It’s hard not to become an eye-roller in this business.
A couple of billionaire brothers grow up in Jersey as Giants fans. They buy the Vikings. They spit polish some words about how much it means to be good stewards of a storied franchise. And, sorry, the eyes start to spin.
But here’s the thing. The eyes that aren’t rolling since Zygi and Mark Wilf bought the team in 2005 are the ones that belong to alumni who feel more welcome, more appreciated and more involved.
“There was a time before the Wilfs arrived when former players were really disenchanted with the team’s attitude toward them,” said former tight end Steve Jordan (1982-94), who will become the 25th member of the Vikings Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony of Thursday night’s game against Washington at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“In this game, rarely do you get to leave on your own terms. And then on top of that, if the team shows they really don’t want you around, that makes things worse. What I’ve seen from the Wilfs is just a complete turnaround. It’s as simple as that.”
Five years ago, the Wilfs dedicated two full-time positions to handling alumni. Deb Jones, who joined the team’s public relations staff in 1990, became senior manager of alumni affairs. Tracy McDonald is alumni affairs coordinator.
“I didn’t see that happening, but I do thank God for it,” Jones said. “There’s enough work for two people.”
The Vikings send alumni a quarterly newsletter. They give every alumnus a lifetime pass to the Vikings museum. They coordinate more than 300 alumni community visits per year.
They also involve the alumni in training camp events, the holiday party, the draft party, the Taste of the NFL and other special events like last year’s curling tournament.
“We really want to make an effort to be top in the league in alumni relations,” Mark Wilf said. “We’re competitive in that area as well.”
Besides the Ring of Honor, the Vikings hosted a record 124 alumni during their Legends Weekend in Week 2.
“I hadn’t been back in 20 years,” said former receiver Bob Grim, one of 21 alumni honored during the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1969 team. “The Wilfs have done a great job re-energizing the history of the franchise.”
Jones said coach Mike Zimmer has an open-door practice policy for the alumni and guests on Saturdays.
“During the Legends Weekend, we had over 200 people signed up to watch practice,” Jones said. “I was kind of taken aback. I was like, ‘They’re not going to allow us to do it this year.’ But Coach Zim and [General Manager] Rick Spielman had us in there with open arms.”
“I’ve always put the NFL kind of on a pedestal,” Zimmer said. “The reason guys today have the opportunities and make the money they have is because of all the guys who played before them. Those guys had to get summer jobs and things like that.”
Zygi Wilf still has a white football signed by every member of a Giants team from the 1960s sitting on his desk. He got the autographs working the locker room as the son of a man who built homes for the players.
“The fan in you stays in you,” Zygi said. “We’ve been fans for so long. One of our cornerstones is the passion we have for tradition. There’s nothing more traditional than being able to honor and respect the players who made the NFL as big as it has become.”
Or, as Mark adds, “They built what we got here, so we got to honor that. It’s putting resources into it, but it’s also an attitude that we want them to know we got their back.”
Zygi has been seen around training camps wearing his Chuck Foreman-autographed baseball cap.
“I signed that for him back when he bought the team,” Foreman said. “I like him. The Wilfs have done some great things for the alumni. It’s quite a bit better than it used to be, no question about it.”
The Vikings have alumni sign autographs before games and watch the game from a suite.
“There was a time I could recall when Mike Lynn was involved with the team as the general manager,” Jordan said. “It was not a good environment. They didn’t encourage guys to come around. You could come to the Metrodome, but they didn’t give you seats to the game. You could hang out in a lounge and watch it on TV.”
Bobby Houston was an NFL linebacker who played seven seasons. His final season, 1998, was his only one with the Vikings. He played eight games with one start. And, yes, Jones invited him to Legends Weekend.
Afterward, in a thank you e-mail to Jones and the organization, Houston explained what it meant to be included in that weekend and how the camaraderie helped him cope with emotions that surfaced as he associated being around football with his mother passing away around the time he retired.
“I had forgotten the importance of an extended family and teammates,” Houston wrote. “There is strength in numbers. There is healing in opening up to others. Thank you for rescuing one of your own. … Thank you for making me feel like part of the family again. … Thank you for making the blind see again.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org