By Kimi Tonneson
It began on the East Coast nearly a decade ago as an ambitious partnership between the NFL, the National Guard, and high schools of the inner-city. Today, the High School Player Development program is a summertime sensation for the Vikings and for some 40,000 student-athletes from across the country representing their communities.
The fierce competition of the High School Player Development 7-on-7 Tournament is a five-day opportunity for sophomores, juniors and seniors to perform on a grand stage – the HSPD National Championships, which take place July 12-14 in Indianapolis.
But the primary purpose of the HSPD isn't all about the Xs and Os on the football field. It's also a strategy for the coaches and players, working together to develop an understanding of the game. For the lives of the players, it's also a test of building character and building a foundation of success.
For the first time in its nine-year history, all 32 NFL teams have joined the HSPD program on its crusade of empowering youth. Nike is also on board, and along with its new sponsorship deal with the League, the sports apparel empire will have a big presence at the National Championships event.
“Now that all 32 NFL teams are on board, you are getting more people involved,” said John Austinson, Minnesota's regional director of HSPD. “It’s going to phenomenal!”
The HSPD program remains deeply rooted in its intention to educate young athletes. And despite its steady growth, Austinson says there is always room for even greater expansion, with a “goal to keep it growing 300-350 camps across the United States and all 50 states keep all 32 NFL teams involved in it.”
Austinson went on to say: “Our goal is to keep this going and I believe with the sponsorship like the National Guard, Nike, NFL and teams like the Vikings and high school coaches get behind its really important.”
As sponsors of the 7-on-7 tournament, the Vikings are also key players in this endeavor. Vikings Executive Director of Community Relations Brad Madson and Pro Scout Jeff Robinson coordinate their efforts with HSPD, National Guard and NFL to make this event possible for football teams in the Twin Cities. With the tournament's mission of preparing these athletes for college and beyond, the Vikings are seizing the moment to establish a positive connection with the community, and the young men who participate.
Robinson took a golden opportunity to remind the players of football's number one priority: commitment.
"This is about you guys,” Robinson told a group of participants. “The reality is 5-10 years from now you guys might be playing for us [Vikings]. All this stuff you are doing now is preparing you for life.”
There are also the harsh lessons of accountability, as Robinson spoke out on the repercussions of bad decisions.
"The NFL is the most popular league in the country because everyone wants to play,” Robinson said. “You see it all the time. Everyone wants to talk about football…but the process starts with you right now. Just remember, if you don’t have the grades to play, you can’t play.”
The Becker Bulldogs had never finished better than third place in the Minnesota regional 7-on-7 tournament. Until this year, that is. The Bulldogs defeated the Edina Hornets 35-14 in the regional finals, punching their ticket to Indianapolis as a finalist for the National Championships. They will represent the Vikings and football fans in the entire state of Minnesota as they go against 31 other high school teams nationwide who will represent the NFL team of their respective community.
Coach Dwight Lundeen gives credit to the preparation and practice of his Bulldogs, along with the players' ability to learn from what works and what doesn’t work.
“I think that the other four years helped us get ready for what we did,” Lundeen said. “We were better prepared with plays that worked against defenses in this passing league.”
For Becker, there are greater expectations that go far and beyond winning the HSPD 7-on-7 Tournament.
“I think the whole coaching business is to win a game, but our purpose is so much bigger than that,” Lundeen said. “We are about building young men who will be good husbands and fathers. That’s the only reason why I’ve been coaching for 44 years. It’s not to just win 7-on-7 championships or state championships, it’s to impact young people.
“Today, right now at 3 o’clock, they are on cloud nine and really happy and excited to go to the National Tournament. We are very proud to represent Minnesota and very proud to represent the Minnesota Vikings. We just need to go have fun and play, and if we win fine, and if we don’t we will be happy. This is just another step for them to be better players on Friday nights."
It could also be a true stepping stone toward the prime time lights of NFL football.