Awkward Glory: The Daily Norseman in Mankato

Note:  This is a seriously long article. Actually, it's more like a novella because we didn't want to leave anything out. We break the story up between my impressions and memories and Ted's. It should be pretty easy to tell who's talking, but, in case it isn't, a good rule of thumb to remember is that if it's inappropriate and offensive, Ted said it. Oh, and if Tim Nela is out there reading, this is the article where you get your shout-out.

SG:  Looking back at the Daily Norseman experience at the Minnesota Vikings' 2011 training camp seems like a really cool dream and it's hard to believe that it actually happened. Perhaps this is partly because we're fans first and journalists second. We're bloggers, renegade mole-people writing about our interests from undisclosed basement locations. To have the Vikings organization not only invite us to training camp but also treat us like real journalists was pretty darn cool.

And it's something that never would have happened if it wasn't for the rabid, Purple-lovin' fans here at the Daily Norseman who make this site so great. So it only seems right to share the experience, in all of its awkward glory, with you. Sit back, grab a snack, and, just as if we were hanging out together at a barbecue, Ted and I will share the Daily Norseman's adventures in Mankato.

Ted:  Renegade mole-people writing from an undisclosed basement?  With wireless Internet, who blogs in their basement anymore?  I have an office, with many leather bound books and my house smells of rich mahogany.  Okay, last Ron Burgundy quote, I promise.

Psst...SG is a vegetarian, so this is a BYOB party...bring your own bacon.  But still, it's a good story, you'll like it. 

 

In the bleak mid-winter

SG:  The events that led to the Daily Norseman being in Mankato for a couple hot days in August actually started way back on March 1, 2011. Winter still had a strong, icy grip on Minnesota, the NFL labor dispute was grinding toward a lockout, and the Minnesota Vikings had decided to invite members of the alternate sports media to a meeting at Winter Park. The Vikings recognized that more and more people were turning to online communities, like DN, for information on their teams and the Vikings wanted to open a dialogue with some of those sites and talk about making us a part of their information loop.

Ted:  Really, they just want to use us like dirty sluts, because the Vikings want a new stadium, and the best way to get their message out is to work around mouthpieces that don't like the Arden Hills Stadium, like a newspaper that rhymes with Schmineapolis Car Baboon.  But we know they have ulterior motives, and they know we know, and we know that they know that we know, so I were willing to put on the high heels, the push up bra, and the six inch heels and let them metaphorically reverse cowgirl me, because hey, it was a foot in the door.  And no, I have no shame, or pride, whatsoever.

Seriously, there are few times in life where the opportunity to pursue your dream literally falls in your lap, and something like this could lead to even more access...if we didn't screw up royally.  Yes, the Vikings were using us, but if we could prove to them that we just weren't some star struck fans and we could do a good job, there was an opportunity for more access down the road.  And it's something that very few NFL bloggers ever get an opprtunity to do.

I was talking to one of the Vikings beat guys a while later, and he told us that this would never happen in Chicago or Green Bay, as they both have over a dozen beat guys each between the major media outlets in those two states.  The Packers, for example, have 15 full time newspaper beat guys assigned to them.  The fact that DN was contacted by the Vikings speaks as much to the great community that Chris has cultivated over five years, and it's because of you fine people, the readers, that it has grown to be recognized as one of the best sports blogs on the Internet.

 

SG:  As the in-state contingency of DN, Eric and I attended the meeting, and Ted and Chris were able to take part in the meeting via phone. Overwhelmingly, the refrain from all the sites represented at that meeting was that we would love to have access to players the way traditional media did. The Vikings representatives thoughtfully suggested that we might be invited to training camp in Mankato as a trial run. The bloggers beamed with joy, got a tour of the facility, and toddled home.

Ted:  And those of us on the phone died inside a little with jealousy.

SG:  Eleven days later on March 12, 2011 the NFL labor gridlock turned into the much-dreaded lockout. Things looked bleak and I didn't know if we would have football in 2011, let alone training camp. As the lockout dragged on, month after month, I lowered my expectations.

