HOLLAND, MICH. – The last Saturday in June for Kirk Cousins began with him crouched over a smartphone, poring over video in search of clues for how he can improve — the way many of his days will start in Minnesota.
In this particular clip, Cousins could see he had made a strong step-up through a wall of blockers and delivered a strike, slipping away from contact after he followed through.
But after going to the ground to avoid the yellow dodgeball whizzing by his head, he had to Army-crawl through a handful of his friends to return to the back line, as several more throws missed his neon green Nikes. Now it was time to account for what went wrong.
This was no X’s-and-O’s breakdown at the Vikings’ practice facility — a video clip of the previous night’s dodgeball game at Cousins’ youth camp had made its way to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” This — as Cousins congregated with several of his oldest friends before Day 2 at Hope College — was a roast.
“I kept waiting for somebody to pick me up and pull me back out, but nobody did!” Cousins answered his high school buddies, his eyes widening in mock indignation as a grin crossed his face.
In much of the country, Cousins is a talking point. His name is attached to contract figures punctuated by exclamation points —$84 million over three years! The first fully guaranteed contract for an NFL quarterback! — and followed by a question mark — Is he worth it?
Here in Cousins’ bucolic west Michigan hometown, he is just Kirk, the middle of a pastor’s three kids, the once-scrawny quarterback who earned straight A’s at Holland Christian High School and split his time between sports and Living Hope, the school’s competitive show choir.
He opens the camp by detailing for roughly two dozen coaches how his arrival in Minnesota was the product of answered prayer, before turning things over to his father Don. The next morning, after the group shares laughs and trades jabs over the dodgeball clip, Cousins’ older brother Kyle gets the last speaking spot for morning devotionals, sharing what he’s learned after quitting a job with the Orlando Magic, studying in Jerusalem and sorting out what he should be doing with his life.
Kirk Cousins’ name is on the camp, but he blends in as often as not with the crowd, dispensing high-fives and life advice to middle schoolers, putting his arm around a teary-eyed camper and leaning forward to the edge of Smith Stadium’s metal bleachers as he listens intently to what his father and brother have to say.
It becomes clear why Cousins seems so unfazed by the expectations attached to his mammoth contract. He understands, with bracing clarity, what’s being asked of him, and how directly his perception in Minnesota will be tied to his production. But the contract, the pressure — all of it — is filtered through a world view that was formed here, in the midst of friends and family who share his Christian beliefs. Even when Cousins is the center of attention, his status is not the North Star.
“There’s a dynamic where, because [his closest friends] knew Kirk before he was in the NFL, that’s how they treat him,” Kyle Cousins said. “It’s a safe place where Kirk can come back and just be himself. They give him a hard time, and we mess around; I don’t think we hold him to any different standard than we hold ourselves.”
Home sweet Holland
Before 7 a.m. on the first day of Cousins’ camp, staffers are hard at work making preparations for the 360 middle schoolers who will arrive later that morning. Athletic trainers from Hope College fill water jugs and unpack boxes of sports drinks to deal with the 90-degree heat, while placing bottles of sunscreen in ready view of the campers who’d otherwise underestimate its importance.
The main job at this hour, though, is blowing up a dozen 5-foot-high inflatable bubbles that will be used for games of KnockerBall, where campers step inside the bubbles, collide with each other in an effort to retrieve a football, then run it back across an end line.
“Do not fumble my football,” Cousins deadpans into a microphone, in between offering play-by-play of games between sixth graders. Later, as an impromptu dance contest breaks out, he says to a camper, “Never lose that self-confidence.”
There are few technique drills at Cousins’ camp, which purposely excludes most of the drudgery and take-a-knee lectures that bored the quarterback during the camps he attended. Mostly, as campers splash in pools, hurl dodgeballs at one another and memorize Bible verses, it seems Cousins is trying to help them make the kinds of friends he had in Holland.
The Cousins boys threw themselves into numerous sports when the family moved to Holland from the Chicago area in 2001. Kirk sang as a tenor in the choir at Holland Christian, studied poetry in his English classes and developed a group of friends that spanned a seemingly disparate group of activities.
