Verizon Vikings Training Camp will look entirely different this year because of the guidelines and restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least one thing will remain the same, however, as the team enters its 60thseason: the bonding and camaraderie between teammates, socially distanced or not.
Training camp over the years has brought a number of different experiences – bocce ball with Bud Grant, two-a-day practices in Mankato, the year Jared Allen arrived in an RV, a move in 2018 to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. So as the first in-person practices of the 2020 offseason get underway, we took some time to catch up with Vikings Legends and listen to their favorite training camp memories.
For this segment, Vikings.com's Gabe Henderson spoke with former teammates Kevin Williams (2003-13), Pat Williams (2005-10) and Allen (2008-13). Below are some of the highlights from their virtual reunion.
Getting your mind right
There's no doubt about it – even today, training camp gets to be a grind for players. But prior to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement being signed, camp proved even more grueling, as teams regularly scheduled two-a-day practices in addition to the morning walk-through.
"I always dreaded it," Allen told Henderson candidly. "Training camp was always a process. I had methodical things I wanted to work on day-in and day-out, and you just had to try to get your mind right for the grind of, honestly, tedious [work]."
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Pat Williams continued to live up to his boisterous reputation.
"I loved training camp," the former nose tackle countered. "It was exciting. Because Jared was going to do some stupid stuff every time – he'd get thrown out of practice or something – so that would make my day. I loved training camp."
Added Allen: "I had to figure out ways to get my practice cut short like Pat did every day. … Pat loved training camp so much because he didn't have to work for the first week."
But leave it to the more even-keel Kevin Williams to offer the voice of reason, explaining why training camp was a valuable piece of every NFL season.
"I thought it was a chance [for us] all to become a team. Me, Jared and Pat … kind of knew what to expect from each other, but those other guys that we were going to have to rely on, it was a chance to see what they were going to be able to do. If they brought us a new guy in, it was a chance to break him in and see if we could count on him. A lot of guys made their way like we had to, and training camp, it was three weeks, but we got a chance to bond and continue to grow closer."
Rolling from the beginning
When the Vikings acquired Allen via trade in 2008, he joined a Minnesota defense that in 2007 ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense but last against the pass. He became part of a stout defensive line anchored by Pat and Kevin, otherwise known as The Williams Wall, on the interior.
Kevin recalled going to dinner with Allen and said the group "meshed from the get-go."
"Then we showed up to camp, and it was business," Kevin said. "We showed up, like, 'They gave you a lot of money. Let's see what [you're] going to do.' But he stepped up. We accepted him right off the bat. … from the time we talked face-to-face at dinner, I think we were rolling. We were on the same mindset and the same page from the word, 'Go.' "
Allen remembered opting for his pickup truck, rather than a classic Cadillac he kept at home, for that first drive to Mankato and being surprised to see the pair of Williamses arriving in '63 Impalas.
It's then that he knew they'd be great friends.
"We got up there, we got to work, and there was an instant connection and brotherhood trying to dial up something," Allen said.
But it wasn't all work and no play…
The trio of defensive linemen recalled pranks among teammates, including Allen's bike seat being taken during his first Vikings camp.
"It sucks that you have to ride a bike anyway, and then you don't have a seat to sit on during camp, so you have to ride it everywhere standing up," Allen said.
"It was hard to prank you, Jared," Kevin responded. "You always embraced everything, and you were always looking to get somebody back, so you never were really mad about anything when they got you. They might as well look out."
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Classic cars and bicycles weren't the only wheels that showed up at training camp.
Longtime Vikings fans are well-familiar with Gage Hall, the high-rise dorm at Minnesota State University, Mankato, that housed players during training camp from 1966-2012. Equally familiar is the reputation of the dorm that lacked AC, hosted numerous pranks throughout the summers and was imploded in 2013.
"The wonderful Gage Hall … it's what you make it, man," offered Kevin, the forever-optimist. "If you ever stayed in the dorm before, you know you have to go down the hall – oh, I forgot about that! – we had to go down the hall to use the bathroom.
"We had those crappy fans in the window," Kevin laughed. "[And we had] box fans. You had everything in your room to try to keep cool."
Added Pat: "Gage Hall was terrible."
Allen recalled pushing together undersized bunk beds with those "plastic-covered mattresses" that a sweating grown man simply stuck to. So in hopes of side-stepping the amenities, or lack thereof, at Gage Hall, the defensive end one year arrived on campus in a massive recreational vehicle.
