Note: I got hit with other responsibilities when I got home from training camp in Mankato, that's why this is late. Sorry about that. -SG
"Are you happy?" Minnesota State Representative Morrie Lanning, R-Moorehead, asked that of the warm crowd of fans at the Minnesota Momentum fan appreciation event on Friday, August 3 during the Vikings 2012 Training Camp in Mankato. I couldn't help thinking I'd be happier with a cold drink and some air-conditioning, but, overall, I was a pretty happy camper. Oh, and so was the crowd of hardcore fans, patiently sweating in the afternoon sun.
Do, or do not-there is no "might"
During Friday's morning practice an intern had tracked me down to tell me that there was going to be a Minnesota Momentum fan appreciation event for those who had been active in the recent stadium effort going on at 1pm that I might be interested in attending. Considering how involved the Daily Norseman was in cheerleading and rallying fan support for a new Vikings stadium, suggesting I "might be interested in attending" was like saying chocolate might be good with peanut butter--that is to say, it's a certainty.
Join me after the jump to find out what was in store at the Minnesota Momentum rally for stadium supporters.
When 1pm rolled around, there I was, sticking out like a sore thumb as the lone person in a sea of hardcore, purple-clad fans who wasn't dressed in Vikings gear and was also taking notes. As far as I know, I was also the sole member of the press there too, so I felt a little odd, but that might also have been the heat. Gazing around the crowd there were fans I recognized from news footage of the pro-stadium rallies, there were Minnesota legislators, and there was also DN member Admiral BigGun.
At what point in the process are we? Contemplative?
The Vikings public relations folks had corralled us into a section of reserved bleachers when Jeff Anderson welcomed us, thanked us for our support, and then handed things over to Lester Bagley, Vikings VP of Public Affairs and Stadium Development. Bagley was quick in his praise for the fan support that had helped the Vikings' efforts to secure a new stadium deal to become a reality. He humorously assured us that he hasn't been on some extended vacation since the new stadium legislation was passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law. To prove his claim, Bagley dove right in and proceeded to give the assembled fans a status report on the new stadium's progress.
Bagley said the team needs to have a new stadium open by 2016. With the team responsible for $477 million of the cost of the $975 million project, one would suspect (although it was not said) that a team currently ranking 31 out of 32 teams in terms of stadium revenue can't afford additional lost revenue from playing anymore games at the University of Minnesota's TCF Stadium than absolutely necessary.
In keeping with that goal of opening the stadium for the 2016 season, the new stadium authority has met and is working on hiring an architect for the project. Bagley said the architect who will eventually be selected for this stadium will be one who has demonstrated vision, ideas, and experience. According to Bagley, that important hiring would be done within 60 days-since it has taken me awhile to get around to writing this it would now be closer to 40 days.
Once an architect is hired, then design elements will be discussed in greater detail, like whether there will be a "retractable feature" in the new stadium that could be opened to give a clear view of the downtown area. How far to the east the design places the structure on the property procured for the project will also influence how many games the team will need to play at TCF Stadium during the new stadium's construction. As it stands now, the Vikings will spend the 2013 season at the Metrodome, during 2014 they might play at the Metrodome, in 2015 they will play at TCF Stadium, and in 2016 they will have their first season in the new stadium. Again, Bagley stressed that the design process will be ongoing and it may affect where the team will be playing as more details are known.
Tricky Ricky or, the rebuilding year that isn't
Following this rundown on stadium progress, Bagley handed things off to General Manager Rick Spielman. Spielman shared what news of the successful stadium legislation had meant for football operations. According to him, energy pulsed through Winter Park when the stadium deal was done, people all through the building cheered and high-fived in celebration. I was glad to hear it. The Vikings organization, from ownership to players, had been painted by those opposed to the stadium as a bunch of rich, mercenary out-of-towners, unconcerned about where the team called home so long as their checks didn't bounce and they could put spinner rims on their Escalades. Spielman's exuberant description of the celebrating at Winter Park contrasts starkly with how the team has been characterized by local critics.
Spielman immediately followed up his tales of much rejoicing with a description of where the team is now in terms of the roster and rebuilding. While it has been said by lots of people that the Vikings should have started a full-scale rebuilding process last year or even in 2010, Spielman said that, while that might have been nice, the team simply didn't have enough draft picks to fuel such a rebuild until the 2012 NFL Draft when the team picked up ten players in the draft. The 2013 draft also promises to be a big year for the Vikings, Spielman said the team may have as many as ten draft picks. Even so, Spielman still shied away from the term "rebuilding year."
In talking about Vikings first-round pick at 4th overall, Matt Kalil, Spielman reiterated that Kalil's skill set seems to make him poised for a great rookie season, but that he's still a rookie and will still make mistakes. Kalil, unlike a lot of other rookies trying to make that transition from college football to the NFL has the added advantage of doing battle with Jared Allen every day in practice. But Spielman cautioned patience.
He also preached patience regarding second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. As he has before, Spielman said that if you compare what Ponder did last season with no OTAs or mini-camps, no access to the coaching staff at all, a shortened training camp, and the expectation that he'd spend 2011 learning behind Donovan McNabb, with some of the elite quarterbacks around the league, you'll see a similarity. Spielman gave a few examples, like Eli Manning, who did not set the league on fire in his first year as a starter and was actually on the verge of being cut shortly before winning the Super Bowl. Or, like Drew Brees, who had gotten an "Adios, don't let the door hit you on the way out" from the San Diego Chargers only to get into an offensive system with New Orleans that allowed him to flourish. Even Aaron Rodgers, who all the NFL commentators now think is fantastic, had a mediocre first season as a starter.
