Select Vikings alumni took part in a waiter event at Jake's Stadium Pizza
MANKATO, Minn. –Fans walking through the doors of Jake's Stadium Pizza Saturday afternoon are in for a behind-the-scenes peek of Vikings Training Camp through the years.
Countless Vikings players have come through those doors over the past 52 seasons. Rather than sitting down for a pizza themselves, however, this time they're turning the tables and serving fans who come in to dine.
The celebrity waiter event was hosted to commemorate the Vikings final training camp hosted at Minnesota State University after 52 seasons.
"Mankato has always been great to me," says Chuck Foreman (RB, 1973-79). "It's always a fun place to be. The fans come here, the pizza's great, the environment is historical. And it's a major part of the success of the Vikings, it really is."
Foreman sits at the bar, chatting with fans and signing autographs for many who have supported the Purple and Gold since his playing days.
Behind the bar stands Bob Lurtsema (1971-76), whose vibrant personality hasn't changed a bit since his time on the sidelines of Metropolitan Stadium. The former defensive end refers to Jake's as the players' "hot spot" during their weeks at training camp.
"We used to come down here, we had about 45 minutes between afternoon practice and dinner," Lurtsema tells me. "It was a big, big part of camp."
Just then, Jake's Owner Wally Boyer passes by the table we're seated at, and Lurtsema hollers at him good-naturedly:
"Hey, Wally – where's that cheese toast I ordered an hour and a half ago?"
Without missing a beat, Wally fires back to his friend: "You've eaten three people's cheese toast already!"
The two banter back and forth for a few more moments, then Lurtsema turns back and continues to reminisce. He recalls making it back to the Gage Hall dormitory just before curfew and then calling Jake's to put in a secret order for pies.
"We'd take towels or sheets, drop them out of the window, they'd put the pizza in," Lurtsema says. "We'd make sure we had the right pizza – pizza first, no money – and then of course we dropped the money down."
When asked if Jake's ever sent the incorrect order up in the makeshift pulley system, Lurtsema shakes his head.
"Absolutely not. I think they double- and triple-checked," he says with a chuckle. "They even snuck an extra slice in there sometimes."
His pizza of choice? Mushroom-sausage, with extra mushrooms.
Players – past and present – and fans are finding this year's training camp bittersweet, as the Vikings announced it will be their final in Mankato before hosting the annual event at the team's future headquarters that is currently under construction in Eagan.
Brian Richards and Karla Wolle are two committed fans who have made the drive to Mankato together for eight years now.
"We started dating in 2009, and our very first game was the Brett Favre-to-Greg Lewis game-winning touchdown game at the Metrodome," Richards says. "And we ended up going to almost every single home game that year, then became season-ticket holders in 2010.
"So we thought, 'Why don't we check out training camp?' Because neither of us had ever been," Richards adds. "We've been down here at least once a year every year since."
Richards and Wolle almost immediately included pizza at Jake's as a Mankato tradition, and it's something they look forward to when they come down from St. Cloud. Attending the alumni event at one of their favorite restaurants seemed like the perfect way for the pair to close out a fan tradition.
Another fan swapping slices and stories at Jake's is a member of the Vikings World Order, who goes by the nickname "Sir Gunnar." The dedicated fan has been attending Vikings games for as long as he can remember. He was first introduced to the team by his parents, who became season-ticket members during the team's inaugural 1961 season.
Sir Gunnar, whose inaugural trip to training camp was in 1970, appreciates the way Mankato has welcomed the team and its supporters.
"They open up the place, open up the restaurants … They open up the town for us," Sir Gunnar says. "This is the funnest part. In fact, I came over here just to hang out with them."
He adds: "Just a regular guy hanging out with football players that I idolized as a kid."
From defensive end Mark Mullaney (1975-87) to wide receiver Ryan Hoag (2004), players from all eras of Vikings football walk through the restaurant, carefully carrying pizzas and calling out table numbers.
Hoag graduated from Gustavus Adolphus University prior to spending a season with the Vikings. He spoke highly of the community that cheered him on as the "local kid" and said it seemed only fitting to return to Mankato for this year's send-off.
"To be able to come back for a Legends event and see not only guys that I played with but guys that I watched growing up, being a Minneapolis kid, it's fun to be able to give back to the community," Hoag said. "And Jake's is a fun establishment that gives back to training camp and the fans and the players. It's great to be here."
Mullaney added that the fans "have always been great" in Mankato, and it's difficult for him to see the closing of an era.
Another Minnesota favorite, Tyrone Carter (2000-02), also says the decision to participate in the celebrity waiter event was an easy one.
As he looks around the dining area, the former defensive back says that when he tries to come up with his "favorite training camp memory," he keeps coming back to the fans that have lined the sidewalks and sideline bleachers for 52 seasons.
"They took the time out of their day during training camp – some of them don't go to work for a week or two, just to come out here to see us practice," Carter said. "That's the part I love the most, and that's what got me here today. Because I know it's all about these fans out here … I want to show the fans that I support all the support they gave us."
And don't forget about the family behind Jake's Stadium Pizza.
Originally owned by Vern "Sarge" Carstensen, the establishment has since been passed down to Sarge's son-in-law, Wally.
"The owners, they were such loyal people to us as players. They were just good to us," says former cornerback Rufus Bess (1982-87). "For them to have it here at Jake's, I think it's fitting because this is where a lot of us spent a lot of our time. There was always a comfortable place, we'd come in here – "
Bess pauses and taps the table, then laughs.
"Heck, I don't know if we ever paid for the pizza and beer or not," he quips. "You know what, we were coming right from practice, and I might owe a lot of money."
One of the last people I speak with is Boyer himself.
It's hard for him to find a free moment amidst conversations with fans, catching up with former players and running to and from the kitchen. But he finds me from across the room and slides into an open booth, brushing his hands on his apron.
"The Vikings kind of put Mankato on the map, and they did a great job of putting Jake's Stadium Pizza out there for everybody," says Boyer, who adds that the restaurant has been featured in *Sports Illustrated *twice. "It's been a lot of fun. Great times."
For Boyer, it's been an afternoon of many emotions.
"We're going to be sorry to see [training camp] go, but I understand," Boyer says. "It's been great fun for me today … the players are having fun, the people coming in are having a good time."
Adds Boyer with a grin: "And it's very fitting that these players should have a good time at Jake's – because that's what Jake's always meant to them in the old days."