EAGAN, Minn. — In the days before he returned to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for last week for voluntary offseason workouts, Kyle Rudolph took in one of the greatest spectacles in sports.
The Vikings tight end was at The Masters down in Augusta, Georgia, where he watched Tiger Woods rally on the final day to win his fifth green jacket.
Rudolph said last week that he spent most of his time on the ninth hole where he watched golfers make the turn and get ready for the second half of their round.
That vantage point might apply to Rudolph’s career in his own sport, as the veteran said Tuesday that he feels like he has plenty of productive seasons remaining.
“I feel like I’m just now starting to get into the prime of my career,” Rudolph said. “I was at The Masters [last] weekend, so I’ll use a golf analogy – I feel like I haven’t hit the back 9 yet.
“I feel like I still have a lot of football left … a lot of game left,” Rudolph added.
A second-round pick in 2011, Rudolph enters his ninth season as one of the current longest-tenured players on the roster.
The former Notre Dame standout has been here longer than any offensive player and ranks second behind defensive end Everson Griffen for the top spot on the team.
Yet as Rudolph chatted with the Twin Cities media, there was an edge to his voice as he rejected the notion that he’s on the last leg of his career.
“Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t play in the Metrodome when it had AstroTurf. A lot of people think I was here when the Dome had AstroTurf,” Rudolph said he quipped to teammates during an introductory meeting. “I’m still in my 20s, I’m still young, I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been in my career. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my career.
“But I’ve played a lot of football in this league. And when you’ve played a lot of football in this league and your name’s been around for a long time, everybody just assumes you’re in your mid-30s and on your way out,” Rudolph added. “That’s not the case with me.”
A glance at the Vikings roster shows that 25 of the current 31 players are entering their fifth season or less. And because he is in fact the longest-tenured player on offense, Rudolph said people assume he’s a few years older than he actually is.
“You look at our offense, and the names and the guys and the ages, we don’t have many guys that have been here for nine years,” Rudolph said. “So it’s just kind of the nature of, when you’re a familiar face in the same place for a long time, most people don’t know I’m only 29 years old. They just assume I’m old because I’ve been here for a long time.”
A two-time Pro Bowler, Rudolph has put together plenty of successful seasons in Purple.
He ranks first among tight ends (and fifth all-time) in franchise history with 41 touchdown catches, and is second behind Steve Jordan among tight ends with 386 receptions for 3,787 yards.
And perhaps more importantly, Rudolph has shrugged off early injury questions in his career and now has not missed a game over the past four seasons.
Rudolph’s offseasons have been busy, too, usually learning a new playbook around the facility.
As Rudolph enters the 2019 season, he will now learn from Kevin Stefanski, the fifth offensive coordinator the Vikings have had since the start of the 2013 season.
“We’ve seemed to keep it exciting around here on the offensive side of the ball,” Rudolph said. “I’m constantly learning new systems and working with new coaches, so for me, this time of year is fun.
“Getting to know a new tight end coach (Brian Pariani), getting to learn a new system, things like that keep it fresh,” Rudolph added.
A team captain over the past two seasons, Rudolph is looked at as a leader in the locker room and for his work in the community.
And he plans on sticking around for a while, both to help the Vikings reach new heights and to keep proving his doubters wrong.
“We have to earn our way back, and everybody starts in the same exact place, and that’s where we are again this year,” Rudolph said about his 2019 expectations. “As frustrating as it is not to meet expectations last year, there’s no reason why – with hard work and doing the things we need to do this offseason to improve – that this time next year we can’t be talking about those same expectations.”