With the conclusion of training camp, the Minnesota Vikings have ended a 52 year association with Minnesota State University and the city of Mankato. The Vikings will be moving to their new team headquarters in Eagan next year, and it is, in every sense, the end of an era for the team and fans. We thought it would be kind of cool as a staff to do a round table discussion about our favorite Mankato memories. We hope you enjoy, and we also hope you’ll add your favorite memories in the comments below.
I never went as a kid, but I do remember talking to my Dad about training camp battles and how we thought the team would do, that kind of thing. My first experience in Mankato was as a credentialed reporter guy, in 2006 with a Vikings website that is no longer around. I remember not having a clue in Hell what I was doing, and being petrified I would screw up and not ever get invited back. Kevin Seifert and Judd Zulgad were the beat guys for the Strib back then, and I just kind of followed them around until I got the nerve up to ask Kevin some questions about protocol and stuff. Kevin is a great guy, really went out of his way to help me out, and from then on I had an absolute blast.
I went back in 2011 for DN, and at the time we were the only blog (or one of just a couple) that had legit reporter credentials for training camp, if I remember correctly. I must have done something right, because now we’re just one of several blogs that cover training camp, we went from just training camp credentials to two credentials each for camp and the draft, and we’ve been covering camp every year since then. In 2011, I remember walking out on the practice field next to Jim Kleinsasser, being petrified because, you know, Jim Kleinsasser, and eventually asking for an interview that morphed into The People’s Champion post, which was one of my all time favorite posts I did. I’ve been able to interview not only Kleinsasser, but Jared Allen, Kain Colter, Michael Mauti, and a slew of other players, and each one is just the coolest thing ever. Because of getting credentialed, first for training camp and then the draft, I’ve actually been able to meet most of the writers on the DN staff. Skol Girl and I covered training camp in 2011, Di Murphy and I did in 2014 and again this year, and Eric Thompson, Arif Hasan and I have covered the draft together. Now that Arif has moved on to rock star status, I see him down in Mankato as well, although it’s tough to get near him with his entourage and autograph sessions these days.
And for a guy that lives out of state, it’s incredibly cool to go back home and see literally EVERYONE decked out in purple and gold. I’ve been able to meet DN community members, folks from Twitter, and I’ve made new friends because of it. And none of this would have been possible were it not for the folks that traffic DN. Because of you guys, we sort of became the Big Dog for Vikings blogs, which allowed us the access we now have. So thank you, each and every one of you, for allowing me to live a childhood dream a few days out of the year.
I have made the trek to Mankato for at least a few days every season for the past six years as part of Daily Norseman. On a personal level, it’s amazing how much has changed since then.
I started as a newlywed with no kids, petrified out of my mind at the prospect of interviewing players and coaches. I was lucky if I stammered out a few words to the beat writers that I had been reading for years while we watched from the sidelines. I stood in awe at every walkthrough, marveling as the players came out to the field just a few feet away from me. I was completely out of my depth, but I eventually pulled off the “fake it ‘til you make it” routine well enough to stick my digital recorder in some players’ faces and ask a question or two at a press conference.
For the final year in Mankato, I arrived as the father of one daughter getting ready for preschool and another about to turn two. I could act like I’d been there before because...well, I had. I casually chatted with beat writers and other media members because we had already met a handful of times. I was—and I hate to admit this—sort of bored at most of the walkthroughs because I was so used to them. I knew enough to have questions chambered for the players I interviewed. I was even brave enough to ask Mike Zimmer about an injury in a press conference. (And I even asked a followup!) I’m still faking it, but I’m hiding it much better these days.
As I wrote in my Training Camp primer, I will welcome the Vikings’ new home in Eagan next year with open arms. It cuts my commute by about 85%, which means I’ll be able to cover more practices in the future while getting home to my family more often. The efficiency of having state-of-the-art facilities in a closer location will be better for nearly everyone involved.
But man, am I going to miss the hell out Mankato.
