The Hall of Fame Series: Chris Doleman
Class of 2012
Tenure: Minnesota 1985-93, 99
San Francisco 1996-98
In the history of the NFL, few players have been as productive along the defensive line as Chris Doleman. The fourth overall selection in 1985, Doleman began his career as an outside linebacker. His production was modest his first two seasons as he only recorded 1.5 sacks through 29 games. However, with three games left in the 1986 season, Minnesota made a franchise-altering decision and moved Doleman to defensive end. He recorded two sacks in the final three games, and a Hall of Fame career was ignited.
Doleman racked up 11 sacks during the strike-shortened 1987 season, adding three more in the Vikings’ NFC Championship run. Standing 6-5 and weighing 289 pounds, Doleman used an unusual blend of speed, power, and leverage that terrorized linemen. He led the league with an insane six forced fumbles as well on his way to earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl and was also recognized as second-team All-Pro.
Another Pro Bowl followed in 1988, but it was in 1989 when Doleman and the talented defensive line all came together and produced one of the most ferocious pass rushes in league history. Doleman set a team record (since broken by Jared Allen) with 21.0 sacks. The mark still ranks tied for fifth-most since sacks became an official stat in 1982. He also got help from his fellow linemen. Defensive tackle Keith Millard recorded 18.5 sacks from the inside, fellow defensive end Al Noga got to the quarterback for 11.5 sacks, and defensive tackle Henry Thomas added nine sacks as well. The team’s 71 total sacks rank second in league history and were seven more than even the 1985 Bears defense accumulated.
By the time Doleman left the Vikings following the 1993 season, he was selected to six Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pros, and the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. He continued his success as he went to play for the Falcons during the 1994 and 1995 seasons. During his time in Atlanta, Doleman added 16 sacks to his resume and he was once again selected to the Pro Bowl in 1995.
After the 1995 season, Doleman went to the Falcons’ AFC West rival (things were weird back then), the San Francisco 49ers. Doleman was very good in Atlanta, but he had a career resurgence in San Fran. He recorded 38 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, and two interceptions in three seasons with the Niners. Somehow, he was only selected to one Pro Bowl during this time (following the 1997 season). Believing his career was over, Doleman announced his retirement following the 1998 season even after he tallied 15 sacks at age 37, the second-highest total of his career.
In his mind, Doleman knew he would only come back to play for one other team. When the Vikings came calling in 1999, Doleman returned for one final ride. He posted a very respectable eight sacks in 14 games, the third-highest mark on the team. He finally hung it up for good following the season.
When it was all said and done, Doleman had recorded 150.5 sacks during his career, a mark that still ranks fifth all-time. He intercepted eight passes, returning two for touchdowns. But the stat that stands out is that Doleman forced 44 fumbles in his career at a time when the strip sack wasn’t the science that it is today. His 44 forced fumbles were more than fellow Hall of Famers Bruce Smith (43), Reggie White (33), and Kevin Greene (23). For his efforts, Doleman was selected to the 1990s All-Decade Team.
It took a while for the Hall of Fame voting process to get it right and select Doleman, but he finally got inducted in 2012. He was the fourth Vikings defensive lineman inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he couldn’t have come in at a better time for the Vikings. With Bud Grant retiring following the 1985 season, part of the Vikings’ identity had changed. But with Doleman finding his stride in 1987, he continued the tradition of spectacular defensive linemen that had donned the purple since the team’s early years.
Unfortunately, following a battle with brain cancer, Doleman passed away on January 28, 2020 at the age of 58. He underwent surgery in January of 2018 to remove a tumor in the brain and battled glioblastoma over the next two years.
Chris Doleman was a man of character and he played the game for all the right reasons. “I played for God, family and teams,” he said. “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.”