Your Personal Best: Off the Bench with Alan Page

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page is as thoughtful and deliberate in conversation as he was agile and fierce during his 15-year Hall of Fame career in the National Football League. The 65-year-old judge is a living testament to the saying he calls his guiding light: “Success is not a destination, but a journey.”

“You may have goals and achieve them, but that does not necessarily mean you are successful. It’s the manner of travel, at least to me, that is significant,” he says.

“Having self-confidence and knowing who I am has allowed me to accomplish much of what I’ve done, certainly on the athletic field and I suspect in the legal field as well,” he says. “Doing what you believe to be right is as important—and perhaps more so—as whatever the end result may be.”

The end results for Page are impressive—sterling football and legal careers, and a foundation that has provided an opportunity for thousands of youths to find a successful life.

Page disdains the hero worship that often accompanies sports fame. Yet, although he has practiced law and served on the Minnesota Supreme Court 10 years longer than he played organized football, he is still known as one of the “Purple People Eaters,” the nickname (“frivolous,” he says) applied to the fierce defenses that carried Minnesota to four Super Bowl appearances.

His dogged pursuit and agility made the Canton, Ohio-born Page the first defender to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, in 1971.

But as a youth growing up in Canton, a career in football or the law didn’t seem probable. “Somebody like me, if things went well, would end up in a steel mill,” he says. He didn’t take up football until the ninth grade, and mostly participated because his brother played. Page knew little about legal careers or lawyers, although he recalls reading about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954-55, and was aware the Supreme Court’s decision affected him. As he grew older, law seemed to be a good fit.

Page’s mother and father, a bartender with limited schooling, preached the importance of education, “and although they never expressed it exactly like this, they instilled in me a sense that seeking excellence was important,” he says.

“They would tell me time and again that if you are going to do something, do it as well as you can,” he recalls. “That means if you are going to be a garbage man, be the best garbage man you can be. That’s one thing that I remember clearly. The other thing that probably was important for me was the sense of love and affection they had for me, and the sense of security that provided.”

Page lost his mother at the critical age of 13, an obstacle as “big as they get,” he admits, but “other than that, I’ve had a pretty fortunate life.”

While football may not have seemed his calling, Page proved a phenom on the field, opening the door to a Notre Dame scholarship, where he would encounter a coach who changed his way of thinking.

“Up to the point Coach [Ara] Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame, I was just playing the game, without a real sense of what the game was about,” he explains. “Coach articulated his philosophy of the game in a clear and concise way—that football is a game of blocking and tackling, of field position and possession, and the team that maintains field position and possession the longest is likely to win. Good things will happen. You maintain both by minimizing your mistakes, which lessens the other team’s opportunities. It was like turning on a light for me.”

Page came to realize playing football “teaches you that those successes and failures don’t determine who you are,” he says. “They don’t make you a better or worse person. They are experiences you grow from, but they don’t identify you.”

He chuckles as he admits he was the toughest competitor he ever faced on the field. “My simple focus was to do my job well—that was all I could control,” he says. “If your focus is competing at the level of your competition, you absolutely lose.”

Page was a three-year starter at Notre Dame and a consensus All-American who led the Fighting Irish to the 1966 national championship as a senior. The Vikings snapped him up as the 15th pick in the 1967 NFL draft.

Page re-invented the tackle position, using his speed, strength and quick reflexes to wreak havoc on his opponents. He played in 236 straight games and in nine straight Pro Bowls. Notably, in 1979, Page became the first active NFL player to complete a marathon, much to the consternation of his coaches, who thought it kept his weight down too much. (He still runs today—“You could call it that,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve slowed up a lot. This getting old is not pretty.”)

Law school proved a different kind of game for Page. In 1968, after his first year with the Vikings, he enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law in Minneapolis. But he dropped out after three weeks, thinking he was in over his head. “Everybody was going through the same thing, but I didn’t realize that at the time.”

Like he had done repeatedly on the football field, he recovered. He adapted, and tried again at the University of Minnesota Law School, earning his law degree in 1978. This time, “I was more focused and committed, and prepared to endure whatever difficulties law school would pose,” he says. “In the end, the experience of dropping out was beneficial.”

Page, who has four children, all grown and successful, was the first African-American to sit on the Minnesota Supreme Court when elected in 1992. He previously served as assistant attorney general for Minnesota, starting in 1987, concentrating on employment litigation, and worked at a Minneapolis law firm. He is running for re-election for his last eligible six-year term.

The biggest lesson he’s learned as a justice is one he first encountered as a child. “People are human; they have good and not so good in them. Everyone is entitled to be considered as a human being, no matter what position they find themselves in.”

When Page was selected to the Hall of Fame, he and wife Diane began discussing ways they could make the induction more meaningful. “While the recognition was nice, there had to be something more to take from it than ‘Gee, weren’t you a great football player.’ ”

As an employment lawyer, Page had witnessed many cases where clients were denied employment because they were not “qualified.” So, the Pages concluded that encouraging young people to pursue education seemed a worthy goal.

When Page came home to Canton to become enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988, he and his wife established the Page Education Foundation to provide educational grants to students of color to attend colleges and universities in Minnesota and at Notre Dame. One of the Pages’ daughters came up with the idea that grant recipients give back by working with young people in the area of education.

Since its inception, the Page Education Foundation has awarded grants of more than $2 million to more than 4,100 recipients, who have given more than 300,000 hours of their time to younger children.

On a fairly regular basis, Page will run into one of his Page Scholars, whom he calls stars. He encountered such a shooting star about two months ago, when Page talked to a Chamber of Commerce group in a small town in Minnesota.

“Shortly after I agreed to give the talk, a young man came into the Chamber office wanting to join,” Page explains. “He had just started a restaurant in the town. He was told one of the upcoming activities was that Alan Page was coming to speak. It turns out he was a former Page Scholar. That’s the kind of thing that is so rewarding, that it makes it worth all the time and energy.”

For the justice from Canton, who is enshrined in Canton, it’s just another part of a successful journey.

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