When fans think of the Vikings, the first thought that comes to mind is what they do on the field. Last year's ride toward the Super Bowl brought the fans together cheering for the Vikings. But far removed from the headlines of their on-field exploits is the work the Vikings do within the Twin Cities community.
On Friday, the Vikings followed their Friday morning practice by joining the entire Vikings staff to help construct a playground at the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in Minneapolis. The inner-city school didn't have anything in the way of playground equipment and the Vikings organization, along with playground designer KaBOOM! and corporate sponsors, rectified that missing piece to the neighborhood.
The players got to see the excitement of their littlest fans, and even the biggest of players couldn't help but be touched by the outpouring of admiration and affection directed their way.
"I always love doing things with the kids," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "I don't always love doing things with the grown-up people, but I always love doing stuff with the kids. I'm out here having fun, so anytime I can do things to help out kids, I'm all for it."
Mark Bonine, principal at the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, said the process of getting the playground completed didn't just fall together over the last few weeks. It was a long process that built up to Friday's construction, which began about 7 a.m. and was completed about 2 p.m.
"This all started about a year ago," Bonine said. "About eight weeks ago, the students came up with the design of what they were looking for in the playground. All the volunteers came together this week to make this a reality."
For children growing up in a tough neighborhood off Lowry Avenue and in the shadow of Interstate 94, there aren't a lot of places that they can go for the pure enjoyment of exercising, playing and simply having fun. To see their football heroes working alongside school staff and community members has been a dream come true.
"It's just great to see the team come and give back to the community," Bonine said. "We want a safe place for the kids to play. To see the whole community come together and the Vikings come together to give back is great."
Friday's construction was the fifth such project the Vikings have done since 2006. The first playground was constructed at Winona Community School in Minneapolis, followed by the American Indian Magnate School in St. Paul, the Seed Academy/Harvest Preparatory School in North Minneapolis and Crestview Elementary in Brooklyn Center last year.
This year's process began toward the end of last season, said Vikings executive director of community relations Brad Madson. He said there were several candidates that were worthy, but the lack of playground equipment at this school pushed it to the top of the list.
"This one jumped out at us," Madson said. "They didn't even have a playground here, so it wasn't like we were adding on to a playground or fixing one that was in disrepair. They just haven't had one."
The buzz of enthusiasm around the project was palpable, both by those benefiting from the project and the Vikings players and staff themselves. The smiles and hugs were in plentiful supply for everyone involved.
"When we see the kids and the smiles on their faces – and the smiles on the players' faces too," Madson said, "everybody likes to meet-and-greet, but here they get to be hands-on. To visit a classroom is great, but with this you leave something permanent for the school and neighborhood."
The good feelings that were shared by those that were doing the manual labor to get the project done were shared by the players, who were signing autographs, posing for pictures and getting a lot of love from the kids they were helping out. In most cases, it was just as gratifying for the players as it was the children at the school.
"These kids work hard in school and it's nice to be able to come out and give them a playground to have a little relief from class work and have fun during recess," Kevin Williams said. "You can see how excited they are all about this going in and it's fun for us to be a small part of bringing that joy to the kids and the community."
One of the best parts for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was the other portion of the project. While construction was ongoing outside prior to the completion/ribbon cutting ceremony, some of the players and coaches were inside the school talking to the students. It is rare when students can get as close to their heroes and see that they are, in fact, real people just like them. Frazier said those are the moments that will stick with him.
"Kevin Williams, (defensive assistant) Diron Reynolds and I just came out of a classroom after talking to students," Frazier said. "To sit there and just see how those kids were so in awe of Kevin – the fact that here's a pro football player coming into their neighborhood and their classroom talking to them about their dreams and having goals. Then to be able to come out here and see this playground going up, this is something that will be here long after we're done in Minnesota with the Vikings. It's just special and you feel like you are truly giving back to the community."
The best part of the project, according to guard Steve Hutchinson, is the permanence of the structure. It will be a focal point for the community, whether school is in session or not, and available for kids to have a fun, safe place to play and, in some cases, find enjoyment in their lives that is too often lacking.
"This is cool," Hutchinson said. "This is a state-of-the-art playground. They will have something that not only they can use during school, but that the community can enjoy for most of the year. That's what is important. It is something that can bring happiness to a lot of people, whether they go to this school or not."
As excited as the cheering students were, the smiles on the faces of the Vikings players were just as telling. They are known as tough guys, but when they bent down to shake a hand or sign an autograph, it was clear that they were getting as much out of the project as those they were helping.
"Any time we can do community service, it has a special place in our hearts," linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "Something like this playground is going to be part of this community for years to come. It's special to be a part of something like this."
As the Vikings packed up and returned to Winter Park, it brought to an end a short day of giving back to the community. It was only a few hours of time donated to the effort, but the impact will last long after the players and coaches are no longer members of the Vikings organization, which may be the greatest gift of all.
"I just remember when I was a kid," Frazier said. "When you are a third- or fourth-grader, this is where you come to have fun. When we got recess, I was one of those kids on the slide or on the monkey bars. I know what it's going to mean to these kids and it gives me joy knowing they've got a structure like this that will be here for a long time."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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.
Vikings effort inspires kids and their heroes
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