking down the sideline and heaves a pass down the field. It’s caught! Touchdown, the Minnesota Vikings win the game!

Only, it’s not Kramer throwing the football or Jones sprinting into the end zone. This story isn’t unfolding in the Metrodome, where thousands of Vikings fans cheer in excited anticipation. No, this is the Troftgruben backyard in Adams, North Dakota, where young Darin is creating his own memories. He’s the quarterback and the receiver in this boyhood-dream-come true; the hero at the center of an improbable Vikings comeback.

Fast forward 30 years, and “Gruben” as he’s affectionately called by friends, is thriving in the middle of a very real, very personal comeback. Like many Vikings fans, he has experienced loss, and disappointment in his life. He’s been to more than 150 games, witnessed countless defeats, and seen firsthand the pain of a victory slipping through the cracks. Through them all, he’s donned his horns, his beard, and most importantly, his mask; symbols of his unwavering support for the purple and gold.

But the costume only reveals so much about Gruben. Behind the armor is more than just a fan; behind the mask is a loving husband, a dedicated friend, and an inspiring individual.

Stationed in Jacksonville, Florida after serving four years in the U.S. Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 11 — the same squadron that Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer once served on — Gruben recalls the coincidental timing of his return to the states.

“We didn’t have technology like we do today, so I think I only saw a couple games while I was in the Navy,” he said. “But I did get to go to the Jacksonville game, and I remember we whooped them bad. It was the only game I went to that year.”

The 50-10 drubbing was, of course, a part of Minnesota’s magical 1998 season. The team went 15-1 that year, only to fall short of the Super Bowl after Gary Anderson’s “Wide Left” shank in the NFC Championship Game. But 1998 also saw Gruben pick up and move to Minnesota, where all of the Vikings’ failures would soon be forgotten.

Just three years later, at a night club in Downtown Minneapolis, Gruben made a decision that would change his life forever. “I remember seeing this woman with her friends,” he said. “She was the glue that held them together and she caught my attention.” When she got up, he took a chance and bought her a drink. But not just any drink — a bottle of water. “I learned later that her dad, Larry, told her not to accept any drinks from anyone,” he remembers. “Unless, it was a bottle of water with a cap on it. That’s the exact drink I bought her, and that’s the first drink I’d ever bought for anyone!”

The woman was Christina, who became Gruben’s wife in 2003. She grew up in Dallas, Texas, hated football, and especially hated the Cowboys. Her disdain for football ended when she met Gruben, though. In 2000, Gruben bought season tickets and began a tradition that continues to this day; attending every Vikings home game.

***

“I’ve only missed three games since 2000,” Gruben said. “Around Halloween in 2004, I wore a purple musketeer hat that I’d gotten at the Renaissance Fair to one of the games.” And for the next two years, Gruben constantly changed his ensemble, all with the encouragement of Christina. “To go dressed up for games, you need someone who is okay with it,” he said. “She was very supportive and never told me I looked dumb.”

Despite the Motorhead masks, the Vikings helmets, and the fake, tattooed arms, Christina celebrated Gruben’s fandom. They attended a tailgating party together in early 2008, where they met members of the Viking World Order (VWO). Founded in 1997, the members-only group includes some of the team’s most passionate, diehard fans. It’s no wonder, then, that Gruben was a perfect fit with the organization. Much to his surprise, Darin returned to a VWO tailgating party later in the season to raucous cheers of “Gruben!”

“I was kind of in shock,” he said, stunned that they’d remembered him after only one meeting. “I’d been dressing up for years, and I’d never met anyone else who was dressing up.”

Christina watching as Gruben's new mask is fitted and molded to his face
Christina watching as Gruben’s new mask is fitted and molded to his face

The costumes were never about attention for Gruben. He only wanted to show his passion as a fan, and in 2009, that passion was rewarded. The VWO “knighted” Gruben and made him a member of the group at that year’s NFL Draft. He now bears a VWO tattoo on his arm, one that spurred him to take his costume to the next level.

“I had my mask custom-made in 2009 by my friend David. He created a mold of my face, which covers everything from my forehead to my cheek.” That season, Christina joined the fun, creating a persona to match Gruben’s nordic appearance. Her purple dress, purple queen hat, and face paint earned Christina a few newfound titles among fans and VWO members — “The Queen, the Asian ViQueen, and AVQ.”

