For 45 years, the Minnesota Vikings have held preseason training camp in Mankato, on the campus of Minnesota State University. For AFSCME members who work at MSU’s dorms, dining halls and athletic facilities, those two weeks can be a fun – but hectic – change of pace.
Yes, they might get closer to these pro athletes than most people ever get. But, no, they can’t get you a personal autograph. Here’s a look at some of the Local 638 members who get the Vikings’ season off to a good start.
Groundskeeper Dean Becker has farmed most of his life. He’s not a small guy. So when he says, “These guys are big – and fast,” you believe him. Size and speed, however, may be about the only things that set the Vikings apart, according to many campus workers.
“A lot of people don’t get a chance to see that they’re just plain, down-to-earth, normal guys,” says general maintenance worker Mike Cofield. “They just play a game for their living, instead of working like the rest of us.”
“You always have a couple of guys who might have had a rough practice and don’t really want to talk to anybody,” says Tim Westphal. “But everyone’s pretty nice.” He ought to know: Westphal serves food in the dining hall, which gives him more face-to-face contact with Vikings than just about any other campus worker.
During the school year, general maintenance workers Sara Clair and Peggy Mack work in a freshman dorm. They have to clean six floors each: bathrooms, showers, hallways, walls, kitchens, laundry rooms.
During the summer, they work with other GMWs to clean every room in every dorm on campus – “floor by floor, wing by wing,” Clair says. “It’s a big, organized mess.”
So when Vikings training camp comes to town for two weeks, they get a brief change of pace. They lead a team of six that cleans while the Vikings are at morning practice. “It’s the same type of work, but we have only a two-hour window,” Clair says. The tight schedule means “we’ve got to get a routine down.”
There’s one advantage, though. For two hours, anyway, they get to work in the only air-conditioned dorm on campus.
The dining hall
The Vikings stay in a dorm, but they’re not eating dorm food. Dorms don’t serve lobster, for example.
“They just have a higher-quality food than you would see on the campus for students,” says Dave Vulcan, a head cook who has worked 19 training camps.
The dining hall prepares three full meals a day plus late-night snacks. But Vulcan and co-worker Tim Westphal dispel the perception that football players load up trays with as much food as they can carry.
In reality, players follow a strict diet, Westphal says. Foods are classified in a dot system that determines what the player must eat to maximize weight, strength and speed.
“They love their chicken breasts, they love their turkey burgers,” Vulcan says. “They always seem to hit the prime rib and the steaks when we have it. They love steamed vegetables.”
Vulcan admits he makes larger portions, but says: “You have to realize these guys are burning five times the amount of calories most people ever burn in a day. Weightlifting at night, early in the morning, two-a-days, then going to class and learning the plays – they’re burning calories.”
The locker room
Yes, there are locker room hijinks, and Mike Cofield can tell you about some of them. The music wars. The trash-talking. The year a ball boy got taped to a door frame. “They told me to leave him there,” he says. “I followed instructions, because I didn’t want to be the next one.”
Cofield, a general maintenance worker, has cleaned the Vikings’ locker rooms for seven years. During the academic year, he does the job on his own – mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, refilling soap and toilet paper, vacuuming, hauling out trash. During training camp, though, he’s on a crew of six. “They want you in there and they want you out,” he says. “We’ve got tighter windows to work with.”
Vikings’ personnel take care of gear. GMWs take care of everything else. “They can leave quite a mess,” Cofield says, “but MSU can leave a bigger mess.”
The practice field
What head groundskeeper Dean Becker does during training camp isn’t much different than what he does when the MSU Mavericks take the field. It’s just more intense. “They’re out there twice a day, every day, and we have to try to maintain those fields,” he says. “There’s more painting, more mowing, more filling divots and stuff that we don’t normally do on a daily basis.”
Becker does get help to meet the Vikings’ standards. He also gets more direction. The Vikings’ head groundskeeper checks in every few days, and Becker works every day with a Vikings apprentice.
“Before and after camp, it’s our baby,” says assistant groundskeeper Dave Schulte. “During camp, it’s theirs. We pretty much follow their lead.”
Respecting players’ privacy
Regardless of their job, campus workers must follow one basic rule: Give players their space. Among other things, that means definitely no autographs.
The fact is, players and campus workers mostly see each other coming and going. Crews clean dorms only after players go to practice. Groundskeepers work the fields when the players aren’t practicing. Locker room crews don’t go in until most of the players empty out.
“The dining facility is a private zone, where they can come and get comfortable and visit without people writing it down,” says Dave Vulcan, a cook in the restricted dining room where the Vikings eat.
“We don’t interact with them unless they come to us,” says assistant groundskeeper Dave Schulte. Of course, some players interact more – workers name running back Adrian Peterson, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and former center Matt Birk, in particular.
“Adrian is a great guy,” says general maintenance worker Sara Clair. “He’s always smiling, friendly to us. He always says ‘hi’ when he sees us.”
Workers respect privacy in other ways, too. “There’s a lot of stories, but probably none I can tell you,” says GMW Tim Olsen, who has worked 13 training camps.
“We’ve seen a lot of stuff up here over the years,” says Pat Pearce, a GMW who has worked 20 camps. “A lot of stuff. But our job is to get our job done. Their business is their business.”
Adapted from the September/October 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine