It was a quiet Saturday morning at Sanford Hospital in Thief River Falls, a small town in Northwest Minnesota that’s about two hours closer to Winnipeg than it is to the Twin Cities, which is 300 miles away. But the sleepy eyes of staffers in scrubs opened wide when a trio of vans pulled up to the front door of the hospital and unloaded.
Out of the vans stepped five Vikings players — all starters — along with about a dozen or so Vikings cheerleaders and Viktor the Viking, the team mascot who bounded through the doorway first.
The appearance, part of a packed weekend for the team’s annual Arctic Blast weekend extravaganza, was not a surprise, at least not to hospital employees. But the presence of the players, cheerleaders and Zubaz-wearing mascot brought energy to the halls of the hospital and put smiles on the faces of the patients they visited.
“People look up to us like we’re superheroes or some gods, like we’re special people. I think it’s important for us to come and show these people that we’re just like them,” wide receiver Charles Johnson said. “We’re no different. We just happen to have a job that some people think is glorious. I think we can come out here and connect with some people, have fun and bring some cheer to their town.”
Johnson was joined by safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and offensive linemen Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt. Those guys could have been anywhere in the world today — like a sunny beach, perhaps — but they chose to be a part of the caravan that made the five-hour drive up to Thief River Falls yesterday. Today, for about an hour, they popped into the rooms of patients, posed for pictures and towered over autograph-seekers.
“We’ve been blessed with an opportunity to do what we love and play a game that we love, so if we can visit with fans, visit a hospital, bring some joy to people, then why not?” Smith said. “We’ve got so much time on our hands, so why would we not do those things?”
Added Fusco: “There is a special place in my heart for coming out here and seeing some of these guys and some kids. It’s always a good thing to put a smile on their faces and brighten up their day because they are going through a lot of things here in the hospital.”
The hospital visit was one of many appearances for the Vikings this weekend.
Last night, Vikings players, alumni, execs and cheerleaders participated in a charity exhibition game against Thief River Falls city officials and local business leaders. (Don’t worry, the active Vikings players stayed out of calamity’s way as referees.) Wide receiver Adam Thielen was at that event, but afterward he had to head home to Detroit Lakes for his own community event.
This morning, Vikings alumni like Darrin Nelson, Henry Thomas and Bob Lurtsema greeted fans at their hotel. The active players visited the hospital. And there are a few more stops for the caravan later today before the Vikings help host a concert for a local band — something called Hairball — at Thief Falls Arena tonight.
Arctic Blast concludes tomorrow with a prize party and giveaways.
The event raises money for the Vikings Children’s Fund, but it also serves as an outreach event for the organization to connect with fans in the opposite corner of this sizable state.
“We feel like we’re so fortunate in our lives to have the opportunities and the blessings that we have. And we want to reach all of our fans,” Rudolph said. “We have the best fan base in the country and the whole state of Minnesota is included in that. So we get to come up here and reach our fans in the farthest end of our state. … It’s kind of a no-brainer when you put all of those things together.”
The folks inside the quiet halls of that hospital certainly felt the love this morning.