Built for success
Story by Mark Craig • Star Tribune • July 24, 2018
After five summers in the backwoods of Bemidji and 52 more in the quaint college town of Mankato, the Vikings will hold their 58th training camp at the TCO Performance Center, a five-star NFL practice facility so comprehensive and massive that employees were known to disappear while learning to navigate its 277,000 square feet.
Vikings’ locker room a long way from cramped confines of Midway Stadium
While players can spread out in the locker room, equipment managers have gotten a needed space upgrade, too.
Marvel at the Vikings’ 6,500 square foot locker room, if you must. Or the players’ lounge area that sits surrounded by 95 lockers. Or the two fancy fireplaces on either side of the lounge.
As for Dennis Ryan, he gets more joy from his overflowing storage space, his six washers and his six dryers.
In 58 seasons, the Vikings have had two equipment managers run the locker room. Jimmy “Stubby” Eason did it from 1961 until 1980. When he lost his battle with cancer in 1981, Ryan was promoted.
“When I started working with Stubby in 1975, we were over at Midway Stadium in St. Paul,” Ryan said. “When the Twins season ended, we’d move to Met Stadium and practice there. But we had no storage at Met Stadium, so we kept everything at Midway.”
The minor league baseball facility had a dirt basement. Field equipment was stored in the first-base dugout. Another storage room — the “Blue Room” — was created when Stubby blocked off an entryway with blue-painted plywood.
“We had one washer and one dryer,” Ryan said. “Stu Voigt nicknamed me ‘Midway’ because every time he asked, ‘Where’s Dennis?’ they said, ‘He’s at Midway.’”
When the Vikings moved to Winter Park in 1981, they had three washers, three dryers and more room than they needed. Long before this year’s move to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, “we were bursting at the seams,” Ryan said.
“We were stashing things everywhere,” Ryan said. “And making sure we kept it all from the mice.”
Training camp will be in Eagan this year. Ryan is happy about that as he looks into one of the fancy lockers. Naturally, he’s pointing out the most practical element.
“What I’m most happy with is every locker has a ventilation system,” Ryan said. “Guys can put their equipment in there and it’ll be dry by the next practice. That’s what matters to me.”
Vikings weight room, fuel bar highlight ‘suped-up’ playground
Bud Grant’s granddaughter helps players by prepping their smoothie ingredients.
Vikings strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama surveyed his spacious weight room, the stairs leading up to all the cardio equipment and the three man-made training hills sitting just outside the giant, glass-paneled garage doors that open onto the four outdoor practice fields at Twin Cities Performance Center.
“I call it our ‘suped-up playground,’” Uyeyama said. “We made Winter Park work. But if you saw Winter Park, it’s pretty obvious this is a major upgrade in every facet. It’s the best in the business.” The size and layout offer Uyeyama maximum efficiency as he trains 90 players through training camp and 53 in season.
“And, honestly, it seems like a small thing, but having natural lighting in there is great for working out,” safety Harrison Smith said. “You don’t think about something that small, but I like that they did.”
The thing quarterback Kirk Cousins said he likes most about the building is the dedication to nutrition and how it works in unison with strength and conditioning.
“One thing I always wanted when I was in Washington that we didn’t have was a nutrition fuel bar like we have at TCO Performance Center,” Cousins said. “In Washington, I used to have to pack everything myself and take it with me every day. And I’d stress out knowing what to eat and when to eat. Here, that’s all taken care of for us by the Vikings.”
Team nutritionist Rasa Troup works with chef Geji McKinney-Banks on meals. Nutritional snack carts are available to players as they leave the practice field and weight room. And then there’s the popular fuel bar that Cousins likes so much.
It’s three times larger than any other fuel bar Gatorade has built. And it’s user-friendly with portions for several different kinds of smoothies already individually packaged by Rosie Grant, Bud’s granddaughter, who stocks the fuel bar as an employee of Flik Food Services.
“There’s everything to like in the ability to function day to day,” Uyeyama said. “It’s really how it should be.”
What makes a Viking dance? Minus-190 degrees in a cryotherapy chamber
The cryotherapy chamber hastens recovery time for players by pulling blood to the core and decreasing inflammation.
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman says the human body can’t help but dance about when the temperature hits minus-190 degrees Fahrenheit. So, naturally, his team made sure the NFL’s only electric cryotherapy chamber has a plug-in for players to select a song of choice off their iPhones.
“A lot of guys been playing Migos, a popular hip-hop group right now,” said safety Anthony Harris. “But there’s a wide range of music. I see Riley Reiff with a little country going on in there.”
One of the more popular features of the Vikings’ Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan is the cryotherapy chamber. Unlike most cryo chambers that use nitrogen gas and don’t cover the head, this is a room big enough to frost three linemen or four littler fellas.
Just don’t expect a certain 62-year-old head coach to sign the waiver, drop down to shorts, cover his extremities, don a mask, step into a first chamber set to minus-35 and then stand in minus-190 for 2 ½ minutes while his skin temperature drops from 90 to 55.
“I’m not going in that thing,” Mike Zimmer said. “Too cold for me.”
Somewhere, Bud Grant frowns.
All-Pro safety Harrison Smith is a big believer in using cryotherapy to help his body recover from injuries and the aches and pains of being an NFL player.
“I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know how it works,” Smith said. “But I know how it makes me feel. Really good.”
As Sugarman explains, “It blasts your central nervous system and pulls your blood to your core. When you get out, you get a big surge. Great for inflammation. Great for recovery.” It’s not a self-service device. For safety reasons, players must be monitored.
