Nearly 40 years ago, the Vikings pioneered the NFL's first trip to London in a 1983 exhibition against the then-St. Louis Cardinals.
Former coach Bud Grant had players help unload the equipment truck through the stands of the original Wembley Stadium and into the band room, where they – the "visiting" team – dressed for practice. Little was football friendly. Each player had a chair to hold their pads. They brought the first-down markers straight from Mankato training camp.
A morning practice was scheduled to awaken players after the 6 a.m. arrival, but former tight end Steve Jordan needed more.
"It's hard, for particularly big guys, to sleep on planes," Jordan said. "I remember literally falling asleep during stretching. … I was out."
The Vikings' 4,000-mile trek for Sunday's game against the Saints remained riddled with the logistical hurdles of international travel: passports, customs manifests and jetlag. But British embrace has warmed to the NFL ahead of the 31st regular-season game there, and the league's global ambitions are gaining steam.
The NFL's foothold in London, where the Vikings will play on a third different field in the past decade, at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, has formed a blueprint for the league. International marketing rights in eight countries were allocated to teams last year, and the Vikings are one of six teams in the U.K. and two teams in Canada, setting the foundation for future international events and games.
Jordan, 61, has preferred the London trips after his playing days. He said he'll be in attendance Sunday to watch his son, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
"It's gotten much better," Jordan said. "That really gave me a nice contrast, because the fans now do know the game and understand the rules. I'd ask fans where they're from and people fly in from France, Germany, all over."
'An arduous process'
Paul Martin, the Vikings' director of team operations, caught wind of a possible London trip as early as March, when it was rumored the Vikings would be the "home" team. That distinction matters in getting first choice in lodging and the home locker room. But the Vikings are the "visiting" team, and therefore must wait postgame at the stadium an extra hour for the Saints to go first through London Stansted Airport security.
Travel is a heavy lift regardless. Planning began immediately with an advance scouting trip in late May that included various team departments. A lengthy customs manifest for about 20,000 pounds of cargo — up from 17,000 for a domestic road trip, per equipment manager Dennis Ryan — was updated for a traveling party of 169 people there and 172 people back. "Every T-nut and screw," Ryan said, is logged on a spreadsheet and updated from the Vikings' last trip in 2017. The country of origin and estimated value of every item is sent to the U.K. in advance.
"Right away we started going through it like 'OK, we don't use this anymore, don't use that,' " Ryan said. "Replaced this with that. Clothing is made in different countries than it was a few years ago."
Passports need to be secured for 172 people, with names changing throughout the offseason as players are released and signed. The team ultimately acquired nearly 40 passports, with many arriving within the last month. A load of food for players was shipped to London in August. Martin just finalized the customs manifest and sent it over a few days ago.
"It is a long and arduous process," Martin said.
Some logistical hurdles were eased by head coach Kevin O'Connell's decision to take the shortest trip possible.
From touchdown to wheels up, the Vikings are spending about 60 hours in London. Led by Tyler Williams, the executive director of player health and performance, and sleep consultants, the team crafted a schedule that informs players of the best time to sleep and allots time to spend with the many family members making the trip.
Because the Vikings don't have a bye week upcoming, there's extra focus on when players eat, sleep and establish routines upon returning to Minnesota. The team flight is scheduled to land around 1 a.m. on Monday. Six days before hosting the Bears, players will be encouraged to sleep and fall back into habits as soon as possible.
"We have a whole recovery strategy built up for those guys that first day," Williams said. "Then we'll message another one [Tuesday] and try to get them back into what feels like normalcy and a normal Wednesday."
Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard played last year at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with the Falcons and said he learned a valuable lesson about himself.
"I sleep pretty well on planes," Bullard said.
The NFL's global outlook
The logistical strain is one reason why the NFL's flirtation with relocating a team to London, which included Jaguars owner Shad Khan's brief 2018 pursuit of buying Wembley Stadium, has been shelved for now.
But the league is exploring multiple global markets, including the allocation of marketing rights in eight countries last year and the first official camps and fan events in Africa this summer. The Vikings are playing the first of five international games this season, which include three in the U.K., one in Mexico and the first ever — Seahawks vs. Buccaneers on Nov. 13 — in Munich, Germany.
Vikings officials are bracing for more and trying to establish ways to adapt.
"The NFL's constantly looking to expand their global brand, so I think that is right around the corner," Williams said. "Not out of the question for China, Australia, [or] Japan."
"It's gonna be tough," he added, "but I think that's coming down the road. I think creating a process for guys to understand how to do this and how to make good decisions for themselves and set up a culture like that. I think it's going to help benefit them for those things to come."
The Vikings will also travel north. They're one of two teams, along with the Seahawks, allocated marketing rights in Canada. Seattle already held fan events in Vancouver last month, and the Vikings will eventually, according to Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's executive vice president for club business and league events.
Playing a game in Canada is the next step.
"We're in conversations with multiple [markets] on what future opportunities could be," O'Reilly said. "Clearly, having a world-class, NFL-ready stadium is important in terms of any opportunity to play games up there, so that is one of the multiple criteria."
Down the line, the burden on teams will shrink, said Chad Lundeen, the Vikings' vice president of operations and facilities, when host international cities become more familiar with the new show in town. Smoother NFL operations in London show the progression the league hopes to see multiplied around the world.
"If you step back and look at it, this has gotten better and easier each time," said Lundeen, who has helped organize three London trips. "It's mostly because the league has done it enough now where their staff over there has learned how to do it, the ins and outs and needs of the teams."