More than 50 Minneapolis Public Schools high school seniors in the Project Success program recently joined a virtual discussion with current Vikings Eric Kendricks and D.J. Wonnum, former fullback Tony Richardson and Owner/President Mark Wilf.
The young people have overcome numerous obstacles brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the quest for social justice in the past year, but they were encouraged to keep going any time adversity strikes in their transition from high school to colleges, careers in trade industries or gap years.
"Tonight is about motivation, inspiration, celebration and connection, which we need," Project Success Executive Director and Founder Adrienne Diercks said to the students before welcoming the Vikings guests. "With all of the challenges right now, with the challenges of last week (the mass shooting in Atlanta), the challenges of [the mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado], we have to celebrate the love in the world, the beauty in the world and your accomplishments … and what you've overcome as seniors.
"We want to acknowledge the challenges you've faced, but really recognize your resilience and celebrate all that you've accomplished," Diercks added. "We value you, we celebrate your goals, and we want to celebrate the achievements you've made and the future that awaits you."
The Vikings and Project Success have found new ways to continue their partnership since the pandemic began. Instead of sponsoring a trip to Washington, D.C., which happened in 2019, multiple Vikings joined students for a virtual tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last November.
The relationship continued with Tuesday's discussion, which was featured by FOX 9 KMSP.
"We're so grateful to Adrienne and Project Success for our partnership and our opportunity to work together. It's been fantastic," Wilf said. "We're also so proud of Vikings players, current and former, for their commitment to make an impact in our community. Tonight is extremely important to me and our entire Vikings organization. We continue to advocate for change, transformational change, so our work with Project Success remains a top priority for our organization."
The players passed along the lessons they've learned, which often involved overcoming obstacles along the way, shared openly about challenges and encouraged the students to chase their dreams.
Learning from losses
Some of the best learning has been gleaned from dealing with a loss.
Richardson, who was on Auburn's undefeated team that went 11-0 in 1993 but was ineligible for postseason play, explained how tough it was to lose games in the early days of what became a 17-season NFL career.
"I had to learn the hard way when I was first coming into the National Football League because I was such a competitor," Richardson said. "Going into my senior year and having good success, I never really lost a lot, so I would take losing football games extremely hard, to the point where if my family came in and we lost, I didn't even want to go to dinner.
"If you fail, you get back up and keep going," Richardson added. "In life, it's the same way, but it's not about falling down. It's about getting back up."
Kendricks explained he has learned that "you don't want to dwell" on a loss too much, but "you don't want to ignore it, either."
"You feel the loss for a reason. For me, it's taking a second to feel upset, feel bad, express myself to my people around me, but then it's a moment of self-reflection, as well," Kendricks said. " 'Did I do everything I could have done? Have I been a good person throughout my life or that week or whatever? Is there anything I could change? Is there anything I learned from that experience? OK, what can I do going forward?'
"Usually, it's kind of out of my control, so I do what I can control, and usually that's getting back to work," the 2019 All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection said.
Wonnum, who showed promise as a fourth-round pick, explained, "You take it to the chin, but you've got to have a short memory."
"You've got to bounce back from that and keep going," Wonnum continued. "I feel like everyone loses. You keep fighting and keep going because the world doesn't stop just because you took a loss or something bad happened. Never let a situation define you. Let it be your motivation to keep going."
Overcoming early challenges
One might look at the success Kendricks has yielded season after season, the encouraging rookie campaign fielded by Wonnum or the incredible run of 234 career games by Richardson and believe it was easy for each player, but that is not the case for any of the men.
Richardson described the challenges of growing up with a father in the military. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and the family ping-ponged between Germany, Texas, Germany, Kentucky, Germany and Alabama during Richardson's youth. He didn't have an opportunity to make friends and was picked on by other children.
"No one ever told me I was going to be 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds," Richardson said. "I was kind of a stumpy little kid, and they used to pick on me because I was a little overweight, so I think the only reason I ever went out for football was so I could fit in with the 'cool kids.'
"Born in Germany, listening to AC/DC, Metallica, fluent in German with an Afro … so I didn't really fit in," Richardson added. "My buddies kind of said, 'You should come out for football,' so that was a challenge for me because I never played. … Sometimes in life, it's not where you start. It's where you finish."
Kendricks explained how he had to step away from some friends in high school that could have led him down a different path.
"I had a lot of friends who were kind of not doing the right things, and I don't want to say 'holding me back,' but they just didn't care about my successes or seeing me do well as much as I wanted to do well," Kendricks said. "So, it was kind of a balance of finding people in my life who wanted to see me succeed, who had my back, who, when I wasn't making the right decision, they said, 'You shouldn't be doing this.' It was kind of weeding out those [other] people. It's kind of hard sometimes, but as you grow up, you naturally — it's not like you don't like the person anymore, but you go your separate ways because your values don't really align. That was one thing that was really hard."
Wonnum described overcoming an injury-plagued 2018 junior season at South Carolina. He tore a ligament in his ankle in the first game of the season and returned five games later to record 2.0 sacks against Tennessee. Two games later, however, he sprained his other ankle. The injury required surgery and an extensive rehab process, but he bounced back in 2019 and was still able to become a draft pick a year ago.
Advice for seniors
Kendricks, Richardson and Wonnum were asked to share advice they have for the seniors.
"First of all, you've got to love. You've got to take time for yourself a little bit. We realize what is really important, but going forward, don't be scared to fail," Kendricks said. "You're going to enter fields, especially if you are interested in multiple things, you're going to enter fields and you're not going to know about what you are doing.
"It's important to let your guard down a little bit and express, 'I'm interested in this. I care about this, but maybe I don't know about this. Maybe I need help with this,' " Kendricks said. "When you come to somebody and you're vulnerable and say, 'I don't have all the answers,' you'd be surprised how many people will be willing to help you fulfill those needs."
Richardson echoed the importance of putting forth hard work through challenges but also understanding that it's OK to get help from others.
"One thing I've learned, even at the age of 49, is that I can't do this by myself," Richardson said. "As we're going through these tough times — because living here in New York, we see it in the news, and there's thousands of people we're losing by the day — and you kind of feel like the walls are closing in, the more I [talk] to my family, [the less I feel] like I have to take on this whole world by myself. So the more I opened up, the better it made me feel."
Wonnum, who is 23 and not too far removed from the shoes of the young people, encouraged them to "stay focused, set goals and stick with them."
"They say everything worth having doesn't come easy. That's a fact," Wonnum said. "I can attest to that, but whatever you want to do in life — jump into the workforce, go to college, get that Master's degree, or even play sports — there's going to be bumps in the road, but just keep going, keep fighting, keep working hard and it will work out for you."