MANKATO – Tom Lamphere did not talk to most Vikings exiting the field after a training camp practice. If a player was wearing his helmet or with a coach, Lamphere didn’t try to stop him.
The Vikings’ team chaplain waited for a player to engage him. Then a mother put her infant into his arms.
Nine-month-old Asher, son of receiver Adam Thielen, smiled and nudged his head against Lamphere’s shoulder.
“He might think you’re a grandpa,” Caitlin Thielen, the mom, said.
The wide receiver bent to be at eye level with his son.
“Who are you with?” Thielen asked in a soft, childlike voice. “Who are you with?”
This is Lamphere’s 25th season with the Vikings, and his objective remains the same: Be a friend and confidant to members of the organization, even those who have no interest in talking about religion. He strives to be a man NFL players feel at ease around. So much so that they would even let him hold their children.
The chaplain does not stump for the Bible in the locker room, and he is not just the chapel overseer on Saturdays for players who want to perform well on Sundays. Lamphere has worked with the Gophers, North Stars and Twins, including when they won the World Series, but the Vikings have been his greatest focus during the past three decades.
He’s gotten older while players have remained the same age and signed bigger contracts. Yet he presents the same message, which doesn’t require immense religious buy-in: Winning is important but can’t be the core of existence.
“You can’t take anything with you,” Lamphere said. “None of these trophies or accolades or gold jackets from the Hall of Fame — all of these stay behind.”
Roots in wrestling
Lamphere attended parochial school as a boy, but he didn’t pair religion with sports until he finished wrestling at the University of Minnesota.
Out of college, he joined Athletes In Action, an organization that combines ministry with athletics. He and other AIA wrestlers trained in Eastern Europe for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the U.S. would eventually boycott. He traveled to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. He remembers watching the Miracle on Ice in Vienna, where the AIA wrestlers lived.
It was during that time, under coach John Peterson’s guidance, that sports and spirituality came together.
“Sports is competitive, and we should seek to score more points than our opponent,” said Peterson, now the Gophers wrestling team’s chaplain. “But when that’s the primary thing that you think about, I think it puts the wrong pressure on you.”
After retiring from wrestling, Lamphere returned to the United States and continued to work with AIA, as a chaplain at Colorado State, where he met his wife, Jeanie. They came to Minnesota in 1985. Jeanie works with the players’ wives and girlfriends.
Tom and his wife raise money for AIA, which in turn pays them. Because Lamphere doesn’t take money from the Vikings, he’s engendered trust with players who feel they can vent to him about their marriages, about playing time, about a coach, about anything. He has visited men in hospital rooms while they are admitting an injury has ended their career, and he still finds cut days at training camp hard because they mean he won’t keep seeing someone he’s becoming invested in.
Lamphere cherishes this trust, which is why he doesn’t force himself onto players. He doesn’t want to come off as wanting anything in return.
“Guys know if you’re trying too hard,” said former Viking Jared Allen. “Guys know if you’re a fraud.”
The chaplain has a gift, those who know him say, for finding touch points. Lamphere has taken Vikings — including Allen, Everson Griffen and Matt Birk — to visit a friend in Prior Lake with a large vintage car collection, made up mostly of Dodge and Plymouth vehicles. He talks about wrestling with men who competed in high school.
Most of his relationships with Vikings never progress beyond this, Lamphere said, but he tries to make inroads with as many men as he can.
“It’s amazing how these things kind of unfold in a gentle way, rather than a pushy way,” said the Rev. Mike Van Sloun, who celebrates Mass for Vikings on the days before games.
Special bond with athletes
The moments in life most NFL players experience — marriage, the births of children, struggles at work, maybe a divorce — are no different from people outside of sports. But in the NFL, the magnitude of problems feels amplified.
Football careers are short, highs fade fast and low moments arrive suddenly.
“He understands the issues of that 21-year-old athlete,” former coach Tony Dungy said, “and a lot of those issues are never going to change.”
In 2001, during a seven-year break from working with the Vikings, Lamphere, Dungy and Jack Del Rio established an NFL coaches fellowship, something Dungy thought was crucial to the mental health of men who often work seemingly endless schedules. On the first and third Tuesdays of every month, about 25 NFL coaches get on a conference call at 7:30 a.m. and follow a set discussion guide Lamphere leads.
The weekend after each Father’s Day, about 15 coaches come to McQuoid’s Inn in Isle, Minn., for a fishing retreat. There are rotating plaques for who catches the biggest bass and walleye. Lamphere, who didn’t play football past middle school, is the only non-coach participating in the retreat.
Lamphere remains in touch with Allen, and many other recent former players, often via text. Dungy and Lamphere still talk about once a week, even though Dungy left Minnesota more than two decades ago. Rich Gannon tries to meet Lamphere for breakfast each month.
“How’s he spending an hour with me and also with 50 other guys?” Dungy said.
Partly out of necessity, Lamphere thinks he’s most effective if others spread his message.
Chaplains’ access varies by coach. Under Mike Zimmer, the only time Lamphere interacted with Vikings during training camp was if they chatted with him while leaving the practice field. Lamphere doesn’t talk to the team on game days.
So part of his job is establishing camaraderie among teammates.
For a Bible study Allen hosted around Christmas, the Vikings had an ugly sweater party. It became, Allen said, “an ugly outfit party.” Allen wore a morph Santa suit. Joe Webb wore metallic pants with an elf hat.
“His flair was off the charts,” Allen said.
Jeanie Lamphere baked an extra loaf of banana bread for Adrian Peterson to tuck into his coat and take home after team gatherings.
Lamphere always wants these meetings to have a familial vibe. He thinks it breeds greater accountability among players when he’s not there.
Of course, often during the past three decades, he has been there. To talk about vintage cars, walleye and purpose.