MINNEAPOLIS — Vikings players, cheerleaders and team mascot Viktor shared sincere gratitude to American heroes Tuesday during a visit at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System.
Rhett Ellison, Brandon Fusco, MarQueis Gray, Jeff Locke, Marcus Sherels, John Sullivan and Justin Trattou, cheerleaders Jeanne and Mollie and Vikings staff members participated. The visit was made possible by UnitedHealthcare, a Vikings community partner for the fourth straight year.
Sullivan said he appreciated the opportunity to spend time with men and women "who have sacrificed so much to allow us to live the quality of lives we have in this country."
"It doesn't come for free. It requires an enormous amount of sacrifice and we want to make sure they know that they're supported for the rest of their lives," Sullivan said. "There are a lot of people from the area, so a lot of Vikes fans. It's always great to interact with fans and it makes it even better when the men and women you're interacting with have served."
The Vikings signed autograph sheets, distributed drawstring backpacks and posed for pictures that will serve as mementos. More important, they appreciated the opportunity to directly express their gratitude for the service and sacrifices, often mental and physical scars, endured by veterans to protect freedoms.
"I think it's one of the most sincere ways you can do it, to actually come and visit with these guys in the hospital and just to see the smiles on their faces," Jeff Locke said. "Maybe they haven't had a visitor in a very long time or their families couldn't be here on Veterans Day, or maybe a buddy they had isn't able to be here, but you can see the smiles on their faces."
Locke was born on a U.S. Air Force Base in Germany while his father was serving in the military. Locke's grandfather and grandmother also served in the military, so he is quite familiar with the sacrifices military families make.
"The first thing is to put a smile on their face. None of us can truly know, unless we've served, what they're going through," Locke said. "We just hope that maybe on a rough day later on, they can kind of look back on this moment, they can see the autographed paper we gave them, they can see the bag we gave them or the picture we took with them and use that as motivation to keep pushing through any adversity they have later in life or if they're going through it right now."
Minneapolis VA Public Affairs Officer Ralph Heussner said the visit was great for veterans' spirits.
"From my perspective, it looked like the players were talking one-on-one," Heussner said. "They weren't a special person, they were just another guy who played football and wanted to talk to a veteran. I overheard a number share their experiences. Some of the players had family members, and these other guys have friends. It was not necessarily the Vikings as superstars, it was Vikings players as human beings, as humanitarians that took time out of their day to visit veterans."
Gray said players felt welcomed by the veterans the moment they arrived. He and Sherels were grouped together during visits to patient rooms at the Spinal Cord Injury Center and met one veteran who had followed them since their careers at the University of Minnesota.
View images of the Vikings "Salute to Service" gear the team will use over the next few weeks to honor Veterans.
"He was a big Gophers fan, so Marcus and I went in there, and as soon as we went in there, he filled up with a lot of joy and excitement and expressed the big win that the Gophers had last week," Gray said. "Unfortunately, he didn't get to see it last week so they replayed it on the TV today for him. He was filled with excitement today."
It was the type of moment Don Nix, former state commander with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, had in mind when he helped put the visit together to expand on another longstanding tradition the Vikings have of visiting a home for veterans to play bingo (staff and alumni made that visit this year). Nix's service in the U.S. Army spanned 1968-71, with the first two years spent in Vietnam.
"We were talking about doing something else for Veterans. Four years ago we started to come in here to the VA hospital and that's a big program for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vikings," Nix said. "It's a gas every time they come over because a lot of people don't get to see anybody in the hospital or home. Their families are gone, so it's good to have a visit with the Vikings."
Nix and Heussner encouraged people, regardless of whether they are famous for football or not, to express thanks to veterans throughout the year.
"Don't wait until Veterans Day to say, 'Thank you,' " Heussner said. "We have a motto in the Minneapolis VA that every day is Veterans Day. For people in the public, if you know a veteran, family, friend, neighbor, don't wait until Nov. 11. If you see them in the yard or see them coming home, just ask them how they're doing and say, 'Thanks.' "
The following Vikings staff members are veterans:
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer, Director of Security Kim Klawiter, Senior Project Manager Jim Cima, Director of Football Information Systems Paul Nelson, Neil Grewe in the ticket office, former Head Coach and consultant Bud Grant, former trainer and consultant/historian Fred Zamberletti, personnel consultant Paul Wiggin and Albert Padilla, an intern with NovaCare.