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Christian Ponder Fever.

The most recent documented case surfaced Tuesday at Champlin-Brooklyn Park Academy. On a day off, the Vikings rookie quarterback set off on a field trip, helping to plant trees at the school. Only several of the attendees were far more concerned with watering the seeds for the Twin Cities' hottest movement.

"A few guys were wondering when I was going to get my chance to start," Ponder said. "They were extremely excited. I just told them I didn't know."

This is life as Ponder knows it right now. He's the sudden unaccomplished hero, a perceived prescription for the affliction that has the Vikings at 0-4.

Yet the waiting game continues.

Donovan McNabb will start against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon. And Ponder will continue to play the role of understudy, understanding what so few in the general public seem to grasp. It's not his time yet.

"I'm a patient person," Ponder said. "I had to wait a few years to start when I got to Florida State. So I'll wait again."

Quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson has relayed simple advice to Ponder, almost daily. Deep breath. Exhale. Stay patient.

But those instructions just as readily apply to an increasingly ornery -- or is it just curious? -- Vikings fan base, which has flooded sports talk lines in recent weeks with demands to see Ponder in action. Like right now.

Johnson understands the intrigue. He knows he's one of the few privileged enough to monitor Ponder's progress with a discerning eye. So for now, the fans will have to settle for Johnson's expert evaluation.

"Sometimes you watch Christian and you stop and say, 'Wow,'" Johnson said. "And other times you say, 'Wow.' The first wow is, 'This kid is special.' The second wow? 'There's work to be done.'"

Two weeks ago in practice, for example, Ponder slid in the pocket to create a new passing lane, then delivered a laser on a deep corner route to Stephen Burton. Johnson's eyes bugged.


A few practice periods later?

"We had a down-and-in route that I thought came open nicely. But the ball sailed about a foot over the receiver's head. Long and high."

Ponder doesn't dispute the double-wow scouting report. He believes he'll be ready for action if called upon and feels he's matured significantly since the start of the regular season.

But ...

"If I'm half a second late on a read, it's a pick-six instead of a completion like it was in college," Ponder said. "Early on in training camp, the more we installed, the more I started thinking about everything. And if you're a fraction of a second late, you're done. One day, I threw three picks in 7-on-7 and it went downhill fast."

So is Ponder truly ready for that kind of roller coaster? Are Vikings fans?

Johnson says there's plenty to love about Ponder's recent growth. Most notably, the rookie continues proving himself as a nimble and creative playmaker, a guy who, in Johnson's words, "can ad lib to play beyond the play."

In recent weeks, Johnson has watched Ponder grasp a greater understanding of the Vikings offense. But now he faces the chore of learning to read defenses and understanding where the openings are.

There's also that little matter of mental toughness, the ability to handle sharp criticism both internally and from the know-it-alls in the stands and in the press box. There too, Johnson says, lies a trapdoor for a young quarterback.

"To me, Christian's mannerisms indicate he doesn't get flustered," Johnson said. "But there's not a guy I know who likes to be criticized. Some guys take it and say, 'Boy, they're right.' Yet the great ones say, 'I understand their concerns. I'll work on my deficiencies. But I understand what I'm doing and I think I have the inner pride and the inner energy to get me through the storms.'"

Johnson knows Ponder's time will come. But it won't come simply because fans are antsy.

"Remember," he said, "the model right now in the NFL is Aaron Rodgers. There's a guy who had a chance to sit and watch a little bit too."

Dan Wiederer •