ST. PAUL – Xavier Rhodes is used to being asked for his autograph, but on Tuesday afternoon he flipped the script.
The Vikings cornerback sat on a set of bleachers at the Al Lenzmeier West Side Boys & Girls Club and slowly cracked open a shoebox, taking a first peek at his custom-designed “My Cause, My Cleats” kicks.
Rhodes was surrounded by young members of the club who admired the painted cleats.
“That says ‘Boys & Girls Clubs!’ ” responded one boy who pointed out the familiar logo on the shoe’s side panel.
Rhodes smiled and let everyone get a look before asking them a question.
“Can you all do me this huge favor?” Rhodes asked. “I want you all to sign these for me. Can y’all do it?”
The request was met with looks – and a few exclamations – of disbelief from the excited young people as they quickly lined up for a turn with the black Sharpie.
When Rhodes takes the field for the My Cause, My Cleats game against the Dolphins on Dec. 16, first names of 16 Twin Cities youth will be represented.
“I want to keep a memory of these kids and see their names when I’m playing. It [reminds me], I was one of those kids,” Rhodes explained.
“This year, I wanted to do something that represented me – not only me as a player but as a person,” Rhodes said. “I wanted to show these guys my appreciation … and also [tell them], ‘You’re able to accomplish anything in life if you work hard and believe in it.’ ”
Vikings players who represent the Boys and Girls Club on their cleats for the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign visited the Al Lenzmeir West Side Boys and Girls Club to take part in after school programs and activities and interact with the students.
Rhodes is one of six Vikings players who will be promoting Boys & Girls Clubs for the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats campaign. Three of them – Danielle Hunter, C.J. Ham and Laquon Treadwell – also visited the St. Paul location this week.
The teammates signed autographs, snapped selfies, played basketball and football in the gymnasium, read books to some of the younger children – and even sang karaoke.
Treadwell didn’t hesitate to grab a mic and jump on-stage with some of the youth, performing an entire song before convincing Ham to join. Ham good-naturedly asked if they had “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen.
Ham belted out the lyrics nearly perfectly, with the moral support of Treadwell, who chimed in where he could.
“My daughter [Skylar] loves that movie; we’ve watched it probably 10 nights straight, so I know that song by heart, and it was a lot of fun to go out there and sing it,” laughed Ham, who recently welcomed a second daughter, as well. “I appreciate Laquon staying up there and helping me out.”
“He knew the whole song – that was pretty impressive to see,” Treadwell quipped.
Treadwell picked up on the young people’s personalities coming out a little during the karaoke session.
“It was really fun,” he said. “A lot of the kids can actually really sing and drum, and it surprised me. And then C.J. was in there singing, and that surprised me a lot, too.”
Treadwell and Ham each were impacted by professional athletes at a young age, and they want to pay it forward and have the same influence on their communities now.
A native of Chicago, Treadwell recalled meeting NBA star Dwyane Wade as a youngster. He called the interaction one of the “most influential” moments of his life.
“Just seeing someone who was able to make it to their dreams and be involved in coming back and giving back to the community,” Treadwell said. “Being here in Minnesota, I think it’s just part of my job to give back and to be a positive role model. I’ll just continue to do that.”
Ham grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and was a member of the local Boys & Girls Club from age 6 all the way through high school.
“A lot of the staff members that I knew back then had a really big impact on me and on who I am today, and I’m still close with them today,” Ham said. “I see myself in so many of these [kids]. We had events like this when I was growing up, too. [Former Vikings] Bernard Berrian and Bobby Wade came down to the Boys & Girls Club, and it was the same type of atmosphere. So it’s really cool to be back and kind of be that figure now.”
Unlike the experiences of Ham and Treadwell, Hunter never had the opportunity to meet athletes he looked up to. He wants to make sure youth in the Twin Cities have the chance to not only meet them but to have positive role models.
“It always starts with the younger people. When I was little, I wish I had football players and basketball players coming to motivate me and showing me the way to do things in life,” Hunter said. “It’s only fair that we give back to the community.
“I don’t want them to look at me like a football player,” said the 6-foot-5 defensive end who smiled when a small boy asked him what he did. “I want them to see me as a human just like they are. I started out just like they are as a kid, doing activities just like this. But I didn’t have NFL players … coming to help me out.”
The impact the Vikings made on the youth was evident.
John Hardeman, a branch manager who has been connected with Boys & Girls Clubs for more than four decades, emphasized the players’ positive influence.
“It’s a rare time to have celebrities like the Vikings players come to a club and interact with the kids. For a lot of our kids, the only exposure may be what they see on television,” said Hardeman, who highlighted Ham’s willingness to read to the young children. “This is part of our literacy program, where these kids are working on their reading skills, and [Ham came] back and sit down and read to them and they’re attentively looking at him and listening.
“Where do you get that type of exposure as a young person? That, yes, you can be successful,” Hardeman said. “And these are successful athletes taking time out of their schedule to come and share their skills, talents and abilities and just caring about the kids.”
Rhodes Shares Super Surprise
Rhodes had the surprise of a lifetime in store for Boys & Girls Clubs member Judah Mitchell on Thursday evening.
The cornerback appeared on Vikings Live, the weekly show broadcast from TCO Studios inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. Boys & Girls Clubs members were in the audience at Thursday’s episode.
After the show, Judah was randomly selected to join Rhodes on stage … where he was presented with two tickets to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
The 9-year-old let out a little hop when Rhodes made the announcement and presented him with the tickets. A few minutes later, Judah was still taking it in.
Judah said he was nervous when he was walking to the stage, but said he was “happy” to be going to football’s ultimate game.
When asked if he was in shock, all Judah could do was nod his head.
Rhodes summed up the moment with a smile on his face.
“It was awesome,” Rhodes said. “Just the joy and happiness that came out of him … it’s not something you can explain.”
“Not many people have the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, and that experience alone is a great one,” Rhodes added. “I hope and pray that he and whoever he takes with him have the greatest time.”