In his nine seasons of combat with the Minnesota Vikings, Alan Page has become perhaps the most intimidating defensive lineman in professional football. Mothers shield children’s eyes from the sight of his ferocious tackles, and girlfriends of rival quarterbacks are advised to stay home when the Vikings are on the field. But last December Page himself was as helpless as any other frightened father when he and his wife, Diane, had their first baby—Justin almost did not survive birth.
“He was born all mucused up and completely asphyxiated,” Diane recalls. “They had trouble getting his breathing going. For the first 12 hours he had seizures. Alan would come up to the hospital, and we’d just hold hands and cry.” After six days in intensive care, Justin recovered.
“When you go through something like that,” Alan says, “it puts other things in proper perspective.” For Page, one of those things was football. Already on the executive committee of the players’ union and a militant in last year’s 41-day strike against the league owners, Page refuses to sign autographs when with his family (“It’s an invasion of our privacy”) and is increasingly critical of the NFL way of life. “Management has complete and absolute control over your body,” he argues. “This is the only business in which your employer is called your owner. Think about it.” (“But as far as playing goes, I love it,” he adds. “I think of it as a form of art.”)
Diane has plenty of time to think about it Saturday nights even before home games, since the team is quarantined in a motel. “Locking the guys up just pisses us both off,” she complains. “They treat them like little boys, and besides, Alan doesn’t sleep well in a motel bed.” During the games themselves it’s Diane’s turn to be isolated—the management segregates the players’ wives together in cheapie seats in a gloomy upper deck of the end zone. That, at least, saves them a close-up view of an injury that could instantaneously end a husband’s livelihood. “Every time I see a player get hurt, no matter who he is,” she says, “I get a sick feeling in my stomach and think, ‘That could be Alan.’ ”
To prepare for the inevitable day when injury (his worst so far was a dislocated shoulder in college) or age (he’s 30) forces him out of football, Alan entered the University of Minnesota this year as a law student. He studied last summer at the University of Texas (and got into some personal litigation: a housing discrimination suit against a local landlord who refused to rent them an apartment). Page takes one course during the season and will attend full time after it is over. Whether the Vikings will rumble all the way into the Super Bowl leaves Diane ambivalent. (They’ve made it in three of the last six years but haven’t won yet.) “That means three extra weeks of practice,” she says, “and Alan would start the winter term late.”
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a lawyer,” says Page, “and this football routine just kept me away from it.” Alan grew up in what he calls “an upper-lower-class” family in Canton, Ohio, where his dad ran a tavern. In high school he was “as much a student as a football player,” and at Notre Dame he majored in political science. Even minoring in pass blitzing he was overpowering enough to make All-American on Ara Parseghian’s undefeated 1966 team. On the Vikings, his speed was so astonishing for his size (6’4″, 245 pounds), that Page became the only rookie ever to break into the starting lineup under coach Bud Grant. Alan helped turn Minnesota’s spongy defense into the feared “Purple People Eaters,” and in 1971 he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, the only defensive player so honored.
Diane, 31, is the daughter of a well-to-do business executive from suburban Minneapolis. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she began a career in market research, working for Pillsbury, and now, while Justin is young, is a successful free-lance consultant. She met Alan on a business call and asked him to drop in at the inner-city boy’s club where she did volunteer work. “It was a typical fan number,” she admits. Alan was unenthralled. “But I said I’d go,” he recalls, “and four years later, here we are.” At first Diane’s parents worried about the problems of an interracial marriage. But not long after Diane and Alan eloped to Las Vegas, her parents were won over by their new son-in-law. “Anyone who meets Alan always likes him,” Diane finds. “We see my folks once a week now.”
In the distinctive angular, modern home they designed themselves, the Pages like to putter around their kitchen and their cars. She cooks seafood gumbos and ham hocks in a cuisine she calls “a combination of gourmet and soul.” He makes his own fettucine pasta from scratch. Before law school, Alan raced dragsters on local strips. Now their four cars—a Ferrari, two Mercedes and a Dodge van equipped with swivel seats, a couch and a carpeted bar—do a lot of garage time.
Alan can afford those wheels with a five-year contract paying him around $120,000 a year, the highest in the NFL for a defensive player. He rejects the contention that athletes are overpaid for their toil. “We put on a show and are basically performers,” Alan argues. “Nobody complains about movie stars getting a phenomenal amount of money for one picture.” Alan figures that most lucrative product endorsements don’t come to him because “nobody likes a radical, especially radical black defensive linemen.” Interestingly, his fellow Purple People Eater Jim Marshall and Marshall’s wife, Anita, do a spot for American Express. Marshall is black and so is his spouse.
Vince Lombardi notwithstanding, the Pages do not think either winning or football is the only thing. Diane says, “We are football people who lead a non-football life.” Their friends are mostly civilians, and Alan adds, “She’s with me because she wants to be and not because I’m a football player. She can live her life without me, but she prefers to be with me. I can live without her, but I prefer to be with her.” Not that the Pages don’t have differences. One is Monday night football, which Alan prefers to tune out. So by way of compromise, explains Diane, “We watch only the second half, and if it’s boring we turn it off. I enjoy it more than he does. Of course, it’s his job,” she explains. Then, blitzing the discussion, Alan interjects with a fond laugh, “How can you be married to a fan?”