Christian Ponder attended an ESPN "Next" Event in February, being photographed like a celebrity in front of the sponsor logos. Two months later, he was back in front of the cameras in a charity event for a college rival quarterback, Tim Tebow, in April. And then there was getting backstage with country singer Jake Owen when he, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney performed the first concert at Target Field.
But as the Minnesota Vikings quarterback was building his personal stock, he knows that his rising celebrity status will take a big hit if his performance on the field isn't adequate. One of the ways to give himself the best chance to succeed is to share in the offseason fun with his teammates.
Much of Ponder's time over the past eight months wasn't spent on travels around the country. When there were breaks in the offseason condition program, organized team activities and minicamps, he focused more on building relationships with the players that will surround him, protect him and produce for him over the next five months.
The team-building process actually started last year when Ponder knew just about no one on the team during the lockout. No matter. He invited plenty of teammates to IMG Academies in Florida to train with a professional staff of strength, speed, conditioning and quarterbacking coaches – even a sports psychologist. Quarterback Joe Webb joined him. Receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux took part. Tight end Kyle Rudolph attended. And even offensive lineman Brandon Fusco took advantage of the opportunity.
One year later, Ponder is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, Webb is his backup, Arceneaux has a shot to make the 53-man roster, Fusco is the likely starting right guard and Rudolph is a rising star with seemingly endless potential.
"As a quarterback, I pretty much deal with most people on the team and it's hard to have a relationship with a guy when you're just at work," Ponder said. "I think it's important for us to build those relationships off the field and get to know each other on a personal level, and it makes things so much easier when something is going wrong or something is going right to talk about different things that are going on the field and everything. I think we have grown a lot closer as a team in doing those things."
Ponder has been the driving force in those events, and he has picked up others along the way. He and receiver Jerome Simpson, who appears to be a favorite target, have clowning around during camp practices. Center John Sullivan, who is in charge of the making the line calls to protect Ponder, has become a close friend over the last year. When Ponder's blindside protector, Matt Kalil, was drafted No. 4 overall, Ponder immediately went to work to start on that relationship. When Kalil signed his contract hours before players were to report to training camp, Ponder was there to drive him down to Mankato … and take credit for getting the top pick into camp on time.
"I just want to start by saying I should take full credit for the Matt Kalil signing because I picked him up from the airport and drove him straight to the facility and got it done," Ponder joked upon his arrival at training camp. "I think if (Kalil's agent) Tom Condon takes three percent of his contract, I should take at least half of a percent."
But even before that the two of them were having fun away from the football fields.
Kalil was included in the summer entertainment at Sullivan's house on Lake Minnetonka and immediately given a hard time because a California dude might be able to surf but wasn't so natural on a wakeboard.
"We got him up on the wakeboard for about two seconds, which was pretty funny. Big boy like
that, it's tough to wakeboard," Ponder said. "He's athletic, but that's a lot of weight on one board. We did some other things. We hung out on the boat a lot, we played some golf and went out to dinner and all of those things. He's a great guy. He's a fun guy to be around and hopefully we'll be together in a Vikings uniform for a long time. That's what's exciting about this team. We're so young and a lot of us can be together for a long time and that's exciting for us."
Ponder was there for John Sullivan's charity golf tournament. He was front and center for the Vikings Children's Fund tournament. He and Rudolph have made their way around plenty of other area golf courses throughout the summer, and Kalil was quickly added into the mix for the with the adventures of these boys of summer.
"Since day one, he introduced himself to me when I first got there and we've been hanging out every day since," Kalil said of Ponder. "It was an immediate connection, hanging out all the time, going out on the lake having a good time, just building that chemistry. He has been a real good friend of mine."
So much so that Ponder, a Florida State alum who grew up in Texas, can freely call Kalil, a California product that stayed home at USC, a "big teddy bear" off the field. That's a lot of stuffing in the 6-foot-7, 310-pound body in charge of keeping defensive ends and hard-charging outside linebackers from putting Ponder on his back or, worse yet, sending him out of the game.
"(Ponder) understands how important that left tackle position is for him," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "They end up riding down (to Mankato) together conversing. They've been spending time together this offseason. That position in our League for our quarterback, that's the guy who protects your blind side. He's your personal protector in so many ways. For Christian's development, having the right person at that position is a key component to Christian's success and our offense's success."
When the Vikings drafted Ponder in the first round last year, immediately the stories of his proficient academic regimen surfaced. He had finished his bachelor's degree in finance in 2½ years. He entered the 2010 season at FSU as lone active Football Bowl Subdivision player to have earned his master's degree before the season, all with a 3.7 grade-point average.
His Florida State coach, Jim Fisher, called Ponder the greatest quarterback he had ever coached. After the draft, Frazier said Ponder could "set a legacy" in Minnesota. The on-field verdict is still out on Ponder. Off the field, however, he has proven to embrace Minnesota and its activities. He has become easy to cheer for … whether you are a fan or a teammate.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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