Sure, driving back and forth 90 minutes each way most days was a pain. But the feelings of anticipation and curiosity in the mornings combined with the feelings of gratefulness and accomplishment in the evenings usually made those 88 miles fly by. Eagan will never be able to recreate the sense of community and camaraderie that Mankato provided year in and year out. The MSUM campus literally transformed into a summer camp for a fortnight every late July and early August.
If Training Camp had always been in Eagan, I doubt I would have made even half of the relationships I have cultivated over the years in Mankato. Eating at familiar restaurants, sharing familiar experiences, and (on a couple of occasions) drinking at familiar bars has helped me establish great bonds with some special familiar faces. It’s amazing to interact in person with a lot of people you only interact with online for most of the year.
So long, Mankato. So long to Blakeslee Stadium. To walking across Stadium Road with the players on the way to practice. To City Center Hotel. To Rib Fest. To Burrito Wings. To Rounders. To Jake’s Pizza. To the Jimmy John’s. To Pieology, the one thing I fondly remember Matt Kalil for. To all the hilarious conversations in the media center. To the odd little spaces in Pennington Hall where we recorded podcasts. To the fans that lined up for blocks just to get into the night practice. And to all the great human beings I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the years because of Mankato.
I’m going to miss it all. Thanks for all the great memories.
Like Ted and Eric, my memories of Mankato are the experience of covering camp for the DN. In my case, this year and two years ago.
The first thing I take away is being able to be so close to the players, their size, power, how they get along together, how they deal with trying to practice in front of thousands of fans and the media, signing autographs and taking photos with fans- I think Chad Greenway, Brian Robison and Harrison Smith especially spend at least a half hour every day after practice with fans.
The second thing I take away is the fans and fanfare. The long lines of fans, most with Vikings uniforms on, waiting to get into the stands on the practice fields, the fans fenced off a good ten yards away from where the players walk back to the locker room after practice, yelling and screaming frantically in some cases to get the attention of marquee players to come over and autograph something as they walk by. Even back outside Pennington Hall a small group of fans wait and yell to the players as they ride by on their bikes from their dorms to the rec hall where the locker room is. And of course those in the stands -reacting to good plays and bad and commenting about players and coaches, excited to see them closer up than at games.
The practices themselves have always been curiously organized, at least to me, with each segment punctuated by an air horn and a coach yelling out what’s next on the schedule. What’s curious is that sometimes the whole team runs across to the other field for some drill or other, sometimes lasting all of five minutes, then they run back where they came from and break up into position groups for other drills or 11-on-11. I’m sure there is a reason- perhaps to give the media some exercise- but the practice schedule always seemed a little odd to me, even though I’m sure everything is down to a science.
I’ll also remember the one guy who is almost always alone watching practice: Rick Spielman. He’s almost always out there watching practice on one end of the field, watching carefully, occasionally making a note or looking at a paper in his pocket. At night practice a couple years ago, he went up away from everyone in the media stands, notebook in hand, jotting down something that may impact who makes the final cut, or who doesn’t. At the end of the day, training camp is all about establishing a roster, and I’m sure for every player seeing Spielman watching and making notes is a reminder of that fact.
One thing I’ll comment on, even though I probably shouldn’t, is the media covering camp. Every time I’ve been in Mankato, I can’t help but notice the different levels of engagement among the media covering camp. The highlight of any full-pad practice is the 11-on-11 scrimmage or situational drill, and also the one-on-one drills, as you get the best look at how players are doing, positional battles, etc. It’s difficult not to notice that those covering camp for the various blogs are typically paying close attention to what’s happening on the field, notebooks in hand in some cases, while often the more well-known sports writers are jawing with each other- sometimes with their back to the field. I wouldn’t make that comment except it was striking to me the contrast and how often I noticed it in the few times I was there. I’m sure part of the reason for the contrast is what readers of the various media sources want to read about, and for the more well-known sports writers the important work is interviewing the marquee players and coaches after practice- which is limited to them basically. In any case, it was interesting to me to note the contrast in approach toward camp coverage among the various media people.
The last thing couple things I’ll mention is being able to see some former Viking players, coaches, and legends up-close that came to practice when I was there. I was fortunate to see Alan Page once, Bud Grant just the other day, and a few others too. I also appreciated how friendly the Vikings staff treated me while I was there. From being escorted by security after not realizing the middle section between the two practice fields is off-limits my first day in Mankato (should have read my media badge!) to the various interactions with them while I was there, they were always very nice and professional.
