Phil Loadholt remembers his last playoff game very clearly. New Orleans, Jan. 24, 2010, NFC Championship Game.
Loadholt was a rookie starting at right tackle for a team that went 12-4 in the regular season before destroying Dallas in the divisional playoffs.
"Before we got on the plane to go down there, I remember Pat Williams getting up and saying, 'This isn't going to happen every year,' " Loadholt said. "And I went, 'Yeah, whatever.' "
Williams, of course, was right.
The Vikings, knocking on the door to the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, lost in overtime at New Orleans. They won only nine games the next two years, falling to 3-13 last season. So Loadholt, spoiled early, is now spoiling for his return to playoff action.
"I'm just happy that we're back here, now," he said of Saturday's wild-card game at Green Bay. "Now we have to try to take full advantage of it."
About a quarter of that 2009 Vikings roster is still around. Loadholt, Jamarca Sanford, Percy Harvin and Jasper Brinkley were rookies that season. John Sullivan and Letroy Guion were second-year players who had been a part of two division champions. Brian Robison, Adrian Peterson, Fred Evans and Chad Greenway were in their third seasons; and veterans Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield were in their sixth and 11th seasons, respectively.
None of them could have imagined it would take so long to get back.
"It helps you realize how important this opportunity is," Allen said.
"That is what we have been trying to convey to the guys that haven't been to the playoffs, the young guys on this team, is that this opportunity doesn't come around often."
This time, Loadholt, Sullivan and Robison are joining in that chorus.
"You make it that far early in your career and you think, 'I'll have another chance,' " Robison said. "A lot of times it doesn't happen that way."
That was why, during the season, so many veterans took it upon themselves to talk to the team. For older players such as Winfield, there won't be too many more seasons. And he wanted the younger players to hear the ticking clock.
"We have so many new faces," Winfield said. "Young guys who haven't experienced getting into the playoffs. They don't know how this thing goes."
Those young players appear to have listened. The Vikings won their final four games to get back into the playoffs.
It was worth the wait, even if the lull between playoffs was unexpected.
"Not in a million days did I think it would take this long," Sanford said. "Not in a million years. I thought we'd be back, the next year, even better. So now you work even harder to take advantage of this situation."
So this time it might be a guy like Loadholt getting up before Friday's plane ride to Green Bay, telling younger guys such as Harrison Smith, Matt Kalil or Jarius Wright how rare this opportunity is.
"The proof is in the pudding," Loadholt said. "This doesn't happen every year. So you want to relish it that much more when it does happen."