Rivals.com chose Cincinnati Elder’s Kyle Rudolph as the No. 1 high school tight end in the country in 2007. Michigan, Tennessee and the home-state Buckeyes were in the mix to sign the lanky 6-6, 220-pounder. But Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had the recruiting tool that trumped all others.
“He had John Carlson,” Rudolph said of his current Vikings teammate. “Every time I visited South Bend, Coach Weis always made sure John was my host.”
Weis had done his homework. He knew what Carlson, a senior tight end at the time, meant to Rudolph.
“The whole time I was in high school, I talked to my dad [Dan], who is a football coach, about who I wanted to be like,” Rudolph said. “It was always, ‘I want to be like John. One day maybe I’ll be able to do what John did at Notre Dame.’ I always looked up to John.”
Carlson, who is quiet, remembers meeting Rudolph, who might have been even quieter.
“He wasn’t nearly as thick as he is now,” Carlson said. “He was just this very tall, very skinny kid. They kept telling me he was going to be someone special.”
On Rudolph’s first visit, they went to see the movie “300,” a tale about King Leonidas leading 300 Spartans into battle against 300,000 Persians. Rudolph was outnumbered as well.
“It was John, me and Danielle,” said Rudolph, referring to Carlson’s then-girlfriend, former Notre Dame volleyball captain and current wife. “It was a pretty cool time though.”
Rudolph chose Notre Dame. Carlson went on to the NFL, joining Seattle as the 38th overall draft pick before catching 12 touchdown passes in his first two seasons. Three years later, Rudolph went on to the NFL, joining the Vikings as the 43rd overall pick before catching 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
Last year, Carlson, a Litchfield, Minn., native, returned home, leaving his visit with the Chiefs to sign a five-year, $25 million deal with the Vikings. The plan was in place to incorporate both pass-catching tight ends into an offense that would attempt to mimic what the Patriots were able to do with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But the plan was scrapped. A knee injury in training camp cost Carlson the entire preseason and a concussion interrupted his regular season.
“Last year was frustration,” Carlson said. “It was just setback after setback. Injuries happen in football, but it was disappointing for them to happen when they did, joining a new team and wanting to prove myself to everybody. It was tough to not feel like I was contributing.”
A concussion had knocked Carlson out of a divisional playoff game at Chicago during the 2010 season. A shoulder injury had landed him on injured reserve for all of 2011. And 2012 would end with a mere eight catches for 43 yards.
“The worst part had to be the first four to six weeks in 2011,” Carlson said. “I didn’t have an active role in anything. My arm was in a sling, I couldn’t rehab yet and for the first time, I’m on injured reserve. So, really, it was the first time since I was a young kid that I wasn’t a part of a team. That hit me harder than I thought it would, just not having football as part of my identity, part of my life.”
Carlson has been healthy for all nine games this season. And his blocking has, according to coach Leslie Frazier, “improved vastly.” But it wasn’t until last Thursday’s 34-27 victory over Washington that Carlson regained some of his long lost identity as a pass-catching threat.
Of course, it took Rudolph’s fractured left foot to provide Carlson with the kind of opportunities he hadn’t seen since 2009. Playing Rudolph’s ‘Y’ tight end spot, Carlson responded with seven catches for 98 yards and his first touchdown since the 2010 postseason.
He entered the game with 11 catches on the season and hadn’t caught seven passes in a game since 2009. And the yardage total was 7 shy of the career high he posted as a rookie.
Next up: a trip back to Seattle to face his former team for the first time. Carlson missed last year’s meeting because of a concussion.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Rudolph said when asked about the guy he looked up to filling in as his backup. “I’m extremely proud of what he was able to do. That was the John Carlson that I’ve known since I was a senior in high school.”