ST. PAUL – Vikings players and coaches couldn't help but smile as they stepped off the buses Wednesday.
Highwood Elementary and Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary schools welcomed the special guests, with children and teachers alike erupting into full-throttle cheers followed by the SKOL Clap. Students – many of them decked out in purple and gold – waved handmade signs and banners to greet the team.
"It was pretty cool. It was one of the more impressive entrances we've ever been in; we might need to get them out to U.S. Bank," said Vikings tackle Brian O'Neill, who exchanged high-fives and fist bumps with the young fans at Highwood Elementary.
"Kids provide an energy that we can't replicate," added linebacker Eric Kendricks. "It's infectious. It's what life is all about."
O'Neill and Kendricks joined teammates and coaches at Highwood for a significant occasion: the school's first Scholastic Book Fair in quite some time.
Brand-new, colorful books lined pop-up shelves inside the school's gymnasium, and an initial group of kindergarten students waited eagerly on a vibrant rug.
"Don't rush into it – choose carefully," advised Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, kneeling down to help two youngsters file through the options.
Thanks to a partnership with the Vikings and Thomson Reuters, each child at the school was able to choose three books from Scholastic to take home. They also received a copy of Where's Viktor's Mustache – and had the opportunity to spend time with the Vikings mascot — mustache attached.
"Being a part of this community and just to be around kids and be around schools for us, it's been a long time since I've been able to do something like this, given the circumstances we've been under," O'Connell said. "So this is a really cool thing for me to do as a first-time head coach."
A father of three young children, O'Connell was right at home with the students. Asked if he had any go-to books at home, or recommendations for the youngsters, he laughed.
"I tell you what. It's hard for me, I have a 5-year-old daughter who I read to a lot if I can make it home in time. It's hard for me to veer away from the Frozens, the Rapunzels, that's what hits my brain right now," O'Connell said. "Obviously with my sons, if it's not my 3-year-old with Paw Patrol, it's my 7-year-old with wanting to read, crazy enough, he wants to read about football.
"He wants to read about Justin Jefferson and Kirk Cousins, so Viktor being here today and signing some copies of his books for the kids, that's really, really cool," he added.
Vikings inside linebackers coach Greg Manusky read a book – How to Catch the Easter Bunny – to the students, and defensive line coach Chris Rumph later took his turn behind the pages.
While some coaches and players helped out with the book fair, others visited classrooms throughout the building to interact with students.
A separate group of Vikings coaches and players that included first-round draft pick Lewis Cine as well as General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, spent time at Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary School.
Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips joined a Highwood Elementary pre-K classroom, where the youngsters had more questions about his ability to drive than about his NFL career.
"They don't even fully grasp it – 'Do you play soccer? Do you play football?' I was like, 'Do you know what the Vikings are?' 'No,' " Phillips laughed. "For them, they're just infatuated with your size. You're just a huge person. 'You're 79 years old!'
"They thought it was really cool that I had car keys, that I could drive a car," he added. "I'm just coming in here and trying to add some joy to their lives."
Phillips and the rest of the Vikings group didn't take Wednesday's experience for granted, especially considering Tuesday's news of the tragic mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
"It hit me extra special, in a way, today to be able to be a positive for some of these kids that may or may not know what has transpired around our country – and that has happened way too much," O'Connell said. "But to know this is a safe place, and when visitors come in to have a positive event like this, it is really important that you're going to see nothing but smiles, nothing but us being excited to be around these kids – because it is authentic."
O'Neill also touched on the topic.
"Kids need to be able to go to school and go home. Go to school every day and feel good about being there. It's really important," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody affected by the shooting in Texas. But the main thing for us is supporting the people who support us and giving them a reason to feel good about going to school, because lately there's been too many reasons not to."
O'Neill was joined in a fifth-grade classroom by cornerback Kris Boyd, a Texas native who recently started a GoFundMe for the families who horrifically lost children.
Boyd laughed along with a few young men who challenged him to a "Griddy" competition.
"The first thing I thought of was doing 'The Griddy,' " said one of the students, Adam.
"I wasn't expecting them to be that tall – especially this dude," Adam added, gesturing to the 6-foot-7 O'Neill.
Another young lady, Raniya, said she hadn't expected a day full of so many surprises.
"They are absolutely astonished," said fifth-grade teacher Brent Vyvyan. "This is an amazing event that's happening, and I think they're really excited that the Vikings are making time for us. … It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Highwood Hills Principal Fatima Lawson reflected on the impact of Wednesday's visit.
"These are players they've seen on TV but never thought they'd see [in-person] – let alone get to talk to them," Lawson said. "We try to impress upon our students to have a love for reading, and a lot of them … when you ask them [about future careers], many of them want to be athletes.
"I admire and appreciate that kind of lifestyle, but we try to tell them, 'It's not enough to know how to play. It's not enough to have that physical vitality. You have to also learn how to read; you have to get your education,' " Lawson continued. "They hear us tell them all the time – it's like a drumbeat. But now, they're hearing from another respected source, and it just makes it all the more important for them. That's why we're really excited and grateful to have this day."
Kendricks had fun checking out books with the kids – he gravitated toward Captain Underpants – and later joining fullback C.J. Ham for a Q & A with a classroom.
Kendricks emphasized the importance of being involved as often as possible within the community and, specifically, with young people.
"It's important we look them in the eyes and we show them that we were once in their shoes. We once had questions," he said. "We once struggled in school. We may have had success in school. It's important to see we're one of them and how we got to where we are today."
He added that it's an easy decision to participate when given the opportunity.
"I'm a big kid. These things are fun," Kendricks said. "You get the craziest questions and also the most spot-on ones, like, 'That was a great question.' You talk about random things that in our day-to-day life, we as adults maybe don't find important. But to a kid, some of the little things mean the most, so it's important to get back to our roots."