EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings guard Dalton Risner took a deep breath while standing at midfield at TCO Stadium last Tuesday.
In front of him stood more than 50 members from Camp Kesem, who have all been affected by cancer in some way. Risner had a story for them.
"I remember in college, I went to this camp. It was called Camp Hope," Dalton said. "It was called Camp Hope for people, kids and adults, battling cancer and in remission from cancer. [Everyone] there had such an impact on me. Just seeing them there and relying on each other. But really, the biggest impact for me was when I came back the next year. And I expected it just to be the same, but as you can imagine, with how cancer is, it looked a lot different the next year. And that is when it hit me."
Risner, a five-year NFL veteran, has prioritized helping children and families affected by cancer thanks to his time at Camp Hope. That's why he joined teammates Alexander Mattison, Harrison Phillips, Blake Brandel and Greg Joseph to host a youth football clinic in partnership with U.S. Bank and Camp Kesem.
The event featured an evening of football drills led by Vikings players and Camp Kesem volunteers for children and their families. The event was held in conjunction with the NFL's "Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer" initiative.
Megan Ahlness is a junior at Hamline University and is in her second year with Camp Kesem. She said partnering with the Vikings is an invaluable opportunity for all attendees. Ahlness said the kids relish being around some of their favorite players.
Ahlness said she witnessed firsthand how the Vikings fulfilled Camp Kesem's mission statement: "A child's friend through and beyond a parent's cancer."
"This was such a great evening to work with Vikings players and our kids," Ahlness said. "So many of our kids and their families have already told me how much they appreciate being here. It's a lot of fun."
Ahlness and her colleagues worked with Risner at a station focused on blocking techniques. But before breaking into groups, Vikings players held a Q-and-A session for the campers.
During this time, campers listened to Vikings players detail their experiences with cancer and its impacts on their families.
Mattison spoke about his father, who was diagnosed with Leukemia when Mattison was a high school freshman. He said it was challenging for him and his family as his father eventually received a bone marrow transplant.
"He is alive and well today and can see me live out my dream. A dream I've had since I was six years old," Mattison said. "But me and my family understand what it is like to go through a rough couple of months where you don't know what the outcome could be.
Several Vikings players credited the Camp Kesem youth for inspiring them due to their daily strength. Phillips said he wanted to clarify that anyone enduring cancer's challenges are the real "modern-day gladiators."
"You see us on TV, but you guys are fighting a lot bigger battles," Phillips said. "We might tackle people for a living or break tackles or block people and kick field goals, but I don't think any of us could do what you have done and have had the mental strength to stay together as a family and overcome what you've been through."
Before drills started, Vikings players led dynamic warmups for the campers. Some kids donned Justin Jefferson jerseys. Others came game-ready, wearing gloves and cleats.
After warmups, campers broke into six groups for skills and drills.
Risner felt at home leading a blocking drill even though Ahlness handled introductions.
"OK, so here we are working on getting off the line. First, duck-walk across the line," Ahlness said to the campers. "Then gather and hit the bag with some force."
Risner agreed with a smile, "She couldn't have said it any better."
Campers and their families rotated through different group workouts for about an hour. Each one filled with smiles, laughs and instruction that Ahlness said the participants will remember forever.
"Just put your head down, keep working and keep hope, keep faith and keep praying to God," Joseph said. "And keep leaning on the people that you know you can trust. None of us are strong enough to go through this life alone, so just building that sense of community and friendship. I know it helps give me strength to continue through tough times."