EAGAN, Minn.-After 52 years at Minnesota State-Mankato, the Minnesota Vikings moved their training camp to a new state-of-the-art Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, a sprawling complex on nearly 40 acres, but the importance of team building wasn't lost on them.
So the Vikings are housing the team at a nearby hotel during training camp. So there will be no going to sleep in your own bed each night, boys.
For Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, a Duluth native, he wouldn't have it any other way.
Ham, going into his third season with the Vikings, is rooming during camp with free-agent linebacker Reshard Cliett.
"Even being in town, we're definitely still getting a camp feel," Ham said. "It's just like college fall camp, the same type of feel. They've done a great job of still making this feel like training camp."
Only with way nicer digs.
The Vikings reportedly invested $90 million into the first phase of their new headquarters/practice facility, which is on the site of the former Northwest Airlines. Rather fittingly, the huge building that houses the team's indoor practice facility looks like an airport hangar and allows for full clearance for punting. There are also five outdoor fields, including TCO Stadium, which will also showcase high school games.
They recently opened a Vikings museum, and eventually, the team will be housed right here for training camp, part of a larger project that includes another 160 acres of development, restaurants and a hotel. The place even comes with its own lakes. If fans think it's nice now, look out.
"Mankato was definitely a big part of this organization's history, and it feels a little weird to not be back there," Ham said. "I kind of miss the college feel of it. We were riding bikes and sleeping on mattresses in the dorms. We got these little 19-inch TVs, so I miss that part of it, but I wouldn't change any of this for the world."
Fans agreed. While Mankato provided a little closer access, the new facility could be the class of the NFL.
"It's pretty amazing," said Doug Lieser, whose 6-year-old son, Theo, got Ham's autograph on Monday, July 30. "I attended camp 30 years ago in Mankato. I was just a little guy running around and trying to get autographs back then. It wasn't like this, that's for sure. I can't imagine any team having a better facility than this."
Lieser is from the Twin Cities suburb of Arden Hills, Minn., where Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf at one time envisioned having a new Vikings stadium that would also include the team's headquarters, training facility and museum, all on one site.
Wilf couldn't have it all, but he did get his Taj MaZygi. The place looks like a postcard, an artist's rendering come true.
"It's unbelievable," Ham said. "We're spoiled. This is awesome. You can't ask for anything more."
Duluth native Jerry Anderson is a retired physician's assistant who worked for Twin Cities Orthopedics. His parents, Fred and Jean, still live in Duluth, where his father was a longtime Lakeside barber.
Anderson, who previously attended training camp in Mankato and Bemidji (remember that?) couldn't believe the vastness of the place.
"It's like a huge campus," he said.
Even with all the fans in attendance, Anderson said it was remarkable how easy it was to drive in and park, just like taking a Sunday stroll. Parking was $10, but general admission to training camp is free.
Chris Hachey and Thomas Booth of Cloquet were decked out in Adam Thielen jerseys, while Hachey's wife, who has a Ham jersey, couldn't make it because she had to work. Hachey and Booth spent $20 each to sit in the "Red Zone," a shaded area along the far sideline, which Hachey said was "well worth it."
At the end of Monday's practice, the Red Zone broke out into a Skol chant.
"This is great," Hachey said. "I never went to camp before. Mankato was too far away. This is way more feasible. I plan on going all the time now."