Before strapping on the pads and applying the eye black, before his head hits the pillow around 10 p.m. for a long night of slumber, before even the Vikings' final walkthrough every Saturday morning, Harrison Smith starts his preparation for his mentally draining and physically punishing Sunday afternoons with a doughnut.

The hard-hitting Pro Bowl free safety prefers a no-frills glazed croissant.

"It's kind of like the first step," Smith said. "You've done most of your work and you're starting to gear up for the game. You know it's almost time to play."

At around 7:45 Saturday morning, nearly 28 hours before the undefeated Vikings play host to the Houston Texans at U.S. Bank Stadium, Smith and about two baker's dozens of teammates will gather in Eric Sugarman's modest-sized training room at Winter Park. For about a half-hour, they will share stories, laughs and, well, doughnuts.

The aptly named Donut Club was first established in that room in 2008. Since then, it has quadrupled its membership and adopted a short but strict list of rules, and last year Sugarman, the team's head athletic trainer, had matching gray T-shirts printed for "card-carrying" members, of which there are between 20 and 30.

The club is all about team bonding and a mutual love of doughnuts. But the devouring of doughnuts means something different to each member.

For Smith, the Donut Club officially starts the countdown to Sunday's kickoff.

For players with season-ending injuries, it is a way to feel like they are still a part of the team despite the NFL's cold but necessary next-man-up mantras.

And for veterans such as outside linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive end Brian Robison, who were here when the club started in 2008, it's a Vikings tradition, though they are quick to point out that membership is a privilege, not a right.

"You have to take the Donut Club seriously. If you don't, then we just won't allow you in the Donut Club," Robison said. "To be a part of it, you have to be a certain upstanding type of gentleman in the community and in the locker room. We give people trial runs to try to get in. Sometimes they make it. Sometimes they don't."

The selective and secretive club, which Smith dubbed "our own little country club," began with an impromptu meeting during the 2008 season. The handful of men who gathered that day had no idea they were about to start a Vikings tradition.

One Saturday morning, quarterback Gus Frerotte kindly dropped off a few dozen doughnuts in Sugarman's training room. They did not last long. So Frerotte kept bringing in more of the tasty pastries each Saturday. A handful of players that included Greenway, defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, and defensive end Jared Allen would linger in the training room and shoot the breeze.

Last weekend, there were 26 players in the training room, along with Sugarman and other members of the training staff, when their now-mandatory photo was taken and sent out to the masses via social media before they were permitted to eat.

"It was really casual, and it didn't get serious at first and it obviously grew into what we have now," said Greenway, the longest-tenured Vikings player. "We would always sit in the training room on Saturdays when we had a little extra time before meetings. And we had the doughnuts in there and we just made it a more official thing. … We've really grown and we're really proud of what we've become."

Rules have since been established, typically enforced by Greenway or Robison.

To gain official membership in the Donut Club, a player must attend three weeks in a row and pick up the tab from YoYo Donuts in Minnetonka at least once.

Players are allowed to call dibs on their doughnuts starting at 7:50 a.m. But they can't touch them until 8, and they can't eat them until after the weekly Donut Club toast and photo. Taking a bite out of one early would be a "serious violation," according to Greenway. Continued tardiness could not only result in missing out on a doughnut, it could lead to a multiweek suspension, Robison said.

"It's nothing serious," middle linebacker Audie Cole said reassuringly. "We have a fun time with it. It's one of the cool things that can happen in an NFL locker room."

And, yes, the club's management council will make exceptions to their rules. For example, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a dedicated member since his rookie year, is often unavailable when the doughnuts arrive after he underwent season-ending knee surgery last month. So the Vikings will set aside his doughnut of choice for him.

"We make sure Teddy gets his doughnut," said right guard Brandon Fusco, who in the past six weeks has gone from protecting the quarterback to protecting his doughnut.

Players such as Bridgewater who are on injured reserve often feel like they are no longer part of the team as teammates are encouraged to quickly move on without them. The Donut Club makes them just one of the guys again.

"It's a silly little thing, but when you're not playing, it's easy to get down," Smith said. "[With this], you still feel like you're part of the team and have that camaraderie."

Who knew a few dozen doughnuts could be such a powerful thing?