Players recount their ‘best present ever'

Right now, most Vikings players are hoping to make the playoffs for their Christmas bonus. But 15 or 20 years ago, they were experiencing the thrill of getting the favorite gift in their lives. Here are some of the chart-toppers.

With Christmas quickly approaching, parents everywhere are stashing away the present that they hope will be such a big hit that their kids say, "This is the best Christmas ever." While the Vikings players are grown men who are employed in a violent profession, each has that one gift that stood out from the others growing up. But what might be surprising is how telling some of the favorites would be in relation to their future occupation.

The Vikings locker room is loaded with different personalities and different responsibilities. Some players are the big maulers on the line. The speed players tend to line up on the outside. Linebackers get to dive head-long into the action with reckless abandon. Each has a specialty, and, in many cases, there can be a connection made between what they do now and their favorite present of all time.

When you think speed on a football field, wide receivers and cornerbacks come to mind immediately. One needs speed to get past the defense to make big plays. The other needs to be physical and have make-up speed to shadow an opponent. It should come as no surprise that cornerback Cedric Griffin and wide receiver Aundrae Allison, two players who live on their speed, would have a remote control race track as a favorite present.
"Best present? Definitely a race track," Griffin said. "I was about eight or nine years old and me and my cousin got a race track. We raced each other all the time. We wore it out. I think we broke in about a month."

Allison loved his racetrack so much, he intends to relive the happy days of yore as an adult.

"My first race track was the best ever," Allison said. "We couldn't afford it at the time, but Mom put it on layaway and got it. That was my favorite present of all time. It probably lasted a few weeks and by then it was just destroyed. The fun thing was you could change the track to any shape you wanted. By the end of Christmas Day, the cars were already banged up. I might buy one this year, just to bring back some of those childhood memories."

While the speed merchants do their business at high speed, for offensive linemen life is much more hand to hand combat – me against you for 60 plays and let the strongest survive. It should come as no surprise that Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson found his greatest Christmas joy with a toy designed for a man-to-man fight to the death.

"The (World Wrestling Federation) had the little plastic wrestler figurines that came out at that time," Hutchinson said. "There was Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant. They had the big ring that came with it and it had ropes and everything. Maybe back then they had more commercials for toys or maybe I just paid more attention when I was kid, but they would run those commercials and all my friends would talk about it at school. Mom said, ‘Ask Santa and maybe you'll get one or a couple of them.' I remember I got the ring and six or seven guys. I played with it all day. I had a battle royal all day long."

Aside from brute strength, offensive linemen need good communication skills. In his three years with the Vikings, Artis Hicks has had to play guard and both tackle positions, each of which requires a lot of communication with his linemates. So it makes sense what the favorite present of his youth would be.

"A set of walkie talkies," Hicks said. "I was seven and we had gone to a store and I had seen them and I was all excited about maybe getting that. A few days later, I open the present and the walkie talkies were there. That was unbelievable, man. My best friend who lived next door had the other one. They actually had pretty good range – you could talk about a quarter-mile. We could be at the end of the street and talk. That one was my favorite."

In some presents, a conspiracy theorist could find career possibilities in the tea leaves. For someone who spent almost a decade wearing green and gold for a living, kicker Ryan Longwell's favorite present may have been a portent of things to come.

"The greatest Christmas present by far was the Green Machine," Longwell said. "It was a Big Wheel – one wheel in the front, two in the back. You controlled it with toggles and could get some high speeds and then jam ‘em and skid off. That was pretty exciting. I walked out there and saw it and was really excited. I wore out some wheels on it, that's for sure."

It takes a special player to be a special teamer – throwing yourself recklessly into on-charging opponents with no regard for personal safety. These are the guys that reach high speed in order to make impact. Vinny Ciurciu is one of the team's top special teams players and his favorite toy appeared to have shared that same fate.

There was this remote control called The Bandit that I always wanted," Ciurciu said. "When I got it, it was like the best thing ever. It was like a truck and would fly around everywhere. It lasted a little while, but I broke it within about a month."

The danger inherent with playing linebacker often leads to players diving to break up plays and take risks for high reward and accolades. Ben Leber makes his living leaving his feet to deliver a blow and his favorite present may have provided some of the fearlessness needed to excel at the linebacker position.

"I got this little dirt bike that I always wanted," Leber said. "All of the other kids had a dirt bike in the neighborhood. I finally got it. That way I could take all the cool jumps like they were doing and learn how to hurt myself on a bike."

Sometimes, where one is from can play a role in a favorite present. Being from Texas, Cullen Loeffler grew up in the outdoors and his chart-topper was one the city kids could likely never experience.

"A pump-action Browning .20-gauge shotgun," Loeffler said.

When asked how old of a kid gets a shotgun, Loeffler was quick with his Texas wit.

"Three," Loeffler said with a laugh. "I was 10 – if that's any better. My Mom was terrified. My Dad got one for me and my brother, who was four years older. We lived in Hunt, Texas – pretty good, huh? One thing about it was, not only was my mom a stickler, but Dad was very safety-conscious. One mistake or even close to a mistake and it was gone. He told us it was a privilege to get it and the privilege could be taken away. It was totally unexpected. It was the greatest gift ever. It was kind of like a rite of passage for us."

While all of these gifts had significance, perhaps the one answer that stood out was the one that can gives the most pause. While so many of the Vikings had a cherished presents that remain part of their deepest set of happy memories, not everyone has that "best Christmas ever" moment. For many, Christmas is just another day and a reminder that poverty doesn't take a day off for the holidays.

Anthony Herrera needed time to answer the question – he eventually said his favorite gift was an oversized He-Man doll. But, for most Christmases, there wasn't much in the way of the joy of opening presents that could create lasting memories.

"I didn't really get many Christmas presents," Herrera said. "Christmas for me as a kid, our present was to scrape up enough money to buy a piece of ham."

As we prepare for the holidays and hope the gifts we've purchased for those close to us, maybe we should take a cue from Herrera's story and put a few more dollars in the kettle or drop off a toy at a collection bin. You never who might get the best Christmas from a gift you get them anonymously. That would be a present you both can enjoy.

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