Hello & Goodbye: One Last Chance

It was Friday morning. I had my bag packed, my to-do list all checked off, and a tingling of anticipation and excitement in my stomach. For the first time, I was going to the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp. I loaded up my car, gave my dog a final scratch behind the ear, and told her to be good for her sitter. I double-checked my phone to make sure I had downloaded all the podcasts I could for the nearly four hour drive down from Duluth. I was set. I backed out of the driveway and hit the road.

My name’s Alex. I’ve been a lifelong Vikings fan, but this past weekend was the first time I’ve ever experienced training camp. My mom was the one who influenced my fandom, and while I suppose my dad would say ‘Vikings’ if he was forced to make a pick, he has very little patience for football games if things don’t look like they’re going to end well for his team. We lived in Aitkin, and since Mankato is a considerably long drive, it was never on my parents’ radar for an outing as a family. We usually went to at least one Twins game every summer, but that was about all for our live sports. When I grew up and moved to Duluth, the drive became even longer, and while I was interested, it’s far too easy to make excuses when it’s four hours away and your friends don’t share the same affinity you do for the team. When it became apparent that this was going to be the final year of training camp in Mankato, I knew it was now or never. I booked an Airbnb and took the Friday before the night scrimmage off from work. I was going to training camp.

My well-worn Saturn carried me all the way from Duluth to Mankato without a hitch, and I checked in to my Airbnb in the Historic District. Ready to see some damn football, I slathered on some thick 100 SPF sunscreen, dropped a power bank for my phone into my cargo shorts pocket, and requested a Lyft at the intersection. I had missed the morning walkthroughs, but I was just in time to arrive for the afternoon practice. I joined the swarm of rubes in purple jerseys as we flooded the village.

Friday’s Practice

I skipped most of the family attractions and went immediately to the practice field bleachers to claim my seat. The sun was bright and the aluminum seats were hot, but I was too excited to care. There was excited chatter among the rubes around me, and even though I didn’t know any of them, I still felt at home.

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The crowd stirred as players finally began to pour on to the field. Rodney Adams and Isaac Freuchte were the first to make their way out, but the others weren’t far behind. It was a lot to take in for someone who’s never attended a practice before, but I’ll do my best to recall everything I soaked in.

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Dalvin Cook immediately set up shop in the corner of the endzone right in front of where I was sitting. He ran through some ball security drills with a football tucked against him, a tether attached to the sides of the ball as someone yanked on the other end while he chopped his feet through a ladder pattern. I thought he looked pretty amazing then, but when he joined the other runningbacks for group drills, it was even more apparent how special of a player he is. I was a big fan of Dalvin Cook before the Vikings drafted him (and I’ve got the tweets to prove it, so you settle down over there) and I was ecstatic when we made the pick, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the least bit worried about him potentially being fool’s gold after 31 other teams allowed him to fall to the 41st pick. I know he hasn’t played a meaningful down yet, but watching him compared to our other backs in drills, I’m sold. At one point, they ran a drill where they laid pads horizontally on the grass and had the players approach each of them, chopping their feet before making their cut to the next one in what I’m assuming was a simulation to follow lead blockers. For each of our other runningbacks, you could see each step they made, but with Cook, it was hard to see his feet work with how quick he was moving. It wasn’t just pure speed, either. He made his cuts look smooth and effortless.

Jerick McKinnon looked very crisp as well, but after watching him play for a few years, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. What did surprise me was how fluid Bishop Sankey looked. He wasn’t at the same level as Cook or McKinnon, but I didn’t think he was far behind the latter. I could see how he was drafted in the second round, and while I don’t think it will be here, I believe there’s a place for him on another team’s roster and that he will get that opportunity if his preseason is as strong as his camp has been.

I thought CJ Ham looked solid as well, and while I’m not convinced that the Vikings will carry a fullback after roster cuts, I’m intrigued by the idea that Ham could still make the 53 if Latavius Murray isn’t healthy by the regular season. He’s a bigger body than Sankey and looks the part of a third-and-short or goal line bruiser. If nothing else, he’s a strong candidate to make the practice squad again.

