MINNEAPOLIS — There were plenty of laughs, handshakes and touchdowns Saturday evening at the second annual Cops and Kids flag football tournament.
But the fact that the event was held at U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time was a sight to behold.
"This is a really, really big deal to do it here," said former Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is now the Vikings Youth Football Manager. "They're definitely excited to be out here to play where the big boys play at. They see the big boys on Sunday, but to actually be on the field and see the lights, it's been a real cool experience."
Added St. Paul police officer Nick Kellum: "It's the best stadium in the NFL. Home of Super Bowl LII."
The tournament was put together by numerous organizations, including Minnesota Vikings Youth Football, the National Police Athletic League, and Trust2Protect, a program design to build trust between law enforcement and surrounding communities.
That was the goal of the tournament that saw six teams play multiple games as the U.S. Bank Stadium turf was sectioned off into three smaller fields.
The tournament was one of two that was organized this month. The other featured officers from the St. Paul Police Department at the Vikings Winter Park headquarters.
While there was plenty of competition in the atmosphere, there also were bonds being forged with each snap, throw and catch.
Officers from numerous departments around the Twin Cities traded in their badges for flags and the pigskin to try and build a rapport with dozens of metro kids.
"It's an absolute blast, the kids are having so much fun. This is a type of environment that we as cops … coaching and working with kids … it's about being a mentor, that's what it's all about," said Michael Frye, a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department. "It tones everything down. A lot of the kids get to know you not as just a policeman, you're their coach and their friend. You soften it up and become human to them.
"At the end of the day, it's all about, 'How do we raise up the next generation to understand to talk to us, come to us, don't be afraid to engage with a police officer?' We're here for you, not against you," Frye added.
Henderson said the objective of the annual game is to have kids identify that police officers are just regular people with families and friends and a love of sports like everyone else.
"It could be something simple as meeting somebody and knowing that person's name," Henderson said. "You never know, you could be in the street and something could be happening and you and that guy could make eye contact (that says), 'Remember we played together at that flag tournament?' It goes very far when you get to meet somebody as a person and not just a uniform."
Joseph Lubo, a 13-year-old St. Paul resident, added: "It's fun to be out here and play with my friends and meet new people, different people. "
The tournament also made an impact on numerous officers, who split time between coaching, encouraging and just chatting with people that hopefully saw them in a different light.
"It's like we're all on the same page, all on the same team," Kellum said. "We're not even thinking that its cops versus kids, we're one big happy family and a community. We're all together today."
Added Frye: "Come one now, how often do you really get to get on the field and have fun with kids? This is by far the best part of my job, interacting with the kids. It's what you get into law enforcement for."