“We’ve had guys go in for 3 minutes,” Sugarman said. “And anyone who’s ever gone in there has started to dance.”
Vikings’ unique ‘smart’ draft board was hot topic at NFL IT meetings
With touch of a button, Vikings GM Rick Spielman hopes to get a leg up on the NFL draft.
As Vikings director of football information systems, Paul Nelson was tasked with programming a giant, one-of-a-kind “smart” draft board that General Manager Rick Spielman says is “tailored to how my brain works.”
And if that weren’t enough, Nelson had to make it “Rick proof” to avoid a draft-day disaster.
The result was 40 55-inch TVs all intricately coordinated into a draft board that can with one touch sort and display information that used to take Spielman 20 minutes to arrange manually with cards and magnets.
“I was just at our league IT conference and literally no one has done anything to this extent,” Nelson said in May while in the draft room at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. “The Cowboys did something last year, but on a smaller scale. Nobody is real open about what they’re doing, but I had multiple teams come up and ask me a bunch of questions. I gave them specifically vague answers.”
The smart board reflects the color-coded and precisely-numbered grading system Spielman has used since taking charge of the Vikings’ draft in 2007. The board’s efficiency also helps in pre-draft meetings because it’s big enough to display a player’s game film and all his information, including stats, injuries, off-the-field concerns and a report from the Vikings’ analytics department.
The smart board is used the same way for free agency.
“We have grades and information on every player in the league,” Spielman said. “We’ll have up to 11 grades per year for every year a guy has been in the league. Before, you had to look through books. Now, one touch puts it up on the screen for everyone to see.”
And, at 1,300 square feet, the room is almost twice as big as the Winter Park conference room that doubled as a draft room.
“You still have to evaluate and pick the players,” Spielman said. “But this makes us more efficient. And, hopefully, being more efficient makes you better at what you do.”
Kirk Cousins blown away by Vikings’ virtual reality room
Viewing game film from the vantage point of virtual reality allows the Vikings to see plays from a new perspective..
Kirk Cousins became an instant believer in the benefits of the virtual reality training technology the Vikings acquired from industry leader STRIVR back in 2015.
“I was blown away by it,” the quarterback said. “We didn’t have virtual reality technology in Washington. I found myself the first time just shaking my head and going, ‘Wow.’ It puts you right down inside the play, and you can hear the calls, which you can’t hear on regular coaches film.”
The move from Winter Park to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center allowed the Vikings to build a room specifically for virtual reality training. There are bigger screens for coaches to follow along and teach, as well as options to put down field turf or put up nets to throw into for an even more realistic feel.
Last year, quarterback Case Keenum watched over 3,000 snaps on virtual reality, according to General Manager Rick Spielman. Running back Latavius Murray also used it to study blitz pickups. Defenders rarely use it, although cornerback Terence Newman found it useful for preparing himself against certain moves at the line of scrimmage.
“With the camera being right there behind you, you can really see what the coaches are talking about when you go back and do virtual reality,” Cousins said. “There was a play in OTAs where I thought Kyle Rudolph was covered. The coaches told me I should have thrown it to him because he’s got the ability to make that play even when he looks covered.
“I went back and watched it on virtual reality, and I could see what they were talking about. Watching the usual eye-in-the-sky film, I didn’t get the same vantage point. So getting that view in the pocket is amazingly helpful not only for the guys who don’t get a lot of practice reps, but for myself as well.”
Animal kingdom sits inside Bud Grant’s retro office
An office befitting an avid outdoorsmen and storied Vikings coach, Bud Grant’s digs are perfectly suitable.
It’s 1 o’clock in Bud Grant’s new office on the third floor of Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. Naturally, a bird clock on the wall starts quacking like a duck.
“It quacks on the hour,” said Erin Swartz, Vikings Director of Brand & Creative, and the person responsible for creating the retro look of an office that belongs to a 91-year-old Hall of Famer who coached his last game 33 years ago.
With wood-paneled walls, it resembles the office Grant moved into at old Midway Stadium 51 years ago. The nameplate is the same one that greeted him back on March 10, 1967, when he came south from Winnipeg with four Grey Cup titles.
The desk it sits on came from Winter Park, the team’s headquarters from 1981 to early 2018. But the desk and matching credenza belonged to the late Max Winter, the owner who hired Grant.
The desk was a surprise to Grant when he took his first tour of the new facility back in March. According to Vikings.com, Grant chuckled at the thought of having his old boss’ desk, smacked the top of it with an open palm and said, “Hey, Max!”
The two walls facing the interior of the building are glass. And, yes, per Bud’s only office directive, he has a window.
Most of the office contents are a tribute to the outdoorsman, not the football coach.
“A lot of dead things,” Swartz said. “Everything in here, he caught. Or killed.”
There’s a stuffed pheasant from a hunting trip to South Dakota sitting on a shelf. There’s a fish hanging on the wall. There are photos of his beloved black Labs, including one with teeth clenched around a dead duck, and a proud paw atop another one.
There’s a photo of Bud in the 1940s with close, personal friend Sid Hartman, who is sporting a thick head of jet black hair.
“We called him ‘Blackie’ because of that hair,” Grant said.
There’s also a prized turkey tail positioned prominently on the wall.
“That one he forced me to take in the back of my car from Winter Park because he didn’t trust the moving company,” Swartz said with a laugh. “I had a lot of dead things in my car when we moved over here.”
Over the years, reporters have asked Grant what kind of advice he could give the current head coach. His answer has never wavered.
“I don’t give advice,” he says. “The reason I still have an office is I keep my mouth shut and my head down.”