MANKATO – She sits in the first row, behind a chain-link fence next to the Vikings’ main practice field during training camp.
Her nickname is Panda Vike. Her business card reads more like a leisure card, listing her name, nickname, then “THEE Viking World Order.’’ A crest on the card bears the words “Valkyrie Division; Choosers of the Slain.’’
She is wearing knee-high fuzzy purple boots, a purple tank top, a Vikings medallion, purple eye shadow, six tattoos honoring Vikings players, two tattoos honoring the franchise, and a purple bow in her hair, some of which is colored, yes, purple.
She reserves a section of her closet for Vikings apparel, and part of her office for Vikings jerseys.
Who are these people, who devote so much time, money and enthusiasm?
One is Erin Darsow, 30, of Burnsville. She is exactly what she seems in terms of team loyalty, and she is far from what the stereotype of face-painting fans would have you believe.
She works part-time at Starbucks. She is closing in on a law degree at William Mitchell College of Law. She hopes to work in criminal law.
The easy line would be that the rowdier Vikings face-painters may require her legal skills some day, but Darsow described a group of fans who collect Toys for Tots and shave their heads to raise money to fight cancer.
“There are fans for every team that make everyone look bad,’’ she said. “You can only make sure that you and the people around you don’t behave that way. Sometimes you do see unacceptable behavior, and we’ll talk to them, tell them, ‘If you’re going to be associated with VWO or Viking nation, you’ve got to be careful with what you’re putting out there.’
“We all like to have a beer and tailgate, but we care about how we’re viewed. The way we dress, we’re all very noticeable. We know it’s more noticeable if we do something stupid.’’
The Viking World Order is a regimented organization. You must be nominated to join, and then you are “knighted’’ into the order. Darsow is one of the members best-known and liked by the Vikings officials who know her.
Some of the players know her, too. Adrian Peterson got excited when she showed him her tattoo mimicking his autograph. Sometimes store owners will invite her and her friends to autograph sessions involving Vikings players, to ensure that someone will be cheering.
“Not only is this my hometown and my hometown team, but I really like how the team and the office and the players really reflect well on Minnesota,’’ Darsow said. “They have community service every week, like the playground building, and the players really make an effort to connect with the fans. The coaches do, too. I think they reflect the Minnesota culture of laid-back-but-friendly, while working really hard.’’
As practice unfolds, Darsow will lean forward, watching young players and listening for exchanges between players and coaches.
“For me, it’s just interesting to watch players who are getting better or are static in their progress,’’ Darsow said. “I can tell my fans, ‘Oh, you really have to watch out for this guy, or don’t put too much faith in that guy.’ ’’
She doesn’t describe her loyalty to the Vikings in terms of hero worship or fanaticism. She thinks of her fellow fans as an interesting and like-minded social group that can do good works, and heighten the enjoyment of a team she would cheer for were she alone in her living room.
“I’ve heard that other fan groups, like the Dawg Pound in Cleveland, and Raider Nation, they have football in common and that’s what they do,’’ she said. “We really like to make it a point to get to know who people are, because we have so many personalities, and so many people from different backgrounds.
“Usually, I’m here every day during camp. This year, I’m missing a few days for some training in August. That’s my career. I love this. But I do know how to put it aside, if I have to.’’