As the full Vikings team eased into the first practice at its new training camp in Eagan, a contingent from the Metro Deaf School put on a brighter show in the shadows on the sideline.
The kids, teachers, parents and translators had come to see themselves featured in a multipanel painting where they use sign language to portray the lyrics of the Vikings fight song. The piece by Minneapolis artist Leslie Barlow hangs in the stairwell outside the cafeteria, a high-traffic spot in the team’s six-month-old corporate headquarters, Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan.
First came the collecting of autographs. The crew from the school was in a prime spot to see players stroll off the field and stop by.
Damarious Jones, an outgoing 8-year-old, looked up at 6-feet-5 Anthony Barr and dubbed him his favorite “because he’s a Viking.”
Nicholas Zentic, 9, was more effusive, repeatedly signing that he’s “such a big Vikings fan,” especially of Stefon Diggs. With an extra flourish of his hands, Zentic recalled Diggs’ star-making catch last year as “done in a flash.”
The 5,000 free tickets for the Vikings’ first day of training for the full team had been claimed, but a modest crowd showed up for the morning session, a light walk-through for the players. Fans who paid $10 in advance to park in the space nearby made their way into the team store, posed by the giant purple Skol sculpture and walked out onto the turf of the big stadium, which was being used for games aimed at younger fans.
Up some stairs, the team was going through light stretches and loose plays on two grass practice fields. Fans in stands and on the grass applauded the occasional offensive play and broke into short-lived “Skol!” chants. Concession stands sold brats, hot dogs and beer, and an O’Cheeze food truck was on the scene.
Fans weren’t seated as close to the field in Eagan as they had been in Mankato, nor could they collect autographs from incidental encounters with players as they were able to do for the past 52 years at the college campus of Minnesota State University Mankato. But Saturday’s event had sharper organization, and the players now get to sleep in comfortable rooms at a nearby hotel instead of in dorm beds.
On the sidelines on a perfect, sunny day, Damarious filled the brim of his yellow Vikings baseball cap with signatures of players, including Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Kai Forbath and Laquon Treadwell.
Six-year-old Elana Barnett got signatures on a replica football, too, but she appeared most enthused about “Viktor the Viking.” She and her sisters held the mascot’s hands and gently flipped one of his braids. “He was cool,” she said.
The contingent then moved inside to see the massive piece of art. Barlow and Emily Bohmbach, the Vikings employee who spearheaded its creation, led the way.
Elana is featured in one panel of the painting, cheering. When she saw her image, she bounced in front of it and signaled for anyone nearby to capture her proud smile.
Damarious also has a singular panel in which he’s signaling a first down.
As the kids and the entourage of some two dozen posed and smiled, Diggs emerged from the cafeteria and accepted encouragement to make his way through a crowd to pose with the kids in front of the painting.
Bohmbach stood to the side, taking it all in and wiping away tears.
The team’s first preseason game is Aug. 11 in Denver against the Broncos. On Aug. 18, it will play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars at the three-year-old U.S. Bank Stadium. The regular season begins Sept. 9, when the Vikings will play the San Francisco 49ers at home.