BLAINE, Minn. — Blair Walsh spent much of his free time this fall brightening the lives of young people with visits to schools, hospitals and Ronald McDonald House locations in the Twin Cities.
This week, however, Walsh has been on the mend, and young people — first grade students at Northpoint Elementary School — sent him heartfelt wishes.
The letters and drawings were considerable pick-me-ups in contrast to vitriolic anger directed toward the kicker on social media after Minnesota's 10-9 loss to Seattle in the Wild Card round of the NFC playoffs.
Follow @BlairWalsh3's visit to 1st graders on @Snapchat - Vikings. pic.twitter.com/sdk0dx4TlW
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 14, 2016
Walsh is a combination of a confident competitor and self-critic who is determined to bounce back from missing a 27-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining. He fully participated in sessions with reporters after the game and the following day.
"When you don't make a big kick like that for your team, you have to own it," Walsh said. "You have to show your team, show the city that you understand what happened, but you have to move on from it. You have to realize there's a lot left in your career and in this team's case, we're going to be good so they're going to need me next year just like they needed me this year. I'll be ready to go once the offseason training starts."
Walsh said he has received words of encouragement from teammates, players and coaches around the league and NFL alumni, but it was "unbelievable" to receive support from the young students.
"You have people, your contemporaries, whether it's the other team's coaches, other kickers, other players, guys you've played with, all those are important, and this is really important because all these kids don't know me," Walsh said. "They don't know anything about me. They just know I'm a Vikings player so for them to show that kindness and empathy toward me is remarkable."
They do know him now, after Walsh visited the first grade students Thursday before leaving Minnesota for the offseason.
"These kids really made a difference in my life, so I'm glad I can come in here and brighten their day," Walsh said.
He participated in a question-and-answer session with the students, including one who asked if he had a guinea pig. The answer is no, but his family does have a 14-year-old poodle named Murphy.
Walsh then visited each of the first grade classes to autograph football cards, jerseys, shirts and even a pair of headphones and pose for pictures.
Judie Offerdahl, one of the teachers, said her class was full of Vikings shirts for "Football Friday" last week. She watched the game, saw "how crushed [Walsh] was, and how he handled himself with class. She thought the event would be a good way to teach a lesson about empathy for a group of students that's also visited patients in nursing homes and written letters to veterans.
Offerdahl said Monday morning began with a clip of the play, then a discussion "about how he might have felt, how we might have made a mistake and what we did to make it better, what people did for us to make us feel better."
Then came the letters, words of wisdom reflecting brightness that children's minds can convey.
"[Empathy is] one of the most important skills to have," Offerdahl said. "When you're growing up, you need to be able to understand why someone is feeling mad or sad and how you can help to change that person's attitude. We as a school, look to being able to teach students life skills, and when they grow up and make their dreams come true, they need to know how to be able to work with people and read people. That's one thing that I really appreciated about Blair Walsh, was that he really persevered. He could have taken it a completely different way. It was just a shining moment for these kids who look up to him."
Walsh said the visit taught him "how empathetic, sincere, kind and loving elementary school kids can be."
"All of it is heartwarming to me," Walsh said. "It meant a lot for me to come here today and sort of express my gratitude to them."
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh visited first graders at Northpoint Elementary School Thursday.