EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –For four years, Joel Stave donned a red-and-white Wisconsin Badgers jersey. Last week, he couldn't wait to be out of red.
Stave took the field for his first NFL game Friday night, exchanging his red quarterback practice jersey for Vikings purple.
"It was exciting just to get out there and play," Stave said. "It was fun to get a chance to put on something other than the red jersey and actually know that I could get hit and that I was playing in a real game."
Against the Bengals, coaches got a long look at Stave, who finished his career at Wisconsin with 7,635 passing yards, 48 touchdowns and a record of 31-10 as a starter.
He took over at quarterback midway through the third quarter and played 31 snaps for Minnesota. On his first series, Stave led the Vikings on a 6-minute, 74-yard drive that ended with a handoff to running back C.J. Ham for a 10-yard touchdown. He connected with four different targets, including a 22-yard pass to sixth-round draft pick David Morgan.
Stave finished the game 8-of-13 passing for 76 yards and an interception.
"Like any game, there are a lot of plays that you'd like to have back," Stave said. "But I think there were enough good ones mixed in there to give us some good positives to walk away with and a lot to learn from."
Although Stave was playing on a bigger stage than he's used to, he tried to keep a calm and confident mindset.
"The game's a little bit faster, a little bit more intense, but it's still just football," Stave said. "That's kind of the way I try to treat it."
For as long as he can remember, Stave has loved the game of football. Although a Wisconsin native, Stave became a Vikings fan early on thanks to his father, who grew up in North Dakota. He, Joel and Joel's brother, Bryan, watched Vikings games together religiously. If a matchup wasn't locally broadcast, the three would get in the car and drive to the nearest sports bar to view the game.
Stave admired a number of Vikings, from Cris Carter to Daunte Culpepper to Brett Favre leading Minnesota to the NFC Championship game in 2009. One of Stave's all-time favorites growing up, however, was Randy Moss.
"He was an unbelievable player," Stave said of Moss. "The way he caught the ball, the way he got open."
And when Minnesota drafted running back Adrian Peterson in 2007, 14-year-old Stave immediately became a fan.
Now, Stave steps on the same practice field Moss did and shares a locker room with Peterson. It's a dream come true – even though not everyone loved his Vikings contract.
"I've had a lot of friends from back home say, 'Hey, yeah, that's cool – I can't be a fan of yours anymore, but [congratulations]," Stave said, laughing. "Which is fine. I get it. People are very serious about the Packers there, and the Packers and Vikings aren't necessarily the best of friends."
Since being given an opportunity with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent, Stave has worked each and every day to transition smoothly into Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner's scheme and continue improving in any way he can.
"When things come up the way we expect them to and he has a clean pocket, he obviously showed he can stand back and throw the ball and be effective," Turner said. "Right now, when it comes up different, or it gets speeded up, he has some technical things, footwork things, he has got to get better at so he can continue to be accurate."
Stave said he's grateful to be learning under veteran Shaun Hill and starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater, although 178 days younger than Stave, has two years of NFL experience under his belt and has mentored the rookie since he arrived in Minnesota this spring.
"Both Teddy and Shaun do a great job with their feet. They're really quick with their feet at the top of their drop, and then just getting the ball out fast.
"That's what a good quarterback does," Stave continued. "As much as you want to be able to drive it down the field, if nothing's open, if there's pressure, if there's a situation like that, they do a good job of getting the ball out. There's a lot I can learn from both of them."
With three more preseason games remaining in 2016, including tonight's matchup in Seattle, Stave knows these are his opportunities to perform and show the coaches what he brings to the table. A student of the game, his biggest focus now is preparation.
"My goal is just do the best I can," Stave said. "Prepare as well as I possibly can so that I'm not going in with questions and going in unsure about anything. Once you've done that, once you've prepared and put all the time in, then you just have to have fun, trust what you see, trust your reads and let it go."