The lessons that helped mold Vikings fullback C.J. Ham as a father to daughters Skylar and Stella and a 4-month-old son, Cortez Ham III, were evident on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that roared down I-35 this spring.
His father, Cortez Ham, wouldn't let a four-hour round trip from Duluth to the Twin Cities deter him from seeing his granddaughter's 25-minute soccer game.
"It was [Skylar's] first game," Cortez Ham said. "There will never be another first game again. I gotta be there for the first time. You'll never forget it."
C.J. and his wife, Stephanie — they met when she was a soccer star and he was a running back at Augustana University in Sioux Falls — were cheering on 4-year-old Skylar along with grandpa. C.J. Ham toed the line of parent-coaching from the sideline and letting Skylar feel her own way through a new sport.
He's the same dad in dance class, in early-morning wake-up calls and trips to day care, or during precious moments together after Vikings games or practices. Fatherhood to Ham is a daily act of intention that's about far more than being recognized on Father's Day, a lesson he credits to his father and mother, Tina.
"Anybody can be a parent," C.J. Ham said. "It doesn't take anything to make a child, but to be a mom or a dad is a totally different thing, and that's intentional; that's work; that's love."
Last year provided the Ham family with three distinct challenges, starting with the death of Tina in May after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer.
She died a few days after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompting a nationwide racial reckoning and conversations for C.J., who is Black, and Stephanie, who is white, about raising biracial children.
And the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the value of patience for all families as schools and day cares closed, and the Hams were no different in having to restructure their days.
Family in a 'football lifestyle'
Ham's NFL career ascension is intertwined with his family's growth. He was an undrafted Vikings fullback signed following a three-day tryout, shortly after which their first child, Skylar, was born in July 2016.
Training camp soon followed. Performing well was Ham's only chance of making an NFL roster, but his young family did not take a back seat. When the Vikings cut Ham's camp roommate early, Stephanie and newborn Skylar moved into his hotel room for the rest of camp.
"I don't know if the team knows this," Stephanie Ham said, "but me and Skylar lived in the team hotel with him for the first, I think, month of her life, or second month of her life. Right away, she was born into this football lifestyle."
Ham said Stephanie is the "superhero," supporting his NFL dreams while pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy. During her two years of graduate studies she had their second child, Stella, in November 2018.
They're still an NFL family, Stephanie says, with the league's strict daily regimens and yearly schedules stressing parenting and private lives. They have found solace in a weekly Bible study group with the families of quarterback Kirk Cousins, receiver Adam Thielen and guard Dakota Dozier, when their kids gather to play.
The three-week run-up to the regular season at training camp, when players only leave the team hotel once every five days, is the most challenging time.
During the regular season, C.J. is the "meticulous cleaner" around the house, scrubbing bathtubs when he's not dancing for 30 minutes straight with Skylar and her favorite YouTube videos.
He's a gymnastics, soccer and dance dad, perhaps standing out most during parent nights at Skylar's dance class.
"It'd be all these moms and there's C.J., just this big, bulky dude who can't even sit on the floor straight," Stephanie said. "But Skylar is just glowing."
Extended time together at home during the pandemic taught the Hams a lot about their children. C.J. noticed small things, like words he'd never heard them say before or observations they'd picked up about what mom and dad had said or done. That can be "good and bad," C.J. quipped, when the kids spilled harmless family "secrets" to others they'd see.
Like most parents working from home, Ham had to keep his daughters away for long stretches while the Vikings held virtual meetings.
Once he was allowed to return to the training facility, his appreciation grew for coming home, when his kids race to the door and clamor for his affection.
"Those are the priceless moments," Ham said.
The Ham family — now expected to have three kids in No. 30 Vikings jerseys, including his son, Cortez III, or Trip — are eager to return to U.S. Bank Stadium for games. Last year, Skylar and Stella had to watch their dad on TV. The Vikings hosted some family and friends at home games, but capacity limits meant C.J.'s wife and children saw only two games in person.
By the end of last season, the Vikings set up a camera on the sideline and welcomed families into a Zoom videoconference, where players could greet loved ones by running over to the sideline as if they were at the game.
"They'd wait by the screen for 30 minutes for him to come out," Stephanie Ham said of Skylar and Stella. "He'd come over and wave and give them kisses, and they'd get all giddy."
A parent's guidance
While C.J. Ham has always been close to his father, a patient transporter at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Cortez Ham said their relationship has evolved since Tina's death.
"We talk more about certain things, important decisionmaking in life," Cortez Ham said. "We probably share our emotions a little bit more. I do give advice as I see the big picture, and make sure he's OK. He's never stressed, and if he was, you'd never know it. He's a very calm spirit."
The family has persisted as they say Tina would want, not dwelling in sadness but enjoying being with each other as much as possible.
"Like my mom, love those around you as much as you can," C.J. Ham said. "It's not about yourself, it's about others. [My dad] still lives that to this day, bending over backwards to help those in need and help those around him. It's something I do in my life and want to instill that in my children."
Keeping a strong influence of Black women around the Ham children is important to Stephanie.
She credited C.J.'s older sister, Markeeta, who has four children, for being a role model and resource.
Stephanie said she has educated herself through books and family, down to what product to use in her daughters' hair. Skylar turns 5 in July, but they've already had talks about how others react to her skin color.
"There have been times where she's been called, 'Oh, you're Black, your skin is brown,' and having my daughter not know what that means," C.J. Ham said. "She was upset, because it almost made it seem like she was being pointed out as different. No kid wants to be different."
"Having to explain to her it's OK," he added. "It's great to be who you are. Daddy has dark-brown skin, mommy has light skin. You have light-brown skin.
"We say, what does mommy's skin and daddy's skin make? And she says, 'Me, light brown.' So just trying to make it a fun way. There will be a time we have to have a serious conversation."