Carl Eller was one of the greatest defensive ends in Minnesota Vikings franchise history.
Eller, who strutted his wares on the University of Minnesota gridiron, was part of “The Purple People Eaters” quartet along with Alan Page, Jim Marshall, and Gary Larson that terrorized offenses and made the Vikings serious Super Bowl contenders in the 1970s.
Eller hit his stride in the late 1960s. He earned six Pro Bowl berths, five First-Team All-Pro, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections from 1968 to 1974. He also earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1971.
Eller was so good that he struck fear into the hearts of legendary offensive linemen such as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dan Dierdorf.
Eller eventually earned his gold jacket and bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2004.
This is Carl Eller’s incredible and controversial football story.
Carl Eller was born in Winston-Salem, NC on January 25, 1942.
When Eller entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame some sixty-two years later, he recalled his humble beginnings in North Carolina. When the took the podium, he told the crowd his parents were decent, hard-working people.
However, Eller’s family was poor and had to work hard to survive. Carl grew up in an environment where people went about their normal, daily routines. Few of them had aspirations to live an extraordinary life and break the monotony.
Carl Eller, future Pro Football Hall of Famer, was one of them.
“I really didn’t start off with any dreams or any goals,” Eller said in his enshrinement speech in 2004. “I was just a really happy kid running around.”
Carl looked up to Norman King, a student-athlete from Winston-Salem State College. He considered King his first role model.
King visited Carl at his house one day. The former wore his athletic gear and leaped over the fence. That move made quite an impression on Eller, who thought King – a young man whose goal was to earn a college diploma – was different from everybody else in his neighborhood.
Eller attended Atkins High School in his hometown of Winston-Salem, NC.
Eller was already enamored with art and ceramics as a high school student in North Carolina. His fascination grew to the point that he regularly visited museums on out-of-town trips. He also pursued art as a hobby in retirement, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website.
Eller’s father passed away during his high school days. His death had a profound effect on Carl, who became angry and developed a grudge against the world.
Fortunately, Carl’s high school principal intervened at the perfect moment. He told him to try taking out his anger and frustrations on the high school gridiron.
Carl Eller listened and became a standout on the Atkins Camels football team.
Eller, who didn’t know what to do with his life prior to playing high school football, suddenly had two life mentors in his coaches: Ben Warren and Warren Oldham.
Warren and Oldham encouraged the young Eller to use football as a platform to help him achieve his life’s purpose. Before long, they planted the seed that helped the future Minnesota Vikings great boost his long-term confidence.
On this Date 1942 @NCSHOF @Vikings Carl Eller born in Winston-Salem! https://t.co/vIs3GIes2Y @NCmuseumhistory @NCHistoryToday #hallpass #ncsportshistory @wschamber @sportsnc pic.twitter.com/kyIXquNCuw
— North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (@NCSHOF) January 25, 2018
Carl Eller worked hard on the high school football field. His efforts paid dividends when he became a high school All-American and earned a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
Legendary Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Murray Warmath recruited Eller during his senior year in 1959.
Carl’s mom, Earnestine, asked Warmath to take care of her “little baby up in Minnesota,” per the Pioneer Press’ Charley Walters.
Warmath told her in jest it was going to be the other way around. Carl was going to take care of him.
According to former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt, Eller was planning to commit to Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes before Warmath’s intervention.
It turned out Cowboys scout Paul Amen and Warmath were former co-workers on the Army Black Knights’ coaching staff.
Amen knew about Eller’s intention of committing to the Buckeyes. Just about the only way to lure Eller away from Ohio State was by signing his close friend, Jay B. Sharp.
Warmath wasted no time and recruited both Sharp and Eller. Carl Eller told Brandt many years later that Paul Amen played a pivotal role in his recruitment at Minnesota.
Little did Carl Eller know that he would not only become a force on the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ defensive line but he would also spend his next nineteen football seasons in the North Star State.
College Days with the Minnesota Golden Gophers
Carl Eller attended the University of Minnesota from 1960 to 1963. He suited up for Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Murray Warmath beginning in his sophomore season in 1961.
Eller, a defensive tackle, was part of a 1960 Golden Gophers freshman class that also included another North Carolina native and future Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame pass rusher, Bobby Bell.
