The Vikings took their annual visit to the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System Tuesday.
MINNEAPOLIS –Alex Boone opted to wear his Salute-to-Service sweatshirt rather than his No. 76 jersey on Tuesday.
On the Vikings annual visit to the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, Boone sought to make a gesture that would deflect attention off of him and back to the veterans.
"I think a lot of it just has to do with respect for these guys," Boone said. "I didn't want to come in here today as a football player but rather as a proud American.
"A lot of these guys deal with some serious issues," he added. "And sometimes I think they get a little bit too overlooked. To come in here today and say thank you for everything they did and make them happy was really the job of my year."
Joining Boone were teammates Danielle Hunter, Blair Walsh and Kentrell Brothers, along with Vikings alumni Rickey Young and Dave Osborn. Executive Director of Player Development/Legal Les Pico, Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders and Viktor the Viking also participated in the visit. Players mingled with long-term patients in the community living room and Spinal Cord Injury Center multi-purpose room. Patients were given Vikings ball caps to have autographed, and they also posed for photographs with the Vikings guests.
"It was a good experience," said Danielle Hunter, a first-time visitor to the center. "The smiles on the veterans' faces was a good thing for me to see, and to tell them thank you for their service."
Added Hunter: "It's always a good thing for us to be in the community."
Ralph Heussner, Public Affairs Officer with the Minneapolis VA, said the Vikings annual visit is extremely important to all of the center's patients.
"As both a Vikings fan and as a VA employee, this is a big deal," Heussner said. "The patients [here] are in the hospital for a long time, many months sometimes. So it's a huge break in the routine, and it's an opportunity to meet these players on a human level. It's really cool to see that the players are asking [the veterans] about themselves.
"You could say that it is Veterans Day here every day," he added.
Heussner appreciated Boone, Hunter and Brothers making their debut visit for the Vikings and especially emphasized the way Boone immediately felt so comfortable with the patients.
"You could see from the beginning, Alex Boone had instant charisma," Heussner said, before adding that the others quickly settled in as well. "They realized they were in friendly territory. […] The Vikings have a lot of friends, especially among veterans."
In addition to spending time in the common areas, Boone also paid personal visits to those patients unable to leave their rooms.
One gentleman Boone met was Steven Carlson, a former Army sergeant who spent two years serving in the Vietnam War. Although Steven was non-verbal due to his condition, his facial expression when Boone walked into the room spoke volumes.
Boone connected immediately with Steven, who proudly wore a Vikings shirt and shorts. On the far wall of his room, a whiteboard had the 2016 Vikings schedule and up-to-date results written out.
"We're going to get back on track," Boone said as he shook Steven's hand and thanked him. "We're going to start winning again."
Steven's wife, Bebe, said she was overwhelmed by the graciousness of Boone and the other Vikings to spend time with the veterans. She explained that Steven has been a lifelong fan of the purple and gold.
"He's loved the Vikings since he was a little boy – only the Vikings. They're his team," Bebe said. "He's always been football, football, football. He's been waiting [excitedly] for hours. It was wonderful that they took the time to come and visit him."
Supporting military members is a cause that hits home for Boone. Although he didn't personally serve, his older brother, James, was in the U.S. Marine Corps and served a tour in Iraq. Boone said watching James go through his time in the Marines and serve overseas significantly impacted him.
"Having my brother over there, it really kind of changed my life," said Boone, who hopes to return soon to the medical center. "To see the things that he went through when he was in the war and barely being able to talk to him when he was over there.
"When he came home and the things that he went through, just being there with him and seeing the struggle [to where] he is now," Boone added. "It changes your life and really makes you thankful for everything these guys do."