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Vikings Strengthen Connection by Listening to Painful Experiences

EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Zimmer had a three-word question for Andre Patterson.

"Are you OK?"

The Vikings head coach checked in during lunchtime Thursday on his longtime friend and confidant who happens to be in his first year as the Vikings co-defensive coordinator.

"I could tell it was hard on him, all of the things going on," the head coach explained. "He said, 'It's hard, but it's because I'm a fixer and I want to help these players the best I can. He cares an awful lot about the players.

"He helps me in a lot of areas, as far as the way — because I don't know how to say things sometimes, he helps me with that," Zimmer added, "but we should be extremely proud of the job that he's done with the [Vikings] Social Justice group, leading them in the direction the players want to go. I think that's important."

Rather than a methodical continuation of Verizon Vikings Training Camp, Thursday's return to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center after a players' day off, offered the opportunity to listen and learn about life experiences and focus on emotional external events.

Much like players in the locker room, Zimmer and Patterson have had different upbringings. Football brought their once parallel lives to an intersection, a brotherhood built on love and respect for one another.

Zimmer, 64, grew up in a predominantly white area of Illinois that differed greatly from the 60-year-old Patterson's experiences on the West Coast and during visits as a child to see family in the segregated South.

They've developed their "best-of-friends" connection over decades. They explained their togetherness and the team's approach to addressing major societal issues and external divisions during a video conference after practice.

Candid conversations, including some that haven't ended with a completely aligned ideology, have been part of the bonding through three years.

"We may not agree on how each of us sees it, but to me, the beauty of the relationship is that each one of us is willing to listen to one another and gain knowledge, whether I turn around and agree with how Zim' sees it or not," Patterson said. "At least I understand where he's coming from. And to me, I think that's the thing that we need in our society to make change happen."

There's not much that one man doesn't know about the other, but on Thursday, Zimmer learned that Patterson has been pulled over without cause on three occasions. None of the incidents resulted in a ticket — or worse — but that's not to say they were not hurtful experiences.

"That's not right," Zimmer's voice escalated before adding that a player shared a similar story.

Members of the Vikings Social Justice Committee, which formed in 2018, asked through Patterson for the time to have the meeting. Zimmer said he thought allocating that time for togetherness was more important than canceling football activities.

The Vikings have worked together through the aftermath of George Floyd's tragic death in Minneapolis in May. A police-involved shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake in Wisconsin this week added to pain experienced by so many.

"We had probably a two-hour meeting, where a lot of the players expressed their opinions, their thoughts, and I think that was probably more important than sending people home today," Zimmer said. "So I'm proud of the team, the way that they went out and worked and practiced and also about the meeting, the way that they were able to communicate with themselves and one another."

Patterson said he thought Thursday's meeting was "outstanding."

"Like Zim' said, they spent over two hours communicating with one another and expressing things and coming up with ideas of the way that they can try to help make things better," Patterson said. "After they were done with one another, they called us as a coaching staff there with them to have us be involved in the conversation also. So for me it was a real proud moment to see the maturity that our football team has, how thoughtful our football players are and how caring they are."

Zimmer said "there really wasn't much discussion about not practicing." The focus instead was on how to make long-term positive impacts in multiple areas. Not practicing for a day, he said, wouldn't help achieve those goals.

Eric Kendricks has been one of the Vikings players at the forefront of efforts, even before Floyd's death. He and Anthony Barr met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and people helped by non-profit All Square this summer. They've also done virtual visits with youth at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center to connect with youth in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kendricks became emotional while participating in a live interview on NFL Network between Thursday's meeting and practice.

"I'm not the only one feeling that way," Kendricks told Twin Cities media members after practice. "But within that emotion, I feel like there's a lot if optimism. Optimism in the sense that, you know, we are starting to realize as athletes, as teammates, the kind of impact we have. And whether it's as a team or individually, what direction we're willing to take things and fight for. Fight for what's right."

Quarterback Kirk Cousins credited Kendricks and teammates for "walking the walk."

"He's been a great leader for us through the Social Justice Committee, been a great leader in today's team meeting," Cousins said. "He's done a lot to educate himself, he's done a lot to have great conversations with other people, including myself. He's been big on 'What are real, tangible steps that we can take?'

"He asks those questions in humility and wants to get answers, and wants to work to find answers," Cousins added. "That takes time, that takes energy, but he's willing to put in the work to do that."

Kendricks said the team meetings, whether virtually during the offseason program or Thursday's inside TCO Stadium, have been important because of their "educational factor."

"Just getting everyone informed overall … informing myself. Just having those uncomfortable conversations," Kendricks said. "We had another one today. Those conversations are not perfect, but that's the point. Nobody is perfect. There is change that needs to be had, and issues that need to be discussed, and we have to figure out what we can do as Vikings with our platform and our resources to help these human rights issues."

Cousins said teammates have shown an emphasis on learning about things that grieve teammates.

"I think that's most of what the last few months has been about – being a good listener, being a good question-asker," Cousins said. "I had heard a line from someone else that said one of the better ways to understand is to stand under. I've tried to take that posture of standing other people who I can learn from. … They've had first-hand experiences which is why it can hit so close to home.

"We talk about how we try to build a team during training camp," Cousins later added. "Well, I don't know of a more constructive way to build a team and a locker room and team chemistry than the time we spent this morning and the conversation we had. I think there was tremendous value in it for a lot of different reasons."

Cousins and Kendricks said they believe the team can benefit from the unity being forged. They hope it will extend into a community that has been strained by divisions.

Kendricks said he'll continue to focus on daily courtesies and his mindset as the Vikings initiatives continue to develop.

"I will continue to push myself to not only not judge people but to see what side they're coming from and be able to have a conversation with them to where it doesn't get unreasonable," Kendricks said. "I'll personally challenge myself to do that every day I leave the locker room. That's one of those small steps I can do as an individual."