KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Tanisha Henri and her two daughters traded in their Vikings Purple for red TAPS shirts for a day, but their SKOL spirit held strong.
TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, provides care and support for families who have lost loved ones who served in the U.S. Military. The nonprofit selected 20 families from across the country who are passionate about the NFL and treated them with a trip to Orlando during Pro Bowl week.
Tanisha, Reagan (9) and Whitney (6) traveled from Maple Grove, Minnesota, to Florida for the unique event in remembrance of their husband and father, Army Sgt. Paul Henri, who passed away March 2, 2018, on his 38th birthday. The couple's oldest daughter, Tatyanna (21) was unable to make the trip.
To start off the morning at ESPN's Wide World of Sports, the families circled together and spoke the names of their fallen loved ones. Each family then worked together on creating a wooden American flag in memory of those who have passed away.
Tanisha emphasized the significance of meeting and connecting with other TAPS families.
"It's amazing because when you're at home, you don't really see other families. You think you're alone; no one else knows what you're going through," Tanisha explained. "But being here, it's like, 'OK, her husband also died, and she has kids, so she probably understands what I'm going through.' And I think for my kids, it's showing them that they're not the only ones that this happened to."
While Tanisha, Reagan and Whitney – along with the rest of the group – worked on their flags, some special visitors arrived.
The Vikings and NFL partnered with The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to host families during Pro Bowl week.
A group of NFL Pro Bowlers, including Vikings safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks, crossed the field to join the TAPS group as part of the league's Community Huddle Day. The players helped families finish their flags, snapped photos, signed autographs and learned more about the loved ones being remembered.
Several families presented the players with buttons that pictured their fallen hero.
Being a lifelong Vikings fan and having shared that passion with Paul, Tanisha proudly gave a button to Kendricks and Smith, who gladly pinned them to their gray-and-gold NFC practice jerseys.
"It's special," said Kendricks of the gesture. "He was a big Vikings fan, as well, so it's cool to see how their families were brought together by Vikings games, that they continue to be brought together by [the Vikings] and their traditions when they watch the games. It's pretty cool.
"I met a lot of families out here today, and I just feel blessed to be here," he added.
Smith also enjoyed connecting with Tanisha and her daughters, as well as a family from Elk River, Minnesota. He engaged in a little friendly banter with the young men who wore division-rival hats, but ultimately Smith focused on the event's true purpose.
"[It's great] that we were able to meet some families that gave the ultimate sacrifice to our country and to us, to allow us to do the things we love in such a free country," Smith said. "We appreciate what they've given to us, and we just try to give a little back to them.
"We have such a big platform, and we do have enough time to give back. And it means things to people, even if we don't realize it. I think it's important," he added. "But also, a lot of the families I met are from the Minneapolis area, so it was kind of a two-fer. A couple Green Bay fans, but it's all right."
Tanisha called it a "little surreal" to meet Vikings players whom she watches on game day and follows on social media. Kendricks and Smith each spent time engaging with the family, from hearing about Paul's passing to asking questions about Reagan's love of gymnastics and dance.
"You see them on TV … but just talking to them, it's so cool because they're just normal people," Tanisha said with a smile. "It was great."
The Vikings and TAPS have an ongoing partnership, and the two organizations have teamed up in Minnesota previously, including at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center during Vikings Training Camp.
Jessica Harper, TAPS Director of Operations for Sports & Entertainment, shared why the relationship – and events such as the Pro Bowl one – are so impactful.
"The amazing thing about sports is that it really brings people together," Harper said. "What's incredible about this is that opportunity to create a meaningful experience and a joyful experience with their fallen heroes. These little kids, these moms, these surviving spouses, now they have a new memory of their fallen hero, and it's a positive association with a sport that they all loved and watched together, played together.
"We are so grateful to the NFL and to organizations like the Vikings for continuing to support our families and create these opportunities," Harper added.
Ham, Griffen & Cousins Visit Boys & Girls Club
Vikings FB C.J. Ham, QB Kirk Cousins and DE Everson Griffen took part in the Pro Bowl community event at the Boys & Girls Club in Florida.
While Kendricks and Smith spent time with TAPS families, Vikings teammates C.J. Ham, Kirk Cousins and Everson Griffen joined a separate group of Pro Bowl players in visiting a Boys & Girls Clubs location.
Ham, a native of Duluth, Minnesota, explained that the opportunity to visit the Florida Boys & Girls Clubs activity for Community Huddle Day brought him back to his youth.
"I started going when I was about 6 years old and went all the way through high school. The Boys & Girls Clubs actually gave me a scholarship all four years of college," Ham explained. "I have a close tie to the Boys & Girls Clubs, and it helped me out a lot when I was a kid."
Ham joined players and young people in working on indoor and outdoor projects to refurbish the center.
"They're talking trash – who's faster, who's stronger," Ham laughed. "They're some great kids out here."
For Ham, the give-back day proved a significant part of his first career Pro Bowl experience.
"The week in itself is amazing, and to be able to come back and help out the community is even more special," he said.
Cousins, who along with his wife Julie has partnered with Twin Cities Boys & Girls Clubs, and Griffen spent time with a group of high school football players. The pair of Vikings got to know the young men through conversation and ice-breaker games and mentored the younger generation of athletes.
Cook & Hunter coach, connect during Community Huddles
Vikings RB Dalvin Cook attended a youth flag football game as a part of community outreach with the NFL during Pro Bowl week.
As part of another Community Huddle initiative, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and a number of other Pro Bowlers teamed up with fans at ESPN's Wide World of Sports to make a difference.
Together, the athletes and fans of all ages packed care kits for multiple nonprofit organizations within the Orlando community.
Cook didn't stray too far from the game he loves. The running back stopped by a nearby field to surprise the West Side Boosters, a Saint Paul flag football team representing Minnesota in the Pro Bowl youth tournament.
The team of 13- and 14-year-old boys is sponsored by the Vikings, who traveled the group to Orlando.
"It's fun. You get to be around the kids and watch them enjoy themselves and just be them," Cook said. "And you get to be you – just show the kids how much you love the game and just give them a little advice on what you see and what you think.
"It was actually kind of fun learning that the Vikings got them down here and got them out of the cold weather," Cook added. "Just to be down here and be around Pro Bowl guys, that's a good thing."