The Purple People Eaters: Who Were They, and What Did They Do Post-Career?

Well I saw the thing comin’ out of the sky/It had the one long horn, and one big eye/I commenced to shakin’ and I said “Ooh-eee”/It looks like a purple people eater to me (The Purple People Eater, Sheb Wooley, 1958)

I’m happy I can say that The Purple People Eaters are much more valuable to history than their namesake. That may be an unfair comparison for poor Sheb (Who says “Ooh-eee” when they’re scared? You?), but it’s hard to top one of the most legendary defensive lines in NFL history. Even with their decorated history and cemented spot in American football lore, like many all-time players, they tend to not be valued as highly as they rightfully should. This piece should hopefully shine light on one of the most prestigious defensive units of all time, from least impactful (no shame to the players, they’re incredible players of their own right) to most impactful.

Terrible Twosome
The left defensive tackle spot was held down by two players over the Purple Reign, which lasted from the mid-late 1960’s to the early 1980’s. The first to hold the position down was Gary Larsen. Known as the “policeman,” Larsen would often defend the run as Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, and Alan Page (who will all be mentioned later) rushed the quarterback. Even with his policing duties, he still racked up 38.5 sacks in his 11-year career. An ex-marine, Larsen seemed to enjoy fighting it out in the trenches (no pun intended). He played with the Minnesota Vikings from 1965-1974, notched two Pro Bowl appearances, and made the Vikings’ 25th Anniversary Team as well as the teams’ “50 Greatest Vikings” list. Following Larsen would be another future “50 Greatest Vikings” member.

Doug Sutherland joined Minnesota in 1971, but would almost entirely be a backup until filling in for (and eventually replacing) the aforementioned Larsen. In his ten seasons with the Vikings, Sutherland recorded 27.5 sacks, which doesn’t sound impressive until you think about how long he was on the bench. Half of his career sacks came in two years, ‘75 and ‘76. When he went on the field after waiting for so long, Sutherland made sure to make it count. Sadly, Doug Sutherland passed away this past April. May he rest in peace.

Iron Man Marshall

For however long this part of the article ends up being, I’m going to try and prove why Jim Marshall belongs in the Hall of Fame and should’ve been there decades ago. The Purple People Eaters’ right end is mostly remembered for the infamous “Wrong Way Run,” where he scooped up a fumble and ran 66 yards into the endzone…his own endzone…and threw it out of the back of the endzone, scoring a two-point safety for the opposing San Francisco 49ers. Even with this historically dumbfounding blunder, he has a strong resume for the Hall of Fame. Marshall tallied somewhere from 127-130.5 sacks (numbers vary) in his career, which put him at 15th-17th all-time (These numbers don’t appear on most all-time lists because the sack wasn’t a measured stat until after he had retired, in 1982), along with 30 fumble recoveries. In terms of accolades, Marshall has three Second-Team All Pro selections and two Pro Bowl nods. This all pales in comparison to the record which Marshall should be more often noted for.

Jim Marshall didn’t miss a single game for 19 SEASONS. 270 straight games started is second only to Brett Favre, and is third in total games played to Favre and punter Jeff Feagles. The next closest defensive players are 55 games short, in a three-way tie for seventh is Ronde Barber, London Fletcher, and longtime teammate Alan Page. To not miss a single game for a few seasons is an accomplishment, but Jim Marshall was healthy for 20 years of football. That in itself is near Hall of Fame worthy, but that record along with numerous lives could have changed on one day in 1971 where a doomed snowmobiling trip almost cost himself and 15 others their lives.

As first written about by the Los Angeles Times, Marshall and 15 others planned a snowmobiling trip around and across Montana and Wyoming. During the first leg of the trip, however, a blizzard split the members of the journey apart. Over time, everyone’s vehicles began to fail. Having to grapple with the concept of spending a night freezing in the middle of the woods, the groups smartly huddled together for warmth. The group that included Jim Marshall were blessed that day, because the Iron Man had his wallet full of money and his checkbook with him. With Marshall’s legal tender, some chunks of tree bark, and some candy wrappers, they managed to start a fire. One member of the expedition, Hugh Galusha Jr, passed away before help arrived to save the others, may he rest in peace.

