View images of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer signing autographs for fans at a Fan HQ event in Eden Prarie to support the Mike Zimmer Foundation. (Korey McDermott)
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –It was 1,300 miles one way, but that didn't keep Wayne Mutterer and his brother from making the trek from South Carolina to Minnesota to meet Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
"We don't get a lot of news about the Vikings in South Carolina," Mutterer said, chuckling. "But [an article] came up on the [Vikings] app that said you could meet Coach Zimmer. I thought, 'I'm not going to have any more opportunities to meet and greet Coach Zimmer.' "
The brothers drove 23 hours to FanHQ in Eden Prairie, where Zimmer met fans, took photos and signed autographs for just over an hour. The event was part of the #MoreThanWords fundraising campaign, and 100 percent of ticket sales – nearly $9,000 – went to the Mike Zimmer Foundation, which was launched in memory of Zimmer's late wife, Vicki.
"I would have donated to Santa Claus if I had a chance to meet [Zimmer], but the charity was a cream on the top," Mutterer said. "I know a few people who have lost spouses. I know it's tough, and I know anything you can do to continue that memory would be pretty special. So it was an easy contribution to make."
Zimmer was impressed by the fans who sold out the event and arrived decked out in purple and gold. Training camp starts up this week, but Zimmer enjoyed the evening away from the field and interacting with fans.
"It was a lot of fun," Zimmer said. "You come in and you find out how strong the Vikings fan base is and what passionate fans they are. I hope they bring that kind of passion and excitement to U.S. Bank Stadium when we open it up."
In addition to 100 event tickets and 10 VIP tickets that included a private meet-and-great with Zimmer prior to the signing, FanHQ auctioned off one "right-hand man" ticket, which included four sideline passes to Vikings training camp and the opportunity to sit with Zimmer throughout the event. The initial highest bidder opted to accept the sideline passes but put the second portion of the package back in for a second auction in order to raise more money for the foundation. That's when Darin "Gruben" Troftgruben stepped in.
Troftgruben, a lifetime Vikings fan, found opportunity to have an extended conversation with Zimmer especially significant, as he experienced the loss of his own wife, Christina, in 2010.
"That's one of the things I talked to Coach Zimmer about," Troftgruben said following the event. "The first time I was on the field at a Vikings game was two months after Vicki died. Two months later, my wife died, and I got a chance to talk to Coach about that.
"I wanted to let Coach Zimmer know how much he means to fans," Troftgruben added. "Going to Vikings games is a dream come true for me. To be able to meet [Coach Zimmer] is just an incredible honor."
Brian Richards was another dedicated fan who didn't hesitate to purchase a ticket for the autograph signing.
"I'm a big believer in the way the coach has the team going right now," Richards said. "I think he has them going in the right direction, and I like the improvements he's made in the last couple of years. You can see tangible evidence on the field of it in their performance, and it's to support his charity, too, so that's always a good thing."
Richards enjoyed exchanging a few words with Zimmer as the head coach added his autograph to an authentic helmet already bearing the John Hancocks of nine current Vikings and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner.
Of all the items that came through the line, Zimmer said he especially appreciated seeing the variety of photographs fans asked him to sign. The two most common were snapshots of the Week 17 division-clinching win at Green Bay: Zimmer being doused in a shower of orange Gatorade and later, a candid photograph was taken of the coach sitting in the team bus, a postgame smile captured.
The expression was repeated Thursday.
"He's all smiles tonight," Richards said of Zimmer, who even posed for selfies with one young fan and his father.
"[Tonight is] great for us," Zimmer said. "We started all this so we could keep Vicki's name alive, keep her spirit and her memory alive, and do good things with it.
"We want to help kids in Minnesota particularly," Zimmer added. "I think this is a great way to do both of those things.
Zimmer's daughter, Corri, leads the Mike Zimmer Foundation and organized the autograph signing along with Vikings Territory founders Brett Anderson and Adam Warwas and FanHQ owner Shaun Hagglund.
"I thought [Coach Zimmer] was great," Hagglund said. "The fans were super excited to meet him, and knowing that 100 percent of the funds were going to the charity, it adds sort of a different feel to the event. You're helping people out, and you're also getting something for your collection."
Corri and her father were equally impressed at the turnout and the money raised, which brought the current #MoreThanWords fundraising total to more than $12,000.
"Corri really started this from the inception," Zimmer said. "It was an idea that we had […] and then to be able to come up with different ideas on how to really continue celebrating Vicki's name – it's been unbelievable."