EAGAN, Minn. — Christian Darrisaw arrived at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center Friday afternoon and quickly stepped into the Vikings locker room before meeting Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman for the first time.
His name and No. 71 Purple jersey were in place, the rewarding conclusion to a long day of travel made longer by a flight delay that caused a missed connection.
He wore a team-issued warm-up suit and revealed a smooth smile after removing a mask to speak from the podium for his official introduction Twin Cities media members.
A travel day like that and the whirlwind, socially distant meet-and-greets that followed could be daunting for anyone, but not Darrisaw.
Not after the work and sacrifices that he put in while transforming from a lightly sought prospect in the eyes of college recruiters to a "pure left tackle" deemed worthy of the first-round pick (23rd overall) that Minnesota used Thursday night to open the 2021 NFL Draft.
Justin Fuente, Darrisaw's college coach at Virginia Tech, spoke with media members during a conference call Friday, explaining the left tackle's journey from Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to Blacksburg, Virginia. The road routed through Fork Union Military Academy, which is about three hours northeast of Virginia Tech.
An assistant coach scouting Darrisaw's area made a case for a scholarship offer, but it came with the caveat of enrolling for a semester at Fork Union. The prep academy is known for its stringency that includes keeping shoes shined and prohibiting cell phones, but enrolling there does not remove any years of collegiate eligibility, which made it appealing to Darrisaw and Virginia Tech.
"He did not have much going on [from other schools]. His film was a little bit hard to make out," Fuente explained. "There just wasn't a lot there. It was a little hard to tell, but [the coach] saw him live. … We were a little bit late in the recruiting process. We didn't have a lot of scholarships left.
"So we invited him to go Fork Union, which has been a great place. And sometimes it's not very fun there," Fuente added. "You have to work, you have to get up in the morning and march, and there's no cell phones and all that sort of stuff. But we've got a lot of history of great relationships there, and I went and watched him work out at Fork Union, their kind of scrimmage day, they're kind of combine workout day, and one rep of him doing the board drill they call 'hat in hands' there is all I needed to see. This guy had incredible hand placement, incredible hips. So we were thrilled."
Fuente said his staff gives recruits "a little heads up" about what they'll encounter by going to Fork Union, but success hinges on each player's approach.
" 'This is why, this is what we think is your best road to getting to where you want to be.' You can't do it with everybody," Fuente said. "Obviously, guys with a bunch of other opportunities won't take that road but [it worked for] a guy like Christian, who trusted us that it could be a road to him getting what he ultimately wanted.
"To say that he was dissatisfied with his recruitment would probably be an accurate statement. He's never said that to me, but I just assume that," Fuente added. "So this was kind of another road he could take to keep that dream alive. We tried to give him a little head's up, 'You're not going to play golf at the country club; this is a little bit different deal.' It's good to test them but I think you've also got to give them a little bit of a heads up."
Darrisaw said knowing that Silas Dzansi and Terius Wheatley also went to Fork Union before joining the Hokies helped his decision.
"The hardest transition was the military part, but I was able to overcome that," said Darrisaw before he was asked about having to give up his cell phone.
"It's definitely crazy. You take a kid's cell phone right now, they'll go wild," Darrisaw said. "Not having that cell phone for four months, you definitely got to kind of adjust in a way. You've got to interact with other people. … That really helped me the most, just interacting with other people."
After completing that semester, Darrisaw quickly adjusted to Power 5 football, impressing coaches with his physicality and near flawlessness.
"It was pretty apparent early in camp, like, 'When was the last time this freshman made a mistake?' It was unusual to say the least — to have a player that young who had only been through 15 practices — take off like that in the fall," Fuente said.
Even though it became clear that Darrisaw's status was going to be enough for him to declare early, he chose to play and finish a 2020 season, grinding through a groin injury.
"There's plenty of times quite honestly this year, toward the end of the year that he was dealing with a groin issue that he could have packed it in, and he refused to do it," Fuente said. "I think his bond with his teammates and with his team was special, and he was rewarded with a great win in our rivalry game the last week [of the 2020 season]. So this is a guy that shows up to work with a very serious demeanor every single day and puts out. I mean, he is tough; he doesn't take sick days. He shows up and goes to work."
Darrisaw added: "It's really just like your brothers, the ones you're out there working with every day in the offseason and training camp and all that. So to have the opportunity, one more opportunity to play with them, I'd give the world for it. That was like the biggest thing for me. I just wanted to play one more game with all my guys and my brothers because it could be the last with them, in a way. That was the biggest thing."
Darrisaw quickly took in his new surroundings at TCO Performance Center, which he knew had been built in 2018, and said he looks forward to the future.
So do Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Spielman said: "We helped our franchise last night by what we were able to get accomplished. When we go through this process and with Coach Zim' and the coaches and our scouts, not only are we looking for good football players that are schematic fits, but we're looking for guys that love to play the game of football, that are high character guys that are extremely intelligent. As we go through our board, Christian hit all those boxes for us as an ideal Viking fit."
Zimmer added: "We were very, very fortunate to get a player of Christian's caliber. We love watching him double-team guys into the end zone and doing a great job in pass protection. Hasn't given up any sacks. So we're real excited to get him out here on the field. We'll get him out here in about 10 days [for rookie minicamp] … and we'll start to work with him. I know that our offensive coaches are very excited, and the defensive coaches are going to have to figure out a way to get around him."