Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins hosted more than 350 young men on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan for his annual youth football camp.
HOLLAND, Mich. – Kirk Cousins' football camp is one of a kind.
While its title does include "football," the two-day extravaganza for sixth-through-eighth-grade boys focuses less on the pigskin and more on the person.
When Cousins addressed more than 350 young men on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Friday morning, he told them, "It means so much for you guys to take time out of your summers to be here and try to get to know the Lord a little better."
Cousins continued, adding that "more than doing boring drills, I want us to have fun."
The Vikings new quarterback recalled attending football camps during his middle school years and feeling like it was more of a grind than a fun summer activity. When he conceptualized the camp after his rookie year with the Redskins, Cousins knew he wanted his to look a little different.
Here are eight takeaways from No. 8's youth camp:
1. Faith is fundamental
It's not often that memorizing a Bible verse can earn a young person points for his relay team, but that's exactly what happened during Cousins' camp.
Campers received a verse of the day, learning Philippians 2:3-4 and Ephesians 4:29 on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Cousins first explained his commitment to learning the Vikings playbook as part of joining a new offense, and he then encouraged young athletes to use the Bible as a "playbook for life."
He spoke to the group about applying the verses to everyday life, reminding them to be selfless and uplifting with their teammates and to stand up against bullying.
When asked about intertwining faith and football, Cousins answered that the approach comes naturally.
"If I'm going to put my name on a football camp, it's got to communicate what I'm about. And the foundation of my life is the Bible and is the Gospel, so it'd be hard for me to put a camp on, whether it's football or anything else, and not talk about the foundation of my life," Cousins told Vikings.com. "Obviously we mold it in with football and being a middle school kid and try to make it all work together, but I think it transitions well and I think the kids are really listening."
2. A family affair
Kirk isn't the only member of the Cousins family involved in his camp.
The quarterback is joined by his father, Don, and older brother, Kyle, who assist with the programming and coaching throughout the weekend. Kirk's mother and a handful of other relatives also were on hand.
"I don't know how to put a camp on and not have my family around. My brother balances me out well – he's a lot of fun, and I tend to be more serious and straight-lined, so having him around really brings the energy and brings the fun," Cousins said with a smile. "My dad's really good with programming and the camp's organization structure. That's really a highlight for me. Over the years, my family comes from different parts of the country and comes here those two or three days to be together. So that adds to the whole experience, as well."
Don added that it's a "dream come true" to see Kirk utilizing his platform the way he has and to watch his sons involved in the event together.
"It's a reflection of our family values," Don Cousins said. "Kirk, when he [started in the NFL], said, 'I'd like to have a football camp,' and we said, 'Well, let's make it happen.' "
3. Fun is the focus
Cousins' focus on fun over fundamentals adds a special energy to the camp, despite thick humidity and temps that surpassed 90 degrees.
From morning warmups accompanied by a Jock Jams-style soundtrack, to mid-afternoon knocker ball matchups and evening swimming plus a dodgeball competition, the two days focused entirely on promoting laughter, healthy competition and team bonding.
Cousins got into the spirit of things, too. He showed his competitive edge on the dodgeball court and used a mic to call a play-by-play of knocker ball games that entailed boys inside life-sized, transparent, inflatable balls bouncing off one another in attempt to knock down an opponent.
"That was a good start, but we need more collisions!" Kirk shouted from the middle of the field. "Football is a collision sport, and so is knocker ball!"
Youth were grouped into smaller teams named after NFC teams, and the weekend was capped off with a unique relay – including Bible verse recitation stations, crab walks, water balloon competitions and more – that had been designed by Don Cousins.
4. Being a role model
When youth arrived in the morning and walked onto the field at Hope College, they were welcomed raucously by coaches who lined up to create a walkway of high-fives and cheers.
Standing at the end of that line to slap hands and offer affirmation was Cousins. When one young boy appeared hesitant and anxious about joining the camp, Cousins immediately was at his side, putting an arm around his shoulder and walking with him along the sideline in reassurance.
Ask anyone who knows Cousins, and you be assured that spending time building up youth just comes naturally for the 29-year-old.
"Kirk has a really good memory of when he was 8, 10, 12 years old and how he looked up to guys that he's now in the position of," Don Cousins said. "So he understands the impact on being a role model. He gets it. … And that's what he's trying to do here."
Eric Huizenga, a childhood friend of Cousins and regular coach at the camp, pointed out how the young people are in awe over an NFL starting quarterback spending time with them.
"For them to see a player and to realize that he's a real person and not just this superhero that you see on the big screen – and I think that's really cool," Huizenga said. "He remembers their names, he asks them questions about where they live, where they go to school, and I think that means a lot to the campers."
5. Giving back to Holland
Cousins was born in Chicago but moved with his family to Holland as a seventh-grader.
Since that time, Holland has been home. And when he decided to start his own camp for youth, he didn't question that it should be held there. Cousins said it warms his heart whenever he returns and that he plans to be "tied to this community for the long-haul."
"I want to come back; I want to leave an impact; I want kids who grow up here to feel like they know me," Cousins said. "This camp is a great way to create that year-in and year-out, and we've enjoyed doing it so much."
6. Featuring father-son element
A more recent addition to Cousins' camp within the past four or five years has been the Dads Luncheon that takes place Saturday afternoon.
During that time, Kirk and Don Cousins each address father figures who are in the lives of the campers. The father-son duo spoke separately but each emphasized the importance of a positive male role model in the lives of young boys as they are growing up and even into adulthood.
"We just want to challenge them, want to encourage them," Cousins said. "I mean, these kids are coming off of two days where we're speaking a lot of truth into their lives, and we want them to leave having their dads doing that, too.
"We know that the greatest voice in their life leaving this camp will probably end up being a male role model – whether that's a grandpa, a dad, an uncle, a mentor," Cousins added. "So we want to encourage whoever that is to take up the reins and be that positive voice in their life."
7. Making a widespread impact
Cousins' camp impacts not only the young people attending but also the coaches and organizers who invest their time into the event.
Tim Schoonveld, one of the camp directors and the athletic director at Hope College, said it's easy to commit annually to the weekend because of its significance.
"We really do it, I think, because of the heart of Kirk and his family and the impact that they want to have on the community," Schoonveld said.
"We have a waiting list of people who want to work it because they know the impact," he later added. "That's in my mind what separates it from just a football camp."
8. Spreading the SKOL spirit
Because the camp is held in Michigan, many of those who attend are local to the area and have allegiances to the Lions. However, there are also those dedicated fans who followed Cousins' career in Washington, along with Vikings fans from Minnesota and across the country.
And while many of the young people didn't originally identify as Vikings fans, their connection with Cousins has convinced many to don the Purple and Gold.
The campers were given purple SKOL headbands, which many of them proudly wore throughout Saturday's activities. One young man approached me and said, "I live in Lansing, but I'm definitely a Vikings fan, now!"
By the end of the two days, the SKOL Chant also was making regular appearances.
"We've talked about, 'What would it look like to do one in Minnesota?' " Cousins said Saturday afternoon. "We had a few kids from Minnesota drive over here to be here at this camp, and we may have to bring [the camp] to them someday – we'll see."