Eller, Bell, and sophomore quarterback Sandy Stephens were African-American players who stood out at Minnesota during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s.
“It is often overlooked how much of a contribution and the sacrifice athletes made to Civil Rights in this country, athletes like Bobby or Sandy or myself,” Eller told the University of Minnesota Alumni Association’s Rick Johnson several decades later.
With my University of Minnesota brothers–Bobby Bell and Carl Eller. Both of these men were role models for me. pic.twitter.com/EmUhQu4wF2
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) August 5, 2017
Carl Eller exuded grit and toughness when he took the field for the Golden Gophers as a sophomore in 1961. He played through a broken hand that year. Although he wore a cast in scrimmage games, he removed it on game day, per the University of Minnesota’s official athletics website.
Minnesota won eight games and made its second straight Rose Bowl appearance in 1961. Behind Eller’s exploits on the defensive line, the Golden Gophers routed the UCLA Bruins in the 1961 Rose Bowl, 21-3.
After winning six games in 1962, Minnesota struggled mightily in Eller’s senior season in 1963. The Golden Gophers won just three games and did not play in a bowl game for the second straight year.
Nonetheless, Eller, who earned the nickname “Moose” during his college days at Minnesota, became an All-American defensive lineman as a senior.
Eller also finished second in the 1963 Outland Trophy voting behind Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Scott Appleton.
Carl Eller had officially laid the foundation for his iconic 15-year NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings in the next phase of his football journey.
Pro Football Career
The Minnesota Vikings made Carl Eller the sixth overall selection of the 1964 NFL Draft.
The Buffalo Bills selected Eller in the first round of the 1964 AFL Draft. However, the Bills could not sign him. Consequently, Eller remained in the state of Minnesota where he also spent his college years from 1960 to 1963.
When Eller played for the Vikings from 1964 to 1979, he lived in a disadvantaged black neighborhood in North Minneapolis, MN. He still lives there today.
Although Carl Eller became of the greatest defensive linemen of his era, he also had his demons.
He told The Washington Post that he began drinking in high school – a habit that grew worse when he entered the National Football League in 1964.
Minnesota’s drafting of Alan Page prior to the 1967 NFL season completed the vaunted quartet known as “The Purple People Eaters.” Eller, Page, Jim Marshall, and Gary Larsen became the Vikings’ menacing defensive line that wreaked havoc on offenses in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The four men combined for 19 Pro Bowl selections during their respective pro football careers. Eller and Page are both enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
lets beat the cowboys this week! pic.twitter.com/NcLya12nY5
— Carl Eller (@CarlEller81) November 18, 2022
The beginning of The Purple People Eaters’ dominance coincided with Bud Grant’s first year as Minnesota’s head coach in 1967.
The Vikings entered the National Football League in 1961. Their first head coach, Norm Van Brocklin, could not lead them to more than eight wins per season from 1961 to 1967.
Minnesota struggled during its first seven years in the NFL. The Vikings averaged barely five wins per year and never made the postseason.
When Grant took over the reins in 1967, he righted the ship and turned the Vikings into perennial Super Bowl contenders. In fact, the late 1960s and 1970s were arguably the best stretch in Minnesota’s franchise history.
The Vikings averaged ten wins per year and won ten division titles from 1968 to 1978. They also made ten postseason appearances and reached the Super Bowl four times under Grant’s leadership.
Regrettably, the Vikings never won a Super Bowl with Carl Eller as their left defensive end.
Eller got off to a decent start in his pro football career. He had 18.0 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, and one defensive touchdown off a fumble recovery in his first three seasons from 1964 to 1966.
When Grant became the Vikings’ head coach in 1967, Carl Eller’s pro football career reached unprecedented heights.
Eller reached double-digit sack totals seven times in nine seasons from 1969 to 1977. His career-high 15.0 sacks led the NFL in 1969 – the year the Vikings won twelve games and their only NFL Championship in franchise history.
Alas, they lost to Len Dawson’s Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV that year, 23-7.