Lockout lifted

SG:  Initially, the Vikings had set a July 18 deadline for deciding if there would be a training camp in Mankato, but when it began to look like a labor deal was forthcoming, they postponed making a decision. Then, July 25, 2011 the NFL lockout was lifted and there was much rejoicing. The Vikings would have their 46th consecutive training camp at Minnesota State University, Mankato and, finally, we would have something interesting to write about again.

Ted:  Really?  What, the stadium talk, legislative sessions, and state budget talks ad nauseum weren't riveting?

SG:  No, not so much.

Vikings make DN and offer we can't refuse

SG:  The day right after the lockout was lifted the Vikings contacted all those alternate media outlets they had spoken with back in March and invited us to attend training camp on August 5 and 6. Now we were scrambling to try to make arrangements to attend training camp. I didn't even know until Wednesday afternoon whether I would be able to make it to training camp two days later. Unfortunately, a prior commitment meant I would be able to attend only one of the two days the Vikings were allowing us access, but one day was better than none so I packed my bags for Mankato.

Ted:  Wow, sounds easy, just pack a bag and make the one hour trip south, home within 24 hours.  Must be nice.  I had to load up the DN Party Bus, pack...and not put any Vikings gear in the luggage.  See, one of the rules of engagement was that we couldn't wear any Vikings garb if we're covering the team, team rule.  Seeing as how a vast majority of my baseball hats and t-shirts are Vikings something, I decided to go with the sleeveless Larry The Cable Guy Look.  That's professional, right?  Then to secure the kitchen pass, I had to promise to do evil and unspeakable things with the wife when I got home.  This weekend is antiquing and a tea room for lunch.  Next weekend is a Shakespeare Festival, and I think I might have inadvertently committed myself to a symphony performance the Saturday college football starts.  Then, and only then, I got on the road.  Nine hours, two Iowa Highway Patrol warnings for speeding (sometimes, being a retired military guy pays HUGE dividends), and one delicious bag of Pull-n-Peel Cherry Twizzlers later, I hit Mankato.

Piece of cake.

SG:  You're such a whiner.

Friday morning I meet Ted

SG:  In December 2010 I met Chris and Eric when Chris came to Minnesota to cover the Vikings home game against the Buffalo Bills. We called it our office Christmas party because we had three of the four (pre-Kyle) front-page writers together. Ted, however, wasn't able to make it to that gathering, so the first time I ever clapped eyes on him was Friday morning when I walked into the Vikings' media center in Mankato. I was a bundle of nerves and I can't tell you how great it was to see his friendly, vaguely familiar face. Ted had prior experience with training camp and I was thrilled to know I had a friend there who could give me some direction and, hopefully, keep me from doing anything too stupid.

Ted:  Yeah, that meeting could have happened so much sooner, but nooooooooo, whenever Ted comes to Minnesota, everyone is suddenly busy.  But when Chris comes to town, wooooooo let's party!!  The Grand Poobah is in town, let's drop everything and meet him!  Ted?  Yeah, busy.  Gotta clip the dog's nails and then express his anal glands.  Too bad you only make it to the Homeland once a year, maybe next time, Cubby.  Oh, I can go to training camp?  Hey, it'll be great to meet you!

In all seriousness, it was nice to have someone to hang out with on the sideline, and Skol Girl was a hoot to spend time with.  It's very intimidating being around the players, and seeing guys like Rick Spielman and Scott Studwell just casually walking around.  It was nice to know there was someone who was just as petrified as I was standing right next to me.

 

Media pass, the key to the kingdom

SG:  This summer some of my friends scored VIP passes to see U2. At the time, I was jealous because I have never had a spiffy pass that got me into something the general public couldn't. I am jealous no longer.

At the Vikings' media center we picked up our media passes. As we were walking to the practice field for the morning walk-through Ted had just finished saying how cool it was that we got to walk over to the field with the players just like we belonged there, when three steps in front of us who should be walking but Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, and Adrian Peterson. I'm not sure I would believe it myself except that the Associated Press snapped a picture so I have visual proof.

