Coach at center of Vikings’ mess flew Navy helicopters

Vikings assistant and Naval Academy grad Mike Priefer (USA Today Sports photo)

Vikings assistant and Naval Academy grad Mike Priefer (USA Today Sports photo)

In about a week, Minnesota Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer has gone from seeing his name on a watch list for NFL head-coaching jobs published by a newspaper of note to seeing it on the wrong end of what could be career-killing allegations.

Priefer, a Naval Academy grad who reportedly flew helicopters as part of SEAL missions in the early 1990s, stands accused by former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe of “using homophobic language in my presence” in a response to Kluwe’s outspoken support of gay rights — outspokenness that, the punter says, cost him his job last May.

Kluwe gave his side in an article he penned for the sports blog Deadspin, titled “I was an NFL Player Until I was Fired by Two Cowards and a Bigot.” Priefer’s labeled “The Bigot” in an image atop the piece. Published Thursday, it’s been read nearly 4 million times.

Kluwe offers multiple reasons for telling his story in this fashion and so long after his dismissal. One of them is fairly straightforward: “If there’s one thing I hope to achieve from sharing this story, it’s to make sure that Mike Priefer never holds a coaching position again in the NFL, and ideally never coaches at any level.”

Priefer’s response, which came hours after Kluwe’s article went up, was just as straightforward, reading in part: “I vehemently deny today’s allegations made by Chris Kluwe.” A Vikings response was also fairly clear, reading in part: “Any notion that Chris was released from our football team due to his stance on marriage equality is entirely inaccurate and inconsistent with team policy.”

The Vikings have begun an investigation into Kluwe’s claims and have not disciplined Priefer. They fired his boss, head coach Leslie Frazier, days before Kluwe’s claims went public. There are no indications that firing is related to this individual player transaction — it is much more likely to be related to the team’s last-place finish in the NFC North — but new coaches often mean new staffs, and it’s possible Priefer’s job could be in jeopardy regardless of how this incident plays out.

A number of Vikings players have come out in support of Priefer, including kicker Blair Walsh. Kluwe, in an interview with USA Today, said he has “multiple witnesses” to Priefer’s statements, but didn’t name them and said he has no recordings of any of the alleged conversations. No players have publicly confirmed Kluwe’s allegations.

Priefer graduated from the academy in 1989 after playing on the sprint football team. He earned a Navy Achievement Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal and National Defense Service Medal during his time in service, according to an alumni register published by the Naval Academy Alumni Association, and left as a lieutenant; personnel records were not immediately available.

He returned to Annapolis as an assistant coach in 1994, then made several more stops in the collegiate ranks before catching on with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a special teams assistant. He ran the special teams for the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos before taking the Vikings job in 2011. Much of the press he’d earned as an NFL assistant coach centered on his Navy experience.