Nevertheless, Carl Eller racked up various football-related accolades from 1968 to 1974. He earned six Pro Bowl, five First-Team All-Pro, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections during that seven-season time frame. The league also proclaimed Eller the 1971 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Eller also excelled on special teams. He earned a reputation as an excellent kick blocker who thwarted field goal attempts in the most critical moments of a game.
Although Carl Eller was hitting his stride on the gridiron, his struggles off it continued.
Eller told The Washington Post that he curbed his drinking habit halfway through his football career.
However, he stumbled upon cocaine when he visited a friend in Detroit, MI in the early 1970s. It led to a downward spiral that took a massive toll on Eller’s family life and finances.
Eller, the Vikings’ left defensive end, had several memorable battles with St. Louis Cardinals right tackle Dan Dierdorf in the early 1970s.
Dierdorf was just 23 years old and in his second NFL season when he squared off against Eller for the first time on October 8, 1972. The latter was already a nine-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman at the time.
Dierdorf, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996, was on pins and needles in the days leading up to the game against Eller and Co.
In a special first-person essay Dierdorf wrote for Eller’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, the former remembered watching Carl and the Vikings during his high school days in Ohio and college days at the University of Michigan.
Dierdorf also recalled not sleeping much the night before his much-anticipated matchup against Eller. Fortunately for Dierdorf and the Cardinals, they beat the Vikings on the road, 19-17.
Eller scared the living daylights out of Dierdorf, who thought he was one of the most menacing pass rushers he ever faced in his NFL career.
“Carl, you were just a scary-looking guy,” Dierdorf wrote in his first-person essay in 2004. “You had this very deep baritone voice and the whole package was something. I couldn’t let you know it then, but you rattled me a little bit!”
The Vikings and Cardinals split their four meetings featuring Eller and Dierdorf from 1972 to 1977. In the Vikings’ two wins, they won by an average of ten points. On the other hand, the Cardinals won by an average of eleven points in their two victories against Minnesota.
After spending his first 15 pro football seasons in frigid Minnesota, Carl Eller took his act to the Pacific Northwest and signed with the Seattle Seahawks before the 1979 NFL campaign.
Eller played in 16 games and started eight for Seahawks head coach Jack Patera that year.
The Seahawks, who were in their fourth year of existence, enjoyed their best season to date in 1979. Although they won nine games for the second consecutive year, they missed the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Carl Eller retired from pro football following the 1979 NFL season. He had 133.5 sacks, 23 fumble recoveries, one defensive touchdown off a fumble recovery, and one interception in his legendary 16-year NFL career.
Eller admitted to The New York Times‘ Ken Belson in February 2018 that he struggled with substance abuse issues in his last six seasons in the National Football League.
To make matters worse, his investments did not gain much traction. Consequently, Eller had to file for bankruptcy in 1980.
According to court records The Washington Post obtained, Eller’s debts amounted to $116,000. He had to put his Minneapolis liquor store on the market.
“It was really damaging to me and my family,” Eller told Belson.
Eller told the Los Angeles Times‘ Betty Cuniberti in the summer of 1985 that he spent roughly $2,000 per week of his $100,000 NFL salary – one of the highest among defensive ends in the 1970s – on narcotics.
Carl Eller currently resides in the Minneapolis, MN area. He and his first wife had three children together. He married his second wife Molly in the spring of 2017.
Happy Birthday to my lovely wife Molly! 💜 Today we are at one of our favorite places. A perfect way to celebrate her birthday. pic.twitter.com/X9Q3yIEPgg
— Carl Eller (@CarlEller81) October 21, 2022
Eller, who has a license in drug and alcohol counseling, ran a drug treatment facility known as Triumph Life Centers after he retired from pro football. He opened the facility in 1986.
His son, Regis, remembered seeing him emotionally spent when he came home from work every evening. Carl Eller used up his emotional reserves at the drug facility. By the time he got home, he could not interact with Regis anymore. Carl’s wife had to explain to Regis why he acted like that.
One day, a patient at the rehab center left the program early. Carl considered that a failure on his part – the man could relapse and become a menace to society.
Carl never gave up on him, though. He stopped at nothing to get him on the right path to sobriety.
Eller also worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Services after he retired from the NFL. He helped address racial inequality and related health issues during his time with the organization.
