EAGAN, Minn. – Three-year-old Asher peered through black-and-yellow Batman sunglasses.
He clutched a football (almost too big to hold) between a pair of Vikings gloves (almost too big to wear) and wore a larger-than-life smile to match.
Asher greeted players as they came off the practice field Tuesday afternoon to sign autographs and pose for photos. In response to recurring comments on the gloves, he held his hands up proudly and exclaimed, "Mr. Rhodes gave them to me!"
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was among the first to meet Asher and his grandmother, Becky Ewing, along with others in a group of visitors from **TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)**. Rhodes and his teammates – nearly all of them – spent time visiting with the family members of eight fallen U.S. Military members.
Running back Dalvin Cook complimented Asher's shades and said, "Wow, I've never met a real superhero before!" before offering a fist bump to the young boy, who gladly returned the gesture.
Cook said it was important to spend time with the team's special guests after its voluntary Organized Team Activity practice.
"You never know somebody's story and where they came from, what they've been through," Cook said. "So you just try to honor [them] and make them feel as comfortable as possible."
Seeing smiles like Asher's and the other family members' spoke volumes to Cook, who communicated that it's the least he and his teammates can do.
"It just shows you what the game, this sport, unity, can do for people," Cook said. "If us being out here can comfort them [after the loss of their loved ones] who served this country, we'll do it any time of the day."
Becky appreciated the care and attention the Vikings players showed to Asher and their willingness to give their time. Her son (and Asher's uncle), Sgt. Zachary Ewing, passed away while on active duty on Aug. 27, 2016, after a yearlong battle with cancer. The cancer had been discovered in 2015, after Sgt. Ewing was injured during his second deployment to Iraq.
A longtime Vikings fan, Becky recalled attending a game before her son returned overseas.
"We definitely made time to come to a game before his second deployment. Make the memories before they go, just in case something happens," said Becky. "It was great to just have a day as a family."
When Sgt. Ewing needed a caretaker following his cancer diagnosis, Becky received clearance to live with her son at Fort Riley (Kansas), where she continued to keep up with their team.
"It was hard to get the Vikings games there, so I had to find a local establishment to watch the weekly ritual and cheer the Vikings on," Becky said.
Becky thanked the Vikings and TAPS for creating such a special day for families to enjoy despite being under difficult circumstances.
"It's so great that there are people who do that for the families," Becky said. "You're so afraid that people are going to forget your loved one. That's your worst fear. So when you're invited to something to just take your mind off of things for a day, have a day where you just, you know, it's football – who doesn't like football?
"Even practice, just the running around, throwing the ball, doing what they're doing, just the fact that they take time to then come over and talk to you, that's amazing that they do that," Becky continued. "They get paid a lot of money to do what they do – they don't have to come over and sign [autographs]. That they do that is just great."
Vikings linebacker Ben Gedeon, whose brother is in the Navy, appreciated the opportunity to meet the TAPS family members and sign autographs to show his gratitude in a small way, and tackle Riley Reiff echoed Gedeon's thoughts on the experience.
"Their family members made the ultimate sacrifice, so it's good having them out here and remembering them," Reiff said. "We're awfully grateful for what they do and for their families."
Leigh Edmonds, a manager in the TAPS Sports Entertainment Department, joined the families at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. She called it "very fortunate" that TAPS is an NFL Salute-to-Service partner.
She gestured to the group taking in Vikings practice from the sideline and emphasized the significance of the day.
"For these loved ones, it's reconnecting with something that meant a lot to their hero," Edmonds said. "It's something they shared with their hero when they were living, and to know that a team they pulled for together as a family is supportive and wants to acknowledge their loss, speak their hero's name and try to bring some joy back when there's been some sadness, it really does mean a lot to them.
"Sometimes this population, I think, gets forgotten," Edmonds added. "Your veterans and your active duty get a lot of [recognition], but the families of our nation's fallen, they're the ones that have sacrificed. So for people to remember that and acknowledge that, even beyond Memorial Day, means a lot."
Vikings kicker Dan Bailey feels a special connection to the military through his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Navy, and was grateful for a chance to meet the families.
"We're able to do what we do because of the sacrifices of not only [the service members] but their family members, as well. Any time we can give back that appreciation, it's a great opportunity," Bailey said. "We're just super thankful, and that's what Memorial Day is all about – honoring those people who have served and some of them that have paid the ultimate price. It's awesome to be able to give back and tell them thanks for all that they do."
Among those family members that Bailey and his teammates thanked was Capt. Brad Cedergren (ret.), who attended the event with his wife, Lynn, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ellianah.
Brad is the surviving brother of U.S. Navy Hospitalman 3rd Class David Cedergren, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2004, in a non-combat-related incident near Iskandariayah, Iraq. At the time of his death, HM3 Cedergren was serving as a Navy Corpsman with the 2nd Marine Division Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
"Whenever he got a chance, he and I would talk – probably once every few weeks. They were in a really heavy war zone," Capt. Cedergren said. "He would talk about how some of his Marines [had gotten injured] and how he was fixing them, and he just felt so good being the guy they called on.
"He loved the military," Capt. Cedergren continued. "He actually was about two weeks away from coming home from his deployment, and one of the things that he had talked about was going to Navy Seals training and being a corpsman with the Navy Seals. He wanted to continue medical in some capacity. Being over there, there's not a whole lot of great things to talk about, but he looked optimistically at it. He would talk about the 'long, never-ending beaches of Iraq.' He was just a really optimistic guy."
The Cedergren brothers loved watching sports together, especially cheering on the Vikings, and Tuesday's experience was both fun and sentimental for Brad.
"Just to come out here and see the facility and meet [nearly] every player, it was just incredible," Brad said. "The way they interacted with my daughter was just amazing. They all got down on one knee to her level, asked her name and gave her high-fives, and that was awesome to see."
Following practice, the TAPS guests posed for a group photo with long snapper Austin Cutting, whom the Vikings selected in the seventh round of this year's NFL Draft.
Cutting, who will graduate from the United States Air Force Academy this week, shared a connection with the families, despite not having experienced a personal loss himself.
"They've given more than anyone knows," Cutting said. "It's a hard thing to go through. I have not gone through it, but I can only imagine the [difficulty]. When you're in the military, it's not just the person in the military – it's the whole family that is involved in it.
"It's an honor," Cutting continued. "It's awesome to be able to relate to them on the football level but also on the military level."
One month into his NFL journey, Cutting valued sharing the TAPS experience with so many new teammates.
"Players are walking by, and everyone is so excited, and it's cool to see that after the circumstances [these families have been] dealt," Cutting said. "It's great for everyone to understand what the TAPS program is and realize what's happened. It's definitely cool, and it's a neat feeling to meet everybody today and have fun with it."