Sanford NFL players have varied backgrounds, common goals

Vikings vs Eagles game will put six Sanford players on same field at same time

Nate Gerry holds a football and smiles waihle talking to kids at a football camp.
Nate Gerry holds a football and smiles waihle talking to kids at a football camp.

On Oct. 13 at noon, six NFL football players affiliated with Sanford Health will be on the same field at the same time when the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles play at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Together, they are a “team” of sorts by virtue of their connection to Sanford and their commitment to youth.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph, fullback C.J. Ham and receiver Adam Thielen play for the Vikings. Quarterback Carson Wentz, tight end Dallas Goedert and linebacker Nate Gerry play for the Eagles.

Individually, the six range from the second overall pick to undrafted free agents. They played college football at places like Notre Dame and Nebraska as well as Minnesota State and Augustana. In short, they took wildly different routes to get to where they are.

But collectively, they have a lot in common, too. All of those who will be in uniform have connections to health care, to children or Sanford Health directly.

“Everybody I know that is involved with Sanford are people that I respect and people I am close to,” said Rudolph, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Charity Challenge honoree. “When they asked me to be involved I jumped at the opportunity. Any time someone is doing good work, I want to help them out.”

Casey’s cancer

Rudolph, a Notre Dame graduate who grew up in Cincinnati, is in his ninth year with the Vikings. His younger brother, Casey, was born with cancer and spent his first year of life in a children’s hospital in Cincinnati. He has been cancer free since he was 14 months old.

Though Rudolph, who is 15 months older, can’t remember the specifics of that year, it nevertheless left an impression.

“Parents dedicate all their time and energy to their sick child and oftentimes other children or family members can be forgotten,” Rudolph said earlier this year in an interview for Sanford Health. “We just try to help patients and families because we know how hard it is. We know the trials and the tribulations that they have to go through.”

Close ties to Sanford

Gerry’s mother, for instance, is lead administrative aide at the Sanford Wellness Center in Sioux Falls. It doesn’t stop there. Nate, a fifth-round pick who played college football at Nebraska, took part in Sanford POWER programs growing up. His sister Jennifer Nesbitt is a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit.

In addition, the Sioux Falls Washington graduate’s father, Brian Gerry, is head athletic trainer at Augustana. It is one of the schools for which Sanford Health is the exclusive sports medicine provider.

Thielen, a graduate of Minnesota State, has emerged as a Pro Bowl wide receiver after making the Vikings as a free agent in 2014. He has made regular appearances at Sanford sports clinics since becoming a Viking. He and his wife Caitlin recently committed $25,000 to the Reimagine campaign through the Thielen Foundation.

“Every time we do these camps I get to hang out with kids,” he said this past summer. “It’s probably more fun for me than it is for them.”

Wentz was the overall No. 2 pick of the Eagles in 2016 after being part of four national titles at North Dakota State. He has a long-running relationship with Sanford dating back to his youth in Bismarck, North Dakota. This included athletic-performance training with Mike Salwei, who was the Sanford POWER Bismarck manager and now works as an executive for Sanford Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.

In 2017, Wentz was named second team All-Pro and was selected to his first Pro Bowl while helping lead the Eagles to the organization’s first Super Bowl title.  Last year, Wentz completed 69.6 percent of his passes, an Eagles single-season record.

Sanford POWER assistance

“I think the biggest thing I learned from Sanford POWER was the overall athleticism and building a well-rounded athlete,” Wentz said. “They did a lot of different workouts that I had never seen before. They work with the entire body more than just the basics that a lot of people do. They take a well-rounded approach to build a better athlete rather than just a meathead-muscle head guy.”

His teammate Goedert, definitely qualifies as a well-rounded athlete given that he can do a backflip and is 6-foot-5 and weighs 256 pounds.  In fact, the former South Dakota State All-American almost went to Northern State on a basketball scholarship.

The Britton, South Dakota, native, who played high school football at Britton-Hecla High School, performed the backflip at the end of a Sanford POWER free football camp in Aberdeen this past summer.

The 250 kids were begging to see it and Goedert’s not the type to disappoint.

“Now that people look up to me, it is really special to come out and give back,” he said. “To be able to come back with Sanford’s help in my hometown is really cool.”

Ham: Have fun

Ham is a 5’11”, 235-pound fullback who made the Minnesota practice squad as an undrafted free agent in the fall of 2016, after doing pre-professional strength and conditioning work at Sanford POWER in Sioux Falls. The 2018 Vikings special teams player of the year has since become a steady and valuable contributor.

As an Augustana graduate, Ham has been part of the Hy-Vee/Sanford Legends for Kids program every summer since he was playing college football. In fact, working with kids is a career goal after his football days.

“Go out there and have fun,” he said when asked about advice he gives to young athletes. “At the end of the day everybody wants to work hard and be successful, but none of that means anything if you are not enjoying it. Whether you’re pee-wee, high school, college, NFL or whatever, go out and enjoy it because football, and any sport for that matter, doesn’t last forever.”

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Posted In Aberdeen, Orthopedics, Sanford Sports, Sports Medicine