“She saw football in the way my friends and I enjoyed it,” Gruben said. “Even though we’re passionate about the sport, she knew there was a camaraderie amongst fans and friends. She knew it was more about the fun than the action on the field.”

***

On January 17, 2010, Gruben and Christina attended their last Vikings game together. Of course, it was against the Cowboys, the very team Christina grew to dislike as a child in Texas. “We destroyed them, Gruben remembers. “It was probably the best game I’d ever been to; how the game went, how Favre was there, how it felt like we were going to win the Super Bowl.”

They returned home after the 34-3 victory, where Gruben watched highlights over and over again. He remembers every moment in detail, from Favre’s first touchdown to Sidney Rice to the excitement of the crowd. “What I felt as a Vikings fan was that we were one game away, and I had hope. It struck me that this guy, Brett Favre, was going to bring the Vikings to the Super Bowl, and it hit me like I’d never felt before.”

The night was inexplicably special for Gruben, because he could share it with Christina. In that very raw and emotional moment, Christina saw what football meant to him, and said something that sticks with Gruben to this day.

“I don’t want you to ever lose this.”

***

A week later, Gruben flew to New Orleans to watch his Vikings take on the Saints in the NFC Championship. Hours before the game, he received a text that nearly derailed his trip. “Out in the tailgate lot, I get a text from a guy who tells me he doesn’t have my ticket. My wife’s on a women’s retreat for church, I don’t have a ticket, and I don’t know what to do.”

Gruben frantically walked around New Orleans in his infamous Vikings costume, desperate for a ticket. Out of luck and without a way into the game, he nearly missed his opportunity to witness history.

“Out of nowhere, a guy came yelling and said, ‘You’ve got to get in here!’,” Gruben recalls. “He led me into a garage and introduced me to a man named Norm, who also happened to be a Vikings fan.”

Norm offered Gruben food and a place to relax before the weary traveler took off his mask. Thousands of miles from home, alone, and minutes from missing the most important game of his life, Gruben was touched by the generosity of a complete stranger. He asked Norm for a sharpie and a piece of paper, but before Gruben could finish, Norm cut him off.

“Do you know where you are?,” Norm asked Gruben. “That’s what we do, we make signs.” It turns out, Norm’s company made all of the signs for the very same game Gruben was trying to attend. Norm walked into the next room, and within minutes, Gruben had a professional, custom-made sign to carry around New Orleans. Now, anyone within 10 feet of Gruben would know he needed a ticket.

“I walked about 20 feet from the printing press and showed another stranger my sign,” Gruben said. “He pulls out his phone, tells me to go to a specific gate, and that a guy at the stadium will have a ticket for me.” To this day, Norm and Gruben remain in touch, bonded by their love for the Vikings and their chance encounter in New Orleans.

Suddenly rejuvenated, Gruben returned to his friends and told them his improbable story. One of the group members, who’d flown all the way from Denmark for the game, asked to accompany Gruben to the gate; he didn’t have a ticket and hoped to find similar luck. Gruben bought the last ticket, but didn’t leave his new friend empty-handed. He handed him the sign, hoping it’d be enough to score another ticket.

“I ran into him a year or two later, and he told me that the sign had helped him get a ticket!”

In the face of nearly every obstacle, Gruben succeeded. He’d made the trip, gotten a ticket, and was now in his seat at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Unfortunately, he was surrounded by Saints fans. “I started singing ‘All By Myself,’ and the crowd around me starting to crack up. One guy tried to raz me, but a family behind me stuck up for me.”

As he did with Norm at the garage, Gruben befriended the surprisingly supportive family. The Vikings lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, but their newfound relationship helped lift Gruben’s spirits. “Robert wanted to make sure I got back to my hotel safely,” he said. “He, a complete stranger, went out of his way to help me, and later that night, we hung out together.”

Despite experiencing one of Minnesota’s toughest losses, Gruben left New Orleans with unexpected friends, lifelong memories, and a newfound appreciation for fans of the game he loved. The defeat would sting, but only for a moment; his beloved wife Christina was waiting for him in Minnesota.

