There's still a lot of the state in Minnesota in Steve Heiden, so the veteran Browns tight end certainly won't need a pep talk to get ready for Sunday's regular season-opening game against the Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Heiden, who is commonly seen around the locker room wearing a Minnesota Twins cap and can always quote chapter and verse about the state of the baseball team, also followed the Vikings while growing up in Rushford, Minn., about two hours southeast of Minneapolis. He is the only Minnesota native on the Browns roster.
"I was a huge Vikings fan – a huge fan," said Heiden, now the second-most tenured active Brown behind kicker Phil Dawson following the placing on tackle/guard Ryan Tucker onto the Injured Reserve List. "I was a die-hard fan – a crazy fan.
"Green Bay is about five hours away from my hometown, and there are quite a few Packers fans there going back to the days before the Vikings existed and the Packers were the closest team to root for. But the members of my family have always been big Vikings fans."
Heiden was an all-state tight end at Rushford-Peterson High School and chose jersey No. 83 because the Vikings tight end at the time, Steve Jordan, wore it. Jordan was his favorite player.
"I still remember sitting in my dorm room as a senior in college (South Dakota State) and watching the Vikings and Atlanta Falcons play in the (1998) NFC Championship Game," Heiden said. "The Vikings were 15-1 – 15-1 – in the regular season. They were scoring a bunch of points on everyone. And they lost (30-27 in overtime). I couldn't believe it. I was so mad."
Heiden did play against the Vikings one other time, in 2005 at Minneapolis when he caught five passes for 55 yards in a 24-12 loss. But that wasn't an opener. It was a Nov. 27 contest, long after the Browns had been eliminated from playoff contention.
So while Sunday's game – Sunday's opponent -- are special for him, the goal is still the same.
"We just want to win," said Heiden, who is 1-7 in season openers, with five straight losses, as a member of the Browns.
ABOUT THE VIKINGS II: The offensive coordinator on that Vikings team was Brian Billick, who is in town to work as the color analyst for the FOX telecast of the game. It can be seen in the Cleveland area on WJW (Channel 8). The Vikings set a regular-season NFL scoring record by amassing 556 points (it has since broken by the 2007 New England Patriots, who had 589). They averaged 34.8 points a game, scoring 41 or more points four times, including 50 in an impressive 40-point win over a Jacksonville Jaguars club that finished 11-5 and won the AFC Central with an 11-5 record in the final Browns-less season before the club re-entered the league and the division.
ABOUT THAT RETURN: Based on what he had done that year, the expansion Browns in 1999 wanted to hire Billick to be their head coach. They went to the Metrodome to pick him up immediately after the NFC title game and whisk him back to Cleveland, where they hoped to sign him, but the plan blew up in their faces when Billick insisted on going to Baltimore first to see what the Ravens, who were also looking for a coach, had to say. That turned off the Browns, and then any interest they may have still had in him became a moot point when the Ravens never let him leave and signed him. So when Billick arrived with play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman on Friday to begin preparing for Sunday's telecast, it meant that Billick, who coached the Ravens for nine years before being fired after the 2007 season, had at along last found his way to Browns Headquarters.
GETTING A JUMP ON THINGS: Browns head coach Eric Mangini said the Browns had been tracking the Vikings since the NFL schedule came out in April. All teams do that kind of thing every year in their preparation for the opener. "That work is built into the offseason schedule for your coaching staff," he said before Friday's practice. "You do scouting reports and game plans for all of your opponents. You do even more work for your early-season opponents because you know that when you play them, you won't have much of the season's game film to work with."
SURPRISE, SURPRISE: While all this work is critical, things certainly can change, especially in the opener, when a lot of teams, realizing there is not much an opponent can do to accurately scout them, tend to spring surprises in the form of plays, formations, personnel, etc. Mangini said this preseason planning has worked both for and against the teams on which he's been. "Sometimes the work proves to have been very valuable, and sometimes it proves to be nothing more than a good exercise," he said.
WORK ETHIC: Mangini, who seemed to open up a little more with Billick, Brennaman and two other national media people in attendance at his press conference, told a cute little story. It seems he came home late from work the other night and went into his boys' bedroom to check on his 3- and 5-year-olds. Jake, the 5-year-old, asked Mangini why he had to work such long hours. Mangini tried to explain to him that the money he earned through his work allowed the family to go to Disney World and Cape Cod. A little later, the boy found his dad and said, "Maybe you should go back to work."