By: Lindsey Young
C.J. Ham reclined on his couch a couple of weeks ago, his 2-year-old son Trip sitting on his chest.
The toddler's gaze mirrored C.J., father and son watching the Monday Night Football kickoff before Trip – whose given name is Cortez Thaddeus Ham III – would be tucked in for the evening.
"Daddy, football," Trip said, pointing at the television screen.
He might not yet understand the game's intricacies, but the youngster knows C.J. plays football for the Minnesota Vikings. C.J. and Steph's daughters, Skylar and Stella, have a better idea of the uniqueness of an NFL career — but to them, C.J. still is just Daddy.
That was still the case Sunday when Ham played his 100th regular-season game for the Vikings as they visited the Carolina Panthers.
Thinking back to that quiet night at his Farmington home, C.J. smiles.
Sometimes it feels like just yesterday. Other times, it feels like a lifetime ago.
In reality, it's been seven years since C.J. arrived at the Minnesota Vikings practice facility for rookie minicamp. He had no idea what to expect. Having finished his senior season at Augustana University, the Division-II program in Sioux Falls, he wondered if he might hear from an NFL team during the 2016 NFL Draft weekend.
"I was just playing ball, getting an education at a small, Division-II school. I didn't necessarily think I was a prospect or anything until later on in my career," C.J. said recently. "Some guys who I'd been in contact with pre-draft were getting rookie minicamp invites throughout the weekend, and I was honestly kind of feeling hurt. I was like, 'Man, that's it. All that hard work went down the drain.' "
But on Sunday morning, C.J. received a call while at church. It was the Vikings, asking him if he'd like to attend minicamp on a tryout basis.
"It was the greatest thing ever," recalled the Duluth native. "To get an opportunity with the team I grew up watching? My mom was super ecstatic. Everybody was just so happy."
Nerves set in as he checked in at Winter Park for the three-day camp.
Being from a small school, C.J. knew he'd be practicing with – and contending for a roster spot against – other rookies from larger schools, and against Minnesota's eight draft picks.
"But then you get there, and you get next to these guys and compete with them, and you realize, 'Oh, I'm right there, too. I might not have gotten drafted, but I'm here for a reason – and I can keep up. I can compete here,' " C.J. said.
As minicamp wrapped up on Mother's Day afternoon, C.J. had barely unbuckled his helmet when he was approached by a member of the Vikings personnel and told, "Hey, they want to talk to you upstairs."
"It was like, 'I don't really know what this means at all,' " C.J. remembered, chuckling. "But it was pretty cool to go up there and have them tell me I did a great job and they were going to sign me to the 90-man roster.
"God just had His hand in it all," he added. "I can't make this stuff up."
Moving on up
When C.J. was given a chance, he didn't look back.
He gave it his all at Vikings Training Camp at Minnesota State Mankato that summer, just a few weeks after Steph and C.J. welcomed their first daughter, Skylar.
Part of a position group that included Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata and fullback Zach Line, C.J. did whatever Vikings coaches asked of him, from lining up on scout teams to playing on second-, third- or fourth-team units offensively or on special teams.
Former Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly, a fellow 2016 rookie who'd been drafted by Minnesota in the seventh round, became fast friends with C.J. – and quickly realized the fullback would make a positive impression with coaches.
"At night practice, there was always for some reason a play where the fullback has to block the defensive end because it's a full-line slide [protection], and every time, C.J. rung my bell," Weatherly laughed. "It's a good chin check. In my first two years, it definitely caught me off guard.
"It just goes to show the type of preparation C.J. has always taken into practice," Weatherly added. "There is no half-assin' it. There is no taking it easy on your good friends. It's iron sharpens iron."
When it came time for roster cuts that first summer, C.J. and Weatherly both were released and then signed the following day to Minnesota's practice squad.
They shared determination and a dream, though the teammates also had regular conversations about the actuality of making it in the NFL and how they'd plan for the future.
Just before Thanksgiving that season, Weatherly was promoted to the active roster. A few weeks later, the Vikings elevated C.J.
"I remember talking about it, because even though we both were inactive [initially], we had both made it up," Weatherly said. "We would talk about benefits and about, 'We're one step closer … to making it.' That was always our thing – wanting to optimize [our chances].