“He was one of the few people who just didn’t believe in cliques,” said Eric Huizenga, who’s been friends with Cousins since they played seventh-grade basketball together. “He hung out with so many different friend groups, and that brought our grade together.”
Two of the quarterback’s closest friends were Adam Winstrom, a student with Down syndrome who became the manager of the football team, and Chris Doornbos, who was born with cognitive and physical impairments.
“He still connects with Kirk,” Holland Christian athletic director Dave Engbers said. “That stems from choir, freshman or sophomore year. They were choir buddies, and Kirk took care of him for the rest of high school.”
Winstrom died in 2014, but this spring, when Cousins combined a fundraiser football game at Holland Christian with an event for special needs students, Doornbos handled the coin flip.
Each student got to carry the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, with a local radio host bellowing play-by-play calls into a microphone and the marching band playing the school’s fight song. Nobody, Engbers said, enjoyed it more than Cousins.
“I really believe it’s in his DNA,” Engbers said. “Kirk isn’t perfect. Kirk is like the rest of us. I think he’s been given an amazing gift to throw a football, an amazing mind to analyze things. But he’s got such a built-in cultural awareness to consider others. He’s driven — don’t get me wrong. It’s not all about others; he’s driven for himself. But his faith changes how he views life. That’s where this place played a role in his development.”
As weary coaches filed into the stadium for the second day of camp, one shared his Fitbit reading from the previous day, which showed he walked 17 miles. The coaches are paid for their time, but for many — especially those who graduated with Cousins — the draw is that the camp doubles as a reunion.
“It seems like nothing changes,” Huizenga said. “It just feels like we’re in high school again. That’s unique, especially for someone like Kirk, who’s in such a different setting. His willingness to come back and be silly and let the guard down, I think he appreciates that, too.”
Connected through prayer
From the time he broke his ankle as a junior in high school and feared his college football prospects were ruined, to this spring’s discussions with the Vikings, Cousins rarely makes a life decision without consulting his family.
Don Cousins coached both of his boys in numerous sports growing up, rearranging his ministry schedule to be available for practices and games.
Kyle, he said, was likely the better child athlete; the fact that Kirk became the NFL quarterback, it seems, grants him no superiority over his brother in his family’s eyes.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my moments, like anybody else, where [it’s hard] remembering I am something other than just Kirk’s brother,” Kyle Cousins said. “I am Kirk’s brother; that’s part of my identity. I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it, and Kirk has made that enjoyable. His perspective is, ‘I didn’t get here alone.’ ”
Don Cousins now is pastor of a church in Orlando, where Kyle also works in marketing and sales for a builders’ services company. Both are in near-daily contact with Kirk, along with a network of business mentors, to provide him with financial wisdom. Kirk Cousins’ free-agent visit to Minnesota included a three-hour meeting with Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf. Don was with him.
“The Bible has a verse in Proverbs that says, ‘There is wisdom in an abundance of counselors,’ ” Don Cousins said. “He’s someone who seeks counsel.”
When Kirk went to Michigan State, his father formed a small network of people to pray for his son’s safety on game days, the decisions he would make in college and his ability to lead well. Now, Don Cousins said, that network numbers more than 200 people.
“We don’t pray for quote-unquote success,” Don Cousins said. “We don’t pray for a big contract. We pray that God will be honored in what he does on the field and off the field. We pray for a platform, that he has a platform to have influence. Obviously, if he’s a backup quarterback and he isn’t playing, there isn’t the same kind of impact.”
At present, the network is interceding on behalf of the Cousins’ family friends, too.
Dave Siegers was among the earlier members of the prayer network, dating to when his son Kyle — who played football at Holland Christian and was in the same class as Kirk’s sister, Karalyne — was killed in a car crash in 2009.
The tragedy led to a relationship with the Cousins family, as Don counseled Dave and Cindy Siegers. Dave Siegers used his real estate background to help Kirk Cousins buy a house; the two talked about Siegers’ hobby of flying planes.
Then, in January 2016, Siegers noticed some twitching in his shoulder. An initial doctor’s visit raised the possibility of the worst — that Siegers had ALS — and a series of tests confirmed the diagnosis.
