The Minnesota Vikings have had talented defensive ends play for the organization through the years.
Names such as Carl Eller, Bob Lurtsema, Jared Allen, and Chris Doleman come to mind when discussing the ends who starred for the Vikings’ defense.
Doleman was a ruthless defender who terrorized quarterbacks for Minnesota during the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s.
During the 1989 season alone, Doleman led the NFL in sacks with 21.
The 1989 Minnesota Vikings Defense was one of the BEST in football. The unit had 71 QB Sacks. DE Chris Doleman had 21 QB Sacks & DT Keith Millard had 18.5 QB Sacks…. pic.twitter.com/HBECO7gEql
— Anthony (Tony) Bell (@Tbell6613) January 30, 2020
That number also set a new Vikings record.
After leaving Minnesota, Doleman played five years with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers before returning for one final season with the Vikings.
His play on the gridiron led to Doleman joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Sadly, eight years after his induction, Doleman passed away due to brain cancer.
This is the story of Chris Doleman.
Growing Up in Pennsylvania
Christopher John Doleman was born on October 16, 1961, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Happy Birthday to #Vikings legend and @ProFootballHOF DE Chris Doleman! pic.twitter.com/IGsj25mdGj
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 16, 2018
After the Doleman family relocated to Pennsylvania during his youth, Chris began playing football in elementary school.
“I started playing football at 8 years old at the Boys Club in York, Pennsylvania,” Doleman said. “At that time, I wanted to be a starter on the team. Then after I was a starter, I wanted to play more.”
Just before beginning his prep career, Doleman had a growth spurt and was well over 6’0” by the time he entered high school and used that height to excel as a basketball and volleyball player.
Another Burman blast from the past and one of the greatest District-3 "AAA" boys high school basketball championship game ever.
York High, led by Steve Orr and future NFL great Chris Doleman, beats Central Dauphin East, 77-75 at the Farm Show Arena. pic.twitter.com/u9nWxH76Ul
— David Ross Burman (@ross_burman) December 21, 2021
However, Doleman was most excited at the prospect of playing under the Friday Night Lights.
“York was Small Town, USA,” Doleman said. “As you might imagine, high school sports was king, especially on Friday nights. Playing football was everything.”
However, his playing experience at William Penn Senior High School in York, Pennsylvania was a bit unorthodox.
Days before the start of his junior year, the teachers went on strike and the football team did not have a head football coach.
The season went ahead as scheduled, but without a head coach, and the team was essentially a rudderless ship.
During Doleman’s senior year, his new coach suffered a heart attack, and the program was once again left without a head coach.
Chris Doleman pic.twitter.com/VhHksmDazN
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) January 29, 2020
Two consecutive seasons without proper coaching left Doleman at a crossroads about what his future looked like.
Pitt Comes Calling
Apparently, Doleman had done well enough on the gridiron at York High School that the coaches at Temple University offered him a scholarship.
He had been an all-state player during his prep career, but it was his performance at a high school showcase game that changed Doleman’s future.
“I was never known as the high school All-America type,” Doleman remembered. “I only had one honor in high school that was all-state. But I played in the Big 33 game… Jackie Sherrill (University of Pittsburgh head football coach) saw me and said I was the best player out there. Pitt started recruiting me heavier after that game.”
Sherrill saw the potential in Doleman and suggested that he get more training at Valley Forge Military Academy for a year before going to college.
Doleman and his parents agreed and turned down the offer from Temple.
Rest In Peace Chris Doleman! NFL Hall of Famer! Another Pitt Legend gone too soon! pic.twitter.com/HbtZJ7ZH2D
— LeeBaron (@leebaron_h2p) January 29, 2020
After spending a year at Valley Forge, Doleman became a member of the Pitt Panthers football team.
Doleman Thrives as a Freshman
As Doleman was entering Pitt in 1981, Rickey Jackson was exiting the program.
Jackson had been “the other end” to teammate Hugh Green, and the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with in the late ’70s.
In 1980, Pitt won 11 games and ended the season ranked second in the nation.
Jackson was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft and would have a hall-of-fame career in the pros.
Doleman wanted to pick up where Jackson left off.
