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Specialists Help Spark Vikings Defense Team in Celebrity Softball Game


ST. PAUL, Minn. — John Parker Romo did not participate in the home run derby portion of Thursday night's UNRL Celebrity Softball Game, but perhaps he should have.

The kicker who joined the Vikings this offseason as a free agent managed to provide the first run of the game on a line drive with enough carrying power to hit Jalen Nailor's glove and escape the receiver's grasp. In the fifth inning, Romo made similar contact at the plate and with Nailor's glove in the outfield as part of a four-run fifth.

"That was crazy. The same spot, too," said Romo, who had played Little League Baseball and one year at a private school.

View photos from the 2024 UNRL Celebrity Softball Game hosted by FB C.J. Ham in St. Paul, Minn.

Instead of double-doinks, it was double-dingers for Romo on a night when specialists provided significant impact while teaming with Vikings defensive players for a 9-1 victory over Vikings offensive players.

Both times Romo peeked at the outfield as he was nearing first. Both times he raised his arm in celebration and both times his defensive teammates formed a tunnel for him to run through between third base and home.

Punter Ryan Wright, who had outlasted tackle Brian O'Neill in the pregame home run derby, added a home run to start a four-run sixth for the defense, which also included a long ball by defensive lineman Harrison Phillips.


Long snapper Andrew DePaola nearly pitched a shutout, missing the goose egg when Myles Gaskin singled, advanced on a hit by fullback and host C.J. Ham and scored on a hit by Trishton Jackson. The rally was thwarted a batter later when DePaola started a 1-3-6 double play, getting Aaron Jones out at first before Wright fired to second in time for a tag on Jackson.

"Almost. I wanted [the shutout] bad, just for bragging rights. I was initially going for a no-hitter but blew that early," DePaola said before quipping, "Little surprised from the lack of offense this year from the offensive side."

DePaola's line benefited from impressive catches by Theo Jackson that robbed a homer off the bat of tackle David Quessenberry in the top of the first and Andrew Booth, Jr., who jumped and snatched away a surefire homer off the bat of tight end Johnny Mundt.


Booth's shining night in the outfield and as a table setter who led off the game with a single. He reached on a throwing error and added an RBI single later in the game. His play earned a comp to Wesley Snipes' Willie Mays Hayes character from the Major League movie series by game emcees Gabe Henderson and Ron Johnson.

"Wesley Snipes? That's crazy. I love that movie," Booth said, holding the trophy claimed by the defense. "I played baseball my whole life, until ninth grade really, and then I stopped and came back for my senior year. The most fun I ever had playing high school sports. I kind of overran that ball, but I was excited. Got the hardware."

Vikings veteran quarterback Sam Darnold and rookie J.J. McCarthy manned third and shortstop, respectively, flashing leather and showing their strong throwing arms on multiple occasions. The tandem combined to retire Pat Jones II after the outside linebacker found himself in a pickle that ended the top of the second.

O'Neill, DePaola and Ivan Pace, Jr., each hit two home runs during the first round of the derby and went through a series of three-pitch playoffs to see who would advance to face Wright for the championship.

O'Neill and DePaola each hit a homer to advance, and O'Neill mustered another to face Wright, an elite high school player hyped that his college alma mater Tulane qualified for the NCAA Tournament (as a No. 4 seed set to play Oregon State in a regional game tonight).

"It felt like old times. I grew up a baseball guy. Baseball is still my favorite sport," Wright said. "Obviously, I play football now, but baseball will always have a special place in my heart. It was good to see I could still make contact with the ball."


Amidst the booms, clean line drives, pop flies and squibblers, Vikings teammates enjoyed the opportunity to connect with each other and fans at the third annual game.

The event was created in 2022 as a fundraiser for the Thielen Foundation by former Vikings receiver Adam Thielen and his wife Caitlin.

Vikings safety Harrison Smith hosted the 2023 game, which also benefited Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nonprofit that's received longtime support from Smith.

Now entering his second season with the Carolina Panthers, Thielen asked Ham to pinch hit as the host this year.

"It means the world to me," Ham said. "The Thielen Foundation, for such a long time, has really given back to the community. Adam and Caitlin are phenomenal people. To be asked to be a part of this, I'm honored. I'm grateful to UNRL for allowing me to be a part of this."

In addition to benefiting Thielen Foundation, proceeds will be directed to the Ham Family Scholarship Fund, which supports BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students in Ham's hometown of Duluth and adjacent Superior, Wisconsin.

"A handful of years ago, my wife Stephanie and I started the Ham Family Scholarship Fund that benefits BIPOC youth in the Duluth and Superior area. It came about right after everything that happened with George Floyd where myself, my wife and a lot of other people were hurting and didn't really know what to do," Ham said. "We knew whatever we did wasn't necessarily going to change what was going on and how people were feeling, but we knew we wanted to do something. Education is something that is super important to us, something we stand on, and education is something no one can take away from you."

Ham, who was among a few players staying well beyond the end of the game to sign additional autographs, appreciated the opportunity to introduce newcomers to fans and encourage the continuation of giving back to the community.

"This is great for the fans to get to know them and see their personalities and for us to continue to grow as a team and show them the Vikings organization loves to give back from top to bottom," Ham said.

"I love [the environment for interacting with fans]. On a Vikings game day, we get to interact with fans a little bit, but not as close as this where we can get out, shake their hands, give them a hug, sign baseballs and footballs," Ham said. "It's a special opportunity for them and us to be able to show them our personalities and that we're just normal people who like to have fun and are really bad softball."