If there is one truism about being a sports fan in Minnesota, it is that you may be part of the worst fans in history; but at the same time, you are part of the greatest. It is a second truism to say that being a fan in Minnesota is a taxing experience. There is precious little in our professional sports history to sustain us through the yearly grind and keep our hopes afloat just enough to be there for our teams. Part of our very nature is to hold our professionals to a high standard, and judge them severely if they do not meet expectations.
This year, I daresay, is different. There is a tangible hope in the air.
There’s nothing quite like the initial stirrings of the NFL season to begin with. I will unabashedly say football is the most exciting game, the greatest sport to watch in both breadth and scope. To see the yearly awakening from the offseason is special in itself. The TV remote, almost as if it is intelligent, begins drifting to sports networks. You find yourself having absorbed 3 hours of content for teams you could care less about, just because it’s football and it has come around once again.
When training camp opens it is a strange confirmation of our hopes. Yes once again we can believe in our team. Surely it is an insular world focused on whittling down and uniting 53 individuals into a team, but for fans it can be the best time of the year… as there is no negativity.
Suffice to say it was a surprise, but not a very big one all told, to see thousands of fans lined up at 8 AM to watch… walkthroughs. Drills… Barely a scrimmage in the afternoon. Why would sensible people take a day off work to come sit in the sun, buy stadium priced drinks and watch such things?
Senator Al Franken visited the training camp yesterday and gave an impromptu question and answer session. In it, he was asked his feelings about the coming season. His answer:
“I am as excited and hopeful as a Minnesota sports fan can expect to be.”
Sure, there was a dry wit to what he said, it is him, –Al Franken– after all. But he nailed a strange point with that answer. As fans of Minnesota sports, we don’t expect. We don’t “get hopeful”… seeing thousands at the gate to watch a practice, and stands full until the last shot from the Juggs machine, seems almost foreign to our sports-sensibilities. We have real hope this year. We want and expect more.
Minnesotans do not give their loyalty easily. It can be downright brutal to earn it, in fact. However, once given it is iron-strong. It also begets a two way street. We will be loyal, but you must to us, as well. What we are seeing at training camp this year is the culmination of that. We have a team that we as fans consider worthy of it, and so we are giving of ourselves in the way we do up here in the frozen north.
There are a few standout things from this camp that bear mentioning, and sustain our hope.
Brian Robison may be the impact player of the camp, and if his performance continues, possibly the year for this team. Not only are they lining him up in 2 stance, 3 stance and even shifting him to stack with the middle linebacker, but it is almost a roll of the dice as to where he goes from these lineups. In just walkthroughs and pads I saw him line up 4 different ways and there was no tip as to whether he was rushing, dropping back, stunting… or whatever. This resulted in a pick during a quick slant route… which essentially is what I think this scheme was designed to do. Throwing a quick slant towards someone of Greenways stature, then dropping effectively a B-Rob sized bomb in the middle of it could potentially create nightmares for opposing coaches. In fact, their use of B-Rob may do just that all season. This is something to watch for.
On top of this, Robison is constantly coaching, helping and working with other players. Every minute he’s on the sidelines between even basic drills, he has another player under his wing, showing him everything from contact angles to hand-fighting. Even walking back to the dorms, heedless of the assembled crowds, he would take the time to stop and teach some finer point of the game to another player. Between him and Greenway, the defense is well mentored.
Speaking of Greenway. It will be sad to see him take his last bow on the field. I fully expect his talents to be utilized by the Vikings organization, as a player or not, in the future. But for now, to see a guy who is that genuine one more time, and to see him soak up every minute of every day as he winds to retirement, is a magical thing. There’s nobody smiling more on the field, giving as much coaching to everyone around him, or interacting with fans and media every chance he gets. Even shouting at Senator Franken in his golf cart “LOWER MY TAXES. I THINK I PAID FOR HALF OF THAT STADIUM.” in a jocular moment speaks to a man savoring every moment he can. As well he should. You deserve this year, Greenway.
In our massive-expectations sort of way that we approach being fans of our teams, Laquon Treadwell has now stepped up to the podium with Teddy to bear that mantle. I remember Teddy’s first start, and the “Teddy” chants from the audience at TCF Bank Stadium… and thinking wow, this is a lot of pressure for a 22 year old to handle.
Since, Teddy has stepped up. When more was demanded, he did not complain or shrink from it but put in more effort. He is a leader and possibly one of the most beloved sports figures to ever come through Minnesota (the kids especially, go nuts at the mere sight of him). In the same way, Treadwell is receiving a massive dose of expectation. Is it fair? Hardly, but to see him putting in an extra hour after everyone else has gone to eat, just to work catches with the Juggs machine… it points to that same sort of character; the sort of character a Mike Zimmer inspires. When much is asked, do more. Be more. It’s a winner mentality that has not only filtered to the team, but to the fans.
Walking behind the team to the campus, it does the heart good to see the amount of “No excuses” tees the players are sporting. This team does not ask for, nor want them. This is the team Minnesota has been craving. This is why watching the preseason whiparound on NFL network there are hundreds of fans at other training camps, but thousands here.
In the end, this is what we hope sports can become at its best. A source of hope and a common ground in a world that seems ever-more divided. A team that truly resonates with its fans.
Win or lose this season, it will be an exciting one to watch. Perhaps amazing. All I know is that you can feel that electric hope in the very air around this team. Keep your eyes peeled, this will be something special.
Reporting from Vikings training camp, I’m Tom Mo… uh sorry. Habit.