***

Gruben and Christina tailgating before a game in 2009
Gruben and Christina tailgating before a game in 2009

Christina’s love and support only made things easier for Gruben. She knew he’d be emotional following the loss — as many Vikings fans were — and went out of her way to cheer him up. “The day after I got back, Christina told me that she wanted to show me something,” he said. “We got in the car, and about a mile from the house, I realize we were driving towards somebody’s home.”

To Gruben’s surprise, Christina parked in front a house littered with Vikings memorabilia. “She knew it would cheer me up, even if it was a simple little gesture.” He walked up to the front door, but on the way, realized the owner of the house was coincidentally getting out of his car. Gruben introduced himself, told his neighbor about the trip to New Orleans, and thanked him for showing support for the Vikings, even after the disappointing result.

Noah, as Gruben learned, was just as much of a die-hard fan. And by luck, as many of Gruben’s encounters were, that wouldn’t be the last he’d see of Noah.

***

Two weeks later, Christina tragically passed away.

“I remember calling Syd, the President of the VWO, with the news,” Gruben said. “He told me that Christina would never be forgotten. I can still hear his voice and those words today.”

Ten days later, Gruben returned to work and stopped at Cub Foods for an orange juice. “I stood there just looking at the juice, overwhelmed with anxiety that I had never felt before.”

A familiar voice startled him, bringing him back into reality. “Are you Darin?,” the voice called out, and Gruben looked to his right. “It was Noah,” he said. “We had an initial bond because of football, and Christina brought us together. It was something special, and I felt like Christina had introduced us for a reason.”

For Gruben, there seems to be a pattern. People enter his life and make an impact in the most unexpected ways; the VWO, Norm and the ticket sign, Gruben’s friend from Denmark, Robert at the Saints game, Noah, and most importantly, Christina. Whether by chance or fate, Gruben embraces long-lasting relationships, all tied together by one common thread — the Vikings.

***

Five months after his encounter with Noah, Gruben embarked on another life-changing trip. One of his closest friends and a VWO member, Todd, wanted to do something for the Favre family following the NFC Championship. Brett had given so much to the Vikings; to repay the veteran quarterback, Todd planned to host an event for the Favre 4 Hope foundation. Their plans hit a bump in the road, as Favre’s foundation wasn’t licensed to operate in Minnesota.

“We couldn’t really do anything, but Todd didn’t care,” Gruben said. “He owns the motorcycle that Ragnar rode out of the tunnel, and he hatched a plan to ride his motorcycle to Mississippi, give flowers to Deanna, Favre’s wife, and deliver a personal thank you card to Brett.”

Christina is remembered on the back of Todd's bike, which Ragnar used to ride into every Vikings game
Christina is remembered on the back of Todd’s bike, which Ragnar used to ride into every Vikings game

Before the trip, Todd had Christina’s picture placed on the fender of his bike, where it remains to this day. More than thanking the Favre family, Todd (Vike Bike), Gruben, Diggz (VWO Vice President), and Herman (Papa Smurf) trekked from Minnesota to Mississippi in July 2010 to honor Christina. “It was an incredibly helpful journey,” Gruben said. “Being with friends on such a long trip, I was able to talk for long periods of time.”

When they arrived in Mississippi, they found the foundation’s office and dropped off the gifts with Deanna’s sister, Christine. “We were in the parking lot, about to leave,” Gruben remembers. “Deanna came by to pick up her sister, got to the end of the lot and turned around. She got out, talked to us, and gave us the biggest hug. She said that if they were in Minnesota again, she’d have us come and watch the game in their suite.”

The first home game of 2010, Gruben, Todd, Diggz, and Herman watched the game with Favre’s family, just as Deanna had promised.

But their luck didn’t end in the parking lot. A reporter in Mississippi learned about Gruben and his friends and told them to visit Oak Grove High School, where Favre was rumored to be working with varsity players. The group sat on the sidelines and watched practice.

Gruben (second from the right) with Favre and his friends in Mississippi
Gruben (second from the right) with Favre and his friends in Mississippi

“All of a sudden, Favre showed up and started throwing the ball around with the kids,” Gruben said. “We’re sitting there, taking some pictures, and suddenly, he makes a waving gesture to come over to him.”

He asked the friends if they liked barbecue, told them to go to Leatha’s that night, and have the best BBQ of their lives. When Diggz went to pay the bill, the hostess informed him that their tab was “taken care of.”