The refrain Spielman kept coming back to is that it takes time. Time to learn the system, time to create chemistry, time to build through the draft-except that we're not rebuilding [wink-wink, nod-nod]. He went on to say that the team is looking to create a core of players who will play together for 4-5 years, a cohesive group with a shared understanding of the system and a chemistry with one another.
Moving from talk of building through the draft to the team's approach to free-agency, Spielman addressed the team's decision to take a chance on Jerome Simpson. While no one who has seen Simpson jump and flip over defenders doubts his athletic ability, a guy who is suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy has a few question marks hovering around him. Spielman likened the decision to sign Simpson to the team's decision a few years ago to sign Jared Allen.
As Spielman reminded us, sure, he's Vikings fans' favorite hunting enthusiast, wounded veteran supporter, and holder of the franchise's single-season sack record now, but when the team signed Jared Allen in 2008 the Kansas City Chiefs had decided not to resign Allen because of his off-field problems with DUIs. Despite his acrimonious departure from the Chiefs, the Vikings, and their fans, greeted the reforming wild-child Allen with open arms. With the Vikings, Allen had fresh start and a new place to prove himself, and he has flourished. From what Spielman says, the Vikings hope Jerome Simpson has a similar success story with the team.
What impressed me was that after presenting his short "state of the team" speech Spielman asked for questions from the fans. Calmly and happily, Spielman answered questions about the defensive backs, saying the team is happy to have Chris Cook back and that they have put an increased emphasis on the defensive backs during camp, wanting them to grow and develop. The only obvious PR two-stepping Spielman engaged in was when the question of Percy Harvin's trade-request brouhaha during the last mini-camp came up. Spielman skillfully deflected saying that Harvin is on the field and happy, which, though accurate, wasn't exactly illuminating.
Does he walk on water?
To keep the gathering from seeming too much like a shareholders meeting, the Vikings public relations folks had the good sense to bring in a player to liven up the proceedings. With his long hair loose around his shoulders, facial scruff, and wearing a white t-shirt and white shorts, Vikings starting defensive end Brian Robison seemed to be rocking a Jesus-inspired look. Again, maybe the heat was getting to me.
Robison was a fantastic choice for the task of sharing player perspective and working the crowd. His Texas accent that just seemed a perfect complement to the heat and he had the kind of off-hand, confident bearing that wouldn't have been out of place in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. Robison kept to the theme of fan appreciation and yet, despite being the fourth person in the organization to say so in 20 minutes, it wasn't hackneyed or stale when he shared how much fan support fires up the players on the field. The guy's got panache.
The team is looking forward. Camp, said Robison, was very competitive, scrappy, "the offense gave it to us yesterday, we [defense] want to give it back." Robison went on to say what a good job Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams is doing, helping the defense to focus on doing the little things right to help them to consistently play disciplined football and win games.
That focus on moving forward, competition, and playing disciplined football falls in line with the team goals. Robison shared that there are three team goals and, considering the team finished last season 3-13, they seem audacious. However, audacity doesn't make something unattainable, it makes it a challenge. The team goals are to 1) win the NFC North division, 2) clinch a first-week bye in the playoffs, 3) win the Super Bowl.
Time will tell whether the team reaches those goals this season. Vikings fans likely have doubts, but I would guess 49ers fans had doubts heading into 2011 too.
After sharing the team goals, Robison drew raffle tickets to give away prizes to those in the crowd. He signed hats and footballs, awarded a signed Jared Allen photo and gave away a grand prize of VIP passes for cruising the sidelines during the afternoon practice.
Don't forget them in November
It probably would have been better to end the rally with Brian Robison giving away signed loot to fans, but there was still one more faction that wanted to weigh in on the importance of fan support during the stadium quest-the politicians.
Looking as if she was at least five years younger, and infinitely happier, than she was during the hours of debate and hearings for the stadium legislation, Minnesota Senator Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, addressed the fans. She said that it was the interaction from the fans that turned the tide and enabled the stadium legislation to finally pass. During the hearings all the legislators were deluged with messages from the fans. People shared how important keeping the Vikings were not only to Minnesota, but to their families as well. The stories people shared, that was the thing that Rosen kept coming back to-stories of family moments and traditions revolving around Minnesota Vikings football.
Representative Morrie Lanning, now retiring from the Minnesota Legislature, said he felt that if stadium legislation was ever going to pass, it needed to be a bi-partisan effort. After seven years trying to get a deal done, Lanning's belief in the necessity of a bi-partisan stadium effort bore fruits and the Vikings were finally guaranteed a new home in Minnesota. It's a good note for him to end on as he retires from the legislature.
I suppose eventually it will become commonplace, knowing that the Minnesota Vikings have a deal in place to build a new stadium in Minnesota and that we, the fans, had a big hand in making it a reality. But it didn't happen on that hot Friday afternoon in Mankato, and today isn't looking like it either. Nope, it's still freakin' sweet.
Here's to the fans that kept fighting for a new Vikings stadium in Minnesota, despite what the pessimistic rabble would have had us believe. It's your team, it's your stadium, it's our reality. Skol!