MINNEAPOLIS – Erika Rucks could hardly believe it when Vikings receiver Bisi Johnson made a leaping touchdown catch mere feet in front of her.
In the excitement of the moment, Erika didn't quite click the shutter in time to frame the reception. Her camera did capture the aftermath of the score, however, when Lions CB Amani Oruwariye attempted to wrestle the ball from Johnson in the end zone.
Erika called it a "dream come true" to don a tan photographer's vest and shoot the entirety of an NFL game from the sidelines.
"It's completely overwhelming, and it's a dream," Erika told Vikings.com upon arriving at U.S. Bank Stadium. "I love the Vikings – I have since I was a little kid – and I just think about how lucky I am."
Erika's statement summarizes the positive and resilient spirit she's maintained since being diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer this summer. She currently is being treated via chemotherapy medications, shots and infusions that are causing her cancer to shrink. Long-term, however, the disease is terminal.
Erika was nominated by coworkers through the Have a Nice Day Foundation; the Vikings then partnered with the Minnesota-based organization to give her an experience as a Vikings photographer.
"I'm lucky to have this experience, lucky to have co-workers who nominated me through the Have a Nice Day Foundation and to the Vikings for granting me this opportunity," Erika said.
Her husband, Chris, and their three daughters also attended the game.
"It is a unique experience," Chris said. "What's going through my mind is how fortunate we are to be able to do something like this and how thankful I am to the Vikings organization."
Erika credits her father – who loved to watch eventual Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton and Alan Page in the team's early days – for her love of the Vikings.
"Growing up, Sundays were Vikings Sundays. We'd watch Vikings football and yell at the TV, whether the play was good or bad," she recalled.
Her love for football helped serve as a distraction when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of 15. After going through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Erika defeated cancer.
But unfortunately, it's likely that the effects of radiation that she underwent as a child caused the incurable breast cancer that was discovered in July.
Through multiple trials, Erika hasn't stopped rooting for her favorite team and working to make differences in the lives of others.
"My mentality is, I can't change the fact that I have cancer, but I can make the most of it when I'm here. And that's what I plan on doing," Erika said. "I can't live and dwell on the fact that I have cancer. I have to live my life every single day."
View Erika Rucks' favorite photos she captured from the Vikings-Lions game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
She certainly does exactly that, by pouring herself into her family, her love for photography and young cancer patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
Her own experience with childhood cancer inspired Erika to become a pediatric oncology nurse, and she has now worked at the Minneapolis hospital for 16 years. Her love for the Vikings has only deepened during her time there, as she has seen the organization impact the hospital in many ways over the years.
Erika specifically pointed out the work of Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and former Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren, who annually provided the hospital's staff, patients and families to a special Thanksgiving dinner.
On the sideline Sunday, Erika looked forward to an up-close-and-personal vantage point of Rudolph in action.
"My favorite player is Kyle Rudolph, and it's because of how much he does at the hospital," she explained. "I see Kyle coming in very regularly to the U of M Children's Hospital, and it's just really amazing."
Erika was grateful to Vikings Photography Coordinator Travis Ellison, who took time to share some advice and encouragement with her before kickoff.
"It took me a little while to get into a rhythm … but by the second half, I felt like I finally got into a groove," she said. "I felt like I definitely got better pictures in the second half."
Ellison appreciated the chance to connect with Erika and watch her dive head-first into the experience.
"Having this platform through the Vikings gives us the opportunity to impact others on a greater level, and seeing the smiles forming on the faces of Erika and her family meant so much to me," Ellison said. "A number of my family members have either battled cancer or are continuing to battle the disease, so I understand how important it is to find the positives in each situation we face in life. I can tell that Erika is an optimistic and strong woman by the way she held her own down on the sidelines.
"I could sense her excitement from the moment we met; her excitement quickly turned into concentration as the game started and it was time to photograph," Ellison continued. "During the game, I glanced over and saw her getting in position to capture some game action; I had to take a quick photo of her in her element. She didn't shy away from the opportunity; she met it head-on and thrived."
The Vikings game marked Erika's first experience with sports photography, as she typically focuses on portraits and more intimate moments.
Erika explained that, although she always enjoyed taking photos, she became serious about the craft after her third daughter was born.
"I wanted to take better photographs. I wanted to take memorable ones," Erika said. "What I like about photography is capturing those moments when people aren't looking and capturing real life, more so than the posed photographs.
"What I really loved about the Vikings experience is that it brought together my love for photography and my love for the Vikings," she added. "I got to do everything all at once."
Erika worked to anticipate different plays and followed Ellison's suggestions in order to position herself from the best vantage points.
As exciting as the game was, though, the highlight of the day occurred immediately following Minnesota's 20-7 defeat of Detroit.
"I was down on the sideline by the bigger video board and the game ended, and all the photographers and everybody were rushing the field. And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, that's me – I get to do that!' I just had that surreal moment," Erika said. "That was probably one of the best experiences, going out on the field and taking photos of Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter and everybody."
Although her husband and daughters weren't with her during the game, she emphasized how important it was to her that they shared the day together as a family.
"The Vikings are my favorite team, so I just want to instill that into my kids, too, my love for football," Erika said. "What I want to teach them is that you don't have to be a boy to like football. You can be a woman and enjoy watching sports like football and hockey. It's not just a man's world out there.
"So, having the girls there for their very first game, it was really meaningful for me," she said. "It shows them a little part of what I love to watch, and it's a whole different atmosphere to watch a football game in the stadium than it is on TV. The excitement is amped up, like, a thousand-times more than it is when you're just sitting at home watching it on TV."
Erika joked that she probably is "ruined for life" after such a special day of taking in a Vikings game from the sideline. She also pointed out the differences she learned between watching the matchup as a fan versus being in a working role.
"Being a fan and watching the game, honestly, is more exciting than being on the field and working as a photographer, because my mind was more focused on the aspect of the individual play," Erika said.
She'll have a different perspective on Monday, Dec. 23, when she returns to U.S. Bank Stadium with her family for the Vikings-Packers showdown.
But she doesn't think she'll mind the third-deck view of the Border Battle.
"It's OK, because I think I'd rather be a fan for the Packers game and watch the Vikings win that way than be down on the field," she said.