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Vikings Sponsoring Special Olympics Unified Team for L.A. Trip

EAGAN, Minn. — Rick Spielman and the Vikings have inked another 10 players.

As part of forming a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Team, the Vikings general manager sat beside nine young men and one young lady who signed to play for the Rochester Flyers and represent all of Minnesota in a game in Los Angeles.

The Rochester Flyers will face a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Team sponsored by the Chargers on Dec. 16. The teams will play that morning at Dignity Health Sports Park on the same turf where the Vikings and Chargers are scheduled to play that night.

The Flyers roster follows: Head Coach Tyler Runge, Assistant Coach Corey Poppe, athletes Bailey Arneson, brothers Patrick and Sean Healy, Parker Lichtenwalter, Chaz Morris and Alex Steffl, and unified partners Kayla Edwards, Sam Hunt, David Kochan and Doug Utecht.

Teams play 5-on-5 (three athletes and two unified partners) on a shortened field with modified rules.

Spielman personally welcomed the group to the Vikings Draft Room inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. The players and their two coaches received draft hats as they signed and took photos with Spielman.

"I just want to tell you how excited we are at our organization, the Minnesota Vikings, to sponsor this event and give you guys the opportunity that you've earned and deserve, to go out and visit L.A. to see us play," Spielman said, "But more importantly, you guys get the chance to go out and compete as well against the L.A. Chargers Unified Team."

Spielman's daughter Whitney is a Special Olympian, and he's attended multiple events and supported the organization's impact for years.

"We're going to do what we do when we draft players," Spielman said. "Since this is going to be our first draft, there's going to be a lot of expectations put on all of you. Not that winning is important, but it is [laughs].

"The most important thing I can say, just from my own personal experience and watching you guys compete and my daughter compete, I get a lot of opportunity to see great athletes every day in practice and on Sundays," he added. "I get to see all of these collegiate athletes compete [when I scout them], but the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is watching you guys play because you guys are getting the same opportunity that everybody else gets, and the one thing that you have to remember that's most important is how you represent yourself … doing your best and great sportsmanship."

There were smiles by each signee and cheers by each teammate as players made their way to the signing table.

But that was merely the beginning.

The Flyers were led downstairs and met by rookie center Garrett Bradbury and cornerback Mackensie Alexander for a tour of the Vikings locker room. The team made sure to get a group photo in front of Rochester native Marcus Sherels' locker before being guided to a non-descript door.

When the door was opened, the Special Olympians discovered custom jerseys and other gear in lockers that had been personalized with the same type of nameplates that Vikings have above their lockers.

"They got their own jerseys and pants. It was cool to see their faces lighting up," Alexander said. "That will be a fun deal for them, a blessing for them to go out to L.A. and showcase their skill sets and have fun and enjoy life. That's a beautiful thing."

The team dressed out for its first of several scheduled practices in TCO Performance Center in the lead up to December's contest.

"I love it, coming out here and representing the Vikings and having fun with the kids, showing them a different atmosphere, letting them know they're not limited at all and they can do anything they desire," said Alexander, who has participated in multiple events to support Special Olympics. "Coming out and having fun is part of being a human and enjoying life."

The players and coaches also participated in a studio photo shoot similar to ones that spotlight Vikings incoming draft picks.

Special Olympics Senior Manager of Sport and Education Devin Kaasa said the Vikings support for Unified Flag Football, which is divided across 13 areas and has been growing since 2012, is appreciated.

"Unified sports has been one of our big pushes, and we've really seen it really take off, especially within the team sports side of things," Kaasa said. "Unified sports bring people with and without disabilities together to compete. It's been really cool to see flag football grow. We've got 54 teams coming to our state competition."

Kaasa has been a unified partner in golf with his brother, Kellen, in alternate shot tournaments. He said Kellen particularly excels on the greens, sinking putts.

Runge is originally from St. James, and Poppe is originally from Morris. They are both in their second year of coaching for Special Olympics and said it has strengthened their connections to the Rochester community.

"Getting all of the athletes out there, they just loved it," Runge said. "All of the stuff that they got to do was really great for them. Just seeing their excitement from playing, it's fun to see them grow as athletes and really see them get to experience competing."

Poppe said he enjoyed seeing eyes of the players light up and the mutual respect shared between Bradbury, Alexander and the group.

"We're from a town of 125,000, and we're going to a place with millions," Poppe said, "so the athletes are wondering what their counter athletes are going to look like, how fast and big they're going to be."

Kaasa said the number of surprises that the Vikings put together was incredible.

"It could have just been, 'We're coming out to practice, we're going to take some photos,' but seeing how much the Vikings are really elevating the experience is truly once in a lifetime," Kaasa said.