EAGAN, Minn. – Hunter Johnson picked up plenty of tips from the Vikings to take back to his football team in Chatfield, Minnesota.
Preparing to enter his junior year of high school, Hunter has been the manager of the Chatfield varsity football team since the seventh grade, so he's no stranger to the practice field. But on July 28, he got to watch his favorite NFL team up close.
Hunter received a 6 a.m. wakeup call from his parents, who told him they would be spending the day at Verizon Vikings Training Camp for a surprise experience put on by the Vikings and Make-a-Wish Minnesota.
Upon arriving at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, Hunter received an introduction to Vikings longtime equipment manager Dennis Ryan and equipment assistant Terrell Barnes, who outfitted Hunter in Vikings gear – even pressing his name into a team windbreaker – and gave him a quick tour of their space before ushering him outside to the team's walk-through.
Hunter joined Barnes on the field to see the equipment team in action and assisted when able. He was joined by Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak, who spent a few minutes chatting with the special guest.
When a heavy rain moved in and lightning caused the walk-through to be moved indoors, Hunter walked off the field soaking wet and smiling.
"Nothing I haven't experienced before."
Hunter's dad said that he's endured many downpours over the years during Chatfield football games and never complains. But this past year, he was sidelined from the role he loves.
View photos of the Vikings and Make-a-Wish honoring a special guest during training camp.
Born with Spina Bifida and hydrocephalus, Hunter requires a shunt, which is a small, hollow tube that drains excess fluid from his brain. Last year, it was discovered that the shunt had been malfunctioning and had been causing the cerebrospinal fluid to improperly drain.
"They fixed his shunt, [but the] past year, year-and-a-half have been really rough on him. He's acclimating back to having CSF on his head," explained Hunter's mother, Alyssa.
Hunter also has an Arnold-Chiari malformation and a syrinx (a fluid-filled cavity within the spinal cord) that complicate not only his existing condition but also the consequences of the shunt malfunction.
He has suffered from seizures and blood pressure issues in addition to other symptoms, and doctors are unsure of what the Johnsons can expect for him moving forward.
Alyssa said Hunter's inability to do the things he loves while battling significant health issues over the past year-plus has been difficult to watch. So when the opportunity to spend the day with the Vikings presented itself, it was a special moment.
After the team's walk-through, he was able to meet two of his favorite players, wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and was presented a game-worn No. 14 jersey from Ryan and Barnes.
He then met with Executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski, who told Hunter the Vikings were making him "GM for a day."
"I have some study materials for you," said Brzezinski, who pulled out three hefty bundles of paper in addition to a copy of the 2019 Vikings roster: copies of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Player Personnel Rules and the NFL Rule Book.
"In some of your spare time, you can read through this stuff," Brzezinski said.
An additional surprise occurred when Brzezinski presented Hunter with a "contract" and an official signing pen. He read the contract aloud to the young man:
"Today, you're going to spend time keeping an eye on [General Manager Rick Spielman] and make sure that he's properly managing our football team and the football staff," Brzezinski said. "And then next, and this is really important: We open our season Sept. 8 against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium, and we want you to be there.
"You're going to get us going and have a great season. How's that sound?" Brzezinski added. "I'm going to just need you to sign there, Hunter."
Hunter's parents looked on emotionally as he inked his name to the document and, at a loss for words, grinned at Brzezinski.
Alyssa said she was "shocked" and grateful for the generous offer on top of an already full experience for Hunter.
"That was very unexpected," she said. "He was joking about that earlier in the car, 'I'm going to sign so I stay with the Vikings.' "
To cap off Hunter's day, he spent time with General Manager Rick Spielman.
Spielman welcomed Hunter to his office and even gave up his chair – "Careful! There's a power surge when you sit down," he quipped – for the special guest. He pretended to be a player called to the general manager's office, suggesting that Hunter in turn "play" Spielman.
"Why did you call me into your office, Mr. Spielman?"
Hunter hesitated initially but fell into the role and smiled.
"You've been slacking," he told the real Spielman in mock frustration.
The two shared a laugh and exchanged a few more lines back and forth before assuming their original identities. Spielman pulled up practice tape on a large television and broke down a couple of plays with Hunter.
"Watch Anthony Barr take out Dalvin Cook here so Eric Kendricks can rush the passer, no one else can pick him up, and that's how you get a sack," Spielman narrated while pointing at the screen. "But Kirk Cousins sees that blitzer coming, and this is No. 19, you know who this is running across the field – watch how fast he runs. He gets the ball out before Kendricks is going to hit him, and then we get a big play.
"We've only got about 120 more plays to do. You got anything else going on today?" Spielman joked.
Hunter joined Spielman during the first portion of practice, the two of them standing together on the sideline in matching black shorts and T-shirts.
The entire day made a significant impact not only on Hunter but on his parents, who have supported their son's passion for football since day one.
Hunter fell in love with the sport at an early age, and compassionate youth coaches made it possible for him to play through the sixth grade. And when it got too difficult for Hunter to participate, Chatfield's varsity coach offered him the position of manager.
Chatfield games and practices became a family affair, and Alyssa even traveled to every road game to ensure someone would be present should Hunter have any medical problems. It was a position he held and loved until complications from his condition kept him off the field for the 2018 season. He hopes to return as manager this season.
"To [have seen] him on the sidelines all the time [and now see him here today], it is nice to see that he can be as normal as possible," Alyssa said, her voice breaking.
"I think he's enjoyed every minute he's been here. When we got rained out this morning and he came back to us, the very first thing he said to us was, 'Mom, I'm home. You guys can leave without me,' " she added with a laugh. "He's had a great day."