Vikings right guard Anthony Herrera had three items on his to-do list when he woke up March 26: 1, Become a stronger, more well-conditioned NFL player; 2, Attend a scheduled appointment with coach Brad Childress; and, oh yeah, 3, Become a U.S. citizen.

One of the NFL's 76 foreign-born players in 2007 and the only one from the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Herrera completed his first to-do task with an early-morning workout at Winter Park. He was hoping to finish the second task early when he climbed the steps leading to Childress' office on the second floor of the Vikings complex.

"He popped his head in the doorway and asked, 'Coach, can we do this now? I have to be somewhere at 12:30,' " Childress said. "I said, 'Oh yeah, where?' He said, 'I have to be in St. Paul for a ceremony. I'm becoming a U.S. citizen today.' "

Childress congratulated Herrera and asked who was accompanying him to the big event. Herrera said, "No one but me." His wife and young daughter were in Mississippi. His mother was in Florida. And Herrera hadn't even thought to bother his teammates by asking them to join him.

"I said, 'Anthony, you can't get sworn in as a U.S. citizen and not have anyone with you,' " Childress said. "I said, 'Shoot, give me a minute. I'm going with you.' "

Herrera had already programmed directions to Bethel University's Benson Great Hall into his MapQuest Navigator. He would lead the way from Eden Prairie to St. Paul as Childress followed.

"We got lost," Childress said. "I knew Anthony had messed something up when we pulled into this neighborhood and he turned around. We were sitting there when I decided to plug the directions into my Navigator. A different route came up, so I said, 'OK, you follow me.' "

Brad Childress, Kick-Ass Leader, saved the day.

Herrera arrived on time and took his spot among 244 fellow soon-to-be U.S. citizens. Childress tried to blend into the background behind three little Chinese boys and a young man from Somalia.

"The father of the little Chinese boys came up to me and said, 'I want you to know I love the Vikings,' " Childress said. "And the young man from Somalia was there to see his mother get sworn in. He turned and said, 'And I watch the Vikings all the time.' That was nice."

Each of the countries represented was announced. A guest speaker spoke passionately. Everyone in the big foyer said the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the national anthem. And then 245 soon-to-be U.S. citizens completed the naturalization process and became U.S. citizens when they recited the Oath of Allegiance and, of course, filled out their voter registration cards.

"I went up to Anthony after the ceremony and gave him a hug," Childress said. "He said, 'Thanks for coming, Coach.' I'm so glad I went. It was such a nice respite, to see those people so happy about what most of us take for granted."

A record 14,000 immigrants living in Minnesota applied for U.S. citizenship last year. Since 2000, the number of applicants has tripled.

"For me, I just figured it was time," Herrera said. "I've been over here a long time now. The whole process took about a year from the time I applied, but it was pretty easy. I went to school here from the eighth grade through college, so I didn't have to spend much time studying for the test they give you."

Herrera, 27, has spent almost half of his life in the United States. He arrived with his mother and siblings in Florida on June 14, 1994, Herrera's 14th birthday.

Their emigration was sponsored by Herrera's grandmother, who had moved to the United States and had become a U.S. citizen. She was so excited to be joined by her daughter and grandchildren but didn't live long enough to greet them, dying a day or two before their arrival.

"She would be very happy right now," Herrera said. "She wanted to give her family a better life. Now I've got a family, too. I want to see my kids grow, see my grandchildren. Becoming a citizen, I just wanted to set a foundation and a standard for the future generations of my family."

Less than a month into his U.S. citizenship, Herrera is still an undecided voter. And he's loving every minute of it.

"I don't know who I'm going to vote for for president," Herrera said. "But I do get to vote now."

Mark Craig •