Carl Eller became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2004. His son, Regis, a scout for the then-San Diego Chargers, was his presenter.
Several months after Eller found out about his induction, his high school principal, the same man who suggested he channel his negative energy onto the football field almost fifty years earlier, called him.
When Carl addressed the crowd in Canton, OH, he told them it was an eerie experience he won’t soon forget.
When Regis Eller presented his dad, he remembered an incident during his childhood that showed Carl’s commitment and love as a father.
Carl took Regis to a Minnesota Twins baseball game one day. Unfortunately, a female motorist ran a red light and collided with their vehicle on their way home.
Regis bore the brunt of the impact because the other car hit his dad’s vehicle on the passenger side. Although Carl was visibly shaken when he saw his son critically injured, he held Regis’s hands and told him he was going to be fine. That was the latter’s first memory of that mishap.
Carl looked after his son at the hospital for the next two weeks. Fast forward many years later, Regis told the crowd in Canton, OH that’s how a real father should love his children.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Regis Eller said. “He has given me a vision of the caring a father should give his son and a vision of the father I want to be and everyone should have.”
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 25, 2019
Part of Carl Eller’s enshrinement speech reads:
“If you have courage, you can overcome; you can conquer fear and you can conquer despair. And you must be committed to your goals and to your cause. And commitment means being bound to a course of action – spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. These two things separate the winners from the losers.”
Eller is also a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the “M” Club Hall of Fame (the University of Minnesota Athletics Hall of Fame), the Minnesota Vikings 25th Anniversary Team, the Minnesota Vikings 40th Anniversary Team, and the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor.
Carl Eller ran afoul of the law several times during his retirement years. Minneapolis authorities arrested him for DUI in February 2006.
A state trooper pulled Eller over for driving 97 mph in a 55 mph zone. Police released him on a $500 bail, per KSTP-TV (via The Associated Press and ESPN).
Eller got in trouble with the law again two years later. Police arrested Eller on suspicion of DUI on April 9, 2008.
Eller speeding through a stop sign in North Minneapolis prompted police officers to give chase. Eller’s SUV finally stopped when they arrived at his garage at 1 a.m.
After Eller initially refused to disembark from his SUV, he got into a scuffle with police. He even threw an officer onto his car’s hood.
Authorities tried to taze Eller, to no avail. Even at 66 years of age, the former “Purple People Eater” was just too strong. One officer even sustained a black eye and bruises in the melee. Police had to employ a neck hold on Eller until backup arrived.
When police took Eller into custody at Hennepin County Jail, he did not want to take a breath or blood test.
Hennepin County District Judge Dan Mabley convicted Eller of two gross misdemeanor charges that incurred a total of $1,500 in fines per charge nine months later.
Mabley concluded that Eller drank at a Minneapolis bar before his scuffle with authorities in April 2008. Mabley sentenced the Vikings great to 60 days in the county workhouse in February 2009.
Eller embarked on a college teaching career in 2015. He began teaching the course “Game Plan Two” for current and future pro football players that year.
The course aims to help the players ease their transition from their playing days into retirement, per Walters. Eller eventually became the president of the NFL Retired Players Association in later years.
Arts and ceramics captured Carl Eller’s imagination during his high school days in North Carolina. He eventually displayed several pieces of his artwork in an exhibit he called “Lakes” at the Minnesota Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016.
“Any piece of art is a labor of love, the hours, the time, the thought, all that goes into it,” Eller told ProFootballHOF.com. “It’s not just appreciating the art, it’s appreciating what (the artist) was trying to do and say.”
Shortly after Eller married his second wife Molly in 2017, he underwent a bone marrow transplant to treat his multiple myeloma – a type of bone marrow cancer – at the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester, MN.
Eller’s bone marrow transplant was successful, per The Daily Freeman-Journal sports editor Troy Banning.
Halberd Corporation signed Eller as a consultant in the summer of 2020. The organization aims to help develop treatments for serious ailments such as cancer, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and PTSD, per its official website.
Eller appeared in several movies including Busting, Taggart, and the Black Six during his retirement years.
According to The New York Times, Carl Eller remains a prominent and popular figure in the Twin Cities. He frequently attends Minnesota Vikings games and schmoozes with fans who stop him in public.