Ted:  Yeah, that was like a cool guy pass, and I felt like royalty.  I mean, I NEVER get cool stuff, like box seats, luxury boxes, or a complete set of Happy Meal collectibles.  But this...this was the Golden Ticket, baby, and I was going to tour the Wonka Chocolate Factory.  Except there was no chocolate.  And the Oompa Loompas were seven feet tall and could break me in half with their pinkie.  I mean, even Ryan Longwell is a big guy.  I'm never making fun of kickers again.  And you shouldn't either, because they can curbstomp you.

Morning walk-through

SG:  The morning walk-through was a much more academic exercise than the afternoon practice was going to be. As such, it really wasn't that exciting to watch. What was exciting for me was simply seeing the Vikings players up close. Also exciting, but in a different way was identifying some of the different sports journalists who were there and just being amused that I was cruising the same sidelines they were. I felt like a writer groupie, finally seeing the journalists I read on a daily basis.

Ted:  It's really weird, because like Skol Girl, I was almost as excited to see Zulgad, Pelissero, and Fowler, because I read their stuff every day.  And now, I was on equal ground, and had an opportunity to live in their world for a couple days.  Surreal.  But then you start looking around, and there's Chuck Foreman.  Holy crap!!  There's Mike Singletary, and hey isn't that Scott Studwell?  And then Studwell looked at me, from a distance of about 40 yards, and I sharted myself.  Seriously, that is still one badass stare.  And he was smiling.  I would've hated to have been his kid growing up.  I'd be incontinent.

SG:  At the conclusion of the morning walk-through we took up our positions with the other media, preparing to attempt to get players leaving the field to give us interviews. I couldn't believe it was that simple, but as Antoine Winfield was walking past us Ted just moved over to Winfield and asked if he had a minute or two to talk, Winfield agreed. It was so professional, such a real journalist moment that I was gob-smacked.

Ted:  Yeah, cool as a cucumber on the outside was shitting razor blades on the inside.  I mean, this is Antoine Winfield, pound for pound the best player in the NFL, and you think you're just going to walk your little trolling blogger ass up to him and say 'answer my questions?  Well, I did, and I asked instead of declared, and Jesus on a Trampoline, he did.  Holy and crap.  All that was running though my mind as the interview was going on was 'should I or shouldn't I say 'Go Bucks!', or the ever obnoxious O-H! when we were done?  It's not Vikings-ish, we both went to Ohio State...that would be okay, wouldn't it?  NO, you idiot, it would be STOOPID, don't do it!  DON'T DO IT!!!  Hey Antoine, thanks for your time...DO IT...NO, YOU'LL GET KICKED OUT OF HERE...SAY IT...KEEP YOUR PIEHOLE SHUT, IDIOT.....and gone.  Didn't do it.

Media center

SG:  Following the morning walk-through, we went back to the media center to write and post our first impressions of camp. As I sat there, in the midst of all those other sports journalists, typing out my morning observations on training camp, I felt like Rosalind Russell's character Hilde Johnson from the movie His Girl Friday. Unfortunately, Cary Grant did not walk in, but just about everyone in the media did-Ted and I had staked out some prime real estate by the cold drinks.

Ted:  When we got back to the press room, I started typing, but I had to sit back and reflect on what had just happened.  I had about 6,000 different trains of thought running through my head, and didn't know what I was going to write.  I've had writer's block plenty of times, but I'd never had a Writer's Stampede before, and that's what was happening.  Yeah, I had done this in 2006, but this was different, it felt different.  Vikings Board, the other site I did this for, was small potatoes compared to DN.  SB Nation gives us a legitimacy that few other Internet platforms do, and I felt we had just crossed the Rubicon.  'We're different now', I thought, and how we act in the next day or two determines the fate OF THE FREE WORLD.  Okay, not that dramatic.  But it seemed like we were auditioning for a part or interviewing for a job, and we were kicking ass.