Most of the linemen drills were either on the farther field or on the opposite side of where I was sitting, so I didn’t get a great look (and to be honest, I was largely enthralled by the skill position players) but I did make a point to watch Rashod Hill for a while. He won’t steal the left tackle position if Reiff is able to return, but he certainly seems to be developing into a serviceable backup, and any Vikings fan that suffered through the 2016 season knows the value in that. He didn’t win every battle, but for the most part, he held his own against Everson Griffen. Unless he regresses significantly, I believe he has a future with this team.

The one-on-ones were fun to watch as well, and I had a good view of them. One of my most anticipated matchups was for the backup quarterback position, and I had high hopes for Taylor Heinicke. I suppose it’s the allure of the unknown when you have a young guy who’s never taken an NFL snap before, where you hope that deep down in the soul of their potential is a Kurt Warner or a Tony Romo waiting to be unleashed. Well, if Heinicke has either of those, he didn’t reveal it to those in attendance, particularly in red zone drills. There was solid coverage on the receivers, but he was having a hard time connecting and was looking visibly flustered by it. Luckily for him, Case Keenum seemed to struggle just as much. At the end of practice, I would have given the win to Keenum, but not by a lot.

A big part of the reason for Heinicke and Keenum’s lack of success were the efforts of Antone Exum and Terrell Sinkfield, both players that I assumed in OTAs and minicamp wouldn’t have survived the 75-man cuts if they still existed. Both of them looked very sharp, constantly in the hip pocket of the receiver they were covering. Exum in particular looked to me like a guy who’s going to take that backup nickel corner role behind Mackensie Alexander and not let go. Sinkfield, who I assumed would be back on his way to the CFL after the cuts to 53, had the look of a guy securing his role on the practice squad.

Speaking of cornerbacks locking down receivers, while the crowd paid Moritz Böhringer a lot of attention and had some encouraging advice to shout from the bleachers, the German import won’t be long for this team, and I would be shocked if he’s on the practice squad for a second consecutive year. Folks, it was a fun story, but he didn’t have the look of an NFL receiver out there. I’m afraid the dream is dead, though I will miss clever quips from fellow rubes like the gentleman behind me that chuckled “Das is not güt,” as MoBo was blanketed in the endzone for a pass that, while would have been contested in double coverage, may have been obtainable if he had made the effort. I’m not saying Moritz is lazy or unmotivated, he just didn’t look like a guy with enough instinct at the position to also overcome the playbook and language barriers that are already difficult enough to battle through.

Diggs against Rhodes was another fun one to watch, and I thought the receiver won pretty handily in one-on-ones. It was around this point where I begun to wonder if Xavier was going at game speed. I kept an eye on him for a while, and while I hadn’t watched him in practice before, he didn’t look full throttle to me. Most of Terence Newman’s snaps were on the opposite side of the field from me, but I thought the same of him as well. I don’t think it was laziness – it was a hot day and I was sitting in bleachers as opposed to running around with shoulderpads and a helmet on – but rather a concentrated effort to not sustain an injury. This might be upsetting to other fans, but I felt fine with it. Both Xavier and Terence are seasoned veterans who know what they’re doing. I didn’t want to witness any pulled hamstrings trying to impress anyone at training camp.

Teddy Bridgewater and Latavius Murray were going through rehabbing drills on the farthest field. It was bittersweet to watch. On one hand, it was astounding that he was moving the way that he was after the awful injury he sustained. To see him separated from the team, as necessary as it was, was sombering, however. The bulk of that brace probably didn’t help, but I thought I could detect the slightest hint of stiffness in the bend as he was moving up and down the field. To be expected, of course. Get well soon, Teddy.

Practice summed up and people began to filter out of the bleachers. I didn’t have any solid plans for the rest of the night, so I hung around a little longer, watching some the special teams players linger on the field, along with MoBo and Thielen. I scrolled through Twitter for a while, checking out commentary from bloggers and reporters that I follow. I’ll say this: absorbing as much information as you can on a single snap is much harder than you might think. Granted, I wasn’t watching with the intention of giving play-by-by on my own feed, but I found myself getting locked in to one particular matchup. How some of these journalists recounting plays are able to confidently and accurately report back what happened at the line of scrimmage and downfield on both sides has to take some serious skill that I certainly don’t have right now.

After asking for some advice on Twitter for where to grab a bite to eat, Andy Carlson told me that some of the bloggers were meeting up at New Bohemia later on, and that sounded fine with me. I called up another Lyft to take me up that way.

