By Lindsey Young, For Vikings.com
Ninety players stepped onto the field for Minnesota Vikings training camp. By the time the regular season starts, the roster will be down to 53. Many guys have been coming out each day grateful for the chance to work hard and rally for a spot on the other side of the final cut.
Two players that hail from Minnesota are likely to play their first game in Vikings Purple Saturday when Minnesota hosts Tampa Bay, and plenty of people are rooting for them.
Wide receiver Isaac Fruechte is a University of Minnesota alum, and to grab a spot in the NFL — for his hometown team no less — is the ultimate goal.
What's special for Fruechte is the way football so strongly runs in his family. Isaac's father, Carl Fruechte, is the renowned head coach who led Caledonia High School to multiple state titles. Fruechte played on the team, as did some of his cousins. For all of them, the love of the game began very early on.
"Being around practice at a young age and the older kids that Dad coached, it was very easy for me to be involved and want to be a part of it," Fruechte said.
Third-year tackle Carter Bykowski also has football in his blood. Both Bykowski and his older brother played for Eden Prairie High School and won titles, with Carter playing for championship teams in his junior and senior seasons.
"My brother won a state championship his senior year, and I didn't want to be the only one in the family that didn't get one," Bykowski said, smiling. "So I got two."
Bykowski and Fruechte grew up Vikings fans, attending games at the Metrodome. Now, being part of the team seems a little surreal. When asked about their favorite players, both identified Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter as one of the standouts. Fruechte played the same position as Carter, so the connection came naturally. For Bykowski, the choice was much more personal.
"His last name is the same as my first name," Bykowski said. "So he was my favorite. I thought it was cool when I had 'Carter' across my back. I think I wore that jersey probably four days a week."
The Vikings have given both athletes another chance to make their NFL dreams a reality. Fruechte went undrafted in 2015, but Minnesota brought him on board in May. As a senior at the U, Fruechte tallied 292 receiving yards and a touchdown on 18 receptions; that same season, the team recognized him as Wide Receiver of the Year. In Gophers history, Eric Decker is the only receiver to make it on an NFL team. Fruechte is hoping to change that.
View images from the final practice of 2015 Verizon Vikings Training Camp which took place on Thursday.
"You have to be very realistic about your chances and be proactive about what you're doing," Fruechte said "You know, just work hard, make sure you're doing everything that you can to be a part of the team and try to hopefully make it."
The receiver may be an underdog, but he is not without fans.
Paul Vold stood along the fence during Verizon Vikings Training Camp wearing a purple, custom-ordered Fruechte jersey. The Vikings fan lives in Byron, about 45 minutes from Caledonia, and has been following Fruechte's journey: from high school, to the Rochester Community and Technical College Yellowjackets, to the Gophers and finally arriving here in Mankato with the Vikings.
"[Isaac] getting a shot at the NFL is definitely pretty awesome," Vold said. "I remember last year when Adam Thielen made the team […] and then Marcus Sherels, too. It's great to have more Minnesota guys on the team — it's nice to be able to root for some hometown kids."
Sherels is also a Gophers alum who joined the Vikings in 2010. The cornerback relates very well to Fruechte's story, and he is one of his biggest supporters.
"[Isaac and I] trained together a couple years ago, and of course he went to the U of M, so I know him from there, too," Sherels said. "He's a great player, a good person, and I'm rooting for him. I'm just out there telling him to work hard every day and give it his all."
Fruechte said he listens to Sherels' advice and is just striving every day to make an impact on the team and the coaching staff.
Bykowski, who spent the last two years on San Francisco's practice squad before being signed to Minnesota's 53-man roster last December, is doing the same. Although he formerly played tight end, Bykowski switched to offensive line during his junior year at Iowa State.
"I wasn't that 4.7 [time in the 40-yard dash] tight end. I was a little slower, so it made sense for me to put some weight on and move in if I wanted to play at all. It really worked out for me at the end."
Bykowski started every game of his senior year at left tackle, and the rest is history. At 6 feet, 7 inches, he knows he can bring a lot to the table for Minnesota. His height, long arms and former tight end experience make him an athletic asset at the line.
"But at the same time, I'm just out there trying to do what I can to help the team win," Bykowski said. "Whether that's playing left side or right side — wherever they want me — I'm going to do my best at it."
Both Fruechte and Bykowski are looking forward to five four remaining preseason games that will give them several opportunities to make a case for themselves. For non-starters, preseason games hold a lot of weight. Despite the added pressure, however, the Minnesota natives are reminding themselves to stay relaxed and do what they do best: play football.
"There will be some butterflies I'm sure," Fruechte said. "But you just have to go in and relax and have fun. If you're on the field, you just do your best on every single play — make sure you're playing your hardest. If you do that, good things will happen."
Bykowski added, "Just being a part of that purple line, playing for the Minnesota Vikings, that's an absolute dream come true."