Lieutenant Colonel Erik Kurilla, Captain Bill Jacobsen, the men of Deuce Four, and Michael Yon.
Yesterday the Minnesota Vikings closed out a season in which several players disgraced the team, the team failed to make the playoffs and Coach Mike Tice was fired. Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan covers Tice’s firing in “How not to fire a loyal employee.”
Regardless of the Vikings’ season and the manner of the Vikings’ termination of Tice’s employment, Tice leaves on a high note. The coach had some special guests at yesterday’s closing game with the Bears — Riikka Jacobsen and her three sons. Mrs. Jacobsen is the widow of Captain Bill Jacobsen. Captain Jacobsen was killed in Iraq on December 21, 2004 while serving with Lieutenant Colonel Erik Kurilla in the 1st Batallion, 24th Infantry Regiment — the Deuce Four unit covered by Michael Yon in 2005’s best piece of war reporting: “Gates of fire.”
Yon’s reporting indicated that Lieutenant Colonel Kurilla was a Vikings fan. A soldier who had served under Captain Jacobsen learned that Jacobsen’s son Billy was a Vikings fan as well. A friend of Tice picked up on the Vikings connection and alerted Tice, who initiated contact with Mrs. Jacobsen. Souhan devoted yesterday’s column to the story:
Today, we will watch Mike Tice stalk the sideline in his customary black garb. Some of us will see a gridiron Johnny Cash dancing in a vocational ring of fire.
Some of us will see a lame-duck coach slogging through his contractual duties.
Somewhere in the Metrodome today, though, there will be four sets of eyes viewing Tice as a man with a heart as big as his Long Island accent.
“It’s a long story,” said Riikka Jacobsen.
She was happy to tell it.
Jacobsen’s husband, Captain Bill Jacobsen, was killed by an insurgent’s bomb in Iraq a little more than a year ago. He was 31.
A friend of Tice’s saw a story produced by a reporter embedded with Jacobsen’s unit, and noticed a reference to the Vikings.
The friend contacted Tice, who contacted Riikka, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
Today, Riikka and her three sons will attend the Vikings-Bears game, courtesy of Tice.
Today, Santa Claus wears black.
“By doing this for my boys, he’s honoring my husband,” Jacobsen said. “And that means the world to me, that people remember him, and think of him, and understand what he was doing for his country.
“What better way to honor my husband than to pay attention to his children? This is very touching to me.”
This is a story that reminds us that the whiny, wacky world of sport can unify far-flung people.
“My husband was killed in Iraq a year ago,” Riikka said. “He was with the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Lewis, Washington. He was killed in the mess-hall bombing on the 21st of December .
“It’s kind of complicated, but one of his soldier’s family is good friends with Mike Tice. One soldier came home on R-and-R, and he was very concerned about my children and myself, and he just wanted to do something. They found out that my oldest son, Billy, is a great fan of the Vikings, and also my husband’s battalion commander, Col. Erik Kurilla, is a Vikings fan.
“Even before they deployed my husband, he would take my three boys to Col. Kurilla’s office and they would see all these Vikings decorations.
“My son, Billy, collects football cards, and after my husband was killed, he wrote a letter to Col. Kurilla and sent him some Vikings cards. A reporter that was embedded with the unit in Iraq saw the letter and wrote about it.”
A friend of Tice’s saw the story and contacted the coach, who began exchanging e-mails with Riikka.
Leave it to Tice to bring emotional resonance to a meaningless game.
Leave it to Open Mike to help others when he’s the one in professional need.
I was tipped to this story by a friend of Tice’s, who said he would be angry if it got out.
As blatantly as Tice campaigns for media and fan support, he prefers to keep his good works quiet.
I know people who have seen Tice shed tears while watching homeless kids eat at one of the Vikings’ charity functions in the Winter Park fieldhouse.
I know he prides himself, as did Denny Green, on spending Tuesdays doing charitable work.
This is not to equate philanthropy and football. We can leave analysis of Tice the coach for another day.
Let’s just say there’s a good heart beneath the layers of black, the layers of bluster.
“People have been wonderful — even people I don’t even know,” Riikka said. “People have sent us cards and quilts and made all kinds of things for us. But this is definitely something really big. The boys are thrilled. We’re very honored.”
So today Billy, 9; Sedric, 7; and Yonah, 6, will attend the game with Riikka. (Avalon, 3, will stay home.)
“There’s someone in my Dad’s group of army people that liked the Vikings,” Billy Jacobsen said. “Then I started to like the Vikings.”
In the wide world of sports, that’s all the reason Mike Tice needed to do something nice for a war widow and her kids.
Souhan’s column is “Good deed doesn’t go unnoticed.” (Thanks to Duane Oyen.)