What if everyone in the world experienced the togetherness that develops inside an NFL locker room?
Would there be more empathy, understanding and tolerance of differences?
It's hard to imagine Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs coming from places more dissimilar than Northern Minnesota and urban Maryland, but the white and black receivers enjoy a unique brotherhood.
The teammates for the past four seasons have found that they share common goals and passions for maximizing their potential through their matching robust work ethics. They also know that the differences in personalities can make them stronger friends.
Thielen said the locker rooms of Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the Vikings were the first places he learned of teammates growing up without a father and numerous other difficulties.
"I think those are the things that really give me a passion for this topic and make me want to help make a difference because I've seen so many great people and great guys kind of come out of those situations," Thielen said in a conversation with Diggs and Vikings.com.
Diggs experienced the joy of having his father in his life and the sorrow of Aron's tragic passing from congestive heart failure in 2008. Stefon, who was just 14, immediately became a father figure to his two younger brothers. The person they all turned to for answers wouldn't be able to guide them anymore.
"Losing my father at a very young age kind of impacted me long-term, as far as having to grow up fast, and going through stuff as a kid, kind of having to lead by example and not necessarily knowing how — making some good decisions, making some bad decisions, navigating through kind of by yourself," Diggs said. "Even though my mom was always there — she always did everything she could — I was still a boy and had to figure some things out, how to become a man and how to be a man, so knowing that kids need someone to lead them, that's just another side of the topic that made me passionate because I know how it is.
"When I met Adam, I didn't know Adam's smallest details of his life, but I knew the overall picture, and he probably hasn't gone through the same things I've been through, but we have a lot in common as far working hard and wanting to be perfect and do things the right way and having each other's backs," Diggs added. "It's basically having a new brother. I feel for him. I love him, and I love him unconditionally. When you love somebody, you want the best for them. I know for a fact that he wants the best for me, so as far as pushing one another, it was coming from a place of love."
Thielen said he and Diggs have been able to learn their similarities despite their completely different backgrounds.
"That's why we've grown so close over the last couple of years, because the more and more we're around each other, it's like, 'Man, we're like the same person,' " Thielen said. "It doesn't really matter how you were raised or how you grew up, there's good people in this world, and it doesn't matter, the color of your skin, who taught you to do things, it's so cool to build a friendship and not really care about where you came from, just try to get to know them as a person and love them unconditionally and try to be there for them, help guide and protect them."
Diggs immediately added: "Love doesn't come with colors. No matter what color you are, what shape you are, what size you are, love doesn't [discriminate]."
Organizing the effort
Thielen and Diggs took their message to Franklin Middle School this season to speak with students about their ability to connect and appreciate each other's unique characteristics.
The school visit was part of the Vikings ongoing social justice initiatives that were formed after multiple meetings between Vikings ownership, the front office, coaches and players to positively impact the community in unifying ways and to advance social justice.
Over the past year, the Vikings organization has stepped up its focus and commitment to social justice programs. This player-driven effort strives to create meaningful dialogue and change in the community on issues related to building unity, hope and positive community relationships.
The Vikings approach includes dedicating financial resources to organizations that work for positive change and spending time with young people at schools, community organizations and juvenile detention centers.
The Wilf family and the Vikings have committed $250,000 toward the social justice effort, enhancing a commitment that is deeply rooted in the philosophy of the organization.
"For my family, it's extremely personal," Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf said. "My parents and grandparents all survived the Holocaust in Europe. They grew up in a time where hatred and injustice and intolerance led to horrible horrors for humanity. The lessons they gave to us when they immigrated to the United States was to make sure that we do everything we can, and we've been fortunate enough to be able to give back to make sure we have a tolerant, just society."
The Wilfs shared their personal story during a meeting with the Vikings Leadership Council of players and coaches, explaining how the values instilled by their family members have shaped their stewardship of the Vikings franchise.
