HASTINGS, Minn. — Nestled beneath a canopy of hardwoods shedding their leaves and preparing for winter, the United Heroes League "Strapped" Confidence Course sits ready to show others just what they can accomplish.
Vikings Legends Esera Tuaolo (1992-96), Ed McDaniel (1992-2001), Ronyell Whitaker (2006-07) and Robert Blanton (2012-15) recently joined forces with active military members from the Air Force, Army National Guard, Marines and Navy to go through the course that features 18 obstacles created by UHL President and Founder Shane Hudella, a retired Army 1st Sgt.
"These courses are designed to teach you confidence, teamwork and agility, and even though we have some premier athletes out here from the Minnesota Vikings, I still think they'll walk away with some new lessons in what those three things mean," Hudella said. "For the military, it's an opportunity to show their children who are out here today what they go through when they go to basic training and during their career."
The course has welcomed different groups for the past two years.
Civilians, often high school sports teams, usually arrive with an appreciation of military members' service and sacrifice.
They depart with an understanding of the training required, the satisfaction of completing challenging obstacles and an exhaustion that had been masked by exhilaration on the course.
UHL Vice President of Special Projects Guy Sing is a retired Army Master Sgt. who now leads groups through the course. Sing led a team of Whitaker, Minnesota Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Charlie Johnson and his teenage son Will, and a team of McDaniel, Marines Gunnery Sgt. Torrey Sexton and his teenage son Jordan.
The Island Hopper is a series of about 30 stumps in rows of three or four that require strategy and balance to negotiate.
"This one, you pick your logs and choose your path," Sing said as he zipped through, adding, "It's just that easy."
By now, Whitaker had heard Sing's use of the word "easy" a few times and encountered obstacles that he would not classify with the same terminology.
Everything was likely still burning from "Weaver," the seventh obstacle, which requires going above and below a series of 19 4X4s that have been spaced to form a gable, when Whitaker clapped back jokingly, "That's your favorite word, 'Easy.' It's like, 'It's your first day? Here's Randy Moss and Megatron (Calvin Johnson). Good luck.' "
Whitaker, 42, and others made Island Hopper look about as easy as Sing did, but Weaver was a different story.
McDaniel was listed at 260 pounds when he played. The 52-year-old could have tapped out on Weaver without shame, but he showed amazing grit and determination on what Hudella said is the toughest obstacle.
"My workout is basically walking around the track," McDaniel said. "Now, we're jumping across things, over things, crawling underneath things. It's so much fun to catch every aspect of your body's muscles and put them into each individual station. This would be a great event for a father-son, a mother-daughter, a whole family to come out and experience it."
Sing explained that Weaver is tough because it challenges every muscle.
"It works your legs, your arms, your core, puts your shoulders in difficult positions," Sing said. "To see some of these former Vikings, as big as they are, able to complete that, because those boards are spaced out, was really neat. Ed is not the youngest guy out here, and he was able to complete it because he would just not give up, and that was really special to see that."
Sing also had a bird's eye view while spotting the participants as they completed the Confidence Climb, which rises 40 feet into the air.
Whitaker has never really lacked confidence.
Once a corner, always a corner.
But football fields stretch horizontally, not vertically, and Whitaker confessed to an overwhelming fear of heights.
Equipped with the purple and white gloves he wore while playing for the Vikings, as well as some patriotic stars and stripes socks, Whitaker began his way up the gigantic ladder. He confronted his fear as people below provided encouragement and Sing gave tips for the important transition over the top rung.
When he firmly put his feet back on the ground, he trembled as he screamed, "In the famous words of my man Kevin Garnett, anything is possible!"
"It's awesome because they're not cheering us as if we're in a stadium with 80,000 people. They're cheering us on, and it's good to be side-by-side with these guys, knowing what they went through as well," Whitaker said. "We're all fighting our little battles, but coming together collectively, we were able to get this thing done.
"Today has been next level. I told the guys when I first got out here that the one thing I don't lack is confidence, but being out here, I was able to develop a whole different type of confidence," Whitaker added. "I'm terrified of heights, and I was able to do some things today that I never would have done on my own, but having the team out here and the military members out here helped me get over the top of that. I appreciate that."
View photos of Vikings legends teaming up with active military members to go through the United Heroes League's Confidence Course.
Charlie Johnson, who has served for 35 years, described the experience as "phenomenal."
"It was awesome that not only did the Vikings participate but I got to bring my son along. It was awesome to challenge ourselves and see what we can do, what we can't do. As the old guy — I'm probably the oldest guy here," Johnson said.
Whitaker jumped in: "But you did it big, baby."
Will Johnson reflected: "Man, I don't like losing, and [my dad] beat me in a bunch of them, but the ones I did [complete] felt nice."
Whitaker added: "You dominated big fella," before crediting the teen for the strategy the team used to work together on "Belly Robber," which required the three to move logs across an elevated platform while on their stomachs. The group had two members face forward while the person in the middle faced backward.
Sing said seeing others realize they can do something they maybe didn't know they could do is rewarding.
"I've been running the course for a little over a year-and-a-half now, and you see that, where kids look at the obstacle and say, 'I don't think I can do that.' And then, you encourage them and their teammates encourage them, and they're able to do that," Sing said. "The same thing applies with adults and former athletes. These obstacles are very challenging. Some work the mind just as much as the muscle. Again, applying encouragement with the staff and cadre being able to complete the obstacles was a lot of fun, especially Ron. Watching his reaction after he completed the confidence climb, he was really emotional and pumped up. That's what I love about this job.
"You see all kinds of emotions up there (atop the Confidence Climb). Some are very confident in their abilities, and it doesn't matter their stature or height, as long as they're confident in their ability, they go right over that top board on that confidence climb," Sing added. "Then, you've got some who have that height and have the build, but they just don't have the mindset and they struggle with it. That's why we're up there to make sure we give them the proper guidance and encouragement and they overcome it. They're just so jazzed and pumped when they actually complete it."
Blanton, 32, was on the Air Force team, and Tuaolo, 53, was on the Navy team, which won the event with 192 total points.
"I just wanted to thank you guys for having us. We have much respect and a different respect for all of the people in our military," Tuaolo said. "Thank you so much for your service and everything that you guys do. I've always been a huge supporter and have family members that fought in wars, as well. Much respect to all of you guys. Going through all of that, there were times when I wanted to quit but then these two guys and the support that you have is absolutely amazing. On behalf of the Minnesota Vikings, we just want to thank you for coming. United Heroes League, thank you so much for having us."
Beyond the course, United Heroes League enables children of military families to play sports by providing equipment, grants for league and camp fees and tickets to games.
Johnson has known Hudella for years and credited the veteran for building the nonprofit that employs multiple veterans.
"It's amazing what he's created here," Johnson said. "When he first started, he had a little office on the west side of Hastings on 55, a little office and storage area with a couple of (hockey) sticks. Now, he's got hockey rinks and Zambonis and this course."