As Stephen Weatherly walked into the Vikings’ weight room eight days before veterans reported for training camp in July, his frazzled expression quickly caught head strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama’s attention.
“‘Uye’ was like, ‘Stephen, you good?’ ” Weatherly recalled. “I was like, ‘Working two jobs.’ ”
It was a Wednesday morning, and Weatherly was beginning a hump day routine more common to thousands of Minnesotans who watch him play than to the 52 teammates who will suit up with him this fall. He’d arrived at the Vikings’ headquarters to squeeze in an early-morning workout, before showering, changing into a collared shirt and commuting to Innovative Office Solutions in Burnsville, where he’d sit in on marketing meetings and ride along on order fulfillments as an intern with the company.
“Going from lifting and running and getting my body in shape for camp and then having to flip a switch and go complete corporate was tough,” Weatherly said. “It was getting to me — but I still had a lot of fun.”
The defensive end — a polymath who plays nine musical instruments and can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes — spent a week as the test pilot for the Vikings’ new Player Executive Leadership Program, an internship the team hopes can eventually enrich their players’ professional prospects for life after football.
Weatherly spent a day each with four of the team’s corporate partners — Caribou Coffee, Ecolab, Innovative Office Solutions and Fox 9 — before learning about the new Omni Hotel development on the team’s Eagan property and debriefing with Vikings chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix. He learned about coffee bean sourcing at Caribou, pitched an antimicrobial soap product to a client while at Ecolab, and spent time with executives from all four companies.
“I was really curious about the motivation, the intent of the program — because there’s really nothing like it,” Caribou CEO John Butcher said. “I thought it was brilliant, when I heard about the idea of a pilot program that would help prepare their players for life after football. It was like two of my biggest passions [Caribou and the Vikings] colliding when Stephen walked through the doors.”
The program, believed to be among the first of its kind in the NFL, is still in its embryonic stage, and its direction remains to be seen, as Andrew Miller becomes the Vikings’ chief operating officer while Kevin Warren (who spearheaded the program’s launch) leaves next month for his new job as Big Ten commissioner.
Its early returns, though, have the Vikings optimistic.
“We’re such a standard-bearer on behalf of the state of Minnesota that we want to keep as much talent [as we can] in the state of Minnesota,” Warren said. “You look at a player like Stephen Weatherly; he’s just hitting his stride, but he’s an extremely intelligent, highly educated, high performer on and off the field. These are the people who not only made the NFL better, but they made the state of Minnesota better — guys like the John Randles of the world, the Randall McDaniels of the world, people who stayed in town, Chad Greenway — that’s what we’re looking for.”
From the field to the boardroom
Under Warren’s direction, and with the help of people like executive player development director Les Pico, the Vikings had been exploring a player internship program for several years. Warren, a former player agent, wanted to prepare players for the rest of their careers — especially those players who might not have the longevity, endorsement potential or lucrative contract of someone like quarterback Kirk Cousins.
When the team decided to try it after moving to Eagan last year, it didn’t take long to figure out who the first participant would be.
“Stephen Weatherly was the perfect player,” Warren said. “It worked with him, because he’s around here — and the fact of the matter is, he’s always made himself available. I think it’s a great lesson for players. He’s always said, ‘When unique opportunities come up, I’m here. I live here; I want to be part of this community.’ ”
Weatherly’s daily schedule with each company stayed broad enough to provide a full view of each firm’s operations — but he still had opportunities for practical work. He sat in on news meetings and received on-camera training from anchors at Fox 9. At Caribou, his lively presentation of the company’s Vikings Skol blend to its headquarters team earned high marks from Butcher, while his pitch to Wyndham Hotel Group while at Ecolab was a hit by his own lights.
“I killed it — I’m not even going to be humble,” he said. “I said I should get commission on it, but they told me I don’t.”
Weatherly, in effect, was like any other intern. Lack of perks notwithstanding, that’s exactly what he and the Vikings wanted.
They agreed with their partners early on that the program should be more than a photo opportunity; it was about helping players make contacts and gain business insights and tangible experience.
“Stephen wanted to be there as Stephen Weatherly, as opposed to Stephen Weatherly the Vikings player,” Ecolab CEO Doug Baker said. “There’s always a piece of celebrity that comes with it, and I assume the team tried to be respectful of that piece. I don’t know that every meeting started or ended with a picture — maybe so. But Stephen’s an engaging guy; he gets right into it. He’s a curious guy and a bright guy. It’s not hard to get through the surface celebrity stuff with him pretty quickly. He’s got a lot more there.”
Among the program’s core messages, from the Vikings to their partners, was this: Our players have more to offer than just what they do on the field.
“Of course, I’m very proud that I am able to do this — and hopefully, I get to do it for as many years as possible,” Weatherly said. “After the fact, no matter where I go, if I do this well enough, people will know who I am — and that’s fine. But to just come in and strictly be that would be devastating, because I’m more than that. I can bring more to your company than just a local, recognizable name. I have good ideas; I have good strategies.
“Whatever you put me on, I can help — and it’s not just because, ‘Oh, he played seven years with the Vikings,’ or whatever it is. If that’s what opens the door, that’s fine. But once I get the door open, all my intellect and all my charisma comes out, and that’s what seals the deal.”
What comes next?
The Vikings and their partners, by all accounts, were pleased with how the pilot program functioned this summer — but all seemed to agree that a deeper investment would look different from what Weatherly did this year.
A traditional internship has more structure than what Weatherly undertook this year, and typically happens in the summer, when the Vikings are finishing OTAs and minicamp before players get some time off. Baker said Ecolab would be open to developing a winter/spring program for a player but admitted it would take some time. The success of a longer internship would also hinge on player commitment.
“Maybe Phase 2 of something like this would say, ‘What if a [player] could spend a week or a month or even longer, so we could dig deep and let them own a project?’ ” Butcher said. “If you could own a project or discipline that seems interesting, to me, that could be a real benefit to them.”
Weatherly’s initiative, both Baker and Butcher said, is key for any player eyeing a successful transition to the business world, since an athletic background alone wouldn’t be enough. For years, Warren said, he’s been hitting on a similar theme.
“I’ve had conversations with many of our players to say, ‘You have 20 opportunities a year to make sure you’re leveraging each one of those games,’ ” Warren said. “Take two of your tickets; buy two extra tickets. Purchase a suite, and have your business people come up with a plan. Can you imagine calling a CEO up — especially one you have a relationship with — and saying, ‘Hey, we’re playing the New York Giants on the road; do you have any business partners you think I should meet?’ I will continue to provide that advice, because that breaks down the barriers of players just being perceived as a player, if they truly are perceived as a businessperson.”
As daunting as it is for athletes to consider the ends of their careers, Weatherly said, players in the Vikings’ locker room talk about it “more than you would think.”
In a sport where the average career lasts a little more than three years — and in a locker room that will go from 90 players to 53 by next Saturday — the next steps are closer than many players want to realize. The Vikings hope they’ve hit on a way to help some of them take those steps assuredly.
“It’s hard to talk about your mortality as a football player,” Weatherly said. “It’s going to end at some point. It’s best to have some things in place sooner rather than later. That’s what I saw this as.”