In 1989, I became a pro sports beat writer when the Dallas Morning News assigned me to the Cowboys. After covering high school and small college sports, this felt like the big time.
The Cowboys’ Valley Ranch facility was a modern, sprawling, football theme park in a leafy suburb. When I moved to Minnesota to cover the Vikings in 1990, I expected more of the same from one of the NFL’s most competitive franchises. I would be disappointed.
The first time I walked into the Vikings’ Winter Park facility in Eden Prairie, I felt like I had been transported back 30 years. The locker room and offices were small, overstuffed and outdated. The “weight room” was exactly that — a small room with weights that would embarrass a high school in 2018.
The on-site dining was rudimentary at best, meaning players often rushed to local fast food joints for lunch, bringing back brown paper bags and eating at their lockers.
If the team decided to practice indoors during the winter, the equipment staff erected a small, 40-yard, mini-Metrodome bubble that would knock down long passes, punts and kicks. There was one full-sized outdoor practice field.
The media center was a built-in desk with folding chairs in a small room off the locker room, making it convenient for Randy Moss to stop on his way by and yell any number of pronouns starting with the letter “F.”
The “Gang of 10” owned the team and staged public fights over power and influence, as General Manager Mike Lynn sat in his office, smoking and looking over the practice fields, repeating his mantra: “It’s tough in the arena.”
The franchise felt as small and claustrophobic as its locker room.
On Tuesday, the Vikings offered local media a tour of the team’s new museum on its campus in Eagan. There is nothing small or claustrophobic about the franchise anymore.
As training camp begins, the Vikings look like they’ve never looked before. The TCO Performance Center is massive and spectacular. It is home to an impressive museum, a state-of-the-art weight room, four full-sized grass practice fields, a small stadium and an indoor field built with a roof that will not obstruct the highest of punts.
The 2018 Vikings can boast a world-class stadium, a world-class facility, and one of the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks. They have won 32 regular-season games over the past three seasons despite their projected starting quarterbacks at the beginning of the past two seasons playing in a grand total of six quarters.
Their owners, the Wilfs, have both benefited from a sweetheart deal on the new stadium and have been willing to reinvest heavily in the organization.
Nostalgia is the most accessible of sentiments, but it is misplaced here. The Vikings have never had it better.
“I mean, it’s night and day,” Jeff Anderson said.
Anderson, the team’s executive director of communications, job-shadowed a Vikings employee in 2001, became an intern in 2003 and was hired full-time in 2005.
“The staff has nearly doubled,” Anderson said. “Now we have a top-of-the-line facility for staff, and this is the first time we’ve put our staff under one roof, where we can collaborate and be creative together, instead of being in three different locations around town.
“The owners invested as much as they could in Winter Park, with the expansion of the locker room and the addition of air conditioning, trying to piecemeal it all together. You just can’t question what these guys have done to make this a first-class organization.”
When the team takes the field for its first full practice Saturday and the new gates officially open, fans can sit in built-in stands overlooking the four fields. They can tour the museum, buy gear and dine at food trucks.
The Vikings’ 2018 training camp will make their days in Mankato look like family camping trips. This team has been given everything it needs to win big. All that remains for a transformed franchise is reason to add a trophy case to the museum. There’s room.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org