Lunch

SG:  If there was any doubt that training camp was a big deal to NFL-starved Vikings fans, it was cleared up when I went to lunch. You couldn't find a restaurant near the campus that wasn't overrun with people decked out in their purple finery. Hot, hungry people of all ages were cramming into restaurants and I actually felt out of place because I wasn't wearing Vikings gear.

Ted:  I decided to head back to my motel room, get some thoughts down, grab some lunch, and head back to training camp for the afternoon practice.  The media parking lot is across the street and kitty-corner from the practice field, and right between Gage Hall, where the players live, and another building on campus where they spend a lot of time, where I imagine they watch a lot of film and have meetings.  Players ride bikes to and fro, down the middle of the street, traffic be damned.  The speed limit is 25, but I thought it prudent to pretty much idle out of there, because no one--fans, players, dogs--use the sidewalks,  People are in the streets, players are on bikes, it doesn't matter.  So I pull out of the parking lot, and start down the street, and a guy on a bike turns back into the street towards some fans who were asking for autographs and this guy TURNS RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME  Had I been going the prerequisite 20-25 mph, I would've hit him.  But I put on the brakes, and disaster was averted.

And who was that 'him'?  Donovan McNabb.  Yeah, wouldn't THAT have been something?  Forever known as the guy that ran over McNabb at training camp.  But the blogger in me initially thought...if I had hit him, I would've had a good five minutes before the cops showed up to get an interview with him.  Had I not, you know, knocked him unconscious or anything.  I vowed not to let an opportunity like that pass me by again.  (I'm kidding on that one.  Pretty sure I'm kidding.)

Friday afternoon practice

SG:  Heading back out to the field Friday afternoon you could tell that the intensity level was different when the players donned pads and helmets. I wandered over to watch the defense run drills and work on technique, particularly the linebackers. Mike Singletary is as intense as Leslie Frazier is calm, and watching him interacting with the Vikings linebackers I got the feeling that he doesn't miss much. One can only hope that Singletary's intensity bodes well for a linebacking corps that will have to adjust to being without Ben Leber this season.

Ted:  So this is where my surreal moment happens.  I went out to the practive field a few minutes before Skol Girl to take some pictures for the website, and who do I end up walking across the street and onto the field with but Jim Kleinsasser, The People's Champion.  Woo!!  KSAUCE!!!  So I look up at him, like two feet up, because he's a freaking giant, and drop the ever casual, hey Jim, how's it going?  Pretty good, he says.  I ask him if I can talk to him for a few minutes when practice is over?  Sure, he says. Shouldn't be a problem.  And that's how I got to interview Jim Kleinsasser.  Crazy.  And Singletary still looks like he could play about 25-30 snaps a game, by he way.

SG:  While cruising the sidelines I saw a guy who looked familiar and then, like a bolt out of the blue, I realized he was one of the guys from the "Stadium Shuffle" video. Turns out he's an intern with the Vikings and about the most helpful guy a nervous quasi-journalist, like myself, could hope to meet. He asked if there were any players I wanted to interview and I found my mouth saying, "Erin Henderson" before my head understood what was going on. Probably a good thing I didn't have a chance to think about it.

Ted:  That's Zac, the pride of East Grand Forks!  Go Green Wave!  Pretty small world when you run into someone who went to your high school a long way from where you went to high school at.

SG:  During the morning practice the stands had been about 2/3 full of fans, but during the afternoon the stands were so full that the fire marshal would probably have gone squinty with rage. Multitudes of fans clad in sunscreen and purple filled the stands, and stood along the fence. Ted and I started talking to a guy named Tim Nela. According to Tim, he'd been working out with cornerback Marcus Sherels during the off-season and that Sherels had worked hard and was going to impress us. Tim's words seemed oddly prophetic because just a few minutes later Sherels was hauling in an interception. So, if Sherels has a breakout season in 2011, remember you heard it here, via his friend Tim, first. See Tim, I didn't forget.

