Chris Doleman was clinging to his preferred position of outside linebacker, struggling through his second NFL season with the Minnesota Vikings.
The team’s vision for his 6-foot-5 frame was at defensive end, where he could use his long arms, strong legs and quick feet to become the kind of premier pass rusher to build a scheme around.
Finally, during a late-night conversation with a confidant and coach, Doleman relented. His willingness to move up front sent him on a decorated path that traveled all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Doleman, whose enviable blend of speed and power made him one of the game’s most feared pass rushers during 15 seasons in the league, died Tuesday, two years after being diagnosed with brain cancer. The longtime Vikings star, who had 150½ career sacks to rank fifth on the all-time list, was 58.
“It’s a shock to see someone who was so strong and so gifted and so incredibly talented and such a great dude and so much fun to be with go so young,” former Vikings teammate Keith Millard said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
The fourth overall pick in the 1985 draft, Doleman was so dejected by his substandard performance in a game at San Francisco in 1986, former Vikings defensive line coach Paul Wiggin said, that he skipped the team flight home and went back to Minnesota by himself. At the team hotel before the next game, Doleman stopped by Wiggin’s room around bed-check time and initiated a processing session that lasted until 2 a.m. He walked out the door as a defensive end.
“His mentality was doctor, lawyer, linebacker, garbage man, sewer worker, defensive lineman,” Wiggin said by phone on Wednesday, adding: “He had such great body lean, such great speed coming around the corner. He had everything you wanted in a defensive end.”
Doleman, who had surgery two years ago to remove a brain tumor, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that killed U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2018.
“Chris was a great example for players past and present, as he embodied all the best characteristics of a Viking — resilience, toughness and a competitive spirit,” the Vikings said in a statement. “Chris always carried himself with dignity and class. Vikings fans worldwide will greatly miss him.”
Doleman spent his first nine seasons with Minnesota, collecting a league-high 21 sacks in 1989 while forming a fierce pass-rushing tandem with Millard, who had 18 sacks himself that year for the NFC North champions. Doleman was a two-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl selection who played in 232 of a possible 234 regular-season games.
Doleman ran the 40-yard dash as fast as 4.5 seconds — “That’s running back speed in those days,” Millard said — for an advantage over most opposing offensive tackles that was obvious.
“I saw him as an attack player,” Wiggin said, “which if you have skill can translate into greatness. I knew there was something special there. He had to work it out in his mind.”
Millard switched positions, too, from end to tackle, and a formidable front four with Al Noga and Henry Thomas was eventually formed. Doleman was at first able to simply race on a wide arc to the quarterback. Once tackles began to overplay him, he adjusted by extending his inside arm to pin the blocker’s shoulder and counteract from there, a move that Millard believed Doleman invented.
“He was a master of that with his skill set,” Millard said.
The cancer diagnosis and surgery kept Doleman from attending Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis, requiring a five-week hospital stay in Atlanta, but later in 2018 he was able to travel to Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony that included former teammate Randy Moss. That fall, he married his wife, LaTresa Doleman, and they traveled to Minnesota together for the team’s Ring of Honor induction ceremony for the late Dennis Green, one of his coaches with the Vikings.
“Just the thought of catching up with everybody pulls you through those dark times,” Doleman said then in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Doleman returned to U.S. Bank Stadium as recently as last October, for the Ring of Honor induction for former teammate Steve Jordan. Former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel pushed Doleman to and from the on-field ceremony in a wheelchair.
Doleman, an Indianapolis native who played in college at Pittsburgh, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. He played two seasons for Atlanta and three seasons with San Francisco before returning to Minnesota to finish his career in 1999.
Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said witnessing Doleman’s baptism in the Jordan River during a Hall of Fame trip to Israel was “one of the honors” of his life.
“The legacy of Chris Doleman will live forever in Canton, Ohio, for generations to learn from how he lived a life of courage and character,” Baker said.
Former Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter, another fellow Hall of Famer, played with Doleman from 1990-93 and again in 1999. Carter joined Doleman for that Jordan River baptism.
“Another great man gone,” Carter tweeted Wednesday. “Today will be tough.”
Kansas City coach Andy Reid, in Miami for preparations for the Super Bowl on Sunday, was tasked with trying to defend Doleman for years while working with Green Bay’s offensive line.
“He was a phenomenal player,” Reid said.
Chiefs linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is 11 1/2 sacks and three places behind Doleman on the all-time list, grew up in the Twin Cities rooting for the Vikings and told reporters at the Super Bowl on Wednesday that Doleman inspired him to wear No. 56 in youth football.
“He was one of the main reason I played defensive end,” Suggs said.