Tom Clancy's Gridiron Dreams

The author may be about to reinvent himself again

There are no nuclear-powered subs patrolling Lake Minnetonka. So maybe this isn't your classic Tom Clancy plotline. Still, in Minnesota these days, you could say life is imitating a thriller. Every day seems to bring a new, unforeseen twist in the best-selling author's bid to buy the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings.

Clancy, a serious sports fan and minority shareholder in the Baltimore Orioles, appears likely to nab the Vikes for a reported $205 million, a record price for an NFL franchise. Nine of the present Vikings owners have signed a sale agreement with Clancy, partner Marc Ganis, and others Clancy has yet to identify. The tenth, team President Roger Headrick, wants no part of the author turned aspiring sports mogul.

Headrick, who leads a competing group, claims he has right of first refusal and has offered to match Clancy's price. The final arbiter apparently will be NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who is scheduled to hear from both sides at a hearing on Feb. 19 in New York. Clancy appears unfazed. Despite the cloud of doubt, the glib, chain-smoking author of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games showed up in Minneapolis to stake his claim to the Vikings and do so with a prop: Speaking to reporters, he waved an executed copy of the sale contract in the air. "Mr. Headrick is wasting his time and using up whatever minuscule good press he might have had," Clancy says. "If I were Darth Vader, I'd be more popular." Maybe so. In an Internet poll, Vikings supporters preferred Clancy to Headrick 98% to 2%.

FED UP. For one thing, Clancy has reassured Minnesota fans fed up with the departure of the pro hockey franchise and possible exit of the Twins. He pledges that the Vikes will remain in the Twin Cities. "A sports franchise is a public trust. I'll treat it that way," he says. With an estimated annual income of $50 million, Clancy can afford such promises.

He wasn't always so flush. In his first life, Clancy spent about 15 years selling insurance in Owings, Md. The office staff consisted of Clancy, a secretary, and a part-time bookkeeper: Clancy's wife Wanda, from whom he is separated. "I don't know that I ever enjoyed it. But I made a decent living at it," he says.

In the early 1980s, agent Clancy began telling friends about a novel he was working on in his off hours. "I remember thinking at the time, `Great, Tom, you're writing a book. Isn't everybody?' Who knew he was writing one of the great American novels?" recalls longtime friend Fred Arscott. The book was The Hunt for Red October. Arscott recalls that Clancy didn't give up his insurance license until after his third book was published. "He wanted to make sure he wasn't a one-hit wonder," says Arscott.

"Not in my wildest nightmares did I think it would go this far," Clancy says. "I guess I got lucky. And luck counts."

Fifteen years after Hunt, about 200 million of Clancy's books are in print. His next novel, due in August, boasts a hardcover first printing of 2 million--equaled only by John Grisham. Today, Clancy is a multimedia conglomerate. Last September, he signed a five-year, $100 million deal to produce an array of products, including two new novels, CD-ROM games, and numerous paperbacks.

With his wealth, Clancy, 50, has indulged his passion for sports. Since 1993, he has owned a $20 million chunk of the Orioles, a substantial investment but still a minority stake. Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos holds a controlling share and runs the club. Clancy gets a largely ceremonial title (vice-chairman for community projects), plus an 18-seat skybox behind home plate. And, adds the author, "there's a pretty good tax break."

His true passion, though, is football. As a kid, he followed the Baltimore Colts and attended the same church as Johnny Unitas. The Colts left Baltimore in 1984, and in the 1990s, Clancy led an investor group that tried to snag an NFL expansion franchise for the city. He also tried to buy the Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Clancy's current bid surpasses the $200 million paid for the Seattle Seahawks last season by Paul Allen. And in doing so, it boosts the value of other franchises, already feeling fat from $17.6 billion in new TV contracts. Chortles Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell: "The price of poker keeps going up." Will Tom Clancy get a seat at the table? That ending hasn't been written yet.