EAGAN, Minn. — Communities, police officers, firefighters and Vikings players united in fun festivities Tuesday at TCO Stadium as the team hosted First Responders' Day.
Police, including officers who specialize in community engagement, and firefighters from Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as members of the Minnesota State Patrol teamed with Vikings Legends and current players to host the Harding High School football team and young people who are members of several Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities.
Current Vikings Austin Cutting, Ben Gedeon, Josh Kline, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Dru Samia teamed up with Legends Scott Studwell, Rickey Young, Stu Voigt and Tyrone Carter in welcoming the young people, leading football drills, sharing tips and stories, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
The afternoon featured football activities, photo ops and fellowship, enhancing the positive interactions that first responders say are vital in building relationships with young people that are based on trust and understanding.
Vikings hosted First Responder's Day at TCO Stadium to pay tribute to police officers and fire department first responders from Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"This activity shows that we're all one community — the Vikings, the police and the people we serve," said St. Paul Officer Phuong Chung, who is in the department's community engagement division. "The Vikings do serve the community as an organization. It shows that we can all come together."
Chung, who has been on the force since 1999, explained that the community engagement division implements a variety of programs with organizations like the Police Activities League. He said events like baseball, mountain biking and fishing — which is particularly popular — are ways to connect with young people.
"Out here, seeing cops and kids interact in a positive way, just building that relationship, you kind of see that human side with the police," Chung said as young people tossed footballs with officers nearby. "We want that trust and that relationship where they are coming to the police because a lot of kids don't know anything about the police and they are afraid."
Officer Michael Kirchen is in his 28th year of service with the Minneapolis Police Department, which started the Bike Cops for Kids program in 2009 as a way to have school resource officers connecting in situations that did not involve 9-1-1 calls.
"We wanted to create something that put us on bikes every day in North Minneapolis to keep connecting with the kids," said Kirchen, who explained that the program and its distribution truck got rolling thanks to a $50,000 donation from his uncle, attorney Mike Ciresi.
The program distributes 50 bicycles and up to 2,000 helmets that have been donated from multiple sources — plus a considerable amount of ice cream — while building relationships.
The distributions provide a quantitative measure of success but the emphasis is on making qualitative differences.
Kirchen said he'd love for an event like Tuesday to help spark interest in some of the young people to consider a career as a first responder.
"They can look at this now and say, 'These cops and firefighters are pretty cool. Maybe I could go to school and be a cop or firefighter,' " Kirchen said. "A lot of these kids are from the inner city, a lot are minorities. Those are the kids we should be recruiting. We need to have more black officers. We need more Hmong officers. We need more Somali officers, so to put an event on like this is huge."
Samia has an uncle who worked as a police officer in Sacramento and aunt who worked as a parole officer.
"It's awesome to come out here with first responders and support people who put it on the line every day," Samia said. "I never thought that one day a kid would come up to me wanting to talk to me or for me to sign their jersey. It's just kind of crazy to be in this position. I'm really thankful, and I want to do everything I can to give back to this community."
Odenigbo said he's always tried to show his appreciation of first responders.
"I think this sets a good example. We need more of this," Odenigbo said. "It's awesome to see people out here on this nice, beautiful day. We got to talk to some officers and thank them for what they do."
The event's occurrence on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the tragic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, brought back vivid memories for some.
"All of us that were adults, you remember exactly where you were," Kirchen said. "We were ready to take my oldest daughter to her first year of kindergarten. We were sitting in the living room. Thank God we haven't had something that big again. Hopefully we never will."
Odenigbo, 25, was in second grade near Dayton, Ohio, where jets left Wright-Patterson Air Force Base shortly after the attack.
"There was a big sonic boom, because they flew from Dayton to New York," Odenigbo said. "I remember my whole house shaking. I didn't know what was going on. They canceled everything."
Samia, who is only 22, has gained a broader understanding through annual posts on social media.
"I feel for those families," Samia said. "I think it's good to focus on the first responders and praise the heroes that were there that day."
Chung said he thinks each anniversary "means different things to different officers."
"When you're on the police side like I am, it's very emotional, and I'm sure for firefighters, it's the same way," Chung said. "We lost a ton of U.S. citizens and brothers and sisters in law enforcement and fire, a lot of good people. It's emotional when you think about it. It affects everybody."