In some respects, Thursday afternoon in South Minneapolis had all the looks of training camp. The players were sectioned off in stations and general manager Rick Spielman was patrolling the grounds from the different areas.
"Just checking everything out and making sure nobody gets hurt," Spielman said with a smile.
Instead of monitoring the practices fields in Mankato, Spielman was marching the grounds of the Howe Campus of Hiawatha Community School as part of the latest installment of an eight-year partnership with Kaboom! (a company that makes sophisticated playground equipment, despite its seemingly "bad-outcome" name) and the Toro Company for their eighth annual one-day playground build.
It was a project the Wilf family started when they bought the Vikings – a chance to give back to the local communities in need of a safe haven for neighborhood children – and one that Spielman heartily endorses cutting into the team's OTA schedule to participate in.
"The Wilf family has felt very strongly about giving back to the community and this is one of the events that they felt strongly about – building community playgrounds," Spielman said. "All you have to do is see the smiles on the faces and you can see that it was a great idea."
Not surprisingly, the Vikings players who pitched in Thursday (the really big kids on the playground) had some wild ideas of how they would have designed the ideal structure. Pro Bowlers John Sullivan and Chad Greenway both would have ideally installed water slides that OSHA, the state and anyone else who has ever witnessed a kid land on his or her head from attempting something dangerously ill-conceived, would have obviously taken exception to. Adrian Peterson said that he would have spent a lot of after-school time at a playground like the one constructed Thursday had it been done in Palestine, Texas. It was a chance for the kid in the celebrity grown-up to come out.
Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson commandeered a video camera and began conducting man-on-the-street style interviews with humorous aplomb. Letroy Guion channeled his inner Cee Lo Green with his distinctive eyewear. Andrew Sendejo did his best Triple H imitation brandishing a sledgehammer – which brought to mind to at least three people, "What is the purpose of a sledgehammer at a playground build?" Peterson had the Pro Bowl task of painting squares, while John Sullivan was on woodchip -shoveling detail – which he thought, given his experience, should have been delegated to a younger, lesser paid player more willing to put his back into it.
It was a chance for the players to get an afternoon away from the early stages of their NFL calendar – the "let's get serious now" phase – and to meet and greet a lot of kids they will likely never see again.
But their contribution to the event may end up providing a safe haven from the trappings of being a youth in the inner city for many of those same star-struck children who sheepishly asked a giant like Matt Kalil or Phil Loadholt for an autograph.
"The kids are what this is all about," Loadholt said. "You get tapped on the leg and turn around and look down and there's a little kid holding up a program they want you to sign. That's the fun part for me."
In all, more than 200 volunteers from the Vikings, KaBoom and Toro spent the morning and early afternoon doing the heavy lifting portion of getting a playground built in a single day. What the players took part in was the icing of the cake and the smiles on the faces of kids and volunteers alike was enough to let everyone – from the unfamiliar undrafted free agent rookie to Pro Bowlers like Peterson, Greenway, Kalil and Blair Walsh – know a positive impact was made.
"I've been here for all of these and the best part is when you feel like what you're helping to do is going to make a difference," Kevin Williams said. "I think for the younger guys, it shows them that you can do something to make a difference for people in a community. We drove by all these houses coming in. There are kids in most of those houses. Being able to help give them something that will last for years is a good feeling."
In no instance was the relationship between the current Vikings and the next generation of their most ardent fans more apparent than when Peterson stepped off the bus and was spotted by fans young and old alike. In most cases, Peterson may as well be Spiderman or Bigfoot. They know who he is, but they have never seen him in person.
Sometimes that reality can be a little overwhelming for excitable children in the presence of their version of Paul Bunyan.
"Still to this day, some of these kids will catch me off-guard," Peterson said. "You realize the position you're in and how the young kids look up to you; it's always humbling."
A couple years ago, a supremely confident second-grader was excited about meeting Peterson and was overheard by a reporter bragging to his friends that he was going to tell A.P. that he would be the next Adrian Peterson. When he got up close and personal to A.P., his eyes doubled in size and, while his mouth was moving up and down, little more than kid-gibberish was coming out. That's not a new reaction Peterson has experienced – with both adults and children.
"That happens a lot," Peterson said. "A lot of kids will be so excited to see me, but, once they get in my face, they don't really know what to say. But I enjoy it – the smiles on these kids' faces. That's what it's all about."
The Vikings busses rolled in about 12:30 p.m. Thursday after their morning practice. They rolled out a little after 2. The Vikings RC3 – Rookie Class of Three first-rounders – may all have long and illustrious NFL careers. Long after their football careers are over, the first playground they helped build may well end up being used by the children of the children they met Thursday.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.