ORLANDO, Fla. – Once a competitor, always a competitor.
It's been 16 years since Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell last played in the NFL, but he's thrived in the coaching ranks and in developing players like Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison.
McCardell brings the same vivacity to the Vikings coaching staff and practice field that he did all 17 seasons of his playing career – and this week, he's bringing that competitive juice to Orlando for the 2024 NFL Pro Bowl Games.
McCardell is serving as the NFC's offensive coordinator, while fellow NFL Legend Wes Welker, who just finished his second season of coaching Dolphins receivers, is holding the same position for the AFC.
Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, who is participating in this year's Pro Bowl Games along with teammates Danielle Hunter and Andrew DePaola, said it's "a blast" having McCardell leading the team along with NFL Legend Eli Manning.
"The energy he brings is always contagious, and he's just out there having fun and dialing it up" Ham said.
View photos of Vikings OLB Danielle Hunter, FB C.J. Ham, and LS Andrew DePaola at Day 1 of 2024 Pro Bowl practice in Orlando, Florida
McCardell is enjoying the opportunity not only to expand his coaching repertoire but to connect with other players and coaches from around the league. He's especially had fun catching up with Manning, whom he first met in 2009 when then-Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin invited McCardell to New York's training camp as a coaching intern.
"It's been great [to reunite with Eli]," McCardell said Friday. "We've got a prior relationship, so it's been really good. He's the same guy as when I met him in 2009. We connected right away.
"It's great, man," he added. "You get to talk to some guys you usually talk to for a minute, 30 seconds, after the game or before a game [during the season], so this gives you a chance to spend some time with these guys, and it's been really good.
"I'm happy for our fellow Vikings – C.J., Danielle, 'Deep' (DePaola). They deserve it," McCardell continued. "They played great this year, and they're a huge part of our team – they're the heart and soul of our team. It's good to have them here."
A two-time Pro Bowler himself, McCardell understands the significance as a player to receive the recognition.
"It means a lot. It means that your peers see you as an up-and-coming superstar in this league, or that you've arrived as a superstar in this league," he said. "It means a lot for those guys to vote you in."
McCardell received his first Pro Bowl nod following the 1996 season, during which he racked up 85 catches for 1,129 yards and three touchdowns for Jacksonville. He attended that Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Hawai'i, along with scores of other big names, including Hall of Famers and Vikings Ring of Honor members Randall McDaniel, John Randle and Cris Carter.
Then in 2003, McCardell had 84 catches for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns for the Buccaneers, earning his second career Pro Bowl invite.
Though the game format and location both have drastically changed since then, McCardell said one thing hasn't:
"You can't take the competition out of them," he laughed.
"The best memory I have [from my experience] is that things get really tight at the end of the game. Guys get really serious and really competitive," McCardell recalled. "I expect it to happen the same way this year, as it does every year. A lot of things are on the line in the fourth quarter, and guys start to get really competitive and want to win."
McCardell pointed out the early evidence he saw at Thursday night's Pro Bowl Games Skills Challenge, which he took in from the sidelines.
"As you can see in dodgeball last night and the snap-off, those guys got really competitive at the end," he said. "That's what makes it fun."
Ham and his NFC teammates have appreciated hearing stories from McCardell and comparing his experience to theirs.
"He's been sharing a little bit, telling us how back in the day he used to get very competitive. Like most Pro Bowls, it started out kind of lighthearted and, as the game progressed into the fourth quarter, those last five minutes, everybody's going 100 percent," Ham said. "I'm expecting the same thing Sunday."
As for what McCardell has up his sleeve for the NFC this weekend?
"We've got some tricks," he said with a smile. "But mostly you call some plays and get out the way and let the best in the game make those plays for you."