MANKATO – The final whistle of practice sounded around 9:15 on Saturday night, and the Greenway girls stormed the field at Blakeslee Stadium.
Dad — also known as veteran Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway — scooped up 22-month-old Blakely and lugged her under his still-chiseled left arm. He fired a white souvenir football into the bleachers with his right as oldest daughters Maddyn, 8, and, Beckett, 6, scurried behind.
A little later, Jennifer, due in November with the Greenways’ fourth daughter, chatted with tight end Kyle Rudolph and his wife as Chad — whose tussled brown hair still glistened with sweat — signed autographs, posed for pictures and tossed soft passes to Maddyn and Beckett.
The stadium lights cut out after about 25 minutes. Many teammates already were in the locker room. But Greenway sat with his daughters at the 10-yard line.
Soon the fireworks emerged from behind the bleachers and Greenway had the best seat in the house, with Blakely in his lap and one of his older girls on each side. Jennifer joined them on the grass.
“You have to take these moments in. You get a chance to take a picture, and those are things you look back on in 20 years and talk about and enjoy the memory,” Greenway said a couple of days later. “Throughout this entire year, I want to just take it in and enjoy it. But it’s much more enjoyable when you’re winning and putting your best foot forward on the field.”
While Greenway left himself a small sliver of wiggle room, the plan is for the 2016 season, his 11th with the Vikings, to be his last. But he doesn’t want to dwell on it or make it all about him. He wants to be present in every moment doing everything he can to help the Vikings win a Super Bowl. Anything short of that will be a disappointment.
Greenway, now 33, remains the favorite to start at weakside linebacker. This year’s primary threat to his playing time is free-agent addition Emmanuel Lamur, a big, rangy, former safety. Greenway is no stranger to competition, of course.
“Every year, no matter where you are at in your career, whether you are the cream of the crop or you’re waning at the end of your career, they’re always going to try to bring in someone to try to beat you out,” he said. “That’s the nature of the beast. There are always kids coming up who want to have the career you had or have. And I was that guy coming in.”
After starring at Iowa, Greenway arrived in Mankato in the summer of 2006, two weeks after his wedding, as the team’s first-round draft pick.
His agent and the Vikings still were haggling over the terms of his rookie contract, as often was the case before the current collective bargaining agreement. So upon pulling into Mankato for the first time, Greenway parked at a gas station until word came that the deal was done.
His first training camp blew by, and his rookie season ended before it started because of knee surgery during the preseason. But over the next seven seasons, he played every game, led the Vikings in tackles six times and was selected to two Pro Bowls.
In 2014 he missed four games and in 2015 he no longer was an every-down player. But Greenway remains a key cog on defense and one of the leaders of that group.
Each of his 11 seasons have began with a trek to Mankato, an excursion he learned to love despite the draining two-a-days in the steamy summer sun.
“I still try to have as much fun as I can out there and enjoy it,” Greenway said. “I really love the guys. From Year 1 until now, it’s always been about the guys in the locker room and really doing it for those guys. That’s the football bond that you can’t really describe. That part hasn’t changed.”
That explains why one of his favorite Mankato memories came early in his career after players and coaches had a night off. Some of them, including in Greenway’s estimation then-coach Brad Childress, had perhaps enjoyed the Mankato nightlife a little too much before a 9 a.m. practice the next day.
Mercifully, when the Vikings went to take the field at Minnesota State, the skies opened, forcing Childress to hold a leisurely walkthrough indoors. The players rejoiced.
“The best part of Mankato is that when it rains there is nowhere to practice inside,” Greenway said. “The funny part is that when Childress walked in, you could tell he had a long night the night before. And it was just one of those memories where you look back, that’s where the camaraderie with the guys kind of supersedes the football aspect of [training camp].”
If this really is it for Greenway, he also will miss the wings at Tav on the Ave and the thousands of die-hard fans who spice up the monotonous practices in Mankato every year. He will not miss the now-imploded Gage Residence Hall and its lack of central air conditioning or the few nights when a pulled fire alarm disrupted his slumber or the physical toll of padded practices.
But for Greenway, the worst part of camp always has been being away from Jennifer and his girls, though they often have been spotted this year on the sidelines wearing T-shirts with “Daddy” and his number 52 on the back.
“Our household is much different now, but my priorities have always been aligned with family coming first and football coming second,” he said. “I’ve always been a big proponent of football being not who I am, but what I do.”
That statement echoes back to Saturday night when Greenway, his shoulder pads still stuffed underneath his white practice jersey and his wrists still stiff from a wrap of white athletic tape, watched the fireworks with his family.
At 9:55 p.m., about 40 minutes after the night practice ended, Greenway scooped up Blakely — whose name was inspired by the small community he passes when making the trip down Hwy. 169 from the Twin Cities to Mankato — and walked off the field with Jennifer, Maddyn and Beckett at his side.
As Greenway and the girls disappeared into the night, the Bryan Adams classic “Summer of ’69” blared from the speakers across the empty practice fields.
One particular lyric stood out: “Those were the best days of my life …”