"We'd have conversations about it being more advantageous to kick into your 401K twice … max it out in December, and then max it out in January – because you'd never know if you would make the team the next year," Weatherly continued. "So that was always C.J.'s thing – thinking about the future and not being too cautious but being super aware."
A special commitment
C.J. in 2017 transitioned from running back to fulltime fullback and made the team's 53-man roster heading into the regular season.
In Week 2, he scored his first NFL touchdown on his first NFL carry – a 1-yard run into the end zone at Pittsburgh. C.J. finished that season with seven carries for 13 rushing yards and the TD, as well as seven catches for 68 yards through the air.
C.J. never looked back after being elevated to the Vikings active roster. Over the past six-plus seasons, he's totaled 36 rushes for 97 yards on the ground, and 73 catches for 624 receiving yards. He has five career touchdowns.
He's lined up at running back, fullback, tight end and receiver.
"We can put him in a lot of different roles, and I think his versatility and putting a lot on him mentally – we can have him be the third-down back in protection, we can have him be a fullback on first and second down, we can have him get us a yard in short yardage," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We can have him run routes. We can have him, really, run the whole route tree. Not a lot of guys can that be said about."
Safety "You see the different stuff that he can do, a lot of it without the ball in his hands," added safety Harrison Smith. "If you give him a chance, he normally makes something happen. Pass catching, pass blocking, blocking in general."
C.J.'s talents and contributions go far beyond offense, however.
Since day one, he's committed himself to Minnesota's special teams, standing out on all four phases.
Weatherly made sure to always sit next to or directly behind C.J. during the Vikings special teams meetings, knowing he could ask him a question if needed.
"I could always rely on him. And he kept the same standard [he does on offense] on special teams. And luckily, that rubbed off on me," Weatherly said.
Former Vikings long snapper Kevin McDermott, whom Minnesota signed in 2015, watched C.J. ascend from tryout to practice squad to active roster and admired his commitment to special teams at each stop.
"Immediately, teammates knew C.J. could be counted on to do his job well," McDermott recalled. "And like all great fullbacks, he is punishingly physical. C.J. was a wing on our punt protection team. And one game, with a routine two-handed punch, he leveled the opponent's starting defensive end, then sprinted into coverage and made the tackle downfield."
Added McDermott: "His special teams film should be shown to all incoming NFL rookies: 'You want to make an NFL roster? Do this.' "
Meeting the century mark
Today's game at Carolina marks C.J.'s 100th regular-season game for the Vikings.
It's a benchmark that, if he's being honest, he never envisioned at the beginning.
"I've been doing it for a while now, so I don't necessarily [grasp] the significance of it. But if I can take a step back and just look at everything as a whole, it is pretty cool to come in the way that I did, to now be playing my hundredth game with my home-state team – and with one single team," C.J. said. "This league is just so crazy that I know a lot of people don't get that opportunity, so I'm just grateful."
C.J. signed his second extension with the Vikings in March. He'd inked the first during the COVID-19 pandemic, when no visitors were allowed in the team facility, so this time around he made sure to have Steph, Skylar, Stella and Trip by his side.
Clicking through photos from that day, or even photos from pregame of the Vikings Week 3 game against the Chargers, where he kneeled down for kisses from his kids, C.J. calls it "insane" to think about just how far he's come – and how much life has happened along the way.
"Having all three of them run up to me on the sideline – and then thinking back to that picture of me and Steph and little newborn Skylar at our first training camp in Mankato, it's like, 'Man. I've been doing this for a really long time,' " C.J. said. "So much life has happened from then until now. Like I tell everybody, 'I can't tell you why I'm here. … God has been so good.
"I'm so grateful I've been able to be home for eight seasons and share all this with the people I love the most," he added.
C.J. becomes just the fourth undrafted offensive player in Vikings history to reach the 100-game mark, joining Mick Tingelhoff (240), Leo Lewis (140) and Adam Thielen (135).
He has now passed Harold Morrow (99) for the most career games played by an undrafted fullback in team history, and he trails only Bill Brown (180) for most career games by a Vikings fullback. C.J. is just the third Minnesota native to accomplish the feat with his home-state team, along with Thielen and former punt returner Marcus Sherels.
