Layers of purple helmets and jerseys encircled the safety, mirroring endless rows of starkly empty, purple seats in the background.
Anthony Harris' voice carried easily over warmup music, his passionate messaging a pump-up beat of its own.
"I'm trying to speak the truth, man. Be yourself," Harris told his teammates. "Everybody who's standing right here is standing right here for a purpose. Your talent, your abilities, they're enough. Believe in the process, believe in the preparation. We've got to do our … jobs.
"Build that --- trust. Build that --- chemistry," he shouted. "Have fun out there. Do your job!"
Harris' speech didn't magically produce a Vikings Week 3 win. It did, however, help energize a team that competed in a dynamic game against Tennessee after looking listless in Minnesota's first two games, both ugly losses.
"I kind of sat back and tried to evaluate the team for the first two weeks, figure out what our identity is, what we need to do individually, what myself as a player, leader and veteran on this team, what role do I need to play to bring out the best in the team?" Harris explained.
Harris asked Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer for permission to address the team Saturday night during a team meeting. The next day, he more spontaneously spoke out.
"Going in that huddle, it was about, 'Let's be who we are. Let's remember who we are,' " Harris recounted. "For the guys who have been here, we've got to take the reins and remind guys, 'This is how we play here at Minnesota. This is our identity. Let's go out and do it.'
"Pretty much talking to guys and what we pride ourselves on and what we're looking to do here in the Minnesota Vikings organization," he added.
Answering the call
Now in his sixth season with the Vikings and under Zimmer, Harris has understood and shaped the identity of past teams. He's gone from undrafted free agent, to special teams stalwart, to "next man up," to full-time starter across from All-Pro safety Harrison Smith.
Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks remembers clearly his first time playing with Harris.
Both had been rookies in 2015 – Kendricks a second-round draft pick and starter by Week 4 and Harris a college free agent who spent 13 games on Minnesota's practice squad. But on Dec. 10, 2015, Harris was called up to the active roster for the Vikings Thursday Night Football game at Arizona.
"We had a bunch of guys that were injured, and he got the call," Kendricks said. "I remember leaving that game and telling the rest of the linebacker group, 'Hey – Ant Harris, he's a guy who can play. He can play, but not only can he play, he has the mental wherewithal to communicate on the field and be calm in certain situations, and I felt that immediately.'
"Since then, he's slowly chipped away," Kendricks added. "He's always doing the right thing on and especially off the field, and I think when he made the transition to the player we know now, it was just natural. He had always been doing the right things to put himself in that position."
Two weeks ago, Harris delivered another speech in Houston, firing up his teammates before Minnesota went on to secure its first win of the 2020 season.
The message has been simple but significant, said Kendricks: Believe in yourself.
"Obviously as a team we've got to believe in ourselves, but more importantly, he was preaching that the individual work we all put in, just to trust it and let loose. I think that was important to hear that from a guy like Anthony because he has done it at the highest level. Especially for the young guys on our team who may have never seen him in that light … it was good to [hear him] vocalize that."
The pregame preaching might be new for Harris this year, but the leadership behind it is not.
Just ask Dalvin Cook, a locker neighbor of Harris at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center who also delivers speeches in the huddle.
"Being around him and just knowing his thought process, everything about Ant is a leader," Cook said. "He's a guy that you want in the locker room, and he's a guy you want to surround yourself with when it comes to being positive.
"We're all leaders in that locker room, and whoever wants to step in the middle of that huddle and get the guys ready to go, I'm all for it," Cook added. "Ant stepped in there and gave us some great energy."
Microcosm of society
Harris hopes to leave an impression beyond just the huddle.
The Vikings this year have not only navigated the COVID-19 pandemic but also responded in significant ways to social unrest that initially centered in Minneapolis following the tragic death of George Floyd, then reverberated through the country.
Harris has been a part of the Vikings Social Justice Committee since its establishment in 2018; he's delivered – along with teammates – messaging that urges change. Harris' words have been weighty with compassion, conviction and care.
