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As Vikings open stadium, fans owe debt to Dennis Green

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Moss: Dennis Green gave me a chance (2:03)

Randy Moss remembers former coach Dennis Green, who died Friday. (2:03)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Standing on the dais at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday and surveying a $1.1 billion building that might not be there had another ownership group bought the Minnesota Vikings 11 years ago, Kevin Warren thought of Dennis Green.

Warren, the NFL's highest-ranking African-American business-side executive as the Vikings' chief operating officer, was away from the NFL in 2004, working for the law firm of Greenberg Traung, when he received a phone call from Green. The former Vikings coach, then three years removed from a 10-year run in Minnesota that was equal parts terrific and tumultuous, had heard that Vikings owner Red McCombs might be looking to sell the team.

Green called Warren, who had gotten to know the coach during his time as an agent and NFL executive, and suggested Warren put a group together to buy the club. The effort culminated with a $600 million purchase agreement between McCombs and a group led by the Wilf family in the spring of 2005.

"But for that phone call from him that day," Warren said, "I don't know if the Wilf family would own this team."

It was easy to play things forward from there, on a day when the Vikings celebrated the completion of an 11-year effort to replace the Metrodome while mourning Green's death from a heart attack at age 67. Had the phone call from Green to Warren not happened, perhaps McCombs would have sold to another owner. Perhaps that owner would have looked to move the team from its dilapidated home or, after years of frustration with failed legislative efforts to secure a new stadium, turned his eyes to the ever-present possibility of moving to Los Angeles.

Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony at U.S. Bank Stadium was a testament to the Wilfs' years of patience, but as fireworks erupted on the site where Green's best teams triggered so much excitement at the Metrodome, the coach's presence hung in the air.

"One thing you find out about Coach Green -- he was on his way to being the coach of the Cardinals [in 2004] -- is that he really loved Minnesota," Warren said. "He really loved the Vikings. You can't forget they gave him an opportunity, as a black man, to be a head coach in the National Football League. So no matter how it ended here, he had great, great positive feelings about Minnesota.

"I think one of the reasons that he called me was he was hopeful that it all worked out, that I could join a group that hopefully would buy this team and really continue this franchise and become a standard-bearer. I know he would be absolutely astonished to see this building here today."

Vikings pro scout Jeff Robinson, who played for Green at Northwestern and joined the coach in Minnesota in 1992, said, "I think the first thing you always think about with him was, he always looked for good in everyone."

That certainly played into the draft pick Green made in 1998, a pick that forever altered the franchise.

Although the Vikings made the playoffs five times in Green's first six seasons, they won just one postseason game in that time and had trouble selling out the Metrodome, often turning to local companies to buy a block of tickets and prevent a TV blackout.

That all changed in 1998, when Green gambled on a receiver named Randy Moss, believing he could work with the Heisman Trophy runner-up, on whom many teams had passed because of character concerns. Moss' transcendent rookie season electrified the Metrodome. The Vikings went 15-1 and have essentially occupied the top spot in the Twin Cities' sporting conscience ever since.

"Coach Green gave me a chance,” Moss said Friday on ESPN's NFL Live. “Today I’ve been reading a lot of the comments and the positive things people are saying about him … and they’re very true. He meant a lot to me and meant a lot to others. His legacy will live on.”

The current coach of the Vikings, Mike Zimmer, was a defensive backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 1998, when Moss tore through Texas Stadium in an infamous Thanksgiving Day performance that he regarded as payback for the Cowboys' passing on him in the draft.

"It ruined my Thanksgiving," Zimmer said in recalling Moss' three-touchdown, 163-yard game with the painstaking detail of a coach who probably has replayed it on more than one sleepless night.

"Randy Moss caught a ball over the top of Kevin Smith," Zimmer said. "And I remember we had Cris Carter double-teamed with Darren Woodson and, I think, Brock Marion, and he caught the ball in between both of them. There weren't a lot of good things that day.

"[Green's] teams were always tremendously prepared. He was an outstanding coach and a great person."

There are unpleasant memories to Green's time in Minnesota too: the allegations of sexual harassment in 1995, his 1997 autobiography in which he detailed his plans to take over ownership of the team and his ongoing feuds with Twin Cities columnists. But in many ways, the Vikings are who they are -- and where they are -- today because of the teams Green crafted, and in his Hall of Fame induction speech this summer, it's likely Tony Dungy will talk about what Green did for African-Americans like him and Warren, among others.

When a national TV audience turns its eyes to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 18 for the Vikings' Sunday night home opener against the Green Bay Packers, some fans' thoughts will inevitably drift to Moss' breakout performance against the Vikings' rivals on Monday Night Football in 1998. That Vikings fans still cherish that performance -- and in some ways, that they'll be able to do so at the stadium at all -- can be traced back to Green's careful guardianship of those in whom he believed.

"He really did look out for us," Warren said. "He would call me just to kind of check on me. I flew out to San Diego after he made the phone call and sat down with him. He spent half a day with me, saying, 'If you form your group, here are some things that are really important to Minnesota.' He said, 'Make sure you never talk about or threaten to move that franchise because it means so much to the people of Minnesota.'

"I listened to his words, and it's a blessing for the Wilfs to become owners of this great franchise and how things come full circle, especially today."