Wilf said the Vikings try to promote a "diverse, balanced workforce" and "make sure our community knows we're about everybody and that football brings people together."
"It's one of the great things about football, and hopefully through the NFL and through the Minnesota Vikings, we can bring awareness to the injustices that are out there in this country that still need to be addressed and that we hopefully can have a small part in helping solve," Wilf said.
Wilf credited General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer for their roles in building a roster of players that is committed to understanding others, helping people in need and knowing that they can be role models to young people.
"We're just really proud of our football team. I know Rick and Coach Zimmer have put together a team of players from all kinds of backgrounds, all walks of life and all parts of the country," Wilf said. "They come from different perspectives, but the one thing we have is a cohesive, unified group, and we do good things together."
Empathy and respect
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who grew up in comfortable suburban Cincinnati, is grateful for the teammates that have entered his life through football, including running back Latavius Murray, who shares a similar sentiment.
Rudolph is the Vikings Community Man of the Year for 2018 and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee. Murray was the Vikings nominee for the NFL's Salute to Service Award. Each has served as an ambassador for the United Heroes League, which supports military families by increasing access to sports participation.
Rudolph and Murray explained their backgrounds and connection in a joint interview with Vikings.com.
"If I wouldn't have played sports, in the area that I grew up in, I never would have gotten to know a Latavius Murray," Rudolph explained. "I grew up in a [predominantly white] community in the suburbs of Cincinnati. It wasn't until I got involved in sports where I got put on teams with kids that weren't necessarily from my area or my school. Sports are something that have given me the opportunity to get to know people for who they are and not what they look like."
Murray was born in Titusville, Florida, but his family moved to Upstate New York when he was 3. He said "sports brings people together, just like you wouldn't believe" because they provide opportunities to build trust between people from different backgrounds.
"You'd be amazed by the kind of relationships that I've built because of sports," Murray said. "Obviously I trust everybody in that locker room, that they've got my back, but it definitely started somewhere on the field or on the basketball court with some guys that I had no idea about."
Rudolph and Murray talked about the importance of respecting others and treating them the way one would like to be treated.
"It goes back to something you learn at such a young age. If you treat someone the way you would want to be treated, no matter what they look like, no matter what they sound like, this world would be a better place," Rudolph said. "When you have kids who are going to grow up in an atmosphere that kind of lends itself to become an 'It's us against them, it's me against him [culture],' then it's not conducive, you're not going to treat that group of people or individual the way you want to be treated.
"When you create empathy and put yourself in someone else's shoes, it allows us opportunities to grow," Rudolph added.
Murray said "respect is key, respect is everything."
"A lot of times, even if you're not respected in the way that you give respect, I just think that it says something about your character when you can still treat people a certain way, regardless of how they act," Murray said. "That's leading by example."
Learning and leading
When some say that athletes should just "stick to sports," Rudolph and Murray believe they have a responsibility to do anything but.
"I think the platform that we have to leave an impression on the youth and future of our country, it would be a huge mistake if we just stuck to football," Rudolph said.
Murray added: "When we have this opportunity, this voice — the whole world is going to say something about it when we don't do what we're supposed to do, so when we have that right to speak up, to say what's right or the things that should be done, you can't fault us."
The Vikings anticipate the ongoing process of outreach to provide a learning opportunity, but they are committed to making an impact with resounding positives beyond their playing careers.
Complicated problems require dialogue to better understand the causes and strategic commitments to right wrongs and break longstanding barriers.
Solutions won't be easy or quick, but TOGETHER, they will try.
|More about the NFL’s Social Justice Initiative|
|The NFL’s social justice initiative aims to reduce barriers to opportunity by supporting improvements in education and economic advancement, improving community-police relations and criminal justice reform through the development of public policy at local, state and national levels. Players Coalition, which was co-founded by Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin, and the NFL are in a seven-year partnership. All 32 NFL Clubs have worked to identify specific needs in each of their communities, as well as organizations working toward positive changes.|