For Dalvin Cook and Pat Elflein, this weekend’s rookie minicamp will be their first opportunity to tug on a purple practice jersey, get to know the Vikings’ nine other 2017 draft picks and give the coaching staff a glimpse of what they can do.
If all goes as planned, Friday’s practice will be their first steps toward long careers.
Thirteen undrafted rookies were signed. But for the undrafted free agents who are invited to attend the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis, the guys who get tossed a jersey with only a random number on the back, this will likely be their first and last chance at earning an NFL roster spot, like wide receiver Adam Thielen did trying out at the team’s 2013 rookie minicamp.
Among those little-known players on the Winter Park practice fields will be former Stevenson defensive back Austin Tennessee, an accomplished small-school standout who arrived in the Twin Cities on Thursday with a heavy heart but high hopes.
“This is it,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I take it as my only shot.”
When Tennessee was in seventh grade, he witnessed his father, Keith, a former captain in the Army who taught him to be respectful to everybody and encouraged him to play sports, die of a heart attack in their Maryland home. Keith was 45.
“It was in front of me. He was in the bathroom and fell down off the toilet, couldn’t breathe,” he said. “It was hard to see that and not be able to do anything.”
Keith’s stunning death put the burden solely on the back of Austin’s mother, Bettie, to raise his sister and him. Every morning, she would commute to Washington, D.C., for her job as a management consultant and wouldn’t return home until 8 p.m.
“My mom was a straight workhorse. … But she made it to every single game of mine,” he said. “She was always there for me. She meant the world to me.”
Tennessee said his mother didn’t let him play high school football until his junior year, but he received scholarship offers from Concord, Robert Morris and Shepherd. Thrilled to get a free education, easing the burden on his mother and giving him a chance to one day provide for her, Tennessee chose Concord.
But after a year at Concord, nestled in the mountains of West Virginia and six long hours away from his mother, he got homesick. He talked to Maryland and Towson, who showed interest in high school, but he did not want to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer rules. So he picked Stevenson, located outside of Baltimore.
The Division III football program was only two years old when he walked on campus, which has an enrollment just shy of 4,000 students. He grew up along with the program, their collective rise culminating in 2016 when Tennessee was named a first-team All-America and the Mustangs won their first conference title.
A first-team all-conference pick in three of his four years there, Tennessee recorded 14 interceptions, 30 pass breakups and 196 tackles. He also blocked five kicks.
“Some people like going out to parties,” Tennessee said. “I just like making plays.”
This winter, after Stevenson’s season ended in the NCAA playoffs, Tennessee began training for the predraft gantlet at TEST Football Academy in New Jersey. When he returned to Maryland in January, his mother told him she had breast cancer.
A month later, on Feb. 23, Bettie lost her battle with the illness.
“It spread so quickly there was nothing we could do about it,” he said.
Throughout the grieving process, Tennessee has kept his eyes on the NFL.
“I’m fighting for my mom,” he said. “This is a dream I always wanted to do with her.”
His play at Stevenson caught the eye of Vikings college scout Reed Burckhardt, who visited him on campus. After Tennessee went undrafted last weekend, Burckhardt convinced the Vikings to invite him to Minnesota for a tryout at their rookie minicamp. Now Tennessee, 6-1 and 195 pounds, hopes to become the first Stevenson player to make an NFL roster.
“It would be a blessing. Already having this invite is a blessing. Being the first player to actually get a shot at the NFL is something special,” the 23-year-old said.
Tennessee realizes this weekend’s tryout could be his only opportunity to convince a team he is worth keeping. He plans to seize it. But if his NFL career ends up only being three days in a practice jersey with no name stitched on the back, he will return to Stevenson for one last semester and grab his business administration degree.
The NFL is his dream, but he knows there is more than one way to make his parents proud.
“Regardless of what I do, I know I’m going to be successful,” Tennessee said.