EAGAN, Minn. – Even during the Vikings offseason, you can find fullback C.J. Ham at the team's practice facility.
C.J. and his wife Steph came by Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center to speak with a group of young women participating in the Vikings Girls Football Academy.
"I think it's awesome," C.J. said of the program. "To see all the girls there having fun, excited about football, is pretty special to see."
This year marked the third installment of the Academy, which launched in 2019 and then paused for two springs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program features four, two-hour practices over a four-week period and welcomes girls ages 6-18.
Vikings FB C.J. Ham and his wife, Steph, C.J. and his wife Steph participated in the 2023 Vikings Girls Football Academy at the TCO Performance Center.
The Girls Football Academy encourages all skill levels to participate in the camp that introduces basic flag football skills and creates an opportunity to hear from a variety of female guest speakers within the sports industry, as well as special guests like Ham and Vikings safety Josh Metellus, who spoke at the March 22 session.
C.J. and Steph also brought their daughters, 6-year-old Skylar and 4-year-old Stella, to the camp. Skylar especially enjoyed going through a few of the drills and watching the goings on.
"We do our own youth football camp in Duluth every year, and it's always fun to see Skylar in that light – to see her able to experience a game that I love so much," C.J. said.
Vikings Youth & High School Football Manager Madison Cortese emphasized the benefit of having NFL players and their families present throughout.
"It has a huge impact on the event," Cortese said. "Obviously the current players themselves provide excitement for the participants and their parents; but more importantly, having the player's own kids participate helps prove the legitimacy of the event. Also, having player's wives support the initiative will only help us to grow the sport in years to come."
The goal of the Vikings youth and high school football department is "TEACH. PLAY. GROW."
Cortese explained the focus on teaching young people how to play football, providing opportunities for them to play and to grow football participation across the state of Minnesota.
"Girls flag football is one of the many ways to reach our goal," she said. "Studies show that playing football helps grow fan avidity in the future. About half of NFL fans are women, so providing opportunities for girls to play football will help grow NFL fandom for years to come."
The Vikings partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools in 2022 to launch a girls flag football middle school pilot program. That program is expanding this year to reach five local state districts, which will be announced at a later date.
"Our long-term goal is to have girls flag football as a sanctioned varsity sport at the high school level," Cortese noted.
C.J. and Steph appreciate early exposure to the sport for Skylar and Stella, and the opportunity it offers to try new things.
"I feel like sports were such a valuable aspect of my own childhood, and they are in our kids' childhood," Steph said. "To have one more thing that kids could discover they like, or love, to find their niche – and then just to have the ability to move your body and be healthy – it's fun."
Cortese is thankful for the chance to invest daily into young women who often remind her of her younger self.
"As a woman who grew up with only a brother and boy cousins, football was all I knew. Sundays were always for faith, family and football," Cortese said. "I learned to love the sport at such a young age but never saw it as a sport for women. I want to provide little girls that are like me the opportunity to play a sport they watch and love.
"If I were given the opportunity to play flag football as a kid, it would've been a dream come true," she added. "I love having the opportunity to provide girls a way to play football and show them that they belong in this sport."
And for C.J., who has consistently been committed to the community over his Vikings career, it's all about giving back to the organization that so deeply influenced him.
"What I'm doing now means so much to me because somebody did it for me," he said. "I look back and remember the times when the Vikings players, Bernard Berrian and Bobby Wade, came to the Duluth Boys & Girls Club and took a picture with me, told me how big I was and just made me feel good.
"That's something I will never forget," C.J. said. "I just want to be able to do that for all the youth – be able to come back, show my face, show them that they matter and that they truly can do whatever they want to do."