After five summers in the backwoods of Bemidji and 52 more in the quaint college town of Mankato, the Vikings will hold their 58th training camp at a five-star NFL practice facility so comprehensive and massive that employees were known to disappear while learning to navigate its 277,000 square feet. ¶ “Oh, yeah, I got lost several times,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I ran into B-Rob [defensive end Brian Robison] on his first day. I asked him how he got lost. He said, ‘Which time?’ ” ¶ With 37-year-old Winter Park and its outdated 138,000 square feet now just a memory, the Vikings’ entire operation is back under one roof and eager to literally go camping in its own backyard at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan. ¶ Saturday, the entire team takes the field as an expected capacity crowd of 5,000 directs its Super Bowl expectations toward a certain $84 million quarterback and a returning conference finalist sporting a brand-new, 40-acre, state-of-the-art campus that has, according to left tackle Riley Reiff, “everything but excuses” for good players wanting to get better.
“Everything about TCO reflects ownership’s commitment to excellence,” added Kirk Cousins, the $84 million quarterback. “It makes you want to come to work and follow the Wilf family’s lead. We had a great facility in Washington, but it probably resembled Winter Park more than TCO. I tell people, ‘There’s world class and then there’s TCO.’ ”
According to Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, this first and most important phase of the 200-acre Vikings Lakes development project “is truly the building we envisioned and an amalgamation of all the best ideas we saw from all of the many facilities we toured” in the NFL, NBA, major college football, English Premier League soccer and corporate world.
“We started from a point of nirvana in each area of the building and worked through the details to see what fit best,” Warren said. “Touring the Nike headquarters set the template in my head that we had to build a campus atmosphere.”
Owner and President Mark Wilf praised executives with the Vikings and his family’s real estate business, Garden Homes, for getting the project “right in the pencil stage.”
“Every decision along the way, when there was hesitation, we always thought in terms of making sure this would be generational, something that would last,” Wilf added. “So we put a significant investment into it.”
The Vikings haven’t said what they paid for the project, but Wilf essentially said it’s the cost of doing business in the NFL today. And tomorrow.
“Eden Prairie and Winter Park were fantastic, but given the professionalism and high level of conditioning the players require, this is really an exciting investment,” he said. “It’s very unifying, very energizing. We know buildings don’t win championships, but we know at least we have all the amenities, the spaces, the meeting rooms, the auditorium, the weight room, the recovery rooms, the training rooms, the studios, all that we need. And we have the land to upgrade and modernize as we go along.”
General Manager Rick Spielman calls the building a “competitive advantage.”
“I think it’s a huge piece to us winning,” he said. “I’d say it made a huge difference in free agency as soon as players walked in the door. They were in awe of the building. I can’t tell you what a difference that made in swaying some things our way.”
Veteran free agent Sheldon Richardson mentioned the facility during his introductory news conference, saying: “Everything around here is top notch. Smells like fresh paint.”
Rookie cornerback Holton Hill visited the Vikings, Colts and Seahawks before the draft. He went undrafted, had his choice of several teams and signed with the Vikings in part because of the facility.
“Nothing the Colts and Seahawks had compares to this place,” Hill said. “It’s amazing how big everything is. It was like I was back at Texas.”
On the football side, the training room area grew the most in square footage from Winter Park (1,800) to TCO Performance Center (6,700). Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said there wasn’t anything he asked for that he didn’t get, including hot and cold tubs large enough for 25 players, and an electric cryochamber that no other NFL team has.
“I was with the Eagles when we moved into the NovaCare Complex [in 2001],” Sugarman said. “We were in awe of that place. And now, I’m like this place blows that place away. It’s not even close.”
The weight room is bigger and more efficient, with two large garage doors that open to the four practice fields and a cardio mezzanine that has three man-made hills built for power, speed and jump training.
The hills look ordinary to the untrained eye. But, according to strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama, a number of “high-level performance preparation coaches” were consulted during the planning process. The speed hill, he said, “is one of a kind.”
It’s the attention to detail that impresses All-Pro safety Harrison Smith.
“They really did cover everything,” he said. “Of course, we can’t just say, ‘Oh, we got a new facility. Now, we’re going to be great.’ We still have to put in the work. More work than we put in last year.”
Zimmer said his only request was satisfied when the Vikings built a 184-seat auditorium that’s “big enough to fit the entire team in so I could teach them about football.”
Zimmer also likes that his indoor field is high enough — at 98 feet — to practice punting, and that two of his outdoor fields have 65 miles of underground heating pipes.
“We’re an indoor team, but I want this football team to have a cold-weather mentality,” he said. “We’re going to be tough and physical. So being able to practice outside in December and January helps.
“And, really, it’s like everything else about this place. One of the players put it best when I overheard him talking to another player. He said, ‘Well, there’s nothing to complain about here.’ ”