Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Super Bowl 52 was amazing from start to finish. The festivities on display throughout Super Bowl week in Minneapolis were second to none. Unfortunately, one of the Minnesota Vikings’ all-time greats wasn’t able to participate in the celebration. Hall of Famer Chris Doleman recently had surgery to remove a brain tumor. While we pray for a healthy recovery, we know the values Chris developed on the football field will serve him well as he faces this battle.
Doleman’s rise to pro football immortality didn’t begin with a “blue chip” label. The talent was obvious, yes, but the 6-foot-5, 218-pound product out of William Penn High School in York, Pa., wasn’t finding recruiters knocking down his door during his senior year. Perhaps part of the issue was the coaching he was receiving, or more accurately, the lack of coaching.
Despite all the ability and potential, Doleman’s high school teams struggled to find leadership and direction. It all began during his junior season when the teachers went on strike just before the school year. That left the football team without a coach. Forced to fend for themselves, the squad never quite recovered from their stunted development and struggled to find their way that season.
The following year, with the optimism of a fresh start, the team was once again left without guidance when their coach suffered a heart attack. As Doleman’s senior season ended, his options seemed limited and he decided to sign with Temple University. Shortly thereafter, an unexpected suitor came calling that summer.
“I was never known as the high school All-America type,” Doleman said. “I only had one honor in high school that was all-state. But I played in the Big 33 game. ... Jackie Sherrill (University of Pittsburgh head football coach) saw me and said I was the best player out there. Pitt started recruiting me heavier after that game.”
Sherrill was obviously impressed with Doleman’s potential and convinced both him and his parents to reconsider the offer from Temple. Chris opted to follow Sherrill’s suggestion and sat out one year and attended Valley Forge Military Academy. He was then eligible to join the Panthers for the 1981 season.
Doleman was making an impact by the third game of his freshman season at Pitt and entrenched himself as the starter at left defensive end. When the season ended he had compiled 45 tackles, two tackles for losses, four passes defensed, one fumble recovery and 12 sacks for the No. 1 ranked defense in the nation.
When Doleman returned for his sophomore season, Sherrill had left Pitt and Doleman struggled to duplicate his freshman sack total. But by his senior season he had matured both physically and mentally and was garnering comparisons to another former Panther star and future Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson.
Although Pitt was ranked in the preseason top five, the team struggled against a tough schedule and finished a disappointing 3-7-1. Despite the team’s record, NFL scouts loved Doleman’s combination of size, athleticism, speed and strength. The only concern was which position he would play at the next level, defensive end or linebacker.
As the 1985 NFL Draft got underway, many of the experts viewed the field as deep in talent but shallow on stars. The Buffalo Bills began by selecting Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith No. 1 overall. The Minnesota Vikings held the second selection and traded the pick to the Atlanta Falcons for the fourth overall selection and the Falcons’ third-round choice. Atlanta drafted Doleman’s Pitt teammate, offensive tackle Bill Fralic. The Houston Oilers then stayed close to home with the third pick by selecting Texas A&M defensive tackle Ray Childress. Most of the media was expecting the Vikings to pick Miami (Florida) receiver Eddie Brown, but the team opted for Doleman who they had pegged for a linebacker spot.
Doleman had an impressive rookie season with the Vikings. He played in all 16 games with 13 starts at linebacker and finished third on the team with 113 total tackles, recovered three fumbles and intercepted one pass. He was recognized for his performance with a selection to the All-Rookie team by the Pro Football Writers Association.
The following season Doleman continued his growth and started six games at outside linebacker before he transitioned back to his natural defensive end position for the final three games of the regular season. It was there where Doleman showed off his pass rush ability by recording two of his three sacks that season. He added 20 pounds to his frame in the offseason and came into the 1987 season as the starting defensive end. He responded with a team-high 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. Doleman was named All-Pro, All-NFC and voted to play in his first of eight Pro Bowls.
He may not have been a “blue chip” prospect coming out of high school but following a career that showcased his character, in 2012, Doleman was forever immortalized in bronze. His legacy will always be honored and preserved in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.