John Randle was a trash-talking, twitch-quick defensive tackle who intimidated and distracted opponents on his way to the sixth-most sacks in NFL history, fueled by a competitive drive that pushed an undrafted, undersized player for the Minnesota Vikings all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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He was a force to be feared, even at the grocery store.
His favorite position coach, John Teerlinck, will eagerly recite the ways Randle used to heed his advice to constantly practice his craft in his spare time.
”I’ve seen him practice on doorways,” said Teerlinck, who will be Randle’s presenter at the Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend. ”One time he was at Cub Foods, and there was a woman coming toward him in the aisle. He came running up to her and put a shutter-spin move on her cart. She didn’t know what was going on. That little old lady just about had a heart attack. He walked the walk and talked the talk.”
Yes, Randle’s motor was usually revving, whether he was painting his face before a game, in his stance on the line or however he happened to be spending his spare time.
”One year he took the cushions from an old couch and duct-taped them to the trees outside his home in Texas,” Teerlinck said. ”He made a gauntlet he’d go running through in the forest.”
That was the kind of work ethic required for a long shot like Randle to make it in the NFL, let alone establish himself as one of the premier pass rushers in history.
”People thought it was weird, but it was just me trying to get better at my job,” Randle said.
Growing up poor without a father in the tiny town of Mumford, Texas, he was toughened up by his two older brothers, including Ervin, who also played in the NFL. Tired of hitchhiking to practice at one point during high school, Randle quit football. His mother, Martha, steered him back toward the sport.
”She told me to focus on something I liked in life,” Randle said. ”She was such a strong lady.”
His mother died two years ago.
”I miss her every day,” Randle said.
He went on to play at Division II Texas A&I – the school is now known as Texas A&M-Kingsville – but even in a 12-round draft in 1990 he wasn’t selected. The Vikings scouted him, were intrigued enough to keep him and watched him emerge the next season with 9 1/2 sacks. Dennis Green took over as head coach in 1992, hiring Tony Dungy to be his defensive coordinator and Teerlinck to coach the defensive line.
During one particular one-on-one drill before that season, they watched Randle use a remarkable display of moves against his bewildered blockers. Green told a skeptical Dungy and Teerlinck that Randle was going to be a star, and that fall was when he fulfilled that promise.
Randle recorded the first of eight straight double-digit-sack seasons and went on to become one of the best interior rushers in history while bringing to prominence the ”under tackle” or ”3 technique” position in the standard 4-3 scheme. From 1991-2002, Randle’s 131 sacks were the most in the NFL. He finished his career with 137.5.
”This guy made it himself,” said Teerlinck, who’s now with the Indianapolis Colts. ”No one worked harder. No one was more intense. No one was more conscientious.”
After Randle’s first of seven Pro Bowl appearances, coaches for the All-Star squads told Teerlinck that Randle treated practices like preparation for a playoff game.
”They were in shock. He’d be going full speed through walkthroughs,” Teerlinck said.
Randle spent his last three NFL seasons with Seattle through 2003. Current Vikings left guard Steve Hutchinson, himself a perennial All-Pro, went up against Randle in practice often while they were both with the Seahawks.
”You couldn’t help but work harder when he was going full bore every day,” Hutchinson said. ”He made all of us on the offensive line better.”
Randle married a Minnesotan and lives in the Twin Cities area with their children. He’s become an avid golfer, insisting that he’s learned to control his energy and relax on the course while playing such a slow-paced game.
Still, his wild-man persona persists. The Vikings are using Randle as a pitch man for their scratch-game promotion with the Minnesota Lottery, featuring him and his still-big biceps in a local television commercial.
Randle appears like a superhero in a parking lot where a group of women can’t get their car started and are in danger of missing kickoff for that day’s game. He flexes his muscle and miraculously produces enough electricity to jump-start the vehicle and send the ladies happily on their way.
Brett Favre once called Randle the toughest defensive player he ever faced, and it was a Nike ad featuring Randle several years ago that aptly summed up his style. He was shown buying sewing supplies and making a miniature replica of Favre’s green Packers jersey. Then Randle put it on a chicken and chased it around, before the end of the commercial pictured him grilling a juicy cut of meat.
Randle used to flip through the media guides and pick up personal information about his opponents, never missing an opportunity to talk some trash during a game. This weekend, though, he’ll be on his best behavior.
”When I’m dead and gone, my kids and my grandkids will always have a place to go see grandpa or great-grandpa and see how he played the game,” Randle said. ”They can go there and see his ugly mug somewhere in Canton. For me, I think for my legacy, it’s very big.”