My driver was an elderly gentleman who didn’t seem entirely comfortable navigating his app. It took him a couple minutes to indicate to it that he had picked me up. That was all right; I wasn’t in a hurry. The conversation with him on the way there made it all worth it, anyway. I told him what I was in town for when asked, and he responded by saying that he didn’t understand why people got so worked up over sports. Maybe I should have felt offended, but I didn’t. I just laughed and told him he was probably right.

“So did you play football when you were younger?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Weakside linebacker. Probably one of the shortest you’d ever see, and I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life, but I could tackle.”

“Oh, okay,” he said, perhaps missing my attempt at self-deprecating humor, but I could tell that he was taking a stroll down memory lane himself. He continued, “I played defensive end. I’ll tell you, I never topped 125 pounds when I played.”

“Oh yeah?” I replied, unable to suppress a light laugh.

“You betcha,” he said in Minnesotan fashion. “My school, we weren’t very good. Other teams loved playing us, because they always knew where the ball was going. They just went where our left guard went. He was our best player. And we only ran one formation: single wing. All the time. You want to know why?”

“Why?”

“Because our coaches were World War II veterans,” he told me, lifting a finger off the steering wheel for emphasis. “They didn’t care about winning, they were toughing us up for the Korean War!”

I have no idea if any of that’s true, but I enjoyed listening about as much as he enjoyed telling the story, so much that he missed his turn by about eight blocks. I’m not exactly sure why he was in the area as he didn’t seem very familiar with Mankato, but that was okay. I was still early, and a little walking wasn’t going to kill me. I let him drop me off, thanked him for the ride, and wished him a good day.

I made it to New Bohemia and sat down at the bar, ordering a beer and a plate of fried potatoes with sour cream and bacon bits. Shortly after I finished eating, I saw a group I recognized arrive and take a table outside. I paid my tab, grabbed the remainder of my beer, and wandered out to say hello.

I wouldn’t call myself an introvert. Once you get to know me, I’m far from it. But I definitely don’t feel natural or comfortable introducing myself to people I haven’t met before, even if I’ve interacted with them online as often as I have with some of the Vikings community. That social anxiety faded very quickly, though, as I introduced myself to Andy Carlson, Luke Inman, Eric Thompson, BJ Reidell, Drew Mahowald, and fellow fan Tony Marco. I didn’t feel the slightest sense of ego that you might feel from other media members. Nobody was too good to interact with me beyond smiles and handshakes. I didn’t sense the need for an invitation to hang out. It seemed assumed that I would, and before my glass was empty, someone was buying another round for me. (Still owe a couple in return, by the way. Thanks guys.)

From Ribfest to bars that brought me back to my days at The Rex in Duluth, it was a hell of a night. The whole town was vibrant and alive, and I’m a little sad that I likely won’t have a reason to be that far south for another weekend. As great as it can be to be a fan of the Vikings, without that camaraderie from your fellow fans, it isn’t quite the same, and I’m not sure Eagan will ever be able to replicate that same feeling.

Saturday Night Scrimmage

As great as everything was on Friday, however, the big show was still waiting for me on Saturday night. I was told to arrive early. I’m glad I didn’t show up any later than I did. An arrival time of around 4:25 gained me a spot in line about a block down Stadium Road. The purple jerseys continued to flood in the entire time before they opened the gates. I kept looking over my shoulder and down the line, continuing to see the end trail off into the distance until I couldn’t tell where it ended without branching out from where I was standing. I checked my phone and saw videos of people driving past.

When they allowed us to enter, I didn’t waste any time finding a seat for myself, crossing across the field to take a seat around the 40 yard line of the visitor bleachers. I waited as Blakeslee Stadium grew more and more dense with the color purple, the volume and energy level rising with every passing minute. I watched the clouds overhead, silently willing the rain to take a day off, to let us have our last big night without incident. The weather forecast had been grim in the days leading up to Saturday, but it looked as though we might get lucky.

When the stadium finally filled to capacity, the grass knoll behind the endzone lined with jerseyed fans, the hype videos and camp interviews began to play on the big screen, the sound system booming behind us. Alumni were presented to the crowd, new Ring-of-Honor inductee Ahmad Rashad drawing the loudest cheers.

