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Vikings Make Lasting Impact for Young Burn Victim

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Over the course of the past five months, two days have changed Gabe Schwarzlander's life forever.

In July, 14-year-old Gabe was enjoying his summer vacation with friends, riding ATVs near his home in Bemidji. At one point, a couple of the young men went to fill a gas tank for another ATV. Without thinking, they left the tank uncovered.

"The gas was splashing around, so I was just about to tell the driver to slow down and stop, but then it splashed onto Gabe and me," said Justin Nelson, a friend of Gabe's, in an interview with Vikings: Beyond the Gridiron. "And then it just started on fire."

Both Gabe and Justin were injured in the blaze, but Gabe much more significantly. While Justin suffered burns on his arm, Gabe received severe burns over 37 percent of his upper body.

Gabe's mother, Melissa, said the entire experience was surreal.

"It felt like you were in a dream and it wasn't happening," Melissa said. "To finally get to see him once they had him settled in his ICU unit room is a moment I'll never forget. It was just horrible."

The recovery period has been a long, difficult and painful process for Gabe.

Prior to the accident, Gabe was an avid football player, but he was unable to play with his freshman team this season due to his injuries.

Justin, also on the team, said it was difficult to not have Gabe on the field alongside him, but Gabe was "the team's biggest cheerleader" throughout the fall. He proudly stood on the sideline in his Bemidji jersey and supported his teammates en route to an undefeated season.

"It was really cool that he could come out and watch us play the games and come with us and everything," Justin said. "He'd give us breakdown speeches right before the games to get us pumped up."

The second day that Gabe will forever remember was one circled on his family's calendar for weeks.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, Gabe and his family and teammates were invited to Winter Park to watch a Vikings practice and meet the team and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer introduced Gabe and Justin to the players following Saturday's walk-through and explained Gabe's accident and recovery journey. The football fan was then given the privilege of breaking down the team huddle with the help of defensive end and team captain Brian Robison.

"It was pretty awesome, because I didn't know that I was going to be surrounded by all the players. When I did the breakdown everyone was staring at me, so I was kind of nervous," Gabe said. "But it was awesome seeing all the players. I got to see Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Chad Greenway, all those people."

Melissa said that Gabe has always been a driven individual, and she believes that he's too determined to allow such a difficult experience to bring him down.

While the Vikings visit couldn't take away the difficult challenges Gabe has faced since July, Melissa is grateful that Gabe could enjoy such a special experience with his favorite team.

"It's a bright spot in a very dark period," Melissa said. "So it definitely gave him something to look forward to, and even though it's a tragedy, he was able to experience something that he may never get to experience again in a lifetime."

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