EAGAN, Minn. – Last November, Brian O'Neill sat inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center and maneuvered a remote-controlled robot that allowed him to "join" a turkey giveaway.
This year, the Vikings right tackle masked up and enjoyed a balmy, 45-degree Minnesota day while loading bags of Thanksgiving meals into vehicles for the community.
He doesn't take for granted the opportunity to personally greet fans or thank first responders face-to-face after nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Being able to see people in person, see a smile on their face and say hello, wish them a happy holiday, I mean, it's way better," O'Neill said. "Somebody told me, 'Oh, I know you're gonna feel really good tomorrow.' And I was like, 'Well, yeah … but I hope everybody else who's able to be impacted by this feels good and has a great Thanksgiving."
The Vikings once again partnered with UnitedHealthcare for a drive-through-style Thanksgiving meal donation. Hy-Vee donated 1,500 meals, each of which included a whole turkey, for the effort.
An all-day affair, UnitedHealthcare volunteers spent the morning packing bags at TCO Performance Center and giving them to early arrivals.
Vikings Legends Scott Studwell, Rickey Young, Robert Blanton, Bob Lurtsema and Esera Tuaolo also were on-hand to not only assist with packing but also to sign autographs and snap photos with volunteers and guests. Tuaolo, a former contestant on NBC's The Voice, even delivered a spontaneous performance.
The afternoon shift featured O'Neill and the entire Vikings offensive line group – all 13 of them, including practice squad players – plus kicker Greg Joseph, safety Cam Bynum and linebacker Troy Dye.
"Three bonus players!" O'Neill exclaimed with a smile.
The Vikings partnered with UnitedHealthcare for a Thanksgiving meal donation. Hy-Vee donated 1,500 meals, each of which included a whole turkey.
The teammates were all-hands-on-deck, helping to load vehicles that came through. The Eagan Police Department, headed by Chief Robert New, also participated in the event and delivered carloads of meals to community organizations that included the Dakota Woodlands shelter.
Rookie tackle Christian Darrisaw, who recently took part in a STEM activity with Minneapolis students, has been proud to join a position group that prioritizes making an off-field impact.
"It's my first year being here, but it's [noticeably] a culture that's been passed down from the players, and [Brian has] carried it on," Darrisaw said. "This is important to the offensive line to come out here and give back."
Vikings center Garrett Bradbury called it a "special" event to do together as a position group.
"It's something that the o-line, I think, historically has done here, and unfortunately we couldn't do it last year with COVID and everything," Bradbury said. "It's cool that we all get to be out here and help out on an off day. It's an awesome thing we do."
Asked about the youngsters like Darrisaw jumping on-board the endeavor, Bradbury quipped, "They don't have a choice, so I hope they have a good attitude about it."
"But no, it's cool that we're out here, and everyone wants to do it – it's not like a forced activity that we have to do," he added. "We're all enjoying handing out these turkeys and meals for people for Thanksgiving."
Vikings Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller and Brett Edilson, CEO of UnitedHealthcare MN/ND/SD, both were on-site to welcome the Vikings and volunteers and help distribute meals.
"Over the past two years, the implications of COVID have greatly increased the need [for food support], which is why we're proud to continue our partnership with UnitedHealthcare and provide these meals," Miller told the group. "I want to thank all the frontline health care workers who continue to sacrifice to try to keep members of our community safe and healthy during this holiday season."
Miller noted that the Vikings Table food truck, which has provided more than 25,000 meals since the start of the pandemic, would later in the day be delivering meals to members of the community unable to attend the drive-through event.
"On behalf of the Minnesota Vikings organization, we hope that all Minnesotans will continue to take the safety and health precautions necessary to keep all of us and our families safe as we celebrate Thanksgiving together," Miller said.
Edilson in turn thanked the Vikings for a longstanding partnership.
"I am one of 20,000 [UnitedHealthcare] colleagues who live and work in our state. I couldn't be prouder to work with the Minnesota Vikings to help benefit our community," Edilson said. "There's always need with food insecurity, but that need has only [increased] during the pandemic. So we're excited to be able to deliver these 1,500 meals to our communities and community partners."
Edilson and Miller both were proud of the extensive player participation at the event, as was O'Neill, a team captain and unspoken leader of Minnesota's offensive line.
O'Neill said it was "even easier than I thought" to achieve 100-percent involvement from the position group.
"People are excited to be out here and help out, give some aspect of joy and enjoyment to people during the holidays. I was in charge of making sure that everybody came, and I was a little nervous, but we've always had good attendance here," O'Neill said. "I'm just thankful to Logan [Johnson] and Quinn [Adams] and the Vikings [Social Impact] team for helping facilitate it and set it up.
"It really shows me everything we do is a group effort," he added. "From top to bottom, everybody in the organization plays a part in it. We have great buy-in from the group, so my job is pretty easy. I just show up and try to be a positive presence."
Meals donated by Hy-Vee and packed/distributed by the Vikings and UnitedHealthcare will be delivered to the following Twin Cities organizations:
Bloomington Youth (delivered by Bloomington Police)