EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Sporting a Teddy Bridgewater jersey, young Alex Loehlein stepped into a circle of Vikings with his grandfather and broke down the team's huddle last Friday.
The 8-year-old boy from Anoka who inspired Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer with a recent note and his grandpa, John Loehlein, received game balls that the coach set aside for them after Minnesota defeated Tampa Bay 19-13. The comeback victory occurred in dramatic fashion on the first play of overtime when rookie Anthony Barr forced a fumble, recovered the ball and returned it 27 yards for the decisive touchdown.
As practice was winding down in the fieldhouse at Winter Park, Alex jogged his way through a ladder stretched across the sideline that players use to improve their footwork. After the huddle broke, Alex got to speak with Bridgewater, the leader of the Vikings offensive huddle.
"It's hard to explain. It's a whirlwind and you try to keep the focus, from our standpoint, on the muscular dystrophy, but on the other hand, you want to forget about the muscular dystrophy, and this is a lot of fun," John Loehlein said. "These guys have all been so generous that we just wanted to come out here and enjoy it and see the team. Not too many people get the inside view, so it's really been fun and kind of overwhelming for Alex, too."
Alex is courageously battling Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease that is currently incurable, and attended a practice through HopeKids before Minnesota visited Buffalo and suffered a last-second loss. He sent Zimmer a note of thanks and encouragement that Zimmer read to media to open his Oct. 24 media session.
In the note, Alex wrote: "Dear, Mr. Zimmer, thanks for letting me watch your practice last Saturday, it was fun. The players were nice and signed my Viking helmet. My grandpa said to expect good luck for you because you have used up all of your bad luck already."
"We try to write thank you notes for people who help, and there have been a lot of people in organizations that have helped, so it's just something we do as a natural course," John Loehlein said. "Over the next few days, after we left here, we talked about our visit, and he said he had a lot of fun and the players signed his helmet so we incorporated that into the thank you notes, and then after that Buffalo game, we talked about, 'The Vikings have had some pretty bad luck. They've probably used it all up.' "
John said he "froze up" from surprise when he saw Zimmer read the thank you note to open his media session and was again in disbelief when Zimmer announced during his postgame speech that they were going to receive game balls.
"We were watching the game, and at the end of the game they had lost the lead," John Loehlein said. "Well I'm going to take this as a good omen if these guys can pull it out, maybe this young man does have the magic touch, and then when they pulled it out, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is something.' Mr. Zimmer bringing it up there in the team meeting after the game was just something that just hit you like a ton of bricks. It's hard to conceive or understand the impact of something like that."
Duchenne muscular dystrophy affects approximately one of every 3,500 boys born annually. It attacks muscle function and capability in patients, and medical researchers are trying to find a cure for the disease that often places children in wheelchairs by age 10 and can cause fatalities. A Tennessee couple with two sons battling the disease started fightdmd.com to raise money in hopes of finding a cure.
Alex was officially diagnosed with DMD in July 2013. John Loehlein said his grandson has been on some steroid medicine and some heart medicine and the family has looked for additional therapies.
"He got accepted into a trial drug here a few weeks back, but just before we came down for practice, he didn't qualify for it anymore because he was allergic to it," John Loehlein said. "That was kind of a low point, and then (receiving the game balls) happened and brought us back. It took Alex's mind off of it, so everybody's feeling better."