It was a gorgeous September afternoon when Eric Kendricks showed up at All Square, one of his favorite spots in the Twin Cities.
All Square is a nonprofit social enterprise that includes a craft grilled cheese restaurant, professional development institute and blossoming Civil Rights law firm.
The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays, but the Vikings linebacker showed up on his off day ready to deliver a jovial surprise announcement to leaders and workers who had been asked to meet in South Minneapolis.
Kendricks — a key member of the Vikings Social Justice Committee — soon presented an oversized check for $250,000 for All Square's Fellow & Fellow Alum Fund, which supports formerly incarcerated individuals in their efforts to rejoin society.
The donation was part of a $5 million overall commitment by the Wilf family ownership group of the Vikings, with $1 million to be awarded by the Vikings Social Justice Committee.
"As you guys know, I came here about a year ago with some teammates. You guys changed the way we think about the justice system and the flaws it has," Kendricks said. "We appreciate your efforts, and we're really proud. It really has changed the way we think about giving back. But we're mostly proud of the fellows. They're the ones that this is all about.
"We wanted to get the fellow fund started, and get it started real big," he added. "We're proud of you guys and know you're going to continue to fight. But we're all going to continue to fight. We all have to strive to be the best we can be. So, let's do it."
Smiles and happy tears abounded from the All Square associates.
"I was elated, and I think I can speak for everyone in that sense," said Emily Hunt Turner, the founder and CEO of All Square. "I think it's important that the biggest investment All Square has ever gotten is going directly to our fellows.
"They are the reason we exist," Hunt Turner added. "It's a beautiful thing, not only to see the check, but to know that is what the check is for. It was a moment of true happiness."
View photos of Vikings LB Eric Kendricks through the years participating in community events. Kendricks is the Vikings 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.
Unbeknownst to Kendricks, the group had a surprise of its own. And as he stood on the restaurant's patio, the tables would soon be turned on him.
"We also have something for you, too, sir," said Randall Smith, a fellow who works at All Square.
Another fellow, Terrein Gill, also spoke up.
"We appreciate how much you support the fellows and our fund, and how you're so transparent with us and All Square," said Gill, before telling the sixth-year pro that he had been chosen as the Vikings Community Man of the Year and nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Moments later, Kendricks was presented with a customized No. 54 Purple Vikings jersey. But instead of his own name on the back, embroidered on the jersey was WPMOY.
"That's what's up!" Kendricks exclaimed. "Hell, yeah."
Kendricks grew up in Fresno, California, a diverse city in the state's Central Valley. Fresno is about a three-hour drive to San Francisco. The trek from Fresno to Los Angeles, where Kendricks attended UCLA on a football scholarship, takes about 30 more minutes.
The 28-year-old came from a single-parent home and noted that it took a village to raise him, whether it was the help of friends, family or coaches. His older brother, Mychal, played eight seasons in the NFL.
"I was blessed enough to have older siblings. And my family put me in sports right away to have that structure," Kendricks said. "But yeah, I went to school and grew up with kids who made those one or two decisions that put them in a bad situation.
"It was something so small and something that could have been avoided, but yet, I feel like they had a crossroads of what to do," Kendricks added. "You never know what people are going through."
Kendricks excelled for the Bruins so much that the Vikings drafted him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Quietly reserved and low-key off the field in his first few pro seasons, Kendricks felt no choice but to speak up in response to the events of 2020.
In the wake of George Floyd's death while in custody of Minneapolis police, Kendricks knew he had to say more. He had to do more.
Kendricks has raised his voice and used his time, effort and energy for causes close to his heart.
That includes staying connected with All Square, which aims to combat recidivism, the cycle of people returning to prison for repeating past offenses or committing new ones due to their circumstances or surroundings.
And it includes monthly meetings with youth from the Juvenile Detention Center in Hennepin County, just steps from U.S. Bank Stadium.
Kendricks and his teammates visited the JDC seven times in person in 2018 and 2019. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the linebacker increased his efforts, making sure to hop on monthly videoconferences with the youth.
By the time the calendar flips to 2021, Kendricks will have made 17 total visits — either in-person or virtual — with kids at the JDC.
Their conversations range from how the Vikings are doing, to what Kendricks' hobbies are away from the field (hint: he's really into cars) to how the kids in the JDC can make better life choices going forward.
"I feel like sometimes they're forgotten about. Honestly, that's what it comes down to. Ever since the first time I went and visited, I felt like I had an obligation to go back and give a little bit of my time if I can," Kendricks said. "That's what I want to continue doing. I don't feel like it's that big of a deal, but it could be a big deal to them. Maybe hearing from someone who plays sports, or hearing how I dealt with things growing up, it could be beneficial.