Don Cousins made arrangements for the Siegerses to fly down to Orlando, where he would introduce them to Don Jaeger, a man who was battling late-stage ALS in 1992 but miraculously recovered and still lives in the Orlando area, with no trace of the disease other than a slight limp in his leg, Cousins said.
After praying with Jaeger for two hours last month, Siegers said he was able to walk out of Jaeger’s office, through the parking lot and into his car — longer than he’d been able to walk in a month, Siegers said.
“I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me,” Siegers said. “Now, I wasn’t ready to run a 50-yard dash yet. But I didn’t have any explanation for it.”
He watched most of Cousins’ camp in a wheelchair under a tent in the end zone, while Cindy Siegers took pictures of the camp for the sixth straight year. Kirk and Kyle Cousins stopped by to chat with Siegers; Don Cousins closed the camp with his hands on Siegers’ shoulders as a group prayed for him.
“We believe God has the power to heal,” Don Cousins said. “If he’s going to be healed, it’s going to have to be God. Dave and Cindy pray for Kirk every day. They’ve become close friends of ours. We’re praying that God’s going to do a miracle.”
‘Sixteen Sundays are going to define Minnesota for me’
Siegers’ story, which Don Cousins shared on the first morning of camp, came right after Kirk listed off the ways he believed his arrival in Minnesota was a product of his own answered prayers.
Cousins had recently read a book by Washington D.C. pastor Mark Batterson called “The Circle Maker,” which helped him develop a more fervent prayer routine. He recalled being shocked at how the Vikings fulfilled every item on his long list of criteria for a new team, from big things (a contending team with stable leadership) to smaller ones (climate-controlled home games and a shorter commute than the one he had to FedEx Field with the Redskins).
He was in Minnesota for the Super Bowl when Washington traded for Alex Smith, all but guaranteeing Cousins would become a free agent. He and several friends toured the Twin Cities; one, Mike Nyhof of Holland, is now stationed in Minnesota as a U.S. marshal.
“I had made a list in my phone, and didn’t necessarily look at it as we got closer to the signing,” Cousins said. “But after signing, and going through several [organized team activities], I looked back at it. I couldn’t believe how many of the boxes were checked.”
He also knows how quickly his rosy relationship with Minnesota will change if the Vikings, coming off a 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC Championship Game, don’t win.
“When people ask how Minnesota’s been, I just say, ‘So far, it’s been amazing.’ But we won’t remember April, May, June,” Cousins said. “Sixteen Sundays are going to define Minnesota for me.”
Cousins’ fanatical preparation — his adoption of a strict diet last year, his work with a brain training company called Neurocore, which he says helps him focus on the details with 60,000 fans screaming on gameday — is well-documented by now.
The day before his camp, he moved into the new house he and his wife, Julie, built on the shore of Lake Michigan. His trainer, Wisconsin-based Joe Tofferi, was at the camp, waiting to return with Cousins to the new gym in his basement to go through their workout regimen designed to keep the 29-year-old’s muscles long and limber.
Cousins knows the work — and more than anything, the results — will shape what Minnesotans think of him.
“If possible, I’d love for everybody to come here and get to know me, but that’s not possible,” Cousins said. “I know that when you win, everybody tells you how great you are. You may not be a great guy, but everybody says, ‘Oh, what a great guy,’ because you win. And if you lose, everybody’s pointing the finger, and you could be the greatest guy in the world. You’ve got to win, and hopefully we can get that done here.”
Those who know him best ultimately value him by a different metric. Now, they are looking forward to seeing what Cousins does with his grand opportunity.
“You know what hit me recently?” Kyle Cousins said. “I thought: ‘He’s going to the Vikings. He’s getting all the support that he’s ever wanted.’ He’s got the talent, he’s got the coaches behind him, the whole team and organization behind him, and the paycheck. And then he’ll have the commensurate responsibility and pressure.
“But what I realized recently is, if you’re playing quarterback in the NFL, you’re going to be at this pressure level — I don’t know, maybe there’s a couple cities where that’s an exception — but that pressure level is there, whether you have the tools or not. I’m just excited. I think he feels like he’s in a place that he belongs. We’re thankful for that.”