Opening Day of training camp is an exciting time in the NFL. Rookies trying to make the roster, veterans returning to old form, coaches shaping their team and fans in the stands create an environment that is unique to football and the NFL.
But the Vikings organization will carry a heavy heart on Opening Day this year. It was 10 years ago on August 1 that tragedy fell upon Vikings training camp, as offensive lineman Korey Stringer passed away from complications related to heat-induced illness. He was just 27 years old.
Beyond the fact that he was a skilled offensive lineman, Stringer was beloved by everyone from coaches to teammates to fans. Although he was an imposing blocker who battled nasty defensive linemen for a living, Stringer was a gentle giant off the field. He was charitable, kind and always approachable. In fact, the Twin Cities chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America award the “Korey Stringer Good Guy Award” each year to the Vikings player who is the most cooperative and has the best attitude with the media.
“Big K was the funny man who kept everyone’s spirits up,” said Vikings TE
Former Vikings RB Robert Smith was especially close with Stringer because the two played together at Ohio State before becoming teammates with the Vikings from 1995-2000.
“To this day I’ll see a funny skit on television and I think Korey would love what I’m watching,” Smith said. “Nicknames were a big thing with him. We had nicknames for him and he’d always have a nickname for me. I’d call him ‘Special K’ or just ‘Special’ for short. You can’t find anyone who would ever say anything bad about Korey.”
Kleinsasser is the only current Vikings player who was on the team when Stringer passed away. Typically a boisterous and burly personality, Kleinsasser couldn’t help but pause as he reflected back ten years to the heartbreaking moment when he received news of Stringer’s passing. And while Kleinsasser is the only remaining player from that year’s team, there are several Vikings staff members who knew Korey well and they, too, can’t help but take a moment to remember their friend.
Stringer’s unique personality and ability to always be a positive influence on those around him will never be forgotten and his spirit will never be lost by the Vikings. Stringer’s legacy is carved into Vikings history, as he was inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor and his #77 jersey was retired on November 19, 2001. In addition, Stringer’s name is honored both in Mankato, where a tree was planted in his memory outside of Gage Residence Community, and also at Winter Park, where the team keeps a locker with his equipment, name plate and photos.
So as you ramp up your enthusiasm for training camp and the NFL season ahead, remember to also take pause and reflect back on the great life of Korey Stringer. The entire Vikings organization will do the same.