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Who is Jim Marshall, and Why Should he be in Canton?

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always this time of year when my heart and excitement turned to NFL training camps. For me, it signaled the yearly ritual when my dad and I made our pilgrimage of 90 miles from Minneapolis to Mankato to watch our beloved Vikings. 

In 1967, future Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant was in his first year at the helm of the Vikings. Dad and I always arrived early, very early! I sat patiently at the Vikings’ locker-room door for my heroes to arrive for practice so I could get autographs.

 The first to arrive that late July morning was the easily recognizable Jim Marshall. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end walked quietly alone up the sidewalk toward me. I quickly ran up to him and enthusiastically waved my small notepad in his face and politely begged for an autograph. 

As an 11-year-old Vikings fan, I had no idea that Jim Marshall was on such a unique career journey consisting of superior authentic leadership, selflessness, humility, availability, durability and production like few other players in NFL history. 

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Last month, the NFL Hall of Fame Selection Committee advanced 12 Senior Hall of Fame semifinalists to the final stage of the selection process. While making the list of 25 semifinalists was impressive, Jim Marshall’s impact and accolades made him more than qualified and deserving of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the cut this year to the finals.

Marshall joined the expansion Vikings in 1961 and was indispensable in their ascension to NFL prominence during his 20-year career with the franchise. When Bud Grant hired me to his staff in 1985, he would often walk by my office and sit down. Our conversations always varied, but on one particular day, it led to Jim Marshall. 

Leading by Example

“When I came to the Vikings, I changed the culture of the program, and Jim bought into it almost immediately,” Coach Grant told me. “The players had tremendous respect for him as a person, his work ethic, and his production as a player on the field.”

“Jim led by example,” Coach Grant continued. “He played for 20 years and never missed a game, and most impressively, never missed a practice. He was a special player and became a special friend. I love Jim Marshall. He is one of the most unique guys I ever coached. He represented the Vikings better than any player we’ve ever had.”

Marshall is known for what many deem the most important quality of an NFL player: availability. In the history of the NFL, no defensive player participated in more games (282) or more consecutive games (270) than Marshall. Jim played when there were no pass-rush specialists, when defensive linemen were three-down players. 

More Than an NFL Iron Man

Jim Marshall was more than the epitome of an NFL iron man. The speed rusher amassed a total of 130.5 sacks in his career – sacks were not an official statistic until 1982, three years after he retired – and held the career fumbles-recovered record of 30 for 24 years until Rod Woodson’s 32 surpassed him.

Most notably known for a fumble recovery in 1964 that was returned the wrong way, Marshall hit his prime in 1969, 10 years into his career, making 14 sacks, with two fumble recoveries and an interception. He earned second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors that season and was a driving force in the Vikings’ NFL Championship run before losing to Kansas City in Super Bowl IV.

Marshall played in four Super Bowls for the Vikings. In both 1975 and 1976, he made the second-most sacks in a season by a player who was at least 38 years old, behind only Hall of Famers Chris Doleman and Bruce Smith. Three years later, Marshall became the oldest player in NFL history with multiple sacks in a single game. The next season, at 42 years old, he did it again. 

Marshall’s rare blend of elite play and durability is evident compared to the 19 defensive ends already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 130.5 sacks are five more than the average amongst the Hall of Fame group.

His four seasons of double-digit sacks outpace three members of the current Hall. Marshall separates himself from this group with his longevity. The 19 Hall of Famers averaged almost 100 fewer games than Marshall’s 282.

Member of the Purple People Eaters

More significant than Marshall’s accolades as an individual were his contributions to the Vikings and the NFL. He served as the leader and captain of the Vikings for his entire career, and was part of one the greatest defensive fronts in NFL history. The Purple People Eaters of Marshall and Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page, alongside Gary Larsen, spent a decade as the league’s most formidable defense. 

From 1969 to 1979, the Vikings were first in total defense three times and among the top three in four other seasons. When Eller, Page and Marshall retired in 1979, they ranked two, three and four in all-time sacks. While Page and Eller recorded more during this period, it was Marshall who served as their captain. 

Coach Coach Grant told me that one of the smartest things he ever did upon taking the Vikings job in 1967 was making Marshall a captain. 

“Jim was the first guy in line,” Coach Grant said. “When I first got here, if I said take a lap, everybody looked to Jim Marshall. If Jim went, they’d all follow.”

Worthy of Canton Enshrinement

After having his jersey retired in Minnesota in 1999 and being selected as a Hall of Fame finalist in 2004, Marshall’s rare mix of unparalleled longevity, production and influence on a franchise is worthy of propelling him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

I feel honored and privileged to have had this platform to write this heartfelt column. I am hopeful that Jim Marshall soon will rightfully take his place in Canton. I believe in every way he epitomizes the life and breath of what a Hall of Fame player looks like! 

On December 30, he will be 85 years old. My passion may be multiplied because he and my father share the same birthday. Nevertheless, it’s time to give Marshall his gold jacket.