View photos of Vikings FB C.J. Ham playing in his 100th career game in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
When told these statistics, C.J. sat quietly for a moment. Then he looked up, revealing emotion in his eyes that seemed to catch him off guard.
"I'm at a loss for words," he said. "I always call myself not very sentimental, but to hear that … this organization's been around since '61. So to hear that, I'm really at a loss for words.
"I just think, 'Why me? Why me?' " He added, shaking his head. "Man, I'm just so grateful."
It seems aptly fitting that C.J. reached this benchmark in Carolina where he reunited pregame with Thielen, who signed with the Panthers this spring as a free agent.
Thielen spoke with Twin Cities media members via conference call Wednesday and spoke highly of his former teammate.
"I'm super proud of him. We've played against each other since we were in high school and trained together every year in the NFL and obviously played together for [seven seasons in Minnesota] I have a ton of respect for him; I love that guy," Thielen said. "He's been a huge support system for me, and I'm just excited for him, to see how his role has changed over the years. You know, he went from a guy who was undrafted, unsigned and makes it on [after] rookie camp – and then to a huge part of that team's success. Whether it be on special teams or offense. It's just been fun to see that."
Thielen and C.J. discussed the Week 4 matchup as soon as the teams' schedules came out in May.
"We talked, 'Man, this is gonna be a pretty big game.' There's lot of emotions and all those things," C.J. said. "So I'm glad I get to share that with him and be a part of history with him, too."
Ask anyone who's played – or currently plays – with C.J., and they'll tell you they're unsurprised he's reached this point of his career.
One quality used repeatedly to describe C.J.'s successful career is durability.
Smith and Danielle Hunter, the only other current Vikings to have amassed more than 100 games played for Minnesota, both emphasized their teammate's grit and durability.
"You can't really put a label on toughness," Smith said. "But when you think about that many games, there's at least a handful of those that other people probably wouldn't have played. It might not show up on any stat sheets, but I can tell you he's not feeling [great] for all hundred of those games.
"It's a huge credit to him; it shows his toughness to be able to play for that long," Smith added. "The reality of this business is they're normally looking to go younger, getting new guys in the building. So when you can hang around … you're doing a lot of things right, you're available, you execute when you get the chance."
C.J. only has one full season under his belt with Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, but he quickly became one of O'Connell's most trusted players.
"He's very talented, tough. I'll tell you what – he's a guy I would have loved to have as a teammate and a leader," O'Connell said. "One of our most respected players in the locker room, one of our most impactful players in this building – on and off the field."
C.J.'s impact on the locker room is clear, as he was voted one of the Vikings eight team captains, along with Smith and Hunter, for the 2023 season.
"He shows the younger guys how to be a pro – how to be there for his teammates and also how to play football," Hunter said. "A lot of these young guys come into the league, and they don't really know much. He's a guy they can go to and ask for information on how to do things, whether it's life or football. But that's ultimately what the 'C' on your chest means, you know? C.J.'s not the most [vocal] all the time, but he leads by example.
"It means a lot to play a hundred games with one team. It means that you've done a lot for the organization," Hunter continued. "You come to this league, and many players don't even last their full first contract with the team. But C.J.'s always done his part. He's a good player, a good teammate and a good father. … This is a really big deal."
Hunter's right – it is a big deal.
But C.J. Ham is still the same guy he was nearly eight years ago when he arrived at Winter Park to try out for an NFL team. His mindset hasn't changed from Game 1 to Game 100.
After suiting up in his purple No. 30 and walking through the visitors' tunnel, C.J. headed to the sideline for a pregame hug and kiss from Steph – and donned that joyful, signature smile as he watched a surprise video from his children back in Minnesota.
Because at the end of the day, that's what matters most. No matter how many more games C.J. plays, he hopes the name stitched across his back will leave a forever legacy.
"No matter the accolades, the playoff games, the [hopeful] Super Bowls or anything like that, those are all great, but I really just want to be known for being a good teammate. For being somebody who cared for more than just themselves, was there for people when they needed it. Someone that people can lean on in times of trouble," C.J. said. "That's really what I want to be known for in this locker room, in this organization and just throughout my life – being there for people, loving on people, any way that I can."