I was almost going to be a free agent this summer. Not a lot of people know that.
Or actually, maybe people did know, but they just didn’t talk about it much — which is exactly how I wanted it. I wanted it to be real low-key, because I knew my decision was going to be real low-key. The idea of exploring free agency was definitely interesting to me, and maybe even appealing. It’s something that I think every professional athlete dreams about, to a certain extent: having other teams in your league pitch you, and recruit you, and sell you on this idea that you’re the missing piece of their puzzle.
But at the end of the day, I decided to forgo my free agency.
And that’s because, as tempting as it might have been to field a bunch of offers from some other teams this summer….. I knew that ultimately those offers would all have one fatal flaw: They’d be offers to leave.
And all I ever wanted to do was stay.
All I’ve ever wanted, for as long as I’ve been in this league, is to keep on playing tight end for the Minnesota Vikings — and to be a part of the team that finally delivers this franchise its Super Bowl.
And I bring all that up now because it was hard not to think back to last summer, and back to my decision to sign an extension and stay, as that fade pass from Kirk floated through the air in OT. It was hard not to have my entire career flash before my eyes, honestly, as that ball just kept on floating, over every possible inch of the end zone….. until it floated all the way back to the back-most corner…..All I’ve ever wanted, for as long as I’ve been in this league, is to keep on playing tight end for the Minnesota Vikings.
Where only one guy could catch it.
There are so many moments that I’ll remember from Sunday’s game — little moments that say so much about what this team’s made of: Our defense forcing a fumble and an interception in key spots. Our field-goal Block Force, on special teams, coming up huge right before the end of the half. Our sheer effort, and just force of will, in holding Drew Brees — a first-ballot Hall of Famer — and that amazing Saints offense to only 20 points in the Superdome.
It’s funny, our very first game of the season — I mean the preseason — was in the Superdome. And as the game clock struck zero at the end of regulation, and as we headed into overtime….. it was the strangest feeling. Almost like we were coming full circle.
I paced around the sideline a bit, and then brought the guys together.
“Our season started here,” I shouted. “But it’s not ending here!”
And then how do you even put that OT into words? It was perfect. You had that clutch third and short, for starters, where Kirk stood tall in the pocket and hit Diggsy on a slant — and I just cannot say enough about Diggsy on that route. If he’s even a half-step off, we’re punting, and now Drew has the ball in his hands, in his house, to send us packing. Man….. what a play. And that’s followed by — my God — the absolute dime that Kirk tosses to Thielen, who then goes and makes the catch of his life.
What I loved about that moment wasn’t just the play itself, but the instincts of our group coming out of it. As soon as Adam came down with that ball at the two, it was like — no one even had to say a word out loud. Everyone on our unit, to a man, we were all on the same page. And that page was: SIX. As in, We are getting SIX here. Zero hesitation, no questions asked. Right here and right now. We’re getting six, fellas. We’re ending this thing.
Three plays later, that’s exactly what we did.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
After the game, I guess the video of Coach giving me and Kirk our game balls went pretty viral — and I’m glad everyone got to see that. Not because of my moment or anything, but because the people outside our locker room got to catch a glimpse of how the players inside our locker room feel about Kirk. That’s our guy, you know? And he’s been our guy. And I think we’ve all felt a little weird about just the nature of how our team gets covered: where, if the team loses, then no matter who’s to blame, or who played poorly, or who played well — that L gets hung right on Kirk. And so there was this narrative, this frankly ridiculous narrative, that “Cousins can’t win the big one,” or “can’t win in prime time” or whatever. Meanwhile, I’ve seen Kirk ball his heart out in so many of those games, make the right plays at the right time, keep mistakes to a minimum….. only for us as a group to fall short.
The Seahawks game from a few Monday nights ago is a perfect example. Kirk went toe to toe with Russell in that game, truly punch for punch, and it’s tough to say who played better. But then their team made one more play than ours at the end, totally out of Kirk’s control….. and now suddenly it’s “Kirk can’t hang”? Of course it’s not. Which I guess is just my way of saying, look — this stuff with Kirk, it’s always been silly. But that dude is a star. And last weekend against the Saints, that wasn’t him proving it. That was just everyone outside of our locker room finally recognizing it. So yeah, you know, we were a little jacked.
And I won’t lie: That feeling of proving people wrong, of getting underestimated and playing with our backs against the wall — this team thrives on that.
We were majorly disappointed by our performance last year. All those expectations, all of that hype, all of the talent we had, and coming off a breakout season….. and then to go 8–7–1? We felt like we let the entire state down.
But we also knew we’d let ourselves down. That wasn’t even close to our best football.
So when this season rolled around, and no one really expected for us to be much of a factor….. I mean, yeah, trust me, we definitely noticed. And I think we kind of relished being in that spot.
And while the idea of us being here now might be a surprise to a few experts? It’s not a surprise to any of us. We believe we belong — and that’s a belief that’s only getting more and more powerful.
Ryan Kang/AP Images
Something else happened a few months ago that you guys might not know about: I turned 30.
It’s hard to imagine. I still remember getting drafted by the Vikings when I was 21….. and how one of the main things on my mind then was that, you know, my high school football team’s uniforms were purple — So this is good. I look good in purple. I really was just a kid. And on some level it’s impossible to figure out where the time has gone. It feels like it’s all happened so fast.
But then on another level….. I remember all of it. Every play, every block, every catch, every win, every loss — every moment of where it’s gone, I remember. And I’ve learned so much in those moments. And I’ve grown so much over those years. I’ve absorbed this team’s history, and I’ve become this team’s history. I’ve absorbed its culture, and I’ve become its culture.We believe we belong — and that’s a belief that’s only getting more and more powerful.
I feel like when I first got here, I was Kyle Rudolph, who plays for the Vikings.
And now I’m Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Viking.
It’s a part of me.
And like I said — that’s why I had to re-sign. That’s why I had to come back for another shot at this thing. Because this is all a part of me now. Those Super Bowl losses, I cringe when they’re mentioned. Those heartbreaks in ’98, or ’09, or you name it — I ache when I hear about them. And those playoff losses that I’ve been on the team for myself? Man, they’re never far from my mind. I’ve gotten to see this fan base, close-up, when it’s been a win away from the Super Bowl — and it was one of the greatest experiences of my entire life. And then to not have been able to follow through with that win, and deliver that chance at a ring….. it’s still a tough one to swallow.
But I also understand now how that’s kind of the point.
I understand now how all of that, each one of those setbacks, this whole journey, the unique relationship between the players on this team and the fans of this team — it’s what makes the experience of being a Viking so special. We’ve built something stronger than an organization here.
It’s more like….. a community, I think.
And we’re going to keep on building that community every day — all of us together. Memory by memory, brick by brick.
And hopefully, over this next month or so, win by win.