Through hard work, he became the Panthers’ starter at left defensive end by the third game of his freshman year.
For the third year in a row, Pitt finished 11-1 in 1981 and Doleman flashed greatness with 12 sacks, 45 total tackles, and four passes defended.
#RIP Chris Doleman @Pitt_FB #SuperBowlLIV pic.twitter.com/qt8Gp6224K
— College Football Hall of Fame (@cfbhall) February 2, 2020
He was a member of the Panthers’ top-ranked defense. Pitt wrapped up their season with a 24-20 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl.
After the season, Sherrill took a job with Texas A&M and was replaced at Pitt by Foge Fazio.
Doleman didn’t have as many sacks in 1982 as he did during his freshman campaign, but the Panthers still had a respectable 9-3 overall record.
Doleman Makes a Name for Himself
The Panthers won eight games under Fazio in 1983 and Doleman continued to perform well for the Panthers.
He became such a standout player that the Panthers’ fan base began comparing Doleman to Jackson.
It became clear to Fazio and his staff that Doleman was a defensive dynamo and an example to his teammates.
“Sometimes we’ll stop the game film just to point out to the team Chris’s desire and hustle to get there,” Fazio said.
In 1984, Pitt was predicted to finish in the top five nationally then promptly dropped their first four games.
Chris Doleman • 1981-84
• Pro Football HOF
• '84 Captain, 25 Sacks at Pitt
• 4th Overall Pick by MIN
• NFL: 8 Pro Bowls, 150 Sacks
Rickey Jackson • 1977-80
• Pro Football HOF
• 18th at Pitt, Tackles (290)
• NFL: 6 Pro Bowls, 128 Sacks, 41 FF#H2P • #PittPlayerBracket pic.twitter.com/JC9L8fhNBG
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) April 21, 2020
The Panthers would end the year with three wins and a tie.
Despite the team’s poor record, Doleman was named a team captain (along with Bill Fralic and Troy Benson). He ended his college career with 25 total sacks, the third best in team history.
Fourth Overall Pick
Even though Pitt struggled during Doleman’s senior season, pro scouts still loved what they saw in him.
By then, he was a 6’5”, 290-pound machine with speed, leverage, and a burning desire to get to the quarterback.
The 1985 NFL Draft was filled with great defenders, and that was evident when the Buffalo Bills selected Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith first overall.
Fralic, an offensive lineman and Doleman’s teammate at Pitt, was taken second by the Atlanta Falcons.
Texas A&M defensive tackle Ray Childress was taken by the Houston Oilers next, followed by Doleman to the Minnesota Vikings.
Vikings head coach Bud Grant started Doleman at outside linebacker 13 times during the 1985 season. The rookie didn’t disappoint.
There is only one week until the @NFL Draft, and we’re sharing stories of VFMAC graduates who excelled in the NFL. Former NFL defensive end and VFMA graduate Chris Doleman was drafted in the first round of the 1985 draft to the @Vikings. In his impressive 15-year career, pic.twitter.com/KdHJO3H5Do
— VFMAC (@VFMAC) April 19, 2018
While the Vikings were barely treading water through a 7-9 season, Doleman had 113 combined tackles, one interception, and a half-sack.
His stats got Doleman a spot on the PFWA’s All-Rookie Team.
Then, in 1986, Doleman got nine starts and produced 49 total tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pick-six during coach Jerry Burns’s first year with the club.
Doleman Becomes a Sack Artist
Beginning in the early 1980s, the NFL experienced a new wave of pass rushers.
They were tall, fast, packed a punch, and were experts in sacking the quarterback.
Lawrence Taylor of the Giants began the trend from his outside linebacker position.
Then, there were names like Richard Dent, Mark Gastineau, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Leslie O’Neal, and Pat Swilling.
Each player turned harassing the quarterback into an art form and helped turn their respective teams’ fortunes around.
1987 in Anaheim playing the LA Rams. #56 Chris Doleman played in his 1st Pro Bowl after the season….. pic.twitter.com/Xb4JbfRyBU
— Anthony (Tony) Bell (@Tbell6613) January 30, 2020
Doleman was Minnesota’s contribution to the 1980s pass-rushing craze.