The Minnesota Man of the Gridiron
After winning the National Championship with the Minnesota Golden Gophers as a freshman in 1960, helping lead Minnesota to a Rose Bowl Victory the next year, and being named a consensus All-American in his 1963 senior season, Carl Eller was selected sixth overall in the 1964 NFL Draft. In terms of stats, Eller is credited as the Vikings’ sack leader with 130.5 sacks (I know Jim Marshall might’ve had the same amount, but keep in mind sacks still are unofficial from this time) and had seven seasons of ten or more sacks. In regards to Eller’s accolades, they speak for themselves. The 1971 defensive player of the year, a five time First-Team All Pro, two time Second Team All-Pro, six Pro Bowl Appearances, the NFL’s sack leader in 1969, the list continues. He’s a member of the Vikings’ Ring of Honor, as well as the NFL’s 1970’s all-decade team and every Vikings anniversary team that’s been created. Eller is also in both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames. Even with all of these marks on his football legacy, it may not be the most important thing he’s done. Not even close.

Eller became a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and founded a group of substance-abuse clinics in the Twin Cities called Triumph Life centers in 1986. He got a degree in Human Services in 1994 and worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, focusing on the health disparities between white people and minorities. In 2020, Eller joined the Halberd corporation, a company that assists in discovering and developing medical treatments for diseases, as a consultant. Even with his near-mythical football life, Carl Eller’s biggest achievements may be his consistent support of saving lives with counseling support and the advancement of medicine.

Flip the Script, Turn the Page
The most prolific of The Purple People Eaters, Alan Page played college ball at Notre Dame before being selected 15th overall in the 1967 NFL Draft. The stats, like Eller and Marshall, speak for themselves. 148.5 career sacks and 22 fumble recoveries, especially the sack numbers, are up there with the highest marks in NFL history. Page’s accolades also outshine the rest of his peers, like winning MVP and DPOY in ‘71, being a six time First-Team All Pro, a nine time Pro Bowler, and having a spot on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All Time Team. He, like Eller, is a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames. Of any other force on that dominant Vikings d-line, Page’s on-field product is the most widely recognized league wide. What isn’t as recognized is the incredible post-football career Page has crafted.

While playing for the Vikings, Alan Page attended University of Minnesota Law School, where he would receive a Juris Doctor in 1978. After obtaining the Doctor, Page worked at Minneapolis-based law firm Lindquist and Vennum from 1978-1984 during the offseason. By 1985, he had risen the ranks all the way to Assistant Attorney General. In 1988, Page and his wife Diane started the Page Education Foundation, providing financial and mentorial support to minority students in exchange for volunteer hours in the community. The Pages’ foundation has given grants to over 7,500 students and, in turn, has put in more than 475,000 hours helping young children. In 1992, Alan Page was elected to an open associate justice seat in the Minnesota Supreme Court, becoming the first African-American to hold that position. He was reelected to that position three times (the first reelection, Page received the most votes for that position in Minnesota history) before his mandatory retirement at the age of 70.

Alan and his daughter Kamie have also written four children’s books, with all of the proceeds going to the Page Education Foundation. Starting September of this year, Page will have two schools named after him, being Justice Page Middle School (formerly Alexander Ramsey Middle School) and a brand new elementary school named Justice Alan Page Elementary School. On top of all of this, Alan Page was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November of 2018. Calling it “a post-football career” is almost a disservice to everything he’s done past his legacy on the field.

Players are People
That’s a whole lot of information, but what does any of it mean? This piece helps to broaden the scope of what these people did, not boxing them into purely their athletic positions. This squad had a marine, a real-life Iron Man, an addiction counselor, and a Presidential Medal recipient. Some fans seem to forget that players are people, especially in an age of commodification and social media. Players have dreams and aspirations to chase outside of the game, and those things can often get lost on people when the only things highlighted are so strictly sports-oriented. Even events and records that are sports-related are flatly taken at face value more often than not. What about the mental toughness and resolve it takes to battle through nearly two full decades of violent, early NFL football without taking one game to recover? The feeling of being overshadowed by Hall of Famers even though you were able to put together a noteworthy career in an era of football wherein many players go completely unnoticed? It’s becoming increasingly important to keep these circumstances in our heads, to remember the bizarre stories, and to carry these values forward for future generations of football, as well as sports as a whole.
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