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Pro football: Vikings’ Sutherland had ‘big laugh, a big smile and huge hands’

The former All-American from Wisconsin-Superior played in three Super Bowls as part of the Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters” defensive line.

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Bud Grant, left, poses with another former Minnesota Viking from Superior, Doug Sutherland, after the Hometown Hero ceremony at Superior High School in 2013.
Jed Carlson / File / Duluth News Tribune
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SUPERIOR — On road trips with the Minnesota Duluth football team in the late 1990s, there was one person that most of the players and coaches gravitated towards: Doug Sutherland.

Doug Sutherland throwing shot put.
Doug Sutherland demonstrates his shot put technique UWS. Sutherland, an All-American and All-conference football player for the Yellowjackets, died Tuesday.
Contributed / UWS

Sutherland had a reputation for telling great stories and players loved them, perhaps because of the 12 years he spent in the NFL and playing in three Super Bowls for the Minnesota Vikings.

“When we went on the road, Doug would order us pitchers of beer,” former UMD defensive coordinator Vince Repesh said. “Doug would order one for himself and then once we would get going, he would be surrounded by everybody. Everybody wanted his stories.”

Sutherland, 73, a member of the team’s famed “Purple People Eaters” who was named as one of the “50 Greatest Vikings,” died Tuesday.

The 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound Sutherland came to Wisconsin-Superior as a defensive lineman and a shot-putter for the Yellowjackets. He earned all-conference and All-American honors in football, but Repesh said it was track that gave him the trait that set him apart: speed.

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“He was very fast, that’s what got him where he was,” Repesh said.

John McFaul, a fellow UWS Hall of Famer, played one season with Sutherland for the Yellowjackets before he left for a “brief career” with the American Football League’s Boston Patriots. After his time in professional football, McFaul returned to coach at UWS with legendary coach Americo J. “Mertz” Mortorelli.

“He could probably have gone anywhere to play, certainly he could have gone over to UMD and played for Jim Malosky,” McFaul said. “But he chose to stay in Superior and play ball for four years at UW-Superior for Mertz Mortorelli.”

Sutherland was drafted in 1970 by the New Orleans Saints and was almost immediately on hand for a piece of NFL history. Sutherland was one of two Saints players to carry kicker Tom Dempsey off the field following his record-breaking 63-yard field goal.

Superior native and former NFL player Doug Sutherland reflects on the passing of legendary kicker Tom Dempsey

After a year with New Orleans, the Vikings acquired Sutherland, where he filled in for linebacker Lonnie Warwick and in 1974 he stepped in to make eight starts for Gary Larsen, one of the original Purple People Eaters.

When Larsen retired prior to the next season, Sutherland won the starting job.

"When Gary Larsen left, Doug Sutherland came in and was the perfect fit. There was no drop-off in play," former Vikings coach Bud Grant said in a release from the franchise. "When I think of the Purple People Eaters, I always think of Doug Sutherland as part of that group. He was a very good football player and an equal part of the Purple People Eaters. Playing with those three guys elevated his play, his position and his value."

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Superior native Doug Sutherland, shown here in 1979, played from 1971-80 for the Minnesota Vikings.
File / Duluth News Tribune

Sutherland recorded a career-high seven sacks in 1976, according to pro-football-reference.com, and started Super Bowl XI for the Vikings. Sutherland also started Super Bowl IX and played in Super Bowl VIII for the Vikings.

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After a year with the Seattle Seahawks in 1981, Sutherland called it a career and returned to Superior. He spent time as a volunteer coach for Repesh when he coached the UWS football team while also launching a career in real estate.

More importantly, Sutherland remained committed to the community and UWS. McFaul helps organize the annual golf outing at Nemadji Golf Course to raise money for the Mortorelli Scholarship at UWS. Sutherland was a regular participant, but he tended to show up with some of his NFL buddies like Green Bay’s Ray Nitschke or the Vikings’ Bobby Bryant.

“He never forgot his roots,” McFaul said. “He stayed loyal to Superior and UW-Superior.”

Doug Sutherland plays football.
Doug Sutherland, 74, plays defense for UWS where he earned All-American honors.
Contributed / UWS

When Repesh moved across the bridge to coach for UMD legend Jim Malosky, it wasn’t long before Sutherland was his defensive line coach — though he was still a volunteer.

“If you knew Malosky, nobody got paid,” Repesh joked. “If he could find a volunteer he’d take them.”

At the end of the day, though, Repesh remembered Sutherland as not just a football player, but a man who cared about his community and, most importantly, his family.

“He was a guy with a big laugh, a big smile and huge hands,” former Repesh said. “He was a storyteller and the ballplayers loved him. I can’t tell you all the stories, but I went hunting with him, went fishing with him and he was bigger than life. He was a professional football player, but he was a great man.”

This story was updated at 3:13 p.m. on April 6 with details from John McFaul. It was originally posted at 8:18 p.m. on April 5.

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Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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