WYOMING, Minn. –It's not every day that you get to hang out with Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen on a day off from school, but that's exactly what six young men had the opportunity to do on Nov. 7.
What made it even better? The entire day was a surprise.
The Vikings joined forces with Polaris and the United Heroes League to give six children from military families an unforgettable day at Polaris Industries in Wyoming, Minnesota. Each of the young people selected for the surprise has at least one parent actively serving in the U.S. Military.
"One of the core values of Polaris is actively supporting the community and giving back," said Kyle Duea, Polaris VP of Marketing of the Off-Road Vehicles Division. "Polaris actually has a longstanding tradition of actively supporting the men and women who serve our country. And with November being military-appreciation month [and the] Vikings having their Salute to Service game [on Nov.19], that was [part] of the genesis of this idea – to really recognize and celebrate military families in partnership with the United Heroes League."
The youth and their parents arrived at the facility in the morning and were served breakfast and told that they had a fun day of riding off-road vehicles together. When the group was bused a short distance to an open-field area that had a track for the vehicles, they all were in for the second stage of their surprise.
At the rumbling of an engine, the young people and their families glanced around to see a purple-and-gold ATV driving through a path in the woods and into the clearing. The two occupants of the ATV were wearing Rudolph and Thielen jerseys and pulled off their helmets, receiving plenty of shocked expressions.
"Driving [the ATV] was fun … I probably gave Kyle a heart attack," Thielen quipped. "But it was fun. And driving up, I think at first they had no idea who we were or what was going on. But it was really cool to see their faces, and then when we gave them their gear and their jerseys and the hats, I think they were pretty pumped – and the tickets to the game. It was just a really special moment for their families. [With] all the sacrifices they've made, to give them those things was really cool."
The pair of teammates handed out backpacks filled with Vikings gear and also presented the families with tickets to Sunday's "Salute to Service" game against the Rams at U.S. Bank Stadium.
SFC Jeremy Wahlberg called the experience "amazing" for himself, his wife (also a service member) and their son, London. While he was aware of spending the day at Polaris, he said it "absolutely exceeds any expectations."
"Just seeing [my son] absolutely light up, I don't even know how to explain it. It's like you want to thank somebody for something, and you don't know quite how to express it," Wahlberg said. "But I think the smile on his face, for us, is just absolutely priceless, and it's going to be an opportunity that we'll cherish forever.
"It's pretty cool that the two [players here] are some of the fan-favorites and some of our favorites in our household," Wahlberg added. "Watching these guys play Sundays on the TV is one thing; being able to meet them firsthand is another, and the kids being able to hang out with them and interact with them is pretty special."
Thielen and Rudolph spent time playing catch with the boys and getting to know more about them and their parents, who represented the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. They answered questions about playing for the Vikings, signed autographs and posed for photos. Later, the two ate lunch in heated tents with the guests.
Rudolph called the opportunity to be involved "incredibly special."
"Our country is the best in the world, and it wouldn't be that if we didn't have these special men and women that have served for our country," Rudolph said. "Adam and I are out here today just showing a little bit of appreciation to them. It was cool to hang out with the kids – see their excitement, play a little football, and then surprise their families with tickets to the game against the Rams."
Following lunch, the young people were able to drive youth-sized ATVs through the designed course and learn more about the vehicles. The cherry on top of the entire day was one more surprise: being told by Polaris that they were each being gifted with their own ATV to bring home.
Caden Grayson, age 12, was one of the young men treated to the experience.
"My parents didn't really tell me where we were going, so I just said, 'Yeah, all right.' I just got out of school, so I was excited," Cayden laughed. "And then we came down here, and I thought at first we were just going to be riding around on these [ATVs], and then the Vikings players came – that was really exciting."
Caden's father, Lt. Col. Curt Grayson, serves in the Air National Guard. An F16 pilot with the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth, Grayson has been deployed multiple times to Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea. Caden said he appreciated how much gratitude and respect Thielen and Rudolph expressed to his father as well as the other service members and their families.
"I think it's nice that famous people like that think about the reason why they're playing and [about] their freedom," Caden said. "And to take their day off to hang out with us."
The day also meant a lot to Ben Mattson, United Heroes League Chief Marketing Officer.
United Heroes League, a national nonprofit based in Minnesota, seeks to empower children of military families to stay healthy and active by removing the financial burdens associated with sports. The program supports military youth in various ways, including providing free sports equipment or skill clinics, providing grants for association dues and sending their families to sporting events.
"This kind of event is amazing. The idea that Polaris is here, that the Vikings are behind it, that the kids see their heroes, they see machines that they've never seen before that they get to ride [is amazing]," Mattson said. "And when we look at the adversity of a military family's life, and we look at what a kid goes through – the kid doesn't sign up for the military; the parent does – and so to reward a kid who's [seen] their parent through a deployment or just through regular service, that's the kind of thing that drives us … it returns them to a little bit of normalcy in a very abnormal situation."
Mattson said Thielen and Rudolph giving a portion of their day made it even more memorable.
"They have this unbelievable admiration for the military folks, and you can see in the eyes of the military folks the admiration that they have for Kyle and Adam," Mattson said. "It's fun to watch them on Sunday, but it's unbelievable to see them out here today. It gives our heroes a hero, and I think it's a mutual admiration. It's pretty amazing. You can't underestimate how much of an impact that has on someone."