There were six NFL players on one field Sunday who regularly devote time and energy to children in this region. They are familiar with the area and they are familiar with good deeds.
These players attract a lot of kids to Sanford Health-sponsored football camps and they send positive messages about sportsmanship, exercise and being good teammates.
At U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, with 66,837 watching and millions more looking in on television, though, they were doing what they do for a living. From the Minnesota Vikings, it was wide receiver Adam Thielen, fullback C.J. Ham and tight end Kyle Rudolph. The Philadelphia Eagles had quarterback Carson Wentz, linebacker Nate Gerry and tight end Dallas Goedert.
Above all, anyone who had seen any of these six on a summer visit to the region understood at U.S. Bank Stadium why kids fill their football camps. This is the larger-than-life NFL. There are fireworks and decibel levels you can’t believe. Players don’t start out as celebrities but a few years in this world and they become them. This happens whether they’re comfortable with the process or not.
In this case, however, that still leaves some time for moments that come straight from places like South Dakota.
“Nate Gerry, who we’ve only seen a few times, came up to me on Sunday told me it was really great to see our family at the game,” said Mary Carlson, Goedert’s mother, who was at the game. “And I said ‘Nate, well, you’re part of our family now, too.’ It’s not something he had to do. It meant a lot to me for a professional football player to go out of his way to share that with us.”
In the NFL, it’s nice to know
The small picture included a Minnesota 38, Philadelphia 20 final score. The big picture provides a more telling view, however. That view includes Mary Carlson being witness to a classy gesture from her son’s teammate. It includes those days during the summer with a son teaching football basics to awestruck kids.
“It’s nice to know people know who Nate is,” said Kelli Gerry, Nate’s mother. “You know some of those small kids look up to him. It’s great that he can show them that, even though you’re from a small state like South Dakota, that if you work hard and you put your time in, your dreams can come true.”
Gerry is a Sioux Falls Washington graduate who was drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round in 2017. The former Nebraska Cornhusker was playing his first game in Minnesota since the Eagles defeated New England 41-33 in the Super Bowl his rookie season. The outside linebacker, who returned an interception for a touchdown the week before, had six tackles on Sunday with four solos and 1.5 tackles for loss.
“I knew I was going to get a lot more reps based on their personnel packages,” he said. “I was just happy I had a lot of family and friends here and I was able to see them … I had to make sure in the stands they weren’t wearing purple. I did check it and I’ll be talking to them.”
Britton is an NFL-level town
Goedert is a former South Dakota State standout who was a second-round pick of the Eagles in 2018. He was obviously a little down about the loss in the minutes afterward. On the bright side, there’s a pretty good chance the folks from the Britton, S.D., area were still standing by their man.
“It was really cool. My family supported me really well through high school and college and all that,” he said. “To be able to play close to home was really fun. I had a lot of family and a lot of people come from my hometown. The support is incredible.”
In the moments after catching five passes for 48 yards, he was asked about the more than 100 friends and family who came to the game.
More than 100? Goedert was quick to offer a more accurate total.
“There was definitely more than 100 — I think it was about 250 that came,” Goedert said. “It was a real good crew. There were two buses and a lot of people came on their own as well.”
Thielen, a veteran of visits to Sanford football camps going back to his time as an unproven rookie, has developed into star for the Vikings. The same guy who could show up in Sioux Falls or Fargo five years ago and walk through town undetected is now the real deal. He caught six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
“The most exciting thing these last two weeks was how they’ve been total team wins,” he said. “It’s not just the defense bailing us out or just the offense bailing the defense out — the special teams were a big part. This was a total team win.”
The media crush was five-deep around Thielen. It brought to mind a similar scene at Kirkeby-Over Stadium. Except the crush would be coming from fifth-graders looking for a smile and an autograph.
On the other side, Wentz’s connection to Sanford went back to his teenage years and his athletic-performance training with Mike Salwei. Salwei was the Sanford POWER Bismarck manager at the time and now works as an executive for Sanford Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. The former second overall NFL draft choice’s connection to Bismarck and his home state, of course, did not start the day he began lifting weights.
“You know, it’s cool knowing there’s a lot of support out there, friends and family, a lot of NDSU fans in the area,” he said afterward. “I wish I could have given them a better show today and come out with a victory. But it’s just special being this close to home and playing in front of a lot of people that I grew up knowing and caring.”
Augustana graduate C.J. Ham was, like Thielen, a long shot coming out of college. He has been part of Sanford football camps since only football fans in the Sioux Falls area knew who he was.
The blocking fullback and renowned special-teams contributor did not get a carry against the Eagles. Anyone, however, who needed to know why the Vikings like having him on the field saw it when teammate Dalvin Cook went into the end zone untouched for a decisive fourth-quarter score.
One moment, Philadelphia’s Malcom Jenkins was in position to make a play on Cook. The next instant, thanks to Ham’s block, the strong safety was out of the picture.
“For me personally, it’s nice to be out there a little more and contributing to the success,” Ham said. “We got a lot more football ahead of us.”
A team within a team
Ham was fully aware there were several NFL players in the game connected to Sanford Health. They weren’t all wearing the same uniforms, but the bonds were there.
“We did have kind of a team out there,” Ham said. “Obviously we have Adam and Kyle on our team. I haven’t officially met Carson but today I met Dallas. I went over there and said ‘What’s up?’ We have that connection in being partners with Sanford. It was nice to meet him for the first time.”
Rudolph, with 118 career NFL games to his credit, is part of the same connection. As a native of Cincinnati and a graduate of Notre Dame, he doesn’t have quite the same geographical roots. He has evolved into a Minnesotan in the years since he was drafted by the Vikings back in 2011.
That includes, in this case, a commitment to the community and the area he now calls home.
“What Sanford stands for and Denny Sanford has done — not just across the state of South Dakota but that whole region — is pretty special,” Rudolph said after the win. “I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with people around there. You see how much Sanford gives back.”
It’s another area where this group shares a bond. It starts with the NFL but then goes beyond it.
“Sanford is an unbelievable partner to have,” Ham said. “It’s a huge organization, but that goes for their heart and their giving, too. Doing all these free camps for all these kids. And any ideas I have about ways to help, I can bring to them. They’re more than happy to help out. They really align with my values.”
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