Ted:  Yeah, that was amazing, but paled to what I saw Saturday night.  It just reinforced my belief that, after all the poo-pooing of a new stadium by the anti-stadium crowd, there's going to be a new stadium.  When you read a stadium piece in the Strib that is so biased against it, and then read the comments below that always seem to be 2-1 against getting a new place, it really is a morale sapper.  But in Mankato, the SIlent Majority was silent no more.  There were thousands of people that showed up on a Friday just to watch the Vikings practice.  Stadium Drive was awash in Vikings fans--Dads with their sons, Moms with their daughters, whole families clad in purple in gold.  Living in St. Louis, sometimes I get down in the dumps about the whole stadium issue, and I think to myself that at best, Vikings fans seems apathetic about the team.  Yeah, never mind on that.  It was Purple craziness all weekend, and it was a real emotional lift for me.  Thank you, thank you all who support and love the Vikes.  It was great to see.

SG:  I don't think I'd ever really appreciated how difficult it was to maintain a sense of journalistic detachment when it comes to football. My compromise with this was that I completely ignored it. As Lorenzo Booker broke loose a run, I was shouting "Whoa!" just like my 20-month-old niece. It might not have been the height of professionalism, but sometimes, as my little niece would attest, you just need to "Whoa!" Booker's explosive run was definitely whoa-worthy.

Ted:  Yeah, that was the hardest thing for me, too.  At one point during the afternoon practice, Joe Webb connected on a long pass downfield to Adrian Peterson, which caused the crowd to roar.  And me to do a 'Wow!', which is slightly more demonstrative than a 'Whoa!'.  Thankfully, my 'Wow!' was drowned out by the rest of the crowd going 'WOOOOOOO!!!!', which is several steps above both the 'Whoa!' and 'Wow!'.  I quickly looked around, didn't see Vikings security coming to remove me for being a fan first, and then buried my head in my phone, where I tweeted what I just saw.  It was freakin' sweet.

Face-to-face

SG:  When the afternoon practice ended I felt a strange tightness in my chest that was most likely just a small coronary thrombosis brought on by knowing I would be conducting my first ever interview with an NFL player. No, no pressure at all. My intern friend brought Erin Henderson over as promised and, after a really lame opening salvo, I finally managed to ask Henderson a couple coherent, topical questions about his game and his preparation for this season. Henderson was a really nice guy and did not mention of the fact that I sounded like a squirrel on meth-I will always like him for that.

Not long after my interview with Erin Henderson, I lucked into tagging along for the exclusive interview that Ted had scored with the Vikings 2011 first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. Ted asked all sorts of insightful questions about the similarities in the offensive system Ponder ran in college and the one that Bill Musgrave is implementing with the Vikings. I should have been thinking of something insightful and football-related to ask Ponder about. That would have been a good idea. Instead I asked, "Did Dallas come to training camp with you?"

Dallas, in case you're curious, is Ponder's black Labrador retriever and the local television stations had shown Dallas waiting on the sidelines for Ponder when the quarterback was working out at the University of Minnesota before the lockout was lifted. Considering Ponder felt he hadn't done as well on Friday, I thought it would be nice if his dog, the only love money can buy, was waiting for him. And, well, I just couldn't help thinking that if I were in Ponder's place having to answer a barrage of questions that all seemed to boil down to "Are you going to be the quarterback of the future? How ‘bout now? No? Now? Still no? Now?" that I would be getting bored answering the same thing over and over.

I have no idea what Christian Ponder thought of my ridiculous, and apparently, complete non sequitur of a question. But in a move that just seems to prove that dog people really are better, he laughed like a good sport and told me that Dallas was keeping busy in puppy school while he was in Mankato.

For as much as I have wondered, "I asked him what? How is that hard-hitting journalism?" since then, I don't regret asking Ponder about his dog. Hearing the guy laugh after a rough day was worth it--and, if I had it to do over, I'd still ask the question.

