At 3:55 p.m., that changed when Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman got off his cell phone and walked from the sidelines onto the main practice field in Mankato and shouted, "Hey, Donovan" and waved his hand in the air to signal that players with new contracts could practice for the first time. The official start of the new NFL year began after the players ratified the new collective bargaining agreement, putting the often-ugly labor dispute behind them.
Players entered the practice field more than 10 minutes later than the scheduled start of the first full-pads session because they were voting on the new CBA. Players that signed new contract since the lockout ended came out onto the practice fields but still weren't sure they would be allowed to participate.
"I'll tweet it," punter Chris Kluwe joked to the media.
Once more than 50 percent of the players across the league had approved the new agreement, players with new contracts could officially begin working with coaches and their new teammates. Quarterback Donovan McNabb headlined a contingent of 17 Vikings that could only observe practices before Thursday afternoon. Although McNabb was the only player the Vikings traded for, the restructuring of his contract forced him to sit out the first three days of camp, as well.
"I felt like we weren't going to be able to get out there and we were like little kids in Pop Warner who didn't make weight, just standing around," McNabb said. "But the whole thing about it is the guys who were off on the sideline just waiting for that opportunity have been working extremely hard the last couple days, just standing out at practice, getting the mental reps, and then afterward spending time together working out and pushing each other and trying to perfect ourselves and our craft."
McNabb and others forced to be held out of practice worked out a Mankato high school field earlier this week. The group included new receivers Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu.
But even when he came onto the practice field at about 3:15 p.m., McNabb wondered if the effects of the lockout would linger. When he got the signal he could participate, he went to put on his helmet, but not before fellow quarterback Joe Webb squirted water in his helmet to welcome him. His teammates weren't the only ones excited to see him finally throw some passes in practice. When the signal came, a fan yelled out, "Welcome to Minnesota!"
McNabb said it took him a little while to feel comfortable, but he quickly started connecting with his offensive weapons.
"Offensively, our first play we connected and just kind of started going after that," McNabb said. "For myself, it was really just to calm down. Everything's moving a mile a minute, your legs feel so fresh, your drop is extremely fast and you just have to calm down. As practice continued on, I started to get in that rhythm and relax a little bit. We still have time to work on our chemistry and timing from quarterback to receivers."
While McNabb was already given the starting nod before he threw a pass on Thursday, the league-enforced holdout of players that signed new contracts was frustrating for some of the Vikings trying to grab an open spot. Linebacker Erin Henderson is hoping to win the starting weakside linebacker spot that is vacant because the team didn't re-sign incumbent starter Ben Leber.
While Henderson watched from the sidelines for the first three days of training camp, Jasper Brinkley and others were getting experience with the first-team defense.
"It was tough. You never want to see anybody in your spot. You never want to see anybody getting reps that you feel that you should be getting or that you want to be getting," Henderson, the brother of starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, said. "It's definitely hard to deal with, but there wasn't anything I could do about the situation, so I kind of had to bide my time and sit back and wait for the opportunity to present itself."
Former New Orleans Saint Remi Ayodele is also penciled in as the starting nose tackle, and his welcome-to-the-team practice was the first time the Vikings were in full pads.
"I was wondering how it was going to be. The guys got to warm up and everything to get to the pads and we had to go straight into it. It actually went better than I thought it was going to go. It felt pretty good," Ayodele said. "I tried to stay loose, because they were like, ‘Any minute they could throw y'all in there. We were stretching and trying to pay attention to all the drills and everything."
And, eventually, the new league year started, signaling the go-ahead for every signed player to be eligible for practice.
TICKETS ON SALE
Vikings single-game tickets went on sale Wednesday. While the team is holding off on judging the pace of sales, team officials say there are still plenty of good seats available.
"It was refreshing to see our fans excited for the return of football and buying tickets for the 2011 season," said Jeff Anderson, assistant director of public affairs. "Although we're pleased with [initial] progress, good single-game and season tickets remain for each game.
Single-game ticket prices range from $39 to $143. They are available for all preseason and regular-season games with the exception of the Green Bay game on Oct. 23, which is being sold in a two-game package that requires the purchase of the preseason game against Houston on Sept. 1. Two-game packages range from $78 - $286.
Tickets can be purchased at ticketmaster.com or by calling 612-33-VIKES.
After signing a two-year contract on Wednesday to rejoin the Vikings, offensive lineman Ryan Cook expects to be used mainly inside at guard. In his first practice Thursday afternoon, he was playing right guard with the second-team offense.
Despite interest from Dallas, the New York Giants and the Saints, Cook said, "This ended up being the best fit for me, so it worked out well."
Cook said the Vikings were consistently in contact with him, but he understood they had other free-agent priorities before they got to him.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of 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.