EAGAN, Minn. – It took Maria Hauger just a second or two to recognize who she'd just run past.
Maria, a Minnesota native and lifelong Vikings fan, is an avid runner who routinely jogs around the Viking Lakes trail system near Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
But last week, her run was anything but routine.
The Vikings have selected Maria as their 2023 NFL Fan of the Year nominee, and they surprised her with the news in a unique but fitting fashion.
As Maria rounded a path's corner, she was startled to see Viktor the Viking holding a large yellow sign reading "Hi, Maria!" Confused but laughing, she continued to run with the mascot matching her stride for stride.
Then, two Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders appeared on the trail with a "Run Maria Run" sign and tagged out Viktor to run alongside Maria.
Rounding the final corner, Maria's face lit up as she approached a small gathering of friends and coworkers, as well as her parents, all wearing Vikings gear and cheering her on. As she slowed, she felt a gentle tug on her sleeve and turned to look.
"Oh my gosh! Justin Jefferson!"
Maria's expression transitioned from surprise to excitement to overwhelmed by emotion in a matter of moments, and she covered her face in disbelief as the star Vikings receiver – slightly incognito in sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt but with a No. 18 jersey over it – laughed and offered her a hug.
"Congratulations, Maria! You are the Vikings Fan of the Year," Jefferson told her.
Maria continued to process what had taken place, smiling and crying and repeating, "I can't believe it" in between hugs from loved ones.
"I love seeing [her] reaction. It's hilarious, and it's heartwarming," Jefferson later told Vikings.com. "It's heartwarming just to see the dedication they have to support us and be our fans. You [don't always] know the [extent] until you get to know them."
View photos of Vikings WR Justin Jefferson who helped surprise the Vikings 2023 Fan of the Year, Maria Hauger.
Despite being on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury, Jefferson said he was honored to surprise Maria, who not only attends every home game at U.S. Bank Stadium but also has traveled to road games on multiple occasions.
Maria and her family ventured to London last season to watch the Vikings take on the Saints, and this season she's gone to Minnesota's games at Carolina and Green Bay. She also plans to head to Denver and Las Vegas for the Week 11 and 14 contests.
"To hear her story and hear how she dedicates her life to coming to our games in different areas and different parts of the world, it's something she should be proud of," Jefferson said. "And I'm just proud to be able to give her a surprise like this."
Maria was nominated for the 2023 Vikings Fan of the Year by her mom, Mary, also an ardent fan.
"The Vikings are her life. Every podcast, every social media post [about the Vikings], she forwards them to me all day long," Mary Hauger said, laughing. "She lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the Vikings."
An athlete herself, Maria finds herself inspired by the Vikings and sometimes resonating with challenges individual players face.
Maria is a graduate of Shakopee High School and is the Minnesota state record holder in the 4K. She won four consecutive state titles in cross country and track-and-field and in 2013 shined at the University of Virginia and was the ACC XC Freshman of the Year.
Unfortunately, Maria suffered a career-ending injury after that season.
"She knows how hard it is to come back and persevere and really give your all in everything you do," Mary said. "That's why she's motivated by the Vikings. She sees that they can excel and come back [from adversity] and achieve on the field and be community-minded, too – and that has made her a better person."
Maria has gotten involved with multiple charity efforts championed by Vikings players past and present, including Thielen Foundation and donating to the Ham Family Scholarship Fund established by fullback C.J. Ham and his wife Stephanie. This past summer, she raised $1,000 for The Salvation Army and rappelled down the side of the Omni Viking Lakes Hotel to raise money for Twin Cities families in need of extra support.
"These are easy people to root for," Maria said of the Vikings. "They're wonderful people as well as athletes."
The Haugers have had Vikings Season Tickets in their family since the team's inaugural 1961 season.
According to her mother, Maria's first words were "Johnny Randle baby" after the Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle and family-favorite player. She grew up in a home that featured a Vikings-themed room, and she recalled clipping out newspaper articles about the team and hanging them on the walls.
It's easy to spot Maria at U.S. Bank Stadium, as she typically wears her Jefferson jersey, crazy Vikings leggings, purple shoes and bracelet that contains U.S. Bank Stadium turf from the "Minneapolis Miracle" playoff game.
She spends most of her daily runs listening to Vikings press conferences, radio programs or other team-generated content, and she shares her love for the team with others.
Maria works in Minneapolis as an exercise physiologist and enjoys connecting with clients over common Vikings fandom.
"Her Vikings spirit, I believe, inspires her but also others," Mary said. "She uses that to inspire her clients."
So when she heard about the league's annual Fan of the Year contest, Mary knew she had to nominate her daughter – even if it meant keeping a secret.
"It was so hard," Mary said of keeping the surprise to herself. "Especially four-and-a-half hours to Green Bay and back, alone in the car with her, and to not even crack a smile about it."
Added Maria: "She can never keep a secret, so this was amazing."
And to learn the good news from Jefferson, the All-Pro receiver?
Maria called it "the best day of my life."
"He's my favorite athlete of all time," she said. "His energy … he's a game-changer. And even as good of an athlete he is, he's an even better person.
"I love seeing athletes do well. I watch the Olympics and start crying because I know how hard it is to train every day and put everything into what you do and absolutely love it," Maria continued. "It just makes me want to be better, too. I love to see people succeed. I always watch [Vikings Entertainment's] 'Field Access' right after games, and I see [Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell's] reaction, and it just makes me so happy. I want to see the coaches do well, I want to see the athletes do well. I just love it."
Looking across the pond as the sun started to set, streaking blues and pinks across the Eagan sky, Mary and Maria embraced, still unable to contain their excitement.
"Every single thing about the Vikings is just excellent," Mary said. "This all really came together. I don't think it could have been better. It couldn't have."
Added Jefferson: "This is something they'll remember for the rest of their lives. I'm just happy to be able to be part of it."