From playbook questions to tough topics, Harris opens himself up to regular conversation within the locker room, drawing on experience both as an African American male and now an NFL veteran.
"I wanted to open that up for people to be able to discuss. Understanding that [race] is a sensitive topic and that everybody might not be as comfortable to speak out on it," Harris said. "I was naturally more comfortable and more open to do it, just letting everybody know, 'Hey, it's OK to say what you feel, and if you're not sure, if you don't know about something, you won't be judged or scrutinized because you don't know.' It's more about making each other aware of everything so we can take some steps toward a common goal of unity and peace within society."
Smith is one teammate who's gained a deeper understanding through his friendship and dialogue with Harris, as well as other Black teammates and coaches. He acknowledged having been "a little naïve" to the injustices and racism that People of Color face on a daily basis. Smith committed to not only educate himself but – along with Harris – work to make a difference beyond the scoreboard.
"Sometimes you just think, 'It's like this everywhere. It's all good.' And that's just not true," Smith said. "We need to do better. And it's uncomfortable I think, especially for the white community, to have conversations around that – because it acknowledges that there's a bias or a privilege. And that's uncomfortable for a lot of people to do.
"I'm sure Ant's had plenty of experiences that I wouldn't have had if I'd grown up in the same spot," Smith added. "I'm from Tennessee; I know Black people in the city, I know white people in the city, and I know our lives, realistically, our day-to-day interactions are just different … and that's not how it should be."
Together, Smith and Harris lead by example within an NFL locker room that often feels like a microcosm of society that is better unified by shared goals.
"When football players speak out on these things and people are like, 'Shut up, dude, just go play football' – I mean, I get the sentiment, because what qualifies a football player to know anything more than anybody else? And really, nothing," Smith said. "But that experience and that day-to-day interaction with people from everywhere, that willingness to debate things and talk and trust – you just can't find that a lot of other places."
Unique but unified
When Harris speaks to the pregame huddle, every player looking back at him is unique. And there's beauty in that, he says.
"We all come from different backgrounds, different upbringings, so the awareness about some issues isn't there for everyone, and it can't become a topic of conversation unless we open up to each other and express how we really feel and what we do – and do not – understand," Harris said. "That allows us to be more understanding and for everybody to be more sensitive and to be more patient while trying to understand where each other is coming from.
"Outside in the world, there will be a number of people who, some disagree, some agree, some understand, some don't understand. But it's up to us all to be willing to teach each other and be willing to learn," he later added.
Harris emphasized that just as they share one goal as a team, the Vikings are unified in wanting to impact Twin Cities communities – and beyond – for the better. Means of expression may look different, but the motivation is the same.
"We're all in agreement that we want to take part in uniting the community, bringing people closer together [and] using our voices for what we all think is right," Harris said. "That's what was a pretty unanimous decision on what we wanted to do."
Harris' focus on social justice does not detract from his drive and determination on the gridiron.
On the contrary, he believes that achieving success (which he knows the team is capable of) on game days will increase the impact of off-field efforts.
"Our performance and being united in how we can play together, the success we can bring on the field, is using football and our platform, which is kind of a bridge to the community," he said.
Ask his teammates, and you'll find that bringing people together just comes naturally for Harris.
"He's very loving, very caring. I haven't met anyone who doesn't like Ant or doesn't get along with him, and I think that just goes to show Ant's personality," Kendricks said. "He just treats everybody with that same respect."
And he'll continue to use his voice – and his heart – to do so. Whether in the huddle or in life.
"If there's something that needs to be said, I'm not shy about saying it. [It was] just being who I am," Harris said. "That was the first experience pregame, getting in the circle and talking to those guys. It was just something I felt was in my heart to do at that moment, so I just went with it.
"We're just going to continue," he added. "Everybody is going to play their role and be who we are as teammates and individuals and keep moving forward."
By: Lindsey Young