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Vikings Clear Lockers, Ride Wave of Emotions

EAGAN, Minn. – Emotions in the Vikings locker room ran the gamut Monday.

Players trickled in following an all-team meeting with Head Coach Kevin O'Connell. Some chattered amongst themselves, while others strolled silently and introspectively. Many exchanged embraces with teammates.

Helmets, footballs and Sharpies were passed back and forth throughout the room, as players collected each other's autographs to commemorate the 2023 campaign.

View photos from the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center as players cleaned out their lockers at the close of the 2023 season.

The day following a season's final game is always a heavy one, especially one in which Minnesota finished 7-10 and fell short of the postseason. And spoken or unspoken, there's a common understanding that next year's roster won't be the same.

Two large cardboard boxes-turned-donation bins collected used cleats and personal equipment; a note from Camryn Bynum explained the contents will be donated to youth in the Philippines learning American football.

Mammoth gray trash bags lay near lockers, some already being filled with T-shirts, hoodies and miscellaneous items that had accumulated over the season. Players due to hit free agency overstuffed theirs, leaving behind very little – a tangible sign of uncertainty of the future.

Receiver K.J. Osborn is one Viking slated to become a free agent in March.

"I tried to cherish my time here all year. I knew what could be at stake, so I've tried to cherish my time here with my teammates, with [O'Connell], playing with Kirk [Cousins], playing with J.J. (Justin Jefferson)," Osborn said. "I'll definitely be friends with these guys, no matter what happens. You never get these moments back, so even through the adversity, I haven't taken it for granted. I've cherished every moment."

Some lockers remained untouched as media members meandered through the space, a sort of temporary time capsule of the 18-week grind. In Harrison Smith's locker, opponents' colors peeked out between Vikings purple-and-gold, evidence of postgame jersey swaps throughout the year. Most recent is the Lions gray and Honolulu blue No. 10 Teddy Bridgewater jersey – a connection and full-circle moment for the former Vikings teammates.

Time flies, right?


Vikings fullback C.J. Ham acknowledged as much, having now been through eight closeout days, all with his home-state team.

"It's just crazy. Just a couple days ago, you're talking about winning the game and playing ball and then, all of a sudden, everybody's here cleaning out their lockers," Ham said. "It just happens so fast. And it's the reality for every NFL team. No matter if you go to the Super Bowl or you go into the playoffs, it's there and gone. The season's over.

"It's tough," Ham added. "Obviously a lot of things out there on the field that we wish we could have back. Crazy year. But I love this team. I love going to battle. It just went by really fast."

In contrast, cornerback Mekhi Blackmon leaned against a chair and looked around, taking in the final day of his rookie season.

"All the garbage bags in the locker room, getting people to sign helmets and stuff like that, it's kind of weird," Blackmon said. "But we came through a lot. This year was real long for us. But I would also say it flew by, [in a way]. I still can't believe it's over with.

"I didn't think the league was going to be like this. I thought people were going to be a little more stuck up," Blackmon added. "But man, the dudes around the locker room, the vets, they kind of brought the rooks in. … I feel like everyone treated us with respect. That's real big, coming in. I wasn't expecting that."

Blackmon's elder teammates take pride in the Vikings locker room culture and also the team's overall potential moving forward.

Byron Murphy, Jr., has only spent one season in Minnesota thus far but already has been impacted by the team's closeness. He reflected on such as he readied to leave Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

"The biggest thing is the relationships we have with each other," Murphy said. "Ever since I got here I was like, 'This team's kind of different. They got a different thing going on in this program.'

"This locker room, the guys we have and the connection we have help us come together as one," Murphy added.

Brian O'Neill said Monday's mood felt more hopeful than in some previous seasons he's experienced.

"Standing here today in comparison to years' past when we didn't make the playoffs, it's night and day. I wholeheartedly belief this organization is heading in the right direction and we have the right feel in this building," O'Neill said. "Guys want to come in and never flinch and do things the right way and build this the right way. The results weren't there, but guys didn't flinch. Guys didn't turn on each other. Guys believed in the coaching staff, and the coaching staff believed in us. That's a credit to the culture that's being built here. Hopefully I can continue to foster that for a lot of years."

Dalton Risner is facing free agency but hopes he can rejoin O'Neill.

As he and his wife Whitney prepare to enter another offseason and return to their Colorado home, Risner is especially grateful after spending seven months away from football last offseason, until signing with the Vikings in September.

"I was at a time in my life where I just really felt unwanted and unworthy, and the Minnesota Vikings, this organization, blessed me with an opportunity to come here and have a really awesome redemption story," he said. "I'm not talking a Super Bowl right now. I'm not talking playoffs or the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro [honor]. That doesn't matter, though. The redemption that happened this year was to be able to come here and be the starter for the Minnesota Vikings and play football again, and gain that love for the game again. And be welcomed with open arms by this whole organization and by my teammates. It was such a huge blessing, and I'm really, really thankful."