EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Eleven seasons have gone by in the blink of Cullen Loeffler's eyes.
Plays that are measured in increments of 1.25 to 2.25 seconds have a way of doing that.
Loeffler earned the long snapping job in 2004 as an undrafted rookie free agent. When Minnesota hosts Chicago at noon (CT) Sunday in the 2014 regular season finale, he will tie defensive tackle Kevin Williams and Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause with 171 games played, which is the 17th most in franchise history.
Hitting rewind on Loeffler's story involves a trip far south on Interstate 35. After growing up in Ingram, Texas, in the state's scenic Hill Country, where he starred in football, basketball and tennis, Loeffler had the opportunity to be a Longhorn. It was on campus in Austin when Mack Brown and assistant coaches Hardee McCrary and Mike Tolleson steered Loeffler, a tight end/defensive end (for three seasons) and quarterback, defensive end and punter as a senior in high school, toward primarily long snapping with some opportunities at tight end.
"When they first came to me, I was a little immature, I guess would be the correct term, because I didn't know the true significance of long snapping it and how important it was to special teams and to the team in general," Loeffler said. "I'm very thankful they got me into it, but in the beginning I was kind of fighting it because I always imagined myself being a tight end or defensive end. I certainly never would have had the length of the career in the NFL that I've had now and I'm thankful for those guys to have seen my potential and kind of steer me in that right direction."
Team play-by-play announcer Paul Allen, whose 13 years of service make him one of a handful of people to predate the longest-tenured Vikings player, recalled the first time he "really chatted" with Loeffler.
It was August 2005, after the second preseason game of Loeffler's second season, and all that remained of the night after a 28-21 loss to the New York Jets was the bus ride from the old Meadowlands Stadium and a flight home.
"I'm walking back to the bus, and I had done it for a couple of years now, and Cullen was very, very frustrated that the team lost the game," Allen recalled. "I started to talk to him about, 'This is a preseason game, a building block time of the year,' and he looked at me and said, 'I played for the Texas Longhorns. We never lost games, so it's very frustrating to me to lose any game,' and Cullen from that moment to where we are now has been one of the most competitive players I've ever met."
Texas went 32-7 in the three seasons that Loeffler lettered, and his competitive spirit shows itself in his commitment to consistency. His approach was recently recognized with his selection to the USA Football All-Fundamentals Team. It was the second time in the six-year history of the award that Loeffler has been selected.
SPANNING FAKE PUNTS
Loeffler and the Vikings incorporated trickery and great execution on a fake punt when Minnesota visited Chicago earlier this season. Loeffler delivered a shorter snap to Adam Thielen instead of his normal 14-yard zooming spiral to Locke. Thielen took a couple of steps to his right before handing the ball to Andrew Sendejo, who zoomed to the left side of the line, turned the corner and raced 48 yards to set up a Vikings touchdown.
"That was great. It had been essentially 11 years — my rookie year that we had run a fake," Loeffler said. "Ironically enough, it was about the same yard line and a similar fake (and against Chicago), but that time I snapped it to Brian Russell and he just ran to the right.
"Fakes are neat. Fakes are a great part of the game because every week each and every special teams unit is worried about a fake that could be run and are always preparing for that," Loeffler continued. "When you run a fake and are very successful with it like we were, it was just really exciting and a momentum change."
STRUCK ON A PLANE
A chance meeting between Loeffler and a recent college graduate on a flight to Austin this offseason led to a partnership and the realization of how interconnected the world can be.
Loeffler met Univesity of St. Thomas graduate Robbie Harrell during the flight, and the pair began talking about the Minnesota Ice Sculptures company that Harrell founded. Through the discussion, Loeffler learned that half the company was available and that Harrell's grandmother is a Loeffler. Their fathers are third cousins. The company is the only one in the state with a computer numerically controlled (CNC) sculpting machine and has benefitted from Loeffler's support and Harrell's oversight of operations.
"I've got a great partner, Robbie Harrell, and he takes care of all the day-to-day things and makes sure the business operations are running smoothly and can take care of anyone's needs," Loeffler added. "It's been neat, being able to provide an item that's perishable, but with a picture, it's lasting. It's always a crowd pleaser, it seems, when people see some of our work, their faces light up and they're just excited. I've definitely been part of a lot of selfies."
The company's work will be on display Sunday. A large sculpture of the Vikings Norseman logo will be outside TCF Bank Stadium between Gates A and E, and two photo frame sculptures will be on the concourses inside the stadium. Fans are encouraged to snap photos and share them on the company's Facebook and Twitter* *pages, but Loeffler will be focused on the game.
"Basically, if you can imagine it, we can build it for you," Loeffler said. "We're going to be building a really neat sculpture for the boat show that's coming up and a lot of other great things are in the pipeline. I'm mainly a silent partner in it because my focus is the Minnesota Vikings and doing my job to the best of my ability."