Face of the future, Christian Ponder meets Minnesota

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2011 - 1:28 AM

Christian Ponder met Minnesota, and the Vikings' first-round draft pick promised that he will rely on hard work to win over his skeptics.

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Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ first-round draft pick, got a kick out of coach Leslie Frazier saying that he talked with a former teammate of Ponder’s while researching the quarterback’s character.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Christian Ponder grew up in the football-crazed area deep in the heart of Texas, but his soul belonged to Florida State from a young age.

His father played for legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, and his mother also went to school there. Christian felt destined to follow in their footsteps when, as an eighth-grader, he met Bowden during a reunion for one of his father's former Seminoles teams.

"Coach Bowden actually grabbed my right arm and told me they could use this one day," Ponder said. "Ever since then I was dead-set on getting there."

Ponder ultimately fulfilled that dream, which he jokingly noted began with him being labeled a "three-star legacy recruit" from Dallas. Ponder now finds himself at the start of another journey, one that promises more pressure and heightened expectations.

Ponder made his first visit to Minnesota on Friday, touching down roughly 14 hours after the Vikings selected the quarterback with the 12th overall pick the NFL draft.

The selection was greeted with some skepticism and anger -- locally and nationally -- by fans and some media members who thought the Vikings reached by taking Ponder that high. Ponder's response?

"No. 1, I have to earn my respect, from the fans and from my teammates," he said. "There is a lot of uncertainty with any pick in the draft. I know that on my personal level, I'm going to put in my time to earn that respect and do what I have to do. I know what comes with this role."

The Vikings did extensive research on Ponder, and officials expressed confidence that he has the right mental makeup and physical skill to succeed at a position that offers few guarantees. The Vikings have placed their faith in Ponder to become the long-term solution to a critical question that has hovered over the organization for years.

"Beyond the fact that he has the physical ability that you look for in a quarterback, it is his character," coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's a big deal at the quarterback position, especially when you have the talent that we have on our football team, particularly on the offensive side. You need a guy with strong character, because if he doesn't have a lot of confidence in his ability, if he does not have the wherewithal to man up to a degree, he'll get swallowed up because we have some tremendous talent on that side of the ball.

"I just felt like his character is going to get him through some of the tough days that you go through as a young quarterback in the NFL or even a veteran quarterback. That was probably the determining factor. Not just his physical talent but he is a very high-character individual."

High school star

In some ways, Ponder seems groomed for this opportunity. His father, Dave, played defensive tackle for Florida State in the early 1980s, and the family later settled in a Dallas suburb where high school football is king.

Ponder earned around 25 Division I scholarship offers after starring at Colleyville Heritage High School. He chose Florida State after giving Georgia Tech strong consideration.

"I really liked Georgia Tech, especially the academic background, but it was hard to turn down Florida State," Ponder said.

An honors student in high school, Ponder essentially entered Florida State as a sophomore thanks to his advanced placement classes. That enabled him to graduate in 2 1/2 years with a degree in finance. He earned his MBA last May and is working toward his second graduate degree in sports management.

"My priorities were football and academics throughout college," he said. "I set those as No. 1 and No. 2 and took care of those."

Ponder made his mark on the field by relying on his brains, leadership qualities and accuracy as a passer. In 37 career games at Florida State, he completed 62 percent of his passes for 6,872 yards and 49 touchdowns with 30 interceptions.

"Everyone's aware of how smart he is because he has the multiple degrees, but I think people aren't aware of just how athletic Christian is," Dave Ponder said. "He's always been really, really athletic."

Playing hurt

Florida State coaches single out Ponder's toughness first when describing him. He played most of his senior season despite having a forearm injury that required fluid to be drained regularly. He missed the final four games in 2009 after suffering a shoulder injury while making a tackle following an interception.

"An extremely competitive guy and an extremely tough guy," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He proved all year he can play hurt and beat up, which I think is a great thing because in that league you're going to have to do that. He can stay in there, and he's going to battle."

Ponder's arm strength and ability to throw the deep ball drew scrutiny, but Vikings coaches said they found no liabilities in those areas.

"We put each quarterback that we worked out through the same paces, through the same routine so we could compare and contrast," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "He was right up there with the top guys in terms of arm strength and accuracy."

The Vikings say Ponder is ahead of the curve in terms of his intangibles. Ponder impressed the coaching staff by his retention of their plays when they sent him to the whiteboard during their private visit in Tallahassee in March.

"Seeing him process the information in comparison to the other quarterbacks, then going back to the board and regurgitate it back to the coaches, I'm looking and going, 'I don't know if I could have done that,'" Frazier said.

Ready to lead?

Frazier also liked Ponder's answer when asked about his friends.

"My two best friends aren't on the football team," Ponder said. "One works for the attorney general of the state of Florida. Another is an aide to a senator."

Said Frazier: "It's not just the football players that Christian hangs with. He is a friend to others on campus as well, and I think that's a good thing because in the locker room, as a quarterback, you can't just hang out with the offensive line or the running backs or just go stand in the corner and say, 'I'm the quarterback of this team.' You have to mingle and get along with teammates. Just knowing how he is able to deal with people, I thought was a great thing if you're going to be in that position."

The Vikings say they believe Ponder has the maturity and personality to assume a leadership role even as a rookie surrounded by strong personalities in the locker room. Ponder described his leadership style as positive and upbeat.

"Jimbo was a pretty negative guy back at Florida State and was intense and did all the yelling," Ponder said, smiling. "It was hard to have a voice over him. My role was kind of the positive reinforcement. Giving them the butt tap and saying, 'You're all right, man.' Different guys react to different types of leadership. That's going to be my role as soon as I get to know these guys is to see how different guys respond."

His actions will speak louder than words, of course. The spotlight was brighter and more intense when he awoke early Friday morning after only one hour of sleep following the draft. His arrival was met with questions, the one-time "three-star legacy recruit" now forced to prove himself again.

"Minnesota is getting a guy that can be the face of the program," Dave Ponder said. "He'll be dedicated to the craft. Football is his life."

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