Vikings defensive end Tashawn Bower was joined by teammate C.J. Ham and Vikings Legend Carl Lee, who played 11 seasons (1983-93) in Purple at NFL Canada's Play 60 Camp in Winnipeg. Viktor the Viking, cheerleaders Taylor F. and Taylor G. were also in attendance at the camp. (Photos courtesy of NFL Play 60 Canada)
Growing up, Tashawn Bower always imagined what it would be like to meet one of the NFL players he looked up to.
Now that he's made it to the highest level of football, Bower makes it a priority to give youth an opportunity that he never got the chance to experience. So when he received an invitation to represent the Vikings in Winnipeg for the NFL Play 60 Rising Star Combine, the second-year defensive end jumped at the chance.
"I'd seen the NFL Play 60 stuff growing up, and I always thought it was pretty cool," Bower said. "The fact that I was able to do it as a pro was important to me, because I was one of those kids who wanted to be around NFL players and just hang out and see them."
This summer marked the third consecutive year that NFL Play 60 has traveled north of the border in partnership with NFL Canada and the second year of the Vikings involvement.
Bower was joined by teammate C.J. Ham and Vikings Legend Carl Lee, who played 11 seasons (1983-93) in Purple. Viktor the Viking, cheerleaders Taylor F. and Taylor G., Vikings Senior Manager of Youth Marketing Brandon Clemens and Youth Marketing Coordinator Madison Cortese also made the trek.
Ham is passionate about working with youth and specifically NFL Play 60, so he jumped at the chance to be involved and experience his first visit to Canada. The fullback said he was impressed with the number of Vikings fans in Winnipeg.
"Almost every single kid had on some Vikings gear. There was a handful of Packers, Lions and Bears – it was a lot of the NFC North teams, which is also cool to see that our division is represented," Ham said. "But there were a lot of kids rocking the Purple and Gold."
NFL Canada Associate Manager of Events and Marketing Rachel Farrell said that Winnipeg is a hotspot for Vikings fans and once again drew one of the most successful camps for Play 60 Canada.
According to Farrell, it's not uncommon for fans to make the seven-hour drive from Winnipeg to Minneapolis during the football season.
"It's a small town, and they're [fairly close in proximity], and that's what they do – they rally around the Vikings, and they all just travel down."
Farrell said it's a city-wide event when Vikings players come up for the summer program.
From Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph jerseys to Norseman socks, Purple helmets and Vikings-themed sunglasses, the young people – and their parents – were decked out from head to toe.
"[Bringing] Carl Lee, C.J. and Tashawn to Winnipeg and having the kids see them in person, learn from them and grow their football skills through these guys, it was incredible," Farrell said. "The smiles on their faces, you can just see that they're loving every minute of it. To be able to watch them on TV and then see them in person … it's really awesome."
Bower is whole-heartedly behind NFL Play 60's mission of encouraging youth to be active for 60 minutes a day.
In between teaching football drills and snapping selfies with young athletes, Bower reminded them the importance of healthy habits.
"It's all about making them feel special, letting them know that we want them to be active," Bower said. "We look at them as our future, so we want to help and be there for them in any way possible."
This year's event took place less than two weeks before the start of training camp, but Ham and Bower didn't hesitate to jump back into football during their down time.
"For C.J. and Tashawn to willingly give up their time with family and friends so close to training camp, before they get into the grind of the season … I think that speaks to their character and the type of people that they are," Clemens said. "That they're willing to go out and do these types of events and really embrace everything that they're asking of them."
Added Clemens: "I think they see passion in what we're doing and the message that we're providing, and they jumped in feet-first."
The Vikings hold regular Fuel Up to Play 60 activities throughout Minnesota, as well, and Clemens has appreciated the opportunity to expand the team's reach.
"To be able to go to Winnipeg and visit the many Vikings fans that are up there … and use the power of the NFL brand and power of the Vikings to help deliver that message was really great," Clemens said.
The Vikings crew flew into Winnipeg last Thursday evening, and by 5:45 a.m. they were up and about the city, making pit stops at local TV and radio stations for player interviews and to promote the upcoming event.
Bower and Ham both enjoyed the chance to help increase the NFL's exposure – and specifically the Play 60 message – outside of the States.
"Football is, in my opinion, the ultimate team sport, so you're not just [sharing the Xs and Os], but you're going deeper into it as a team sport and all the team skills that it takes to be successful," Bower said. "You're spreading a lot of things, not just the game."
The three-day trip also gave Bower and Ham an opportunity to get to know Lee, one of the many talented players to go before them through the Vikings locker room.
"Carl is a really fun guy. He's easy to talk to and has a really big heart for youth sports – so what we were doing was right up his alley," Ham said. "He was definitely a professional in that sense, and he's a Legend on the football field, so it was cool to be around him and talk to him about how it was playing back in the day."
As it turns out, Lee hasn't lost the sense of fearlessness he showed on the gridiron.
Between media stops on Friday, the Vikings were invited to visit the Assiniboine Park Zoo and conservation center. In addition to walking through the facility and seeing a wide array of animals, the trio of players also were given an up-close (and maybe too personal) look at a tarantula and large boa constrictor.
"I was definitely not about that tarantula," Bower laughed.
Lee didn't hesitate, however, to interact with both the reptile and the spider.
"I wasn't the biggest fan of those things," Ham quipped. "It was awesome that somebody was brave enough to touch the snake. I'm just glad it was him and not me."
Tickets are still available for 2018 Verizon Vikings Training Camp at the TCO Performance Center for select dates. _Click here_ to access more information.