In a game that is so driven by the team aspect, being invited to play in the Pro Bowl in February is the highest individual calling a player can receive during his career.
The announcement came down Tuesday that no less than seven Vikings were named to the Pro Bowl squad and four others were selected as alternates. It was a stamp of approval that, while the Vikings are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, they possess several individual stars.
For the Vikings that were named to the squad – Adrian Peterson, Tony Richardson, Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson from the offense and Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Darren Sharper from the defense – the recognition was something that meant a lot to them for different reasons.
For Birk, the dream of going to Hawaii seemed like a distant memory just a couple of years ago. Having missed the better part of two seasons due to injury, returning to the form that made him a Pro Bowl regular in previous seasons seemed a long way off. But, after making it in 2006, being named to his sixth Pro Bowl Tuesday seemed a bit surreal.
"I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to play again a couple of years ago," Birk said. "You feel fortunate getting selected. It's a humbling experience for someone like me. I've been lucky enough to play around some great players. I think a lot of times you get selected because of the unit you're with, not so much who you are individually."
Getting selected hasn't been as frequent for most players as it has been for Birk. Pat Williams has been playing in the NFL for 11 years and many would say he's been at a Pro Bowl level for most of them. However, he didn't make his first Pro Bowl until last season – and even then, it was because he was an alternate who ascended to the game because Chicago's Tommie Harris was injured and couldn't play.
This time, Williams was not only selected on his own merits, he was named a starter alongside teammate Kevin Williams, who was named to his third Pro Bowl. It marks the second straight year and the third time in franchise history that the Vikings have sent four linemen to the Pro Bowl, but this time with both members of the Williams Wall being named starters, it seems a little different. Even though he had to wait a long time – even in years when a strong case could be made he was more deserving of those who went ahead of him – Pat Williams was proud to get his first starting nod from fans, coaches and his peers.
"It's God's blessing to get recognized for what I do on the field," Williams said. "It doesn't matter when it's come. It's a blessing to get it whenever you can."
Rookie Adrian Peterson got the most votes among running backs and will be making his first appearance at the Pro Bowl. It will be a new experience for him, but the reality is that he will likely be picking up more than his own expenses while in Hawaii. He'll likely be picking up some of the costs of those who plow the road for him in the regular season.
"He's got some things to learn, like we're on his tab," Birk said with a smile. "It's good to see he's on board with that. It isn't really a choice for rookies at the Pro Bowl. That's just how it is. We'll let him know how it works before we head out there so there's no confusion."
For fullback Tony Richardson, this will mark the third time he's been invited to the Pro Bowl and his first time as a member of the Vikings. He, too, stressed that the selection process is often the result of team play and team success, but added that the recognition of the fans is something he can take pride in.
"Most of us don't look at individual honors during the season," Richardson said. "After a season is done, you can look back at what you accomplished and take pride in that, but we're not focusing too much on it right now. To get the acknowledgement from the fans and the players is something you take a lot of pride in, but that celebrating will come later."
Richardson's three Pro Bowl appearances have come as a lead blocker for three of the most electrifying running backs of this century – Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and Adrian Peterson. He believes that, while he has done his job admirably, if not for those guys following him, he likely wouldn't have received the amount of recognition he has.
"When you're blocking for guys like Priest, Larry Johnson, Adrian and Chester (Taylor), it makes things a lot easier," Richardson said. "Each of them has the skills to make big plays that make everyone around them look good, especially Adrian. He has skills that very few people have ever had in this game. It's a joy to play with him and marvel at what he can do."
While the seven Vikings honorees to the Pro Bowl all had their stories to share, the fact remains there could have been more. One name conspicuous by its absence was that of linebacker E.J. Henderson, who has stepped up this season and become the Vikings' leading tackler with more than 100 solo tackles. However, he was edged out by Seattle's Lofa Tatupu and rookie Patrick Willis of the 49ers in the voting for inside linebacker, leaving some wondering what he had to do in order to get his own recognition.
"I pretty much thought that E.J. would make the team," linebacker Ben Leber said. "It's not to take anything away from those guys who got named, but E.J. has been playing at a high level all season and a lot of us thought he would get his named called. That happens when you have a lot of good players at the same position. I don't think Brian Urlacher made it either and we all know how good a player he is. It will come for E.J. It just wasn't this season."
The "wait ‘til next year" approach has been something kicker Ryan Longwell has had to deal with most of his career. In what could best be described as a Susan Lucci moment – the soap star of "All My Children" who was nominated for a Best Actress Daytime Emmy for two decades before winning – Longwell was named as an alternate. But, unlike other positions where injury, surgery or schedule conflicts result in starters passing on the game and alternates making the trip, kickers aren't so lucky.
"It's a little bittersweet," Longwell said. "They don't take two kickers, so obviously the No. 1 slot is where you want to be. I've never been the first guy – 11 years and I've been the alternate six times. It's exciting to be acknowledged by your peers, but you want to be the No. 1 guy. I've never really done this job for the pats on the back or the accolades, so it's gratifying to me to have the respect of my teammates."
So, as the Vikings send their Magnificent Seven to the Pro Bowl, it serves as notice that the rest of the league recognizes that the Vikings are a force to be reckoned with as a team as well as the individual component parts that help make up the unit as a whole. For those players selected, the chance to bask in the glory of their accomplishments as well as soak up the sun in Hawaii in February is reward enough for a job well done. But a note to the NFL – if you want to keep the players coming to the Pro Bowl, you better not change the location.
"Hawaii in February?" Birk asked. "It's hard to beat that. It's a great thing and a nice family vacation for a lot of us. If it was in Buffalo, it might be a different story."
Pro Bowlers Reflect on Honor
Viking Update Top Stories
Notebook: Problems extended beyond pass proThe Minnesota Vikings had obvious problems with pass protection, but there are other areas head coach Mike Zimmer is addressing, too.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:41 PM
Vikings will look at ‘all options’ to improveComing off a loss that Mike Zimmer termed “embarrassing,” a 21-10 defeat against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Minnesota Vikings will look at all options to rectify the situation.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:42 PM
VIDEO: Zimmer: 'This is a gut-check day'Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer recapped the first loss of the season by pointing out "several dumb things" he found to be uncharacteristic of his team.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 1:06 PM
Counting snaps: Vikings vs. EaglesDespite a “soft” performance on the offensive line, according to coach Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota Vikings seemed interested in getting a rotation going there.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 6:23 AM
Holler: R-E-L-A-XMike Zimmer wasn't kind in his assessment of the Minnesota Vikings Sunday following their humbling 21-10 loss to Philadelphia, but it isn't as though the season is going down the…
Viking UpdateSunday at 10:11 PM