Subtly beneath the sounds of laughter and leather footballs landing in young hands, Kirk Cousins hummed along with the instrumental bridge of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
Hmm Do Do Dooo-Do. Do Do Do Do Doo.
The iconic melody blared through the football stadium’s speakers, and Kirk kept in time – and in tune – as he played catch with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at his youth football camp in Holland, Michigan.
The song is reminiscent of an earlier time in his athletic career, when Kirk led his ninth-grade basketball team to a perfect 20-0 season. Following every game that year, Kirk and his teammates clapped, hummed and sang “The Final Countdown” in the locker room to celebrate the win.
Silly, sure. But also significant, pointed out Eric Huizenga, a lifelong friend of Kirk’s and part of the undefeated squad.
“That’s something that Kirk started, and we still bring it up today,” Huizenga said. “It’s a fun tradition, and it brings good memories. But it also just shows his leadership qualities – it expands to everyone. And it’s something that seems to still hold true to this day.
“Kirk is such a natural leader,” Huizenga explained. “You can tell the minute you meet him that he just takes hold of a room … whether it’s a sporting event, whether it’s in the classroom, he’s someone everyone wants to be around.”
In grade school, Kirk organized a football team at recess. He made sure everyone who wanted to be on a team was involved, no matter the skill level.
Kirk showed an early passion for sports and for leading but placed an equally fervent emphasis on inclusion. And whether you talk to childhood friends, family members or his high school athletic director, those whose paths have crossed Kirk’s use similar words to describe him.
Magnetic. Selfless. Humble.
When the Cousins family moved from Chicago to Michigan while Kirk was in the seventh grade, he attended Holland Christian School, where a glass trophy case marked “Athletic Achievements” stands in a hallway near the gymnasium.
Above a space recognizing the girls volleyball program, a square case maybe 3-feet-by-3-feet is dedicated to football and marked “Est. 2003,” which coincidentally also marked Kirk’s freshman year.
Holland Athletic Director Dave Engbers pointed out a wall graphic in the back of the case. In the photo, the school’s first varsity football players are running from the locker room onto the field.
Interestingly, Kirk is not leading the charge. In fact, he’s not visible at all.
“In true Kirk form, he’s not the one right out in front,” Engbers said.
Engbers called attention to another aspect of the photograph, a young man with Down syndrome who served as a team manager.
“You know what stood out to me? Kirk had two really close friends (among many), and they happened to have special needs,” Engbers said. “So you talk about stitching together different people from different groups – Kirk was instrumental in that.
“You take the quarterback of the football team, who takes a student with special needs and says, ‘You’re my partner, in choir, all year and throughout the rest of high school,’ that can make a big impact on the culture of the school,” Engbers added. “Kirk made a big impact in the life of the school here, and I think he continues to. He did the same at Michigan State, I think he did it with the Redskins, and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do with the Vikings.”
It’s always been Kirk’s practice to hold a wide group of friends.
“I tend to gather people together,” Kirk acknowledged with a chuckle and shrug of his shoulders. “I take joy in having relationships with different people and bringing them all in, and it’s usually an eclectic group.”
Founded in faith
It’s a theme that he passes on to the young men who attend his annual football camp.
Group messages to the youth don’t preach pocket awareness and how to release the perfect spiral. In fact, very few Xs and Os are taught by the quarterback at all. The sport is played, yes. But more often than not, Kirk is teaching young people under his brief care about being young men of high character.
Kirk encouraged his 2018 campers to memorize Ephesians 4:29 and to apply the Bible verse to their daily lives:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
“I want to challenge you today as you leave to be someone who uses your mouth, uses your words to bring life to people – to bring excitement and to bring joy to people’s lives, to encourage rather than to tear down,” Kirk told the youth in Holland. “It will make a difference in your life if you put God’s Word in your heart.”
Kirk later explained that he had only wanted to put his name on a football camp if it truly communicated “what I’m all about.”
