MINNEAPOLIS – Vikings players swapped their helmets for hairnets on Wednesday.
Following the team's Organized Team Activity practice, the entire team – in addition to coaches and training staff – loaded buses at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center and traveled to the Southside Village Boys & Girls Club.
There, they joined 80 students from the Richard R. Green Central Park Elementary School. The students, who were selected for the experience based on attendance, behavior and academic excellence, were divided into stations with Vikings players and coaches, where they packed food as part of the Feeding Children Everywhere program.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes represented Boys & Girls Clubs during the team's "My Cause, My Cleats" game last season and was excited to once again connect with local youth.
"It's great just being here and doing this event with the kids, seeing them smile and have fun, and helping to feed the [community]," Rhodes said.
Rhodes, his teammates and coaches, and the young people worked quickly to sort, scoop, seal and package 35,000 meals in just under an hour.
The entire team – in addition to coaches and training staff – loaded buses and traveled to the Southside Village Boys & Girls Club. The students were divided into stations with Vikings players and coaches, where they packed food as part of the Feeding Children Everywhere program.
A large portion of those meals will benefit Boys & Girls Clubs across the Twin Cities, while the additional meals will be distributed to Twin Cities families with the help of Second Harvest Heartland and other community partners that focus on food insecurity.
Teammates hollered challenges to one another across the gymnasium, motivating an even faster pace. Even Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer got in on the fun, joking that he had his table moving the most efficiently.
"It's really fun for us to get a chance to interact with the community and be able to come and give back," Zimmer told Twin Cities media members during a brief break in the action. "And quite honestly, it's good bonding for us. Each table has its own competition with one another.
"We're really moving over there," Zimmer chuckled, mimicking a factory line in front of him with gloved hands. "We've got two baggers and got it down the assembly line."
Zimmer said he is proud of the community-centric culture that the Vikings organization has fostered.
"We've got really good players," Zimmer said. "They're good guys who come out here, they want to interact with the youth here, and they know it's for a good cause.
"A lot of it has to do with the players we bring in," he added. "[Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman] and myself are very specific about the types of guys we want to have here, and I think it just kind of shows with off-the-field activities, as well."
Rookie linebacker Cameron Smith has picked up on the team's philanthropic emphasis and enjoyed "getting away from the office" for an afternoon of hands-on activity that truly will make a difference.
"For the past three weeks, all I've heard is how great Minnesota fans are, and it's cool that we get to give back and show that we appreciate them, as well," Smith said. "It's a good feeling for this team to come together and do stuff like this; we come together a lot as a team, and I'm just excited to do some more."
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins also enjoyed the afternoon of calling out food items rather than play calls.
Cousins is entering his second season in Purple and appreciates the opportunity to continue building rapport with his teammates on and off the field. He and his wife are active supporters of a few different nonprofits, but Cousins said he especially values initiatives that involve personal interaction.
"[My favorite charity efforts will] always be face-to-face with people. When you're able to hear stories of how giving your time and resources has made a difference, it really does touch your heart," Cousins said. "Being able to meet people, build relationships and hear stories is what really moves the needle and really stirs your heart.
"I firmly believe that when you build relationships off the field, it's hard to quantify, but in some way it makes a difference on the field," he added. "So a day like today when you're getting away from the building but still spending time together, I just think it helps. Relationships are important in any business, in any endeavor you take on, and football's no different."
Cousins called it a "win-win all the way around" and expressed gratitude to the Wilf family ownership group for its focus on making an impact.
"They go above and beyond to make a difference, and they've done a really good job," Cousins said. "I'm very grateful to work with a leadership group that understands that and takes that seriously."
Vikings running back Ameer Abdullah, also entering his second season in Minnesota, echoed Cousins' sentiments.
"I really appreciate just working hands-on with people," Abdullah said. "When you're a professional athlete, sometimes you don't have the opportunity to work with people in the community as much as you would like to, and to do something as active as what we're doing today allows us to really share a little bit of what we're about as athletes."
And while many of the students were Vikings fans before Wednesday's event, it's likely that a few more were gained throughout the afternoon.
Mark Graves, South Minneapolis Area Supervisor for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, called it a "special" experience that won't soon be forgotten. He referred to the players as "larger-than-life characters" that often feel inaccessible to the young fans who look up to them.
He pointed out that initiative like this one, however, humanizes the professional athletes and demonstrates how much they care.
"When you actually get a chance to stand next to them, talk to them, and they know your name, I think for anybody, but especially for young people, it's a reachable dream – 'This person is not larger than life. He's a normal person, and he's talking to me, he's friendly, and I know his name,' " Graves explained. "I think it was huge for these young people to get a chance to meet and see these players."
Wednesday's event marked the Vikings second "Team Up to Give Back," which has replaced the annual playground build that the team did for 12 years.
Vikings Executive Director of Social Impact Brett Taber explained that the playground build was a valuable endeavor, but the organization opted to go a different direction in order to support various areas of need in the Twin Cities.
" 'Team Up to Give Back' is about identifying a need in the community every year and helping to solve that need with the help of all of our players, staff and the entire Vikings organization," Taber said. "Next year, we could be looking at a whole new project."
Prior to the team's arrival in the afternoon, Vikings staff members – along with U.S. Bank employees and members of HandsOn Twin Cities – spent the morning onsite tackling various projects.
From organizing and cleaning the attic, to deep-cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms and repainting numerous rooms, to creating artwork to place throughout the facility, it was all hands on deck. And there were plenty of smiles, as well.
The Southside Village Boys & Girls Club is the Twin Cities' smallest location but serves the greatest population of young people, welcoming approximately 150 students per day during the school year and nearly 200 per day throughout the summer.
Vikings Foundation Program Coordinator Monterae Carter, who called the community center the "smallest but the mightiest," said this particular location was a perfect fit for the organization's outreach.
"What's really important to us, first and foremost, is that our staff feels like they're actually making an impact in addition to our team," Carter said. "The direction we got this year is, we wanted to work directly with kids or for kids, specifically inner-city, was directed by our players. And we also wanted to really do something that this community deserved.
"It was great," Carter continued. "Everybody knows what Boys & Girls Clubs do, and we all have gone to one, been impacted by one or know someone who has – so it's really an easy choice when picking community partners."
Wednesday's event was part of NFL 100, the League's celebration of its 100thseason. As part of this initiative, the NFL has set a goal of fans across the country donating 100 million minutes of their time to make an impact on the community. The Vikings are encouraging their fans to join in and give back.
"Whether you go online to NFL.com/100 and donate your minutes, whether you reach out to the Vikings organization with a volunteer event you're doing, or whether you go on social media and use #VikingsHuddlefor100, you can help share those minutes with the Vikings organization and prove that Minnesota is truly the most philanthropic community in the entire country," Taber said.