Ted:  It was the best question of the interview, and one he seemed to really enjoy answering.  I mean, he had just had, even by his own admission, his worst practice since training camp started.  He was made available to the press, and right after practice, while Skol Girl was talking to Erin Henderson (and looking like a true pro, by the way--don't let her fool you) and I was talking to Kleinsasser, Ponder was literally surrounded by dozens of local print and TV media asking him why he thought he sucked that day.  Then he got pulled aside to do a one on one interview with Kevin Seifert, NFC North blogger for the evil corporate overlord that is ESPN.  THEN, two schmucks from a website he's probably never heard of want to ask him some questions, and I gotta say, he didn't bat an eye.  And then when SG asked about Dallas, you could sense that he just completely relaxed, and really appreciated the question, any question that wasn't about football right then. 

Well played, Mauer.

Rock star

SG:  Just in case there was any doubt that Adrian Peterson is a rock star of a player and a fan favorite, the way the crowd in Mankato cheered for the running back every time they saw him removes it. It reminded me of the footage of the crowd going wild when the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1965. In fact, people screamed so much for Peterson that there's a portion of my recording of our interview with Christian Ponder where my digital recorder couldn't pick up what Ponder was saying over the crowd noise when Adrian Peterson walked past them.

Ted:  Yeah, it's absolutely nuts how...nuts...the fans got when AP walked from the locker room out to the practice field.  Peterson is a rock star, and on Saturday, he did something really cool.  The Vikings staff brought a little girl over to meet him, she looked to be maybe 8 or 9.  He was getting interviewed for TV, and when that was done, he shook the little girl's hand, put his arm on her shoulder, and they walked towards the practice field where he gave her some one on one time, away from the crowd, for about five minutes.  A lot of guys would've just shaken the hand, taken a pic, and then hit the road, but AP seemed to make sure she got some time just with him.  It was really cool to see.

That's all she wrote

SG:  After the interviews on Friday afternoon, there wasn't much left to do but gather up my things from the media center and head home. It was with regret that I packed up my things because I knew, knew that I would have likely done better on Day 2. Lord knows I wouldn't have been nearly as nervous on the second day, but I had been lucky to make it out to Mankato for even one day and that would have to be enough.

On his own

Ted:  I was able to stick around for Saturday, and for me, the Saturday night practice at Blakeslee Stadium was crazy.  It was one part State Fair, one part Friday Night Lights, and one part NFL.  The atmosphere was just electric, at least for me, and you Vikings fans, God Bless You.  Over 9,100 fans packed an 8,500 seat capacity stadium to watch the Vikings practice.  Not scrimmage, not a tete-a-tete with Kansas City, just a regular practice.  It broke the all time training camp attendance record, and it was a football starved crowd.  They cheered just about everything, and it was good to know football was indeed back.  Earlier in the day, I was able to talk to Brian Robison, and I was feeling pretty froggy now.  It's time to go big, because I was going home either way.  So if I was getting shot down on an interview, it was going to be epic.  It was time to talk to Jared Allen, or die trying.  Well, not die.  I'm dedicated, don't get me wrong, but I ain't getting killed over that.

So Allen is coming off the field, and I walk right up to him and ask Jared, got time to walk and talk?  Sure, brotha, no problem.

This was great, because I had at least an extra two minutes, because the players had to walk from the stadium, across the practice field, and then across the street.  It was gold, Jerry, GOLD.  We walk the phalanx of fans asking for autogrpahs, which he stops and signs, then it's on.  I asked him about Charlie Johnson, the defense under Pagac, what Frazier's like as a head coach, and how the d-line is shaping up.  And then I was going to take a play out of the Skol Girl book of interviewing and ask an off the wall question about him having Paul, Jr. Designs (from the TV show American Chopper) to build a bike for the Jared Allen Foundation.  But right as I asked the d-line question...Zac the Intern cut me off and says last question!  Zac buddy, how could you do that to fellow Green Wave?  But me being the mild mannered blogger that I am, I politely thanked Jared for his time and the work that his foundation does (they refurbish houses to accomodate the handicaps of American servicemen that have been wounded in battle), he shook my hand, and my time at training camp had come to and end.

SG:  There it is, the exhaustive account of the Daily Norseman's adventures at training camp. Hope you enjoyed it. And, fingers-crossed, the Vikings will invite us back again and we can keep giving you the kind of quirky coverage you have come to expect from DN.

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