A few days after they arrived back home, Gruben found an envelope from Mississippi. Inside were four autographed pictures with Favre sitting on Todd’s motorcycle. “Todd’s bike was in the parking lot, we didn’t know he did that,” Gruben said. “Todd’s motorcycle led the team onto the field for every home game at the Metrodome from 2010 – 2013. It was so special to see Christina’s picture on the back.”

***

Nearly six years later, Gruben’s still attending every game and still wearing his infamous costume; he has Christina, the VWO, and countless others to thank for that.

“She knew this was a childhood dream come true for me, to be able to go to games all the time. At a time when football didn’t mean much to me, my friends were there. We would get together, it wasn’t just tailgating, and it was an avenue for me. I spoke in front of them, wore my heart on my sleeve, and never felt like I burdened any of them. We had a remembrance for her before the first home game, and little things like that meant a lot to me.”

He also has Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who’s more than just a leader of men to Gruben — he’s an inspiration. Gruben recalls a conversation with Fan HQ owner Shaun Hagglund in May regarding one of the store’s popular autograph sessions. “He asked me who we should get, and I said Mike Zimmer,” Gruben said, despite knowing that a Zimmer meet-and-greet was a near-impossible request. “It was easy to say because he’s the person I’ve wanted to meet; I have a lot of respect for Zimmer and wanted to thank him.”

Like Gruben, Zimmer lost his wife Vikki unexpectedly. To honor her and keep her spirit alive, he and his daughter Corri started the Mike Zimmer Foundation, which aims to improve life for Minnesota’s youth. The #MoreThanWords campaign has raised nearly $14,000 for the foundation and opened the door for Gruben to meet Zimmer.

Gruben and coach Zimmer at the FanHQ event last month
Gruben and coach Zimmer at the FanHQ event last month

“Shortly after my conversation with Shaun, I traveled overseas. When I got back, I saw a story on the Vikings app that Fan HQ was going to host an autograph session with Zimmer.”  Stunned by the development, Gruben bought tickets and rushed to visit Shaun at FanHQ. Being overseas, he’d nearly missed the opportunity to buy a ticket to an event he’d only dreamed about. But Shaun told him about a special VIP Auction on Ebay, which gave one lucky fan the opportunity to meet Zimmer privately.

“I’d never bought anything on Ebay before, so I didn’t know what I was doing,” Gruben remembers. “I’m sitting at the dinner table bidding, and all of a sudden, it starts to count down; and all of a sudden, it say’s I’ve won!”

He did in fact win the auction, and was selected to meet Zimmer before the event last month. Behind the store that night, Shaun introduced Gruben to Zimmer and Corri, who listened as Gruben spoke of Christina, his mask, and his appreciation of Zimmer’s work in Minnesota. One picture in particular stood out to Gruben.

“I showed him a picture of me on the Vikings sideline,” Gruben said, pointing out that it was his first time ever on Minnesota’s sideline. “I asked him if he knew the date of the game, because it was a game against the Bengals.”https://vimeo.com/109249764

The date was December 13, 2009, and Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati at the time, standing on the opposite sideline. “It’s two months after your wife died,” Gruben told Zimmer. “Two months later, my wife died.”

Gruben wanted Zimmer to know that he understood what it means to do something in the memory of those we love. “That’s what the Mike Zimmer foundation is all about to me,” he said. And as a Vikings fan, Gruben wanted to thank Zimmer for what he’s done in two short years. “I remember seeing players giving up, and as someone who was grieving, I didn’t understand how players couldn’t try.”

To Gruben, Zimmer has given Vikings fans hope, and he wanted the newly-extended head coach to know that. “I just want to represent the average fan and let you know that we appreciate you,” he told Zimmer.

***

Today, Gruben enjoys going to games with his girlfriend May and her daughter Colbie, who continue to encourage his love for the Vikings. Like Christina, the VWO, and countless other fans, they’ve helped make Sundays about more than just football.

Gruben today with May and Colbie
Gruben today with May and Colbie

Take a peek under the mask, and you’ll find more than a fan; you’ll find a man who embodies everything we love about this sport. To echo the words of Christina:

We don’t want you to ever lose this.