If his players didn't know it before Zygi Wilf made a speech to them on the eve of training camp, they now realize the passion of their owner.
Wilf, who has admitted from the start of his ownership of the team four years ago that he grew up a big New York Giants fan, can be found displaying his enthusiasm for the game on numerous occasions throughout the year. During the season, he sometimes makes his way through tailgating lots outside the Metrodome in order to ease his pregame jitters. Following a minicamp practice, he was throwing the football around and running patterns with friends and relatives. And during training camp Friday, he was fielding punts.
But Wilf's speech to the coaches and players seemed to strike a different chord with different players.
"It was great. It was a good little motivational speech and it was good to hear the excitement from the owner," said linebacker Ben Leber. "He's been nothing but great to us, great to the facilities, getting things improved, all the way down – doing all the little things for us, so I can't wait to play for him this year."
Since Wilf took over the team, he has given their Winter Park headquarters a facelift, putting in a new air conditioning system, redoing the practice fields, enlarging the locker room with brand new carpet and bigger, wooden lockers, making a bigger and better training facility and players lounge and tightening security. He's also spent unprecedented amounts of guaranteed money on Vikings contracts.
While wide receiver Robert Ferguson said Wilf generally just congratulated the players and wished them well in his pre-camp speech, there was more to it than that, according to other players.
"It was about family, working together, committing, working hard for your teammates, being accountable and winning," said cornerback Antoine Winfield. "Of course, he wants to win so we're definitely trying to make that happen for him."
With the talent on the roster, some of the players, including Ferguson, are feeling a different vibe in this year's training camp.
"It's definitely not loose. To describe it, I would say a sense of urgency. From the owner down to the players, there is a sense of urgency," Ferguson said. "You never know when you're going to have the opportunity to have a team on paper the way that we have a team on paper right now, so we have to go out there and perform like that out on the field and bring some truth to the expectations that some people are bringing on us."
One of those people was Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, who has the Vikings as his Super Bowl pick. Still, Leber said despite a few favorable reviews from the media, the players have to approach the season the same way as last year to keep a firm work ethic in the preparatory phases.
"People are talking about it now just because some media guys made some predictions, but we came in last year with the same goals, and every year I've been in the league," the linebacker said. "If you don't come in with that mindset, then you're behind the eight-ball."
Winfield, for one, says there is a sense of urgency, because of the talent on the roster.
"That is definitely true. I think our time is now. We have to win. We all know that because who knows about next year? You don't want to think about that," he said.
"We have a great team assembled, but potential gets you nowhere. We're going to work hard each day and try to stack some Ws."
But Leber cautioned that the players can't go out and try to do things beyond their assignments or abilities.
"We're pretty confident in our abilities and we had a sense of urgency last year. As long as we play within ourselves and don't go out on Sundays and try to do something we're not and be a team that we're not, if we just play within ourselves, we'll get some Ws," Leber said.
Winfield said the longer players are in the league, the more urgency they have to win.
"This is my 10th year in the league. It's time to win championships," he said.
That's probably why Winfield was among a group of veterans encouraging head coach Brad Childress and other front-office personnel to sign any number of talented free agents this offseason. The Vikings worked a trade for Jared Allen, who led the league with 15½ sacks last year, and signed free-agent wide receiver Bernard Berrian to a lucrative contract as well.
Still, for players with more years in the league than they have left to play, it might never be enough.
"You know me. I want to bring them all in, Pro Bowlers, everybody. It's not up to me. I have my opinion, but it really doesn't matter," Winfield said.
The opinion that matters most is the man signing the checks to pay those acquisitions, and he was apparently ready to get the season started with a speech that left different players remembering different messages.
"Just overall excitement, just talking about how he grew up a big football fan and now he's just kind of living his dream," Leber said of Wilf's speech. "He was all geeked up. He was ready to go."
Wilf Speech Makes Impression
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