EAGAN, Minn. — The secret's out about linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Although the Vikings have known about his high level of play since his selection in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, some could say he didn't reach distinguished coast-to-coast status until 2019 when he was named a First-Team All-Pro and made his first Pro Bowl.
This year, more people have learned about Eric Kendricks, the man, while continuing to enjoy his on-field playmaking.
Kendricks' impassioned emotions were displayed in a video in the days after the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. The California native challenged himself and others, including NFL leaders, to say and do more to find solutions.
Kendricks had been quietly laying the groundwork for multiple years with a multipronged effort for improving societal issues.
He's battled childhood hunger for multiple years with Every Meal (formerly The Sheridan Story); invested in young people residing in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center; and built relationships with formerly incarcerated adults who are earning their second chance through Minneapolis nonprofit All Square. Kendricks also has been active on the Vikings Social Justice Committee since its founding in 2018.
View photos of Vikings LB Eric Kendricks through the years participating in community events. Kendricks is the Vikings 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.
Kendricks was announced by the NFL on Thursday morning as the Vikings nominee for the 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf and General Manager Rick Spielman explained the tremendous pride they have in Kendricks during a session with media members.
"This award is a prestigious honor that recognizes excellence both on and off the field, and we at the Vikings have a proud history of having great players who are also outstanding men who have been nominated for this NFL award," Wilf said. "This is always such an important nomination for the Vikings and our organization, but it is especially so during these trying times of 2020 with the pandemic and with social and civil unrest being felt globally and especially in Minnesota as well."
Spielman said Kendricks excels on the field because of his physical traits, natural instincts, incredible work ethic, leadership and true passion.
"What people don't realize is those same traits that you see on Sunday, he applies those to everything he does in the community, to everything he does toward social justice and as a leader in our organization," Spielman said. "He is doing everything he can to make change [that is] so necessarily needed in this country. We are very proud of Eric."
Kendricks has never been an attention seeker for his deeds in the community. In fact, he's often requested that no cameras be alerted to a visit.
So when it came time for him to be recognized with a press conference, Kendricks wanted to shine a light on three organizations he supports and invite them to share the stage.
"I don't want it to be too much about me. I want it to be a lot about the organizations that I've been working with in the Cities," Kendricks said. "I've been fortunate enough to not only work with people in the Twin Cities but learn from them and learn what's going on in our community and with the kids."
Kendricks shifted to "host mode," asking questions to representatives from All Square (fellows Terrein Gill and Randall Smith), Every Meal (Executive Director/Founder Rob Williams) and the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center (Corrections Institutional Supervisor Jeffery Townsend).
He asked Gill and Smith about the biggest obstacles they've faced in their return to society.
Gill said: "Something that gets overlooked is, 'How do you repair your family? How do you repair those ties with your family? How do you get accepted back into the community and able to maintain and sustain a type of level for your family and for your kids?'
Smith added: "For me, it was just trying to find a stable job and a decent living for my family as well as myself.
Enter All Square, the craft grilled cheese restaurant, Dream Lab and Institute and emerging Civil Rights law firm that offers comprehensive programs as well as customized help.
Kendricks and teammates had visited All Square in November 2019 for a comprehensive discussion to learn more about the social enterprise and its success stories, the lives that have been altered for the better.
This fall, Kendricks showed up for a socially distant surprise, presenting All Square with a $250,000 check that had been awarded by the Vikings Social Justice Committee. The Wilf family ownership group committed $5 million to fight social injustices, setting aside $1 million to be distributed specifically by players after dialogue.
Gill, Smith and others at All Square that day turned the tables on Kendricks — and all are capable of keeping a secret.
Gill and Smith each spoke to the authenticity that Kendricks has delivered on every interaction.
"He actually has passion and empathy on a totally different level, and it just really connected with us," Gill said. "We just loved his presence, a human that kind of thinks of us as humans as well."
Smith said Kendricks' approach "inspires me to become a better leader and to make sure the people around me have the same thoughts and goals and success that I want to have, that we align in the same thoughts together."
"I want to say thank you to the Wilf family, to the Vikings and to Eric on behalf of All Square for just giving us this opportunity and this space to be a voice to be heard during this tough time," Smith added. "It's an honor to be speaking with you guys."
Kendricks' support of Every Meal spans multiple years. He asked Williams to explain the work that is being done to end food insecurity for Minnesota youth.
"One of the outcomes or symptoms of systemic injustices and systemic racism is child hunger and generational poverty and cyclical poverty," Williams said. "Over 300,000 kids in the state of Minnesota face food insecurity and right now don't know if they're going to have food for their next meal."
Every Meal has provided more than 2.7 million meals to the community since mid-March.
"We've been honored to work with Eric and how he's leant his voice and his position to share and help people understand about the issue of childhood hunger," Williams said. "I couldn't think of a better person to be nominated, not just for the Vikings or NFL Man of the Year, but for man of the year as a whole. He happens to play football, but … his heart is true and big and generous, and he also is a football player — a great one at that."
Kendricks, who has visited the HCJDC with teammates, shifted to hold monthly virtual visits because of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person visits. He's also written letters to the young people and received letters from them. He asked Townsend, 'What do you want the general public to know about the challenges these kids face once they're released, and how can the community assist and help these kids transition a little easier?'
"The biggest challenges that our kids face is trauma impact," Townsend said after thanking Kendricks for his commitment to the youth. "Quite a few of them have mental health needs, and there's some gang influences."
He said civilians can assist by "working with youth and families related to needs around community programs and partnerships in collaboration with the juvenile justice system. Also, specifically with the JDC would be kind of what the Minnesota Vikings have done and yourself, with coming into volunteer services and preparing them for when they leave the JDC facility."
The Vikings also made a video that included messages from Vikings Legends Chad Greenway, Cris Carter, Matt Birk and a couple other surprises for Kendricks.
Kendricks and each of the 31 nominees from other teams will receive $40,000 donations in their names to the charities of their choice.
All 32 nominees will be recognized for their work in the days leading up to Super Bowl LV.
The 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year will be announced during NFL Honors and receive $250,000 for charity from the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.
Fans are encouraged to participate in Nationwide's 6th annual Charity Challenge, a social media campaign designed to support and promote team nominees. Fans can vote on Twitter by using #WPMOYChallenge followed by their favorite nominee's last name. The player whose unique hashtag is used the most between Dec. 10 and Jan. 17 will receive a $25,000 contribution to their charity of choice, while the second and third place finishers will receive $10,000 and $5,000 donations, all courtesy of Nationwide. Hashtag information and official rules can be found at nfl.com/manoftheyear. New this year, fans can win NFL Shop gift cards and additional money for their favorite nominee's charity. Each Monday during the #WPMOYChallenge, Nationwide will ask fans to respond on Twitter with their favorite nominee and one randomly selected fan each week will win a $100 NFL Shop gift card and $2,500 for their favorite nominee's charity.