Doug Wolter: Something special will be missing after Vikings leave Mankato
Progress is in the eye of the beholder, and I think that’s the proper way to appraise the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to move their training camp from Mankato to Eagan beginning in 2018.
Logically, the move is wise. The newly-constructed facilities in Eagan provide more space, more practice fields, and upgrades in training, physical therapy and video options. Staying in the Twin Cities for training camp makes perfect logistical sense, and with housing, office space and restaurants still in the planning stages, Eagan should become everything the Vikings require.
But it’s still not Mankato.
Not to be overly sentimental here, but the Vikings training camp experience will, in some ways at least, be diminished by its abandonment of a venue that -- for 52 years -- provided the team with a friendly, “small-town” outstate feel. For thousands of fans south of the Twin Cities, the Mankato training camp experience became an annual pilgrimage -- a summertime event that was easy to plan for and within a short drive from home.
During the NFL regular season, fans from these parts have to maneuver through Twin Cities traffic to attend a Vikings game -- and let’s face it, for some of us hicks, making our way through the Cities is never a comfortable experience. But for 52 years during training camp, before each new season began, fans were rewarded with a gift -- a simple drive to Mankato to see all their favorite players at the campus of Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University-Mankato).
After the Vikes shake off the dust from Mankato, their training camp experience will never be adequately recreated.
The players might be glad to be rid of Mankato, of course. There were never enough bars and night-time hangouts to suit them. The town was too small. To many of them, being in Mankato was like getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Each year, they complained about their living arrangements in the Gage resident hall towers on the MSU campus (though to be fair, most students didn’t care much for Gage, either).
But for the fans, training camp was fun. Kids, and adults, too, sought autographs of their favorite players. There were interactive experiences that made them feel closer to their heroes, and to be able to watch practices -- even at a distance -- was a special treat for die-hard rooters.
Working as a sports editor in southwest Minnesota over the years, I generally made it a point to visit Vikings training camp at least once a summer. I was able to attend post-practice information sessions with coaches like Bud Grant, Jerry Burns and Dennis Green. With my press pass, I was allowed to sit with Vikings players during meal-time.
I talked to several players. I recall one year I was told that All-Pro receiver Cris Carter -- who was considered a prima-donna of sorts -- wouldn’t give me the time of day if I tried to interview him after a practice. But I tried, anyway, and he was most gracious with his time.
My favorite Vikings training camp experience, however, occurred in my absence. My son-in-law, Mike Hennager, who was a regular camp attender, became famous for a day when head coach Mike Tice -- upset at the way his offensive line had been blocking -- invited an innocent fan watching from the sidelines (Mike) into the huddle and ran a few plays with him substituting for a player, proving to his guys that what he was asking of them wasn’t so difficult after all.
The next morning, Mike was interviewed on ESPN about his experiences as an unofficial Viking.
I doubt that something like that will ever happen in Eagan.