“The foundation of my life is the Bible and is the Gospel,” Kirk said. “So it’d be hard for me to put a camp on, whether it’s football or anything else, and not talk about the foundation of my life.”
It’s not uncommon to hear Kirk quote Scripture, whether talking with middle-school boys or addressing media members in front of a Vikings Purple backdrop.
“We always want to be careful and sensitive not to beat people over the head with our beliefs,” Kyle said in reference to Kirk’s commitment to Christianity. “And yet at the same time, you just can’t tell Kirk’s story [without that piece].”
Loving an underdog
The story of Kirk Cousins is one of an underdog.
His father, Don, says that Kirk has always to some degree been overlooked and underestimated, that’s “never been expected out of the gate” to immediately succeed.
He did stand out at his small, Christian high school but made it to Michigan State by the skin of his teeth as one of the last recruits to be brought on by the Spartans. He battled his way to a starting position in the Big Ten before fulfilling his dream of being drafted – but found himself selected lower than anticipated and behind Robert Griffin III, who started ahead of Kirk in Washington for two-and-a-half seasons.
Time and time again, Kirk has defeated the odds. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that among his favorite films is Rudy, which encapsulates a true underdog narrative.
Kirk’s father, Don, introduced his three children to the movie at a young age – accompanying the PG-rated flick with a disclaimer about foul language – and Kirk and Kyle immediately fell in love with the story.
MaryAnn recalled one Christmas when the only thing Kirk requested was Rudy, no doubt on VHS.
Kyle also remembered the movie playing on repeat in the Cousins home, saying Kirk watched it once a week before his high school football games.
“[Rudy was] a guy who reaped the fruits of sowing hard work when he wasn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest,” Kyle said. “I think Kirk especially identified with that story and that character.”
Kyle pointed out that a number of Kirk’s obstacles can easily be interpreted as “there’s no chance,” but that his younger brother’s story has been a reflection of his faith.
“Just stay disciplined to the process, stay faithful and see what happens, see what God does,” Kyle said. “And now you look back and say, ‘Oh, wow. He’s done a lot.’ It’s kind of crazy what’s happened.”
Quirky yet confident
Two humid June days spent in Holland, Michigan, offered snapshots of who Kirk Cousins is.
His awareness and willingness to put an arm around an anxious camper and offer encouragement.
An emphasis on the Gospel and the central role that Kirk’s faith plays in his life.
His competitive nature and “fun side” that surfaced during an aggressive evening of campers-versus-coaches in dodgeball, during which the quarterback dodged, ducked, dipped, dived and dodged. He didn’t take it easy on his younger opponents, instead winding up and sending the small, colorful balls whistling through the gymnasium.
Kirk tangibly illustrated his desire to fly under the radar when he donned a blue camp T-shirt, sunglasses and a black sun-protect hat, literally blending in with the crew of other coaches.
Music played throughout the camp covered everything from more Jock Jams favorites and Christian contemporary, to country hits and epic instrumentals resembling the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
The 30-year-old will continue to share his faith, like he did when he signed with the Vikings, and let out a “Boo-yah” or two during practices with his new teammates – because he’s confident in who he is.
Kirk is just Kirk.
When he was included in the NFL’s Top 100 list following the 2017 season, a number of Kirk’s peers were interviewed, including wide receiver Doug Baldwin, whose Seahawks were defeated by Kirk and the Redskins one week before Minnesota defeated Washington.
“What I appreciate about Kirk Cousins … is that he knows who he is,” Baldwin said. “I hear him talk, I watch his body language. You can tell he’s very confident in who he is as a person, as a human being on this earth.”
Kyle said the assessment of his brother is “spot on,” and it’s Kirk’s “wiring” that has enabled him to lead the Vikings locker room before even playing a regular-season game.
“Kirk’s greatest quality as a leader is humility,” Kyle said proudly. “Our dad used to define leadership to us when we were kids, and he would say, ‘Leadership is taking others where they want or need to go but can’t get to on their own.’ That definition assumes two things. First, that the leader is needed; but second – that it’s not about him.”