Andrew Sendejo navigates a conversation like he’s playing deep safety for the Vikings, waiting for just the right time to strike.
Sendejo’s face doesn’t flinch between dry lines and pregnant pauses. His sense of humor is better revealed by the photo collage displaying the “Many Faces of Shaun Hill” hanging in his locker. Or the 2-foot tall statue of a hawk guarding the locker from a few feet away.
“They call me ‘Mr. Fun’ off the field,” Sendejo said, applying a pause for effect before adding “cause I’m fun.”
Sendejo also has successfully navigated the pitfalls of being an undrafted safety. He will make his 32nd start in the Vikings secondary on Sunday vs. the Lions since becoming the guy alongside Harrison Smith. But somewhere in the middle of Sendejo’s two-plus seasons starting, coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t convinced.
After Sendejo’s first season as a starter in 2015, Zimmer openly pondered if a different type of player would better free up Smith to be more disruptive in the scheme. Since then, the Vikings signed Sendejo to a four-year, $16 million contract and spent minimal draft or free agent resources to challenge him — the NFL’s best sign you’ve earned a job.
“He’s just gotten better every year,” Zimmer said this week.
The 30-year-old Sendejo has typically put himself in the right place at the right time. There was the hiccup in Pittsburgh, when he was out of position on Martavis Bryant’s touchdown catch. He then atoned last week when Jameis Winston overthrew and the pass went right to Sendejo for his first interception of the 2017 season.
Smith, the two-time Pro Bowler, says he doesn’t need convincing.
“Last year and this year he’s had a couple more splash plays, so people notice it more,” Smith said. “But he’s always doing his job. Whether people recognize it or not, that’s on them. He’s always been a very good player.”
Sendejo also has long been a source of comic relief in the Vikings locker room, dressing up his hawk statue in different outfits. The self-described fitness enthusiast also has a Twitter parody account (@SendejosArms), which claims to not be affiliated with the real Sendejo, dedicated to his arms.
The hawk statue started as a Christmas gift from former teammate Audie Cole. Now it’s a prop teeing off pun-filled names referencing actor Ethan Hawke or physicist Stephen Hawking.
“He’s coming up with different names for that thing every day,” safety Anthony Harris said.
Photos of former Vikings quarterback Shaun Hill also have been growing like a moss across the lockers next to Sendejo’s, reaching out to cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ stall four doors down. The Mona Lisa of Hill portraits is a sheet, in Sendejo’s locker, containing every one of Hill’s headshots from his 15 NFL seasons. Hill signed each one to match his signature from each season.
“The Many Faces” of Hill, of course, is a joke. They look remarkably similar throughout the years.
“We’re here playing football, so sometimes guys are tired,” Sendejo said. “It only takes one person to get the guys laughing and joking around. That stuff is contagious and you kind of remember this is like one of the best times you’re going to have in your life, playing in the NFL. You should enjoy it.”
Football must not have always been enjoyable for Sendejo, who found himself on the late Dennis Green’s Sacramento Mountain Lions (of the now-defunct UFL) after going undrafted in 2010 out of Rice University.
But the Spring Branch, Texas, native wouldn’t go back to the middle of California until he was boarding an NFL team plane to play the San Francisco 49ers. His approach is unwavering, Sendejo says, from when he arrived to Minnesota in 2011 as a camp body to now an established starter signed through 2019.
One piece of evidence is Sendejo, who used to state his case for a roster spot on Vikings special teams units, continues to lead players-only special teams meetings each week.
“I still go in every year with the same mind-set you have to prove yourself,” Sendejo said. “Because in this league you have to prove yourself every year, every day. As soon as you’re not doing that anymore, that’s when you no longer have a job.”