 

 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it had a game-day feel to it, but when the players began to take the field, the energy in Blakeslee was still comparable to my last visit to US Bank Stadium, if in a more condensed form. During the team stretches, it was almost as if Mother Nature felt overshadowed, threatening with just a few ominous raindrops before subsiding, just to remind us that she had the power to ruin our night if she so wanted to.

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Stefon Diggs received some of the loudest ovations of all of the players, and you could see how he’s growing into the role of one of this team’s star players. He knows just what will get the crowd riled up, and as much as I think the cliché is overused, his swagger is both sprightly and confident as opposed to arrogant or vain. I found myself thinking that we haven’t really had an icon like him at receiver in quite some time.

The loudest the stadium became, though, was when Teddy Bridgewater unceremoniously walked onto the field, giving the crowd a quick a wave but otherwise quietly retreating to the sideline to stand next to Latavius Murray. His stay wasn’t a long one, but the crowd let him know that they were rooting for him. More than once, chants of “Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!” began to echo throughout the bleachers. At one point, a small group sitting by me tried to begin a “Sam B! Sam B! Sam B!” chant. It was short-lived.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’m a pretty staunch Teddy Bridgewater fan. I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for Sam, though. He did receive a strong cheer at the end of the night when the public address introduced him, but I don’t think that will be the last time he’ll hear Teddy’s name chanted while he commands the QB1 role this season.

Speaking of Bradford, while he didn’t take as many downfield chances with the first time offense as I was hoping to see, it was very impressive when he did. His accuracy is just remarkable at times. He struck gold with Diggs multiple times and also dropped a dime to Jarius Wright on a completion of about 30 yards that he took in for a touchdown. The chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers is definitely there.

Unfortunately, many of those passes he threw wouldn’t have happened in a live game scenario, and from what I could see, most of his scrambling attempts would have been stopped well before he would have crossed the line of scrimmage as well. I counted many would-be sacks from Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. While you still have to appreciate Sam’s ability, the offensive line’s performance concerned me, especially when Rashod Hill, who had been mostly holding his own against Griffen, went down on the field with what seemed to be a leg injury, needing a cart to get him off of the field. I had familiar feelings of dread that are often associated with luck and Vikings’ offensive linemen until I saw reports from Chris Tomasson shortly after indicating that Hill would be fine. Sure enough, I could see him back on the field soon enough, albeit without his pads on. He looked to be in good spirits, though, and I decided it was safe to resume my rabid fan enthusiasm again. (Though it was admittedly a little harder to do so while watching Everson Griffen feast on Jeremiah Sirles at left tackle afterwards.)

Dalvin Cook didn’t have the “and he’s loose!” play that I was hoping to see, but I was encouraged by two things: he exhibited a combination of patience and a willingness to grind out tough yards. He seemed to have an awareness of how many yards he could potentially gain, made the decision, and attacked. He still seemed to have that look of a running back that could break free for a big gain at any point, and I fully expect to see many later this season.

The second takeaway from that, and what I felt most sure about by the time the night scrimmage was over, was that part of the reason Cook wasn’t getting the chunk plays was due to the dominance of the defensive line. The lanes just weren’t opening up for him, and while it’s fun to see the highlight moments as a fan, the defense’s ability to contain him was encouraging in its own way.

I sat through the player introductions at the end of practice as they hurled footballs into the bleachers filled with fans with waving arms, and then took in the fireworks afterward as the stadium lights were extinguished, the dim LED beacons lighting up around me as people pulled out their phones to take pictures or video of the ensuing display. All of it was fun, but I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened that it was the last time I’d be experiencing it here, and that I’d waited so long to make the trip down.

I saw the bumper-to-bumper traffic all around as I filed out of Blakeslee Stadium with the other fans and knew that calling for a ride would probably be fruitless. It was only a half hour walk back to my Airbnb, and after sitting for so long in the bleachers, it felt good to stretch my legs. After a quick stop at Insomnia Cookies to try something I’d only heard rumors of (the hype is warranted), I made my way back.

Warren Street turned into Highland Avenue, and as I made my way down the sidewalk, I began to notice the sound of crickets around me. I hadn’t even noticed how scarce the traffic had become. Accompanied by the sound of my footsteps, the crickets, and somewhere in the distance, the croaking of frogs, I smiled to myself. I was glad I’d made the drive down.

Thanks for everything, Mankato. I’ll never forget it.

 

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