Almost like that crazy ex who wants to take one last stab at keeping you, in the course of the last four days Mankato tried to kill us with heat, cold, wind and rain, and, oddly, perfect weather.
The Minnesota Vikings are breaking up with Mankato using the tried and true, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Sorry, Mankato, it’s not you. The Vikings have just been working on themselves lately, getting a new stadium in Minneapolis and now a new team headquarters in Eagan. It just wouldn’t be fair to string a quaint college town along for another year. Really, it’s better this way. We’ve had a good half-century, haven’t we?
There are so many reasons why the Vikings’ decision to no longer have training camp at Minnesota State Mankato and to instead have it at the new team facility makes sense. Logistically, it must be an expensive nightmare to haul people and equipment off to Mankato each summer. Millionaire players aren’t big fans of living in dorms again where they have to haul in their own mattresses or additional foam mattress pads just to get a decent night’s sleep. Plus, the new team facility will be state of the art, and not renting a campus means that the team will have better control of the security.
It all makes sense.
But there was something fun about the nonsense that is, well, was, a Vikings training camp in Mankato. That ridiculous ritual made players and coaches so much more accessible to the fans—many of whom came from out of state just to enjoy that football festival quality that took over Mankato for about two, often sweltering, weeks in the summer for the last 52 year.
Holding training camp in Mankato for as long as they did made the Vikings an old-school holdout in a league that continues to push for a slick, consistent product, packaged for maximum profit. And I think that’s why I’m going to miss the Mankato era.
Initially, training camps enabled players who took real jobs during the off season to get in shape again and refocus on football before the season. However, in the modern NFL, that’s less important with players spending their off seasons training with various strength and conditioning gurus and attending mini-camps hosted by the team or by other players. The emphasis on getting players away from their daily lives so they could bond in collective discomfort has given way to the desire to woo players with state-of-the-art facilities and creature comforts.
Yes, it makes sense. Blah, blah, blah.
Friday morning, under a perfect blue sky, I should have been watching the morning walk-thru, but instead I noticed a kid standing along the end zone at Blakeslee Stadium. He was eight and all snazzed up, wearing a Vikings jersey that might finally fit him around age 14, and he had a football, a Sharpie, and an Anthony Barr jersey clutched in his arms like his life depended on them. Blue-green eyes fringed by thick, dark lashes stared at the players in rapt awe. I couldn’t help wondering how many times that exact scene had played out over the last 52 years in Mankato. There was something so timeless about that moment that is could as easily have happened in 1967 as in 2017.
“Whose autograph do you want?” I couldn’t help asking him even though I was pretty sure I could guess his reply.
Of course. Every kid in Mankato seemed to want Bridgewater’s scrawl. “How about Harrison Smith?”
“Yeah, him too. And him,” he said, using his football to point at Jarius Wright. “And we want to see if Anthony Barr will sign this-“ he holds out the jersey for me to see, “-for my mom.”
“Is the jersey a surprise present for her?”
“Yeah, her favorite teams are the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers—just like me.”
We talk, but his eyes never leave the field. “Yeah,” he says, in a voice between excitement and reverence, “This is a dream of a lifetime.”
It was one of those moments of perfect, childhood bliss. I wanted it to last for him forever, and for another generation of kids to get to spend the day under the sunshine, closer to their idols than they ever thought they would be, thinking about growing up and following their dreams.
It’s the kind of moment that the NFL loves, and then loves to monetize. The kind of moment that I worry will disappear in Eagan.
While the NFL and the teams may have outgrown the need for destination training camps at college campuses, I don’t think the fans have. They came in droves to Mankato, pumping millions into the local economy, so they could sit on bleachers in all kinds of weather and maybe, just maybe, snag player autographs or selfies.
Those are the kind of things that fans remember, the kind of access to players that fans don’t normally have. And that is the biggest unknown now that the Vikings have closed their Mankato chapter with a half-hearted nod and a, “Well, we’ve had a good run.”
We know that the new Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center will be big and shiny with lots of practices fields and a stadium and even a land bridge, which, though not a current NFL requirement, could become an industry standard in pretentious landscaping. I’m sure the NFL has a committee somewhere taking it under advisement.
We also know that media will have access, maybe not me (probably not me), but the beat writers and the national outlets will be on hand to tell us which rookies are pushing for starting spots (Dalvin Cook and Pat Elflein), which players seem to be out of the dog house (Jarius Wright), which players are showing surprising improvement (Willie Beavers—no, really), and which are poised to leap into stardom (Danielle Hunter).
And, we know beyond a doubt that all the players will assure anyone who’s asking that they are in the best shape of their lives, that they just want to compete, that competition makes everyone better, and that they just need to go out there and make some plays. The faces are fleeting, but the sound bites are eternal.
Sure, life will go on and new traditions will be created at that swanky new team facility, but I hope there’s still room in all that newness for some old-school dreaming under a blue summer sky.
Until then, here’s looking at you, kid. We’ll always have Mankato.