Then-Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress told Allen he wouldn't be allowed to reside in the RV but did allow the camper to become a retreat during downtime. From a stocked fridge to video games and a karaoke machine, the Allen-mobile had it all. Which attracted the coaching staff, as well.
"There were coaches hanging, so I didn't want to hang in the RV anymore," Pat quipped.
Iron sharpens iron
Allen, Pat and Kevin worked tirelessly at camp, competing against each other in order to become the best they could be.
"We were always playing off each other, so I was always trying to out-play Kevin, and Kevin was always trying to out-play me, so we always thrived off that, you know what I'm saying?" Pat said. "Every week, we tried to accomplish that."
Asked if the Williams Wall nickname provided any extra pressure for the duo, Kevin shrugged it off.
"I mean, I wanted to be successful no matter what, and when Pat came, I would see him on SportsCenter just like he saw me on SportsCenter, so it gave us a chance to play off each other, like he said," he said. "And then in '08 when Jared came, he jumped right in with the competitive nature, and we took off. With Jared coming in, what'd they say, Jared? You didn't play the run anyway. … He took it personal.
"He would find little stuff like that and take it personal, and it made us all great. We all picked our own little battles, and it all worked great," Kevin added with a laugh. "I mean, we smashed people. I was just watching tape recently, and some little highlight I sent Pat, of those three years we were leading in rush defense, and I'm like, 'We were smashin.' "
Pat joked that Jared was a welcome addition because his outrageous personality matched that of the nose tackle.
"Kevin was laid-back. He wasn't like me and Jared," Pat said. "I'll play with Jared any day, anytime. 'I've got a crazy white boy to go with me, because I'm crazy.' "
Allen emphasized the competitive nature "especially among the front seven," but Minnesota's offensive line also provided a good challenge. The position group included the likes of Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson and Matt Birk, which helped the Vikings – led by Adrian Peterson – rank No. 1 in rushing yards in 2007.
"It was iron sharpens iron," Kevin said. "Those guys were good at what they did, and we were good at what we did."
Allen joked that he drew the "short straw" having to go against the 360-pound McKinnie but acknowledged the benefit of practicing against a talented offensive line every day.
"You've got the best rush defense going against the best rush offense, and you're going to have some great battles," Allen said. "We all wanted to take care of each other, so … we did 1s-versus-1s, we were competitive, but we're not going to hurt anybody, so we all held our gaps or did what we need to do.
"Now if you put 1s-versus-2s? It was a slaughterhouse," he added.
And as for practicing against Peterson?
"The little engine that could. He was trying, but we were still smackin' him," quipped Kevin.
The final puzzle piece
In 2008, Allen helped the Vikings go 10-6 and win the division, but Minnesota fell to Philadelphia in the Wild Card round of the postseason.
The following training camp, the Vikings seemed set on defense but less-so on offense. The unit had a few question marks – most notably at quarterback, where Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and John David Booty vied for the starting position.
"We knew we were good on defense that year," Kevin recalled. "I mean, I ain't gonna lie. We had some thoughts about offense, but we knew we could play some defense. And we knew we had pieces on offense. It's just that we didn't have that security at quarterback, and I'm just being honest. We didn't."
Allen said that each QB had commendable qualities, but the team lacked "that commander to get everybody on the right page" offensively.
"So training camp-wise, we knew [we'd have to win] how we won in '08," Allen said. "We were gonna play amazing defense, we were gonna run the heck out of the ball, and we didn't know what Percy [Harvin] was going to do yet – we knew Percy was special, but we didn't know what that was going to look like.
"He had all the potential in the world, but in order to take it off the top, we need to be able to get him the ball," Allen added.
Any uncertainty dissipated, though, when the Vikings signed longtime division foe Brett Favre just before the 2009 regular season.
"It was just a different feeling when he came," Kevin said. "You had a veteran guy who had won all types of games and been in every type of game you could think of, and that was the piece we were missing."
Allen recalled the day Favre arrived in Minnesota.
"Brett shows up, and I remember all of us glued to the, you have all the pros glued to the window, staring at this guy in awe," Allen laughed. "He just raised everybody's [performance]. Like Kevin said, it was a totally different buzz around the building. Our expectation went from we knew we were good, to we expected to win everything."