I’m looking forward to the new digs in Eagan next year for the same reasons as Eric, and I suspect the players and coaches are too. I feel bad for Mankato as Vikings camp has been a big deal here for half a century, and they’re some of the most loyal Vikings fans around. It’s a bit of a drive, but they may like visiting the new digs in Eagan too.
Admittedly I am fairly new to the yearly tradition that is Mankato. Two years ago was my first experience going to Mankato, and the excitement was a bit too much to handle. I bought my first ever Vikings jersey, I put on my Vikings hat, and I made the drive down. I had followed several bloggers and beat writers for a few months, and hearing their stories made me want to be there even more.
My first year there I had no idea where to go, the sea of Purple was overwhelming and the heat was quite unbearable at times. I was there though. I was at the Vikings training camp practice. I watched Adrian Peterson go full speed when everyone else was at half speed. I watched Harrison Smith go through the motions of the defense. Walkthrough is basically the synchronized swimming version of practice. You will always remember your first experience at Mankato, and mine was one to remember. After walkthroughs the players broke for lunch, and the fans were kicked out of the stadium until practice later. I drove to a place that I read Mike Wallace and Jarius Wright were hanging out. When I arrived, they were walking out and I begged Wright for an autograph. I whipped out my mini Vikings helmet and he signed it on top of Cordarrelle Patterson's red car.
I put the helmet back in the car because I was starting to get hungry, I saw a small crowd of fans huddle around someone. Adrian Peterson. Small children, grown women, grown men, all lined up to get autographs. I rushed back to the car to grab my helmet, but last minute, I didn't want an autograph but something I could remember. So I asked, "Can I just shake your hand", and he obliged. From that moment on Mankato was a tradition I wanted to partake in every year. I didn't want to just be next to famed football players, but the family that I could be a part of.
This last year in Mankato was a bit different. I was given the honor to be on the sideline, and be a part of the "media." Everything from interviewing players, to asking Mike Zimmer a question, to meeting all the people on twitter I had come to communicate with so often. Mankato has brought strangers together, it has made families closer, It even lead to the start of a new family with a proposal. That's what Mankato means; Family.
My first experience going to training camp was as a fan in 2014. I had brought up to my cousin that we should we go and without hesitation she said yes. We didn’t know what to expect since this was our first, but as soon as you walk in you can feel the energy and excitement of everyone that is there. It’s almost like Disney World for adults, except you can yell at players, refs and drink alcohol. Everything was a sea of purple and gold, people yelling ‘SKOL Vikings’ and talking about how excited we all were for the upcoming season.
I have gone every year since 2014 as a fan and this year was no different. It is still as fun as the first time and I will continue to go as fan, but this year I got an opportunity to go with a media credential. I haven’t been writing for the Daily Norseman for very long so when it was being discussed about going to training camp I didn’t think I could go. I assumed there was a, “you must work for __ days” to go and that was obviously was not the case. I was petrified. I was way in over my head but with some very nice hand holding and reassurance from the other writers here I knew I would be okay. One of the best pieces of advice was from Eric and that was, “fake it till you make it.” And that is something I did every step of the way. Watching them practice from the sidelines, sitting in on press conferences and being in the huddle of reports was an amazing experience and one that I’ll never forget.
Everything about Blakeslee Stadium is so well laid out for camp that it’s kind of hard to picture it anywhere else. Because it is a college campus it feels like everywhere you turn there they players, coaches and staff are. And that proximity allows the players and fans to have a closer connection that you might not get somewhere else. It is a nice intimate environment and I hope Eagan can recreate that.
While I will miss Mankato, I am excited for the Eagan facility. I’m excited for a shorter drive, to see what the new shiny facility will look like, to meet new people and to make new memoires as a fan and hopefully with a media credential again.
But Mankato and Blakeslee Stadium will always have a piece of my heart. To Mankato, thanks for the wonderful memories from both sides of the fence that I will absolutely keep and cherish for a lifetime.