"I feel like the system we have in place, it puts people in jail and doesn't set them up to be functioning members of society afterwards. I feel like if I can come and help in any type of way — small way or big way — I think there's got to be light shed on the fact these are just people who have aspirations and goals," Kendricks said. "Unfortunately, they made a mistake and it's defined a big part of their lives. Rather than just putting them in jail and forgetting about them, we have to rehabilitate and start to teach and do other things to where they have another shot."
On the field, Kendricks is known as one of the game's best linebackers.
He can flow sideline to sideline, tracking down running backs or hanging in coverage with some of the league's top pass catchers.
"He's been tremendous. I think he's playing even better than he did last year," Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer, who is also Kendricks' position coach, said in November. "I think he's playing as good as he ever has and probably better than he ever has."
And Kendricks has fun doing so, oftentimes with his hair bouncing around out the back of his helmet. He nabbed interceptions in three consecutive home games in Weeks 9, 11 and 12, enjoying big celebrations with teammates.
Just above where the hair branches out, however, is another reminder of strife. He opted this season to wear a sticker with the name of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman who was fatally shot in her Kentucky apartment on March 13.
Taylor's case could be another statistic, but instead it's another reason for his determination to find social justice solutions.
Those within the Vikings organization have taken notice of Kendricks' continued commitment to help make the world a better place around him.
"Eric's someone who's not only talking the talk, but he's walking the walk," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "He's been a great leader for us through the Social Justice Committee. He's done a lot to educate himself, he's done a lot to have great conversations with other people, including myself.
"He's been big on 'What are real, tangible steps that we can take?' He asks those questions in humility and wants to get answers and wants to work to find answers," Cousins added. "That takes time, that takes energy, but he's willing to put in the work to do that. It's been an inspiration and an encouragement for me to just be able to be alongside that kind of class and character."
Added Zimmer: "I'm very proud of Eric. Eric is very smart, intelligent, but most importantly his heart is in the right place. He's a tremendous man. Obviously, he's a great football player, and we've all seen him grow throughout the years, but I have a lot of pride in the whole group of our Social Justice Committee. Those guys have carried themselves in a professional manner. They've been very articulate and spoken from the heart. I have a great deal of appreciation and pride for the way that group has gone about their business."
And even for those who don't know him as well as his teammates or coaches, it's clear that Kendricks isn't one to support endeavors for notoriety or attention. His passion is real and genuine.
"As a spectator, I watch him on the field, and he operates with such authenticity," Hunt Turner said. "To see the way that translates here and the way he operates with us … it's one thing to care about the issues, but it's another to build relationships.
"He's the kind of human who doesn't just want to know or understand, and frankly, doesn't just want to throw money at something," Turner added. "He wants to build relationships. There's an authenticity in that, so to know he's nominated for [the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award] … we couldn't imagine a better candidate."
Gill added: "He doesn't let his helmet hide him. He knows he has a platform, so he comes at that just like he plays on defense. It's cool to see an athlete like that. We've had a lot of people come down and talk to us, but the chemistry with him, you could feel it."
Jamil Stamschror-Lott is All Square's Institute Director, meaning he facilitates the personal and professional development programming for the fellows. He is also a former Division-I basketball player at Marquette and knows firsthand how fickle some athletes can be.
"He's not reading from a script," said Stamschror-Lott, who has gotten to know Kendricks through All Square and jumped on some JDC calls with him. "One way to measure a person's integrity is if they continue to come back.
"He's committed. We all have stuff to do in our lives and we're all busy, but that's not an excuse for him," Stamschror-Lott added. "What you make room for shows who you are. He doesn't have to do this, and people would still love him anyways."
Ten days after Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Kendricks delivered a profound message.
He struggled with his emotions at times when describing his thoughts on the social injustice happening in Minnesota and across the nation, but Kendricks' nearly 3-minute long speech came from his heart.
Kendricks said he was going to apply pressure to himself to keep the conversation going and to find tangible actions to make a difference.
And in the months that have followed, Kendricks has delivered. His passion for change has never been higher, and his impact on the world has never been greater.
"Just becoming more involved. That's what we all kind of learned through this whole process," Kendricks said of his evolvement in 2020. "We need to become more involved in our communities and whether that's the election — we had a lot of people vote — but on the local level as well.
"Social justice work in the city, things like that," Kendricks added. "We all just need to keep our eyes and ears open and not forget about these things and understand we have to make this world a better place. If you have that in mind, you can't really lose."
By: Eric Smith