Craig: After dirty jobs, training camps a labor they love

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 9:39 AM

Tending pigs and working in sewers are some of the dues Vikings have paid before the big time.

MANKATO - August has arrived with daily reminders that preparing for an NFL season is a long, sweaty, stinky, exhausting and painful proposition. It's also nowhere near being the worst working experiences that most of the Vikings' players, coaches and personnel men have had in their lifetimes.

Once upon a time, these were working stiffs making meager wages while only dreaming of NFL stardom. They were flipping burgers like Kevin Williams, washing cars 12 hours a day like Antoine Winfield and laying sewer pipes, which Christian Ponder did without rock-star status or a $20 million blind-side protector the summer before his senior year at Florida State.

"You think this is hot?" Ponder said. "Try replacing sewage pipes while standing on blacktop during the summer in Florida. Now that's hot."

Way too many of Ponder's teammates dealt with manure. Lots and lots of manure. The kind of manure that smells even worse than 3-13.

"Worst job?" asked Jared Allen, the NFL's reigning sack king. "Cleaning stalls for my dad on the ranch in [Los Gatos,] California."

How much did Pops pay?

"Just the right to live in his house another day," Allen said.

Meanwhile, linebacker Chad Greenway was growing up in Mount Vernon, S.D., as the son of possibly the two hardest-working people in the history of farming. Chad much prefers taking on fullbacks in a 96-degree heat index than setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. so he can load the pigs for market.

"Who's tougher, an NFL player or a farmer?" Greenway asked. "A farmer. Any day of the week."

Neither Greenway nor Allen, nor any other Viking with manure on his rsum, can top the tale told by their general manager, Rick Spielman, who worked on a pig farm in Carbondale, Ill., during the summers that he played football at Southern Illinois University.

"I did everything no one else wanted to do," Spielman said. "In the mornings, the pigs that were inside the barn, I had to go in there when it was over 100 degrees and shovel all the ..." um, well, you know.

"They'd put 10 pigs in a pen," Spielman said. "They were the ones that weighed about 220 pounds, right before they were shipped to market. They don't move. All they do is lay in that pen and sleep and ..." um, well, you know.

"It would be 3 feet deep," Spielman said. "And I had to scrape it into a gulley and then shovel it out to a tractor so they could use it as manure."

Football was easy

Spielman's first day on the job came with a warning.

"You think you're this big, tough football player, that nothing fazes you," Spielman said. "They tell you you're not going to be used to the ammonia smell. This pen only got cleaned once a day, so you can imagine."

Thankfully, no.

"Well, my first time in, I get my shovel and take my first swoop," Spielman said. "That ammonia went right up into my nose. I went down. Fell right into the ..." um, well, you know.

"I could tell you my pig breeding story, too," Spielman said. "But that's not one for the newspaper."

Paul Wiggin, a Vikings personnel consultant, remembers working in a brickyard in Stockton, Calif., as a kid during the 1950s.

"My brother and I'd handle 20,000 bricks a day," Wiggin said. "My hands and my midsection were never stronger than when I worked in that brickyard. You'd wake up and say to yourself, 'Today, I'm going to go lift another 20,000 bricks.' Oh my gosh, how I looked forward to football practice starting in those summers."

Center John Sullivan worked for a mason in Old Greenwich, Conn.

"I was running the wheelbarrow, mixing concrete and just being miserable in general," Sullivan said. "I'm very happy in the NFL. Very blessed."

Scott Studwell, a former Vikings linebacker and now the team's director of college scouting, cleaned storm sewers in Evansville, Ind.

"Yeah," he said. "Sometimes, it would get a little dirty when you had to go down in and crawl around."

Child labor

Winfield remembers those 11-hour days at his uncle's car wash in Akron, Ohio. There was no collective bargaining agreement protecting teenage car washers at the time.

"Days seemed like forever, so practice doesn't seem so long now," Winfield said. "I've lived my dream for 14 years. And I keep getting to live it, even at my age."

Coach Leslie Frazier's worst job didn't include back-breaking work or falling in ... um, well, you know. But it did freak him out.

"Worst job I ever had was, oh man, having to clean up the graveyard in Columbus, Mississippi," Frazier said. "I'd have to clean around the headstones. Weed-eating, getting rid of the ant beds and stuff like that. Minimum wage, whatever that was back when I was 14 years old."

You've heard the expression, "Whistling past the graveyard"? Well, young Les spent eight-hour shifts "whistling through the graveyard."

"Looking around, it was an eerie job for a young man," Frazier said. "Real eerie."

Frazier laughed at the memories. Then he thought about his favorite eye-opening memory.

"Going to Afghanistan and seeing our troops this year did it for me," Frazier said. "Putting their lives on the line every day, and the sacrifices they were making. There were days when it was 120 to 125 degrees. You're up in the mountains, 7,500 feet above sea level.

"If NFL players could see what these soldiers go through daily, man, you'd never, ever complain about coming to training camp. Matter of fact, you'd probably be like, 'Man, I can't wait to get there!'"

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