In 1987, he tallied 11 sacks and an NFL-high six forced fumbles along with 57 total tackles.
“In the beginning, he struggled a little bit because going from linebacker to defensive line was a little adjustment,” former Vikings punter Greg Coleman said. “But we still rode him pretty good because we knew the potential that he had. Once he figured it out of how good and disruptive he could be as a D-lineman, the sky was the limit.”
Doleman’s stats led to the first of eight Pro Bowls and the first of three first-team All-Pro selections.
Meanwhile, the Vikings continued riding Doleman’s success at just the right time.
After ending the strike-shortened ’87 season with an 8-7 record, Minnesota caught fire and beat New Orleans and San Francisco in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
During the upset of the top-seeded 49ers, Doleman had two sacks.
Chris Doleman sacks Joe Montana in the #Vikings 36-24 Playoff win over the 49ers in 1987. pic.twitter.com/uvY5ESrSmQ
— Ali Siddiqui (@asiddiqui15) September 4, 2018
The team was one game away from the Super Bowl before the Washington Redskins ended their season, 17-10, in the NFC Championship game.
One year later, Doleman collected eight sacks and 58 total tackles while the Vikes went 11-5 in 1988 and lost to the Niners in the Divisional round.
Doleman Leads the NFL in Sacks
“I just talked with Lawrence Taylor, and Doleman reminded me of Lawrence Taylor,” Coleman said years later. “You had to know where LT was at all times, and you had to worry about where Chris Doleman was, too.”
In 1989, several teams couldn’t locate Doleman in time, and the results spoke for themselves.
When the smoke cleared from Minnesota’s 10-6 regular season, Doleman sat atop the NFL with 21 sacks.
Chris Doleman had 21 sacks in 1989.
What makes it even more impressive is that teams didn’t used to pass as much as they do now. #vikings pic.twitter.com/LcQJcyK2lP
— Ali Siddiqui (@asiddiqui15) June 14, 2021
That was good for fourth-best all-time in the NFL and remained a Vikings record until Jared Allen broke it with 22 sacks in 2011.
“He was so explosive, and he had such great acceleration off the edge, and he was so good at strippin’ people because he had such great acceleration into contact,” former teammate Scott Studwell said. “He was a freak athlete. He was one of those guys… I guess I would compare him to a Randy Moss on the other side of the ball.”
Unfortunately, Doleman couldn’t help the Vikings in the postseason. San Francisco ended Minnesota’s season for the second year in a row in the Divisional round.
More Sacks for Doleman
Over the next four years, the Vikings struggled with consistency and made the playoffs only twice in that span, under new coach Dennis Green.
Doleman was one of the bright spots, however.
Defensive Line Coach John Teerlink coaching Henry Thomas, Chris Doleman, Brad Culpepper and more in training camp 1992. @HenryThomasNFL #vikings pic.twitter.com/rCt5KvUMxI
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) July 27, 2019
Between 1990 and 1993, he had double-digit sacks in three of the four years. This includes 14.5 in 1992 (when he also led the league in forced fumbles, again, with six).
“I watched a lot of tape on him. There are players in sports who seem to be ahead of the curve,” Vikings radio voice Paul Allen said. “Chris’s ability to get off the ball and turn the corner and bend and use his body like that was honestly ahead of his time. He set the pace for that style of rushing.”
Doleman’s game brought him more Pro Bowl and All-Pro awards as well as the respect of his teammates.
“He had that one-arm technique that he came up with,” said former Vikings guard Randall McDaniel. “He was one-of-a-kind. I got to watch him play and watch the year he had 21 sacks. He was phenomenal on the field.”
Trade to Atlanta
During the spring of 1994, the Vikings decided that the organization’s future didn’t include Doleman and traded him to the Atlanta Falcons.
In exchange, Minnesota received draft picks in 1994 and 1995.
The Vikings turned those picks into David Palmer, who played receiver and returned kicks for the team, and defensive end Derrick Alexander.
Alexander was a star at Florida State before joining Minnesota in 1995.
Sweet Falcons throwback from 1994. RIP Chris Doleman. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/KABq3ey5gi
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) June 3, 2022
Doleman spent two years in Atlanta and started 23 games, collected 16 total sacks, and returned to the Pro Bowl in 1995.
His replacement, Alexander, recorded 17.5 sacks total in his four-year career as a Viking, which ended in 1998.
Doleman Becomes a 49er
In the spring of 1996, Doleman was a free agent.
He was turning 35 that season, but there weren’t many pass rushers available in the market with Doleman’s skill set.
The San Francisco 49ers believed he still had something to offer and signed Doleman to a five-year deal worth $12.5 million.
Doleman’s contract included a $3.4 million signing bonus, the largest in club history.
Chris Doleman about to put the Ache in Aikman. #49ers pic.twitter.com/2gE62irMHD
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) May 3, 2022
San Francisco was coming off an 11-5 season and a playoff loss to Green Bay.
With Doleman as a member of their roster, the ’96 Niners boasted the NFL’s fourth-best defense, went 12-4, and lost to the Packers again in the postseason.
Doleman had 11 sacks and returned a fumble for a score that year.
In 1997, he had 12 sacks while San Fran won 13 games, beat Minnesota in the Divisional round, and lost for the third year in a row to Green Bay.
One year later, Doleman buried quarterbacks 15 times (second best of his career).
RIP former DE Chris Doleman who lost his battle to cancer at age 58. He had 38 Sacks for us in 3 short seasons. 🙏🙏 up to his family. #ChrisDoleman #49ers pic.twitter.com/ttha7snaks
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) January 29, 2020
San Francisco returned to the postseason and lost to the Falcons in the Divisional round.
After the season, Doleman decided to retire and get surgery for a torn pectoral muscle.
“This is it,” said Doleman. “You’ll miss (football), but it’s time to move on. It’s time to do different things.”
Doleman Ends His Career as a Viking
While Doleman was in Northern California in 1998, the Vikings were experiencing a 15-1 season.
Rookie receiver Randy Moss was a revelation for the franchise. He helped the team get to the playoffs before losing to Atlanta in the NFC Championship game.
In 1999, Doleman was offered an opportunity to return to Minnesota and he shunned retirement to come back to the land of 10,000 lakes.
“It is basically a chance to win a Super Bowl,” Doleman said at the time. “I watched John Elway lift his finger and walk off in the sunset. I felt I would like to have that opportunity. You know, 14 years and I’ve never had a chance to win a championship.”
He started 12 games that year and had eight sacks and 53 total tackles.
Born #OTD 10/16/1961 Chris Doleman (1985-93 #Vikings, 1994-95 #Falcons, 1996-98 #49ers, 1999 #Vikings). @ProFootballHOF #NFL pic.twitter.com/rpGBuRvVfd
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) October 16, 2016
Minnesota went 10-6 and beat Dallas in the Wild Card round before losing to the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams in the Divisional round.
Although he could still play, Doleman finally did retire in the spring of 2000.
Throughout his career, Doleman racked up 150.5 sacks (which is still good for seventh all-time), 44 forced fumbles with one returned for a score, eight interceptions and two pick-sixes, and 975 combined tackles.
He was a five-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler, NFL sack leader once, and NFL forced fumbles leader.
Doleman has been named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and has been named one of the 50 Greatest Vikings and placed in Minnesota’s Ring of Honor.
Doleman Succumbs to Cancer
In retirement, Doleman lived the good life playing golf and sipping fine wine.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I played for God, family, and teams,” reads Doleman’s Hall bio. “My teammates were very important to me, but I always knew that I wanted to honor God. I never wanted to embarrass my family by playing bad, doing something that would bring shame to them, and my teammates, I owed that to them. I owed them the best performance that I could give them, week in, week out.”
Doleman was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017 and had surgery to remove a tumor in January 2018.
The cancer, glioblastoma, returned and took Doleman’s life on January 28, 2020.
We express our deepest sympathies to Chris Doleman’s family and friends upon his passing. pic.twitter.com/4smc4gn5PY
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 29, 2020
He was 58 years old.
“The Minnesota Vikings express our deepest sympathies to Chris Doleman’s family and friends upon his passing,” the team said in a statement. “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. Chris always carried himself with dignity and class. Vikings fans worldwide will greatly miss him.”
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