Andrew Sendejo's locker at Winter Park is guarded by a large hawk statue.
The Vikings safety enjoyed the Christmas gift he received last year from former teammate Audie Cole so much that the former Rice Owl left it facing out a few feet from his locker.
"He watches over everything," Sendejo says with a laugh. "Sometimes we'll put different outfits on him and dress him up. Sometimes he's just there. Nobody really knows what he does when we leave."
The hawk has stood watch for 11 months but remained somewhat of a mystery until Sendejo recently explained its origin and role in the locker room.
Teammates often make jokes about names of the hawk, adding levity to the few quick breaks between meetings, workouts, practices and recovery sessions.
After quickly downing a cup of high-protein chocolate milk — "one of the best natural recovery drinks you can get" — Sendejo explains there are names like Ethan (a nod to the actor) and Tony (in homage to the skateboarder), as well as Stephen Hawking (in reference to the physicist).
The personal favorite of this writer is Ed "Hawkuli" because of the tie-in with NFL referee (and attorney) Ed Hochuli, whose buff arms are on par with the "sun's-out" readiness of Sendejo's.
A poster of Trae Waynes running out of the tunnel is propped up against the back of Sendejo's locker, mostly hidden by shirts on hangers.
There are a couple of Hot Wheels cars that defensive backs coach Jerry Gray began distributing to Vikings DBs in 2015 for jobs well done.
Sendejo has locker nameplates of former teammates Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond, who remain in a group text with Sendejo and Harrison Smith.
One more name is prominently plastered in Sendejo's locker, that of former quarterback Shaun Hill, whose second stint in Minnesota included the past two seasons. Hill signed different versions of his autograph, approximating how his signature changed over time, on a large collage of headshots from different seasons.
The artifact collection has clearly grown over the years, as has Sendejo's hair, beard, role on the defense and level of confidence.
The items are mementos of a journey that began professionally in 2010 with former Vikings Head Coach Dennis Green's Sacramento Mountain Lions and the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. Sendejo bounced from Dallas to the New York Jets before being signed by Minnesota late in 2011.
Sendejo was a special teams ace in 2012, '13 and '14, swooping his way through opponents' return teams and totaling 37 special teams tackles in 45 games. He started 10 games in 2013, cracking the opening lineup for the first time when the Vikings played the Steelers in London.
He returned to a reserve role to start the 2014 season, the first under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, but stepped in for Smith in Week 14. Sendejo forced a fumble by Chris Ivory near the goal line.
Sendejo started the final three games that season and all games he's played since, recording 188 tackles (coaches' tally), three interceptions and 11 passes defended.
The tackles include an important stop in Week 1 of this season when he denied Saints receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., from the end zone during a jet sweep from the Minnesota 9-yard line. The drive stalled, and New Orleans had to settle for a field goal.
Gray, who arrived in 2014 as a member of Mike Zimmer's staff, said confidence is where Sendejo's game has grown the most.
"I knew he was tough," Gray said. "I knew he was smart when we watched him on special teams, but then we got a chance to play defense … you've seen his confidence grow, 'Hey, look, I'm a starter, and I deserve to be here, and I'm going to keep proving myself that I deserve to be here.' "
Gray, a first-round pick in 1985 who made four Pro Bowls with the Rams and also played for the Oilers and Buccaneers, said he's learned every new player to the NFL starts with a blank sheet of paper.
"When you come in this league, you can be drafted in the first round, but your résumé looks just like a free agent," Gray said. "There's nothing here. It's up to you to build where you're going to go.
"Basically what he's shown me is that he's willing to work and persevere to be one of the guys. He took the hard route," Gray added. "He didn't get drafted, he had to work on special teams, [on different teams], and all of a sudden he's here in Minnesota. I think he's maybe been here five or six years, and you see a guy that his path just keeps getting better and better and better, and that means that he's working. He's never thinking that, 'I'm just good enough.' He's always working to get better."
Sendejo has earned the trust of teammates and coaches but considers it an ongoing process.
In-season off days that once included some dabbling with the guitar or piano — he taught himself to play both by ear — have turned the page to early prep work for the next opponent.
"If you have any downtime, you've usually got to take advantage of it to look over stuff and kind of get ready for the next week, Sendejo said. "If you go into the week already ahead of schedule, you know the things you need to look at, you're just one step ahead.
"It kind of takes a couple of times looking at things before it's engrained," Sendejo continued. "You don't want to walk in here on Wednesday and see something for the first time. You want to have already watched it on Monday or Tuesday, and that way, when you get here Wednesday when we go through our meetings, it's kind of like you already have it in there, 'Oh yeah, I saw that when I watched that game.' "
The deep dive helps Sendejo and Smith, who enable Vikings coaches to play either near the line of scrimmage or deep.
"It gives you an opportunity to make certain plays in the run and in the pass when you get to do both," Sendejo said. "I like the things I get to do."
Gray said having safeties that can work interchangeably helps the Vikings secondary and overall defense.
"When you have a guy that can play in the box and deep, you have a double threat, because now they just can't say, 'Well, this guy's always a box guy,' [or] 'He's always back, if we catch the wrong guy, we can do this.' To me, when you have guys like Harrison and Sendejo that can do both – they're athletic, they're physical in the run game and athletic enough in the passing game, that's the best of both worlds."
Although there is usually a weeklong gap between football opponents, the Vikings rely on cohesion and communication within the group that has enjoyed continuity.
Sendejo and teammates use hawk-like focus during film study, looking for details that will become indicators for what a team is likely to try with a certain personnel grouping or formation.
"[Individual players] can't watch everything," Sendejo said. "I know every guy is studying, and we'll go to each other, 'Hey, did you see that play against this team when they ran that route?' You kind of get to bounce things off each other.
"If there's a play I haven't seen, someone will say, 'How would you play that?' We'll do that a lot, too," he added. "Everyone tries to watch as much as they can and kind of collab, it makes it where you can watch all of the things you needed to see throughout the week to get ready for Sunday."