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Football Unites Special Olympics Unified Vikings & Dolphins Teams


MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — The score wasn't what they'd hoped for, but the trip — and the memories made — was everything the 2022 Vikings Special Olympics Unified Team could have dreamt.

The Vikings and Twin Cities Orthopedics sent members of the St. Croix Valley Lumberjacks, who had been signed by Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah last month, to Florida last weekend. The team flew to Orlando on Friday and toured Disney World before boarding a bus and riding down to South Florida for a three-night stay at the Vikings team hotel.

The Vikings Unified team played a team sponsored by the Dolphins on Saturday at Miami's headquarters and indoor practice facility.

Sportsmanship by both squads was on full display throughout the game that the Dolphins team won. After the game, the Vikings squad presented the Dolphins with a signed custom jersey in appreciation of the host.

"We prioritize sportsmanship. We've taught that as long as I've been part of the team," St. Croix Lumberjacks Head Coach John David Pace, Jr., said. "We help the other team out. We give them their flags back. We have good attitudes because we're out there playing a game and having fun, and that's the important part: go out and have fun and play the game right."

Pace decided it's time for him to retire from coaching Unified flag football after 11 years of playing and coaching.

"It is my final game as coach," Pace said. "It will be tough not coming to see this team Saturdays in the fall, but it was time."

Vikings athletes Daniel Pope and Derek Dally participated in jersey swaps with Dolphins athletes.

"I'm sure they don't want a jersey with my name on it, but I did trade one," Pope quipped. "The game is part of it, but it's more about meeting the people afterward.

"I've been to national games before, and that was pretty cool meeting people from across the country," said Pope, who is well acquainted with Vikings history and listed his favorite old-school player as Jim Marshall.

Corey Jackson said he was "kind of blown away" by the trip to Disney World that included a safari experience and enjoyed the opportunity to play the Dolphins squad.

"I think it's good, even though the skill level may be higher, it's still good to compete," Jackson said. "The experience was great, being able to come down here with my family and meet new people and learn something about ourselves as we're on this trip — a good journey."

Before heading to Hard Rock Stadium Sunday for a pre-game "Football Unites" tailgate, the group gathered in the hotel lobby to help send off the Vikings ahead of their 24-16 win.

Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, defensive lineman Harrison Phillips and linebacker Eric Kendricks were among Vikings who spent time with the group before boarding the team buses.

O'Connell and Phillips had welcomed the team to TCO Performance Center the night the athletes signed and again when the group visited Minnesota's walk-through practice the day before hosting Detroit in Week 3.

View photos of the Vikings Unified team, St. Croix Valley Lumberjacks, as they took on the Miami Dolphins Unified team in a game of flag football.

O'Connell described the importance of teamwork during his message to the team.

"I think it's just really important," O'Connell later told "No matter what your backgrounds are, abilities to learn to be a part of a team and to thrive as part of a team because when teams are built the right way, regardless of competition, from pro sports all the way down to the first time you were on a team, I think the best parts of human beings and pushing themselves to be their best versions happens in team settings.

"It was really cool to see that group and be around Harrison Phillips with how much work he does with not only that group but many others," he continued. "It was exciting to see the smiles on their faces and the excitement level of being a part of a team that was being acknowledged for their success.

"You can go through any different aspect of society, and team and competition, if built the right way, can be one of the more powerful things we have to bring people together," O'Connell added.

Vikings Senior Manager of Community Relations Logan Johnson, who paced the sideline Saturday "almost if I was playing or coaching" said the Vikings were excited to bring back the Unified travel program the organization launched in 2019 with the Chargers and a trip to Los Angeles.

"Really, I was just there as support staff for everybody. It's hard to not let your emotions show in that moment," Johnson said. "You're just so excited for the athletes and the team and you know how excited they are.

"I think the program helps reduce barriers and promotes inclusion. Unified sports do such a good job of that," Johnson said. "The Vikings really buy into that in large part due to Coach O'Connell and Kwesi for really buying in. We say they're an extension of the team, but their buy-in makes it feel like they truly are a part of the Vikings team, and that's the biggest thing."

Coaches and players could not make it to the Unified game because of scheduling conflicts, but Phillips was pinging Johnson Saturday night to see how things were going.

"He's very invested in the program and really cares about these athletes," Johnson said. "His investment is so genuine, and that's what makes this program special. We could take any group on a road trip and do that whole thing, but to make them feel like a member of the Vikings team is the best part by far."

Pace said the experience over the past month has been "phenomenal."

"We've been spoiled rotten, to be honest. Disney World was great," Pace said. "The bus ride, a nice limo bus. The hotel is awesome. Logan and his team have treated us like royalty. [The athletes'] feet are about 3 feet off the ground, and they're not going to touch anytime soon."