From honoring teams and coaches with money to pushing to host regular- and postseason games at its Eagan practice facility, the Minnesota Vikings have become a significant force around high school football across the state.
The NFL team helped launch an annual award for the football program of the year, now in its third year, and gives out cash awards for coach of the week and year. It also has plans to begin hosting high school games after its Twin Cities Orthopedics Stadium opens in 2018.
In addition, former Pro Bowl linebacker E.J. Henderson is in his fourth year as youth football manager working at the grass roots level.
“We’ve definitely stepped up our game in terms of our focus on youth football,” said Lester Bagley, Vikings’ executive vice president, public affairs and father of a freshman football player at St. Thomas Academy. “It’s the right thing to do.”
U.S. Bank Stadium became home to the football state tournament semifinals and Prep Bowl last year. It also became host for the coaches association postseason all-star game, which previously had been played in June at St. Cloud State University.
Ron Stolski, executive director of the football coaches association and now in his 44th season as Brainerd’s head coach, said moving the game to December and playing it inside an NFL stadium fulfilled a vision he had for the event as far back as the 1980s.
“I don’t have enough adjectives,” Stolski said. “The Vikings have been outstanding, fabulous, cooperative and extremely supportive.”
Earlier this fall, Stolski received the Gatorade Coach of the Week award, which includes a $1,000 donation to the Brainerd football program and, new this year, $1,000 worth of Gatorade products such as coolers, water bottles and towels. The award and financial stipend began in 2005 when Zygi Wilf bought the Vikings.
“I tell the kids, ‘It’s another part of the football fraternity giving back,’ ” said Stolski, who put his award’s funds into the city’s youth football association to help buy equipment and offer scholarships.
Spreading the brand
Burnsville-based Innovative Office Solutions and its nonprofit, InSports Foundation, partnered with the Vikings to create a “Community Takeover” event for the football program of the year. The first honorees — Caledonia in 2015 and Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta in 2016 — got a day’s worth of Viking festivities that included visits by players, autographs, question-and-answer sessions with students and youth football drills.
Each program received a $10,000 check, plus assistance with a fundraiser to support their football booster clubs. The Vikings get something intangible out of it, too.
“It’s great to get the Vikings brand in outstate Minnesota,” Bagley said at a luncheon in Caledonia.
The foundation has received more than 200 nominations for this year’s award. The winner will be announced at the Vikings game on Dec. 17.
Other high school recognition includes the Vikings naming a 31-member all-state team and assisting with the postseason Mr. Football awards banquet run by the coaches association.
“It’s called the State of Hockey, but we want to show support for football,” said Brett Taber, the Vikings’ executive director of social impact.
Viking players are also supporting high school football. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes repaid Minneapolis Edison players for working his Christmas toy drive by serving as a guest coach for the Tommies in their victory against St. Paul Humboldt. Rhodes also presented a $1,000 check from InSports Foundation.
“It’s just the beginning of something fantastic,” said Samantha Romero, marketing assistant at Innovative Office Solutions. “We want to be a resource for athletes who want to be active in the community.”
The Vikings also wants to host a weekly football game inside its 6,000-seat practice facility being built in Eagan. In April, Bagley and Kevin Warren, the team’s chief operating office, presented a vision to the Minnesota State High School league that also including hosting state tournament quarterfinals in football and soccer and the lacrosse state tournament. Those postseason games are currently held at various schools around the metro area and state.
The league and the team will meet later this month to sharpen plans, said Dave Stead, the league executive director. Of top concern, Stead said, is finding a way to mitigate the loss of revenue for teams that would forgo home games to play at Eagan.
A few dozen schools replied to a league survey regarding typical